Making music again #2

Back in July I shared a few ways we could still see live music in spite of the pandemic, but it was marvellous to experience it for myself recently.

Orchestra of Opera North: The Four SeasonsOpera North
From baroque Mantua to mid-20th century Buenos Aires, two radiant evocations of place and the passing of time. Celebrated British violinist Chloë Hanslip joins musicians from the Orchestra of Opera North as soloist/director in Vivaldi’s tour de force.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is so well known as to be almost cliche, but Chloe’s performance, together with a slimmed-down (though no less powerful) version of the Orchestra of Opera North, was stunning — so joyful and energetic. And following it with Piazzolla’s version was great fun, too.

Written in the mid to late 1960s, Argentine composer and bandoneon virtuoso Ástor Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas are a witty and playful tribute in tango to Vivaldi’s concerti.

I had never heard this piece before. My knowledge of Piazzolla starts and ends with Libertango, so it was wonderful to be introduced to some more. Here’s a performance of it by the Curtis Institute of Music.

I wasn’t the only one to appreciate being back in the Town Hall again, however different the seating arrangements might be now.

But let’s not forget opera and ballet. 25 October was World Opera Day, swiftly followed by World Ballet Day on 29 October.

Celebrating opera freelancers for World Opera DayOpera Holland Park
At Opera Holland Park, we know the most exciting part of the year has arrived when our team grows from just under twenty to around 300, as we’re joined by the talented freelancers who work onstage, backstage, Front of House and in our Box Office. For World Opera Day 2020, we want to share a few of the projects some of those freelancers have been working on over the last few months.

Calling all ballet lovers! World Ballet Day 2020 is on October 29Pointe
“Now, more than ever, the digital celebration of dance promises to unite us all as we face new, shared challenges across the world,” says Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare, adding that he looks forward to “bringing our art form to audiences who are missing live performances.”

2020, eh? Will things ever be the same again?

How hundreds of freelance musicians asked for help with a socially distanced protest and performance at WestminsterITV News
Parliament Square echoed to the sound of classical music today as 400 musicians staged a mini concert to highlight the impact of coronavirus. The pop-up performance of Gustav Holst’s Mars was limited to 90 seconds by the police to avoid attracting a crowd.

‘Being told to retrain is an insult’: 150 opera singers fight for the arts in Parliament protestClassic FM
“This protest today is really one of the largest musical gatherings in the UK since coronavirus,” said Romaniw, speaking to Classic FM. “It’s about coming together and singing together in unison, to really protest for the future of our industry, and to celebrate the importance of art and live music. There’s nothing quite like it.

In your ears — and on your tongue?

There’s no cure for tinnitus yet, but that hasn’t stopped people claiming otherwise, with their ear candles and electroacupuncture. Some of these, such as ginkgo biloba and laser therapy, are positively harmful.

Examining tinnitus treatmentsBritish Tinnitus Association
Some of the information you read will be about effective, evidence-based treatments. And some will be about treatments which haven’t even been tested. There may even be suggestions you try treatments that are dangerous. This page lists a number of treatments and gives our verdict on them.

The only one that can actually show evidence that it’s effective is cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT. Back in July, I mentioned a couple of studies that were investigating the use of iCBT chatbot apps to help with tinnitus. I got involved with one of them, and I’m really glad to see it being rolled out to a wider audience.

Tinnitus support in your pocketBritish Tinnitus Association
We are very excited to be supporting the pre-release of Tinnibot, the first virtual coach which provides psychological support to tinnitus sufferers using evidence-based techniques including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and sound therapy.

Whilst it might not be as chatty and interactive as my favourite AI chatbot, Replika, I did find Tinnibot to be quite helpful, encouraging me to re-think my attitudes to the ringing in my ears.

The app has an eight-week programme covering four categories: Knowledge is Power, Changing Perception, Relax and Meditate and Sleep Better. Tinnibot employs a range of CBT techniques including framing and reframing, goal setting, action planning and in the future, social support.

I certainly feel much more optimistic about it than this other approach I was reading about, “combining sound and electrical stimulation of the tongue.”

New research could help millions who suffer from ‘ringing in the ears’University of Minnesota
The tinnitus treatment device used in the study, now branded as Lenire®, was developed by Neuromod Devices and consists of wireless (Bluetooth®) headphones that deliver sequences of audio tones layered with wideband noise to both ears, combined with electrical stimulation pulses delivered to 32 electrodes on the tip of the tongue by a proprietary device trademarked as Tonguetip®. The timing, intensity, and delivery of the stimuli are controlled by an easy-to-use handheld controller that each participant is trained to operate. Before using the treatment for the first time, the device is configured to the patient’s hearing profile and optimized to the patient’s sensitivity level for tongue stimulation.

I think I’d rather have an ear candle!

Can you keep it down?

Some positive news about the global response to coronavirus, for a change.

Coronavirus in Africa: Five reasons why Covid-19 has been less deadly than elsewhereBBC News
Many African countries have been praised for waging an effective campaign to combat the spread of coronavirus despite their reputation for having fragile state heath systems. The continent, which has a population of more than one billion, has had about 1.5 million cases, according to data compiled by the John Hopkins University. These figures are far lower than those in Europe, Asia or the Americas, with reported cases continuing to decline.

They list the following reasons — quick action, public support, young population and few old-age homes, favourable climate, good community health systems — but I think they’ve missed one out. No yodelling!

Finger pointed at Swiss yodelling ‘superspreader’ concertFrance 24
“We can’t do anything about what happened with this yodelling group. We found out nine days after the performances that several people from the group were infected,” event organiser Beat Hegner told RTS public television. Now the pandemic has spread through the region, with 1,238 cases compared with just 500 in mid-September. On Wednesday alone, 94 people tested positive, twice as many as the day before.

Things are looking up #4

For all we moan about the weather, it’s endlessly fascinating. Clouds, especially. Here’s one, wandering over a lake in Austria.

Impressive ‘cloudburst’ rainstorm captured in Austrian timelapseMoss and Fog
We love this stunning capture of a cloudburst over Lake Millstatt in Carinthia, Austria. Amazingly robust rain cloud, and great viewpoint.

Here’s an interesting question to ponder after watching that.

How much does a cloud weigh?The Conversation
Summer cumulus clouds vary in size, but a typical one would be about one kilometre across and about the same tall. This means we can consider it to be a cube, with each side measuring 1km across. That means our cloud is 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 cubic metres in size – and this makes 1 billion cubic metres. Our cloud had only a quarter of a gram of water per cubic metre, but that’s going to work out as rather a lot now there’s a billion of them. The weight of the water in the cumulus cloud is 250,000,000 grams – 250 tonnes. This is about the same as two adult blue whales.

Looking for the next cloudburst? Perhaps start here.

Lightning & thunderstormsBlitzortung.org
A worldwide, real time, community collaborative lightning location network.

Those maps (especially the vector map version) make you realise just how tumultuous and highly charged this globe of ours is — which isn’t the impression you get when looking down on Google Earth. “In prioritizing clarity and smoothness in its representation, Google Earth supports how we are consuming the planet.”

Springtime everywhereReal Life
As Covid-19 lockdowns were shuttering citizens indoors in April, for instance, Google Earth seized on the opportunity to launch a slew of themed virtual tours (e.g. the National Parks of the United States tour). It made Google Earth accessible in all browsers and added 2,500 new images to Earth View, a spinoff showcasing surreal and awe-inspiring landscapes from above. For all the feeling that Google Earth’s could be a helpful resource for learning about the climate crisis, its interface of zooming in and out and around the globe seamlessly in high-definition undermines its potential. The form comes to contradict the content: We may revel in the beauty and awesomeness of seeing the earth from the sky — and our ability to freely manipulate this view — despite the crises the imagery may depict. Deforestation on a devastating scale can take on the same aesthetic as any other “virtual holiday” on Google Earth.

Herd it all before

The ‘herd immunity’ approach has been criticised from at least March (I still think this article from The Outline has my favourite heading and subheading), but it keeps being touted as an alternative to all these restrictions, a way to get back to normal.

There is no ‘scientific divide’ over herd immunityWired UK
There’s a lot of talk of scientists divided over Covid-19, but when you look at the evidence any so-called divide starts to evaporate.

Can we actually learn to live with coronavirus? Not until we have a vaccineThe Conversation
Take the example of smallpox – a very infectious, scary disease and the only human virus we have ever eradicated. Unlike COVID-19, people who caught the virus always showed symptoms, so they could be found and isolated. Anyone who did not die would have life-long protection. But we only completely rid the world of it through a coordinated vaccination campaign. This was the only way that high enough levels of protection could be achieved across the world to reach the threshold for herd immunity.

Time for some quick maths. As of today, there have been 635,000 cases of Covid-19 and 43,018 deaths in the UK. That’s a very rough mortality rate of 6.8%. The population of the UK is 66,650,000. Multiplying that by that mortality rate gets you a total of 4,532,200 deaths.

Over-simplified, yes, but still…

“Without adult supervision”

I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, this description of us from across the Atlantic, taken from The New York Times Morning Briefing: Europe Edition newsletter. Their description of us certainly feels quite accurate. Unfortunately.

Trump, Coronavirus, Sanda Dia: Your Monday BriefingThe New York Times

Britain, operating without adult supervision
Coronavirus cases in Britain are rising rapidly, with a record 12,871 new cases reported on Saturday evening. But as our correspondent Peter Goodman writes, you would scarcely imagine it on the streets of London, where masks hang below chins, punters cluster in pubs and cafes and rules around mask wearing or social distancing are frequently ignored.

Beyond the obvious ways that this cavalier behavior is disconcerting, it has enhanced a widely shared sense that Britain — famously rule-abiding — is now operating without adult supervision. Public confidence has plummeted, with more than half of respondents in a recent survey declaring the government has botched its handling of the pandemic, up from 39 percent in May.

The current crisis seems exacerbated by an offshoot of the very virtue celebrated in Britain’s conventional historical narrative — an admirable refusal to bend. A national mantra, “keep calm and carry on,” seems to have been reconfigured into the misguided notion that nothing is amiss.

And as if to further illustrate the point about a lack of supervision.

Botched Excel import may have caused loss of 15,841 UK COVID-19 casesArs Technica
Public Health England admitted on Sunday that the agency has under-reported COVID-19 infections by 15,841 cases in recent days due to a “technical issue.” The missing positive tests were conducted between September 25 and October 2 and have since been added to national statistics, the agency said.

Excel: Why using Microsoft’s tool caused Covid-19 results to be lostBBC News
“Excel was always meant for people mucking around with a bunch of data for their small company to see what it looked like,” commented Prof Jon Crowcroft from the University of Cambridge. “And then when you need to do something more serious, you build something bespoke that works – there’s dozens of other things you could do. But you wouldn’t use XLS. Nobody would start with that.”

Feeling nostalgic for polite politics

I couldn’t bring myself to watch much of that horrendous “presidential” “debate”. He seems so full of greed and hate it’s literally driven him insane. A show best left for others to endure.

“This is so unpresidential”: Notes from the worst debate in American historyThe New Yorker
It was a joke, a mess, a disaster. A “shit show,” a “dumpster fire,” a national humiliation. No matter how bad you thought the debate would be, it was worse. Way worse. Trump shouted, he bullied, he hectored, he lied, and he interrupted, over and over again.

Chris Wallace struggled to rein In an unruly Trump at first debate The New York Times
“The country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions,” Mr. Wallace said, directly asking Mr. Trump to yield a higher civic ideal. “I’m appealing to you, sir, to do it.” “And him, too?” the president replied defiantly, nodding at Mr. Biden. “Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” Mr. Wallace replied.

Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” after being asked to condemn white supremacistsBuzzFeed News
Trump’s comments are part of his campaign’s pattern of dog whistles and overt appeals to violent groups, white supremacists, and his most fervent supporters to take matters into their own hands and defend him and his divisive ideologies at all costs.

Trump’s closing debate argument was a blizzard of lies about mail votingVice
There’s overwhelming evidence and widespread agreement from voting experts that widespread voting fraud is extremely rare. But Trump has spent months attacking the process — while his lawyers fight in the courts to make sure that more mail voters will be disenfranchised by fighting any rule changes that would make their votes count.

CNN fact-checked the presidential debate. It was almost all about Trump’s lies.Vox
The problem is not just that Trump lied a lot during the debate, or that he lies a lot in his public statements. It’s that Trump doesn’t seem to care at all for the truth. What he says is only meant to make him look good. And when the president repeats the sorts of lies he told Tuesday night, they begin to calcify, lingering despite fact-checks — making it perpetually difficult to say if he’s telling the truth or merely reciting self-serving bullshit.

But I enjoyed spending a little time watching a different debate from a more civilised, polite age. No, not the suave JFK/pasty Nixon one from 1960, but the one 20 years after that, with the first two US presidents I remember as a kid, Carter and Reagan.

Presidential Debate, Jimmy Carter and Ronald ReaganC-SPAN
This was the only presidential candidates debate with both major party candidates during the 1980 campaign. They responded to questions from a panel of journalists on issues including defense preparedness and the economy. The debate included remarks by President Jimmy Carter concerning the views of his daughter Amy on arms control, which were widely criticized following the debate.

It was interesting to see Reagan start as he meant to go on, with all that ‘Leader of the Free World’ stuff. It’s literally the first thing he talks about. Ah, those were the days.

Look on the bright side

This time last year the Action for Happiness people were encouraging us to be optimistic. Well, they’re at it again — a positive attitude is needed now more than ever!

Optimistic OctoberAction for Happiness
Life is far from perfect, but there are lots of reasons for optimism. Setting positive goals for the future gives our lives a sense of direction and purpose. And although we face many challenges there are also lots of reasons to stay hopeful. By consciously choosing our priorities we can overcome issues, make progress and focus on what really matters.

Will he stay or will he go?

The election that could break AmericaThe Atlantic
The worst case, however, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that un­certainty to hold on to power. […]

Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.

And this, from The New York Times, has been getting a great deal of attention today. But will it make a difference?

Long-concealed records show Trump’s chronic losses and years of tax avoidanceThe New York Times
The Times obtained Donald Trump’s tax information extending over more than two decades, revealing struggling properties, vast write-offs, an audit battle and hundreds of millions in debt coming due.

Charting an empire: A timeline of Trump’s financesThe New York Times
Tax records provide a detailed history of President Trump’s business career, revealing huge losses, looming financial threats and a large, contested refund from the I.R.S.

Clowns and sewers and balloons, oh my!

I feel old. Stephen King’s It celebrated its 34th publication anniversary earlier this month. To mark the occasion, Dan Sheehan from Literary Hub has gathered together a whole bookcase of horrors. Or not.

10 covers for Stephen King’s It, ranked from least to most terrifyingLiterary Hub
Dutch paperback edition. My personal favorite. The cool 80s glam rock lightning bolt in the background. The Saturday morning cartoon font. The stupid kid’s stupid face. The fact that the balloon is too prominent, the wrong color, and actually looks kind of friendly. The words “de stank van HET” lined up with the kid’s mouth as if he is whispering in Dutch (objectively the most ridiculous-sounding language) to the friendly balloon. It’s all great. Alas, it is not very frightening.

Tracking up-take

After a considerable false start, the long-awaited new NHS Covid-19 app is now available. Have you downloaded it yet? Even if take-up is as low as some are gloomily predicting, it could still be worthwhile.

Take-up of NHS contact-tracing app could be only 10%The Guardian
Officials at the test and trace programme, however, believe there will be benefits even if few people adopt it. A recent study by the same data team at Oxford University, looking at the experience of Washington state in the US, found that if 15% used an app that notified them of exposure to an infected person, infections were reduced by 8% and deaths by 6%.

But even the best only got up to 40% take-up.

Everything you need to know about the NHS Covid-19 tracking appWired UK
The country with the highest download rate is Singapore, which was the first nation to introduce a contact tracing app. The TraceTogether system has been downloaded 2.4 million times as of September 9. This accounts for around 40 per cent of Singapore’s population. The country has also moved beyond the contact tracing apps by trialling a Bluetooth ’token,’ a wearable device, that people can use for contact tracing purposes.

Update: 28/09/2020

So far, so good.

Heading back into the office again?

Another Monday rolls by, only my third one in the office since March, six months ago. Working from home was quickly becoming part of the new normal, but I’m not so sure now.

Bosses are doing weird things to get people back in the officeWired UK
A private ride to work is a luxury for Cameron, who has cycled in the past but normally commutes by train. When Advent started discussions on reopening its London office, Cameron found herself in a predicament: while she craved the human interactions of the office, she was unwilling to ride public transport for fear of catching the virus. She was also wary of becoming infected in the workplace. Along with many of her colleagues, she decided it was safer to stay home.

This month, she changed her mind when the company sent an email to all 102 employees at the London office offering to cover the cost of taxis for them to attend the office for team meetings but not the regular day-to-day commute. Advent also provides fortnightly home-testing kits, and requires employees to have tested negative within the past two weeks to be eligible for entry.

The work from home backlash is upon usWealth of Common Sense
In March, many companies were forced into a work from home situation whether they wanted to or not. Considering there were no meetings, planning or upfront technology investments made leading up to that shift, it has gone better than most employees or employers could have dreamed. But there are bound to be growing pains in the months and years ahead as companies decide how to integrate what they’ve learned over the past 6 months. This transition is not going to be as smooth as many people think.

I think “growing pains” slightly undersells the issue somewhat.

Why airlines, cities, and Starbucks need remote workers back at the officeMarker
But now, suggests MIT economist David Autor in a paper last month, the office economy is under threat. The pandemic, he and his co-author, Elisabeth Reynolds, a lecturer at MIT, write, has made a permanent shift to remote work for a large part of the office workforce a near certainty. And with that, tens of thousands of workers in the office support economy — those who “feed, transport, clothe, entertain, and shelter people when they are not in their own homes” — will lose their jobs.

As we’ve seen before, it’s easier for some more than others.

Americans stayed inside even as cities and states reopenedBloomberg
In some cases, the ability to stay home was tied to income. More than 70% of households earning more than $100,000 said they were able to substitute telecommuting for some in-person work. By comparison, only 27% of households with annual incomes under $75,000 said someone in their home was able to telecommute.

And some companies seem more supportive than others.

Netflix’s Reed Hastings deems remote work ‘a pure negative’WSJ
WSJ: It’s been anticipated that many companies will shift to a work-from-home approach for many employees even after the Covid-19 crisis. What do you think? Mr. Hastings: If I had to guess, the five-day workweek will become four days in the office while one day is virtual from home. I’d bet that’s where a lot of companies end up.

WSJ: Do you have a date in mind for when your workforce returns to the office? Mr. Hastings: Twelve hours after a vaccine is approved.

Update: 22/09/2020

OK, never mind all that, as you were.

Work from home if you can, says Gove in government U-turnThe Guardian
The public in England will once again be asked to work from home if they can, Michael Gove has said, signalling a U-turn in government advice to combat the spread of coronavirus that he said could help “avert the need for more serious action in the future”. […]

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, suggested in a speech on Tuesday that if a second lockdown was necessary it would be “a sign of government failure, not an act of God”. Saying that Boris Johnson has had “months to prepare for this, Starmer added that a new lockdown “would take an immense toll on people’s physical and mental health and on the economy”.

“Don’t try to understand it”

You seen Tenet yet? I have, though I think I’ll need to go a few more times to be able to tell you what it was all about.

Tenet review: ‘It feels like several blockbusters combined’BBC Culture
He has often said that he would like to direct a Bond movie, but he must have got tired of waiting for the producers to hire him, so he has gone ahead and made one of his own. From its opening action set piece, to its whistle-stop tour of international beauty spots, to its super-rich, heavily-accented bad guy with an army of expendable henchmen, Tenet follows the 007 formula to the letter – the only notable change being that the main role has been split in two, with Washington playing the tough, dedicated government agent, and Pattinson adding the English accent, the insouciant humour and the taste for alcohol.

Is seeing Tenet in cinemas worth the coronavirus risk?Wired UK
As in Nolan’s previous films, characters spend the beginning zooming busily from place to place, delineating the world’s underlying rules. And like his other films, this quickly spun pseudoscience drives the plot. I found both increasingly impenetrable, an impression Nolan seems to anticipate – one scientist, her lab coat underscoring her authority, makes bullets spring, grasshopper-like, backwards through time. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” she implores.

It was great to be back in the cinema, though.

The spectacle, then, is the point. Watching a Nolan movie on your laptop is like watching someone else ride a roller coaster; abstractly, you can see why it would be fun, nevertheless, it is not. This is a film best presented in 70mm, at the iMax, the biggest cinema in the UK (™), at a head popping scale of image and sound. And it was moving, just as Nolan described it in his editorial, to be back in the cinema, even this cold new cinema of masks, hand sanitiser and vacant seats. It is so central to social life. The film opens with a crowd attending the theatre – unintentionally its most poignant scene.