Rule of three

This post will not be about a somewhat extreme form of oligarchy, even if it does seem to be the preferred governance regime in heaven.  Or would that be an autarchy, but one where the autarch has a personality split, like ancient Gaul, into three parts? I’m afraid my O level in Religious Studies did not provide answers to such deep, doctrinal questions and I don’t want GofaDM adding fresh fuel to the fire of the monophysite heresy.

I won’t even be straying into Wiccan magic, chemistry, aviation, programming, survival, mathematics or economics.  The human species does seem to have something of an obsession with the number three and creating rules based upon it – perhaps a rule of four is thought too much to remember and a rule of two too trivial?

Given the form of this blog, I shall stray into writing where the rule of three crops up all over the place.  The unities of ancient Greek theatre is one appearance, but more commonly it appears as a rhetorical device growing from the oral storytelling tradition (which probably links back to fallible human memory).  Just think of all the characters which come in sets of three: pigs, billy goats gruff and musketeers to name but three!  Omni trium perfectum, as they say in ancient Rome (assuming you subscribe to the concept of block time).  However, the choice of title did remind of the rule of three in poetry and, in particular, in my favourite of the poems I studied for English Literature O level.  This was Horatius by Thomas Babington (later Lord) Macaulay – a wonderfully stirring piece for the teenaged me and with a good solid grounding in rhyme and meter, which was a primary part of its appeal in those days before I’d reached an accommodation with free verse.  Stanza XXI offers two particularly fine example of using the rule of three which, as the work is safely out of copyright, I shall share with a new audience:

And nearer fast and nearer
Doth the red whirlwind come;
And louder still and still more loud,
From underneath that rolling cloud,
Is heard the trumpet’s war-note proud,
The trampling, and the hum.
And plainly and more plainly
Now through the gloom appears,
Far to left and far to right,
In broken gleams of dark-blue light,
The long array of helmets bright,
The long array of spears.

It is quite a long poem and I have wasted quite a lot of time, re-discovering its joys.  Next week, quotes from Sir Patrick Spens!

Anyway, that was all by way of introduction and has consumed a worrying volume of words just to say what this post isn’t about.  Now to the matter in hand: yesterday lunchtime, I cycled up to Turner Sims to catch a trio of pieces performed by a piano trio.

The first of these was descriptively called Piano Trio (with whistles) by Ben Oliver, whose name has appeared in these pages before.  For a chap struggling to manage two hands on the keyboard and, at times, both feet on the pedals, it seems a step too far to expect the pianist (and also the violin and cello players) to also play a whistle (or a variety of the same).  I suppose it is probably no more difficult than singing while playing, though you do have the issue of not dropping the whistle and (if me) not drenching the piano in your own saliva.  The piece was rather wonderful and Mark Knoop, at the piano, seemed to be in full command of hands, feet, lungs and salivary glands.

The second piece, Ephemer by Walter Zimmerman, was fascinating and, for more much of its length, almost fugitive in its nature.  The stringed instruments produced extraordinary, ethereal tones – perhaps using a method related to the guitar microtones from a couple of weeks ago as I’m fairly sure the strings were not producing their normal notes when bowed.  I’m not sure whether I like the piece or notbut, like the Tellytubbies when it ended I had the desire to call out “again”.  Sadly (or perhaps happily), I resisted the urge, but now cannot find it on-line – next time, I shall go full Dipsy (or Laa Laa)!

The final piece was 1981 by Clarence Barlow which serves up three piano trios played at the same time.  It only uses the first movements of three trios from somewhat different periods, which are blended together using some form of chiral algorithm.  This was much more melodically and harmonically pleasing than the description might suggest, with each trio wrestling its way to the surface at different times.


A stage pregnant with possibilities…

When the concert finished, I needed to cycle home again.  So affecting was the music that I was less than convinced that I was safe to operate my transport, though I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler to reveal that I did survive.  I was forcibly struck by the fact that I have no need for mind-altering drugs while I have access to such extraordinary music.  I’m not saying I achieved a higher level of consciousness (or, indeed, any level thereof) but I certainly felt very different after 45 minutes of musical input – and without any need to break the law!

My day finished at the Guide Dog to enjoy the monthly Doghouse Acoustic Session.  Pleasingly for the conceit of this post, this started with a piece from the Isle of Man – famous not just for tax-dodging, actuaries and a lack of tails but also for being represented by a triskelion of three armoured legs (on field gules)!  Never let it be said that this blog has nothing to offer the visiting Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms!

The final appearance of the number three was in the triangular shape of the Cheese Moments which I used to accompany a series of fine session ales.  I strongly suspect these Cheese Moments have even less to do with cheese than the most militant vegan, but I was without my reading glasses and so the small print of the ingredients was beyond the reach of my visual acuity.  This packet of snacks, and my use thereof, also led me to believe that I may be using Instagram entirely ironically – still, at least I have now found a purpose for it separate from my use of other social media: it is now the home of memetic irony…


Regrettable repercussions?

I’m sure Jeremy Hunt must have some admirable qualities.  If nothing else, his gift for concealing these qualities from the casual observer must be commended – though he may be taking his natural modesty just a little too far.  I have reason to believe that he might be a viable choice of translator on a trip to Japan, but a much poorer one if the purpose of the trip is the sale of marmalade (or other preserves) to the indigenes.

I strongly suspect that PPE followed by a career in teaching english to Johnny Foreigner and then PR may not have fully equipped him for his role as titular head of the Department of Health.  The placebo effect, along with its evil twin the nocebo effect,  are notoriously tricksy to come to terms with – even for those with the qualifications to do so.  My own knowledge of the field comes from Daniel Moerman’s very readable book Meaning, Medicine and the ‘Placebo Effect’ – so I am far from expert (but still massively over-qualified for the role of Health Secretary).  This makes very clear that the impact of medicines on a patient can be impacted by rather unexpected factors.  The size, colour and shape of a pill can all alter its clinical effectiveness, as can the number of pills taken (as with heads, two pills are better than one – even if the active ingredient is exactly the same).

The latest policy wheeze dreamt up by Mr Hunt (or his minions – but as our health Gru he must carry the can) is to print the price paid by the NHS for more expensive drugs on their packaging.  It strikes me that this information is likely to have some psychological effect on the consumers of the drugs and this suggests that some unintended clinical consequences could easily arise thanks to our spooky friends placebo and nocebo.  Will we suddenly find that cheaper drugs lose some of their effectiveness?  Could this cunning plan actually force up the NHS bill for drugs?

Even without considering such weird consequences, basic psychology might suggest that some patients taking more expensive drugs could reduce their intake out of a mis-placed sense of civic duty.  If this occurs with antibiotics, for example, we might be unwittingly feeding the growth in resistance.

Surely some drug prices will reflect better or poorer price negotiation by the NHS or on the level of competition in the marketplace.  I’m not sure this data should really be informing either prescribing or subsequent patient behaviour – it should rather be informing procurement within the NHS or regulation of drug companies or the market.

Finally, I cannot help but notice that drugs do not come in normalised quantities such that every prescription contains the same number of days (or doses) of treatment.  As a result, cheap pills bought in large quantities might appear more costly than expensive ones sold in only small doses.  This is going to hopelessly muddle the financial signal we are trying to send to patients, even if by chance they do latch on to the desired response to the new price data.

I strongly suspect that the results of this new initiative will bear little relation to those planned – always assuming there is a plan rather than just implementation of the ravings of a power-crazed buffoon – except to the extent that we live in an infinite multiverse and by random chance we may be living in the one of all possible worlds where Jeremy gets lucky.  However, as no-one will probably bother to measure the results properly – or honestly report them if they do – we will probably never know.

Oh, what a time to be alive!  (And preferably in good health…)

Political Grindr

Yes, I am going to talk about the tendency of those in government to bang-on about their “mandate”.  The current government managed to obtain almost 37% of the vote (the same as in 2010, without a majority on that occasion) and so have – in common with many of their predecessors – been claiming a “mandate” to do whatever they want.  I’d note that this mandate covers only a quarter of the electorate – and many of these may only have chosen them tactically or as the least worst option – so hardly a ringing endorsement of the full contents of their manifesto (and any mad ideas they may have generated subsequently or were unwilling to reveal).  Talking of their manifesto, I wonder what fraction of 1% of the electorate actually read any of the manifestos, let alone that of the “winner”.  Even 25% of the electorate seems an over-estimate of the mandate, as many people who will be affected (for good or ill) by the current government were not eligible to vote.  I am thinking, in particular, of those yet to reach the age of 18 and who will have much longer to live with the consequences of this government’s actions than the over-65, who seem to have been the mainstay of their support.  I did find myself wondering when the last time was that a government had the support even of a majority of the electorate?

I fear this belief that the (probably grudging) support of a small minority of the populace is a mandate for each and every action they can think of (please note, no actual thought may have been involved) might help to explain the legislation mania that has afflicted governments since around 1980.  The production of new laws is one of the few growth industries that this country can claim, but sadly it adds little to GDP and even less to the well-being of the population.

Just a couple of weeks in, there have already been two glorious examples of this mania.  Firstly, the plan to legislate to remove most of the flexibility that the government possesses to manage the economy by effectively removing any chance to raise additional revenue.  Given that a bunch of spending areas have also been protected and we are planning to fritter away huge amounts of money on vanity projects, e.g. HS2, Trident, there seems a major risk of total economic collapse.  All it would need would be some event which lowers tax revenues by even a modest percentage, a referendum leading to departure from the EU might be an example, and I can foresee disaster looming for the UK (though luckily, one which would probably confined to these Isles rather than trashing the global financial system).  I fondly remember the fun of our brief dalliance with the ERM and expect “the markets” to view this idiotic idea as a similar challenge.

This very day, the government has announced plans to tackle soi-disant legal highs via legislation: nothing must stand in the way of the cloud of depression which has settled over much of the UK, engendered by ever deepening austerity.  Some government mouthpiece proudly claimed that this would deal with the issue “once-and-for-all” and, as we know, since being made illegal, heroin and cocaine have not been sighted and certainly have never caused a single problem in this country.  As previously noted here, I remain convinced that the government is taking cash from the drugs trade to keep it profitable – does anyone know if the legal high industry was a major contributor to Tory party funds?  Still, it is good to know that disaffected chemistry graduates, emerging from university to a life on the scrap heap, have a profitable avenue to use their “book smarts”.

I have two ideas that are somewhat cognate to this discussion and might be able to muster the 20% or so of support that is considered a ringing endorsement in these modern times.  Firstly, removing the vote from everyone over the age of 40 (thus disenfranchising myself at a stroke) – I have far more faith in the young, who have yet to have a chance to make a total mess of anything other than their own lives, than those of my generation, who have managed to make a much broader mess.  I like to imagine this would encourage longer-term thinking (if nothing else, the young seem to have lots of ideas as to what to do with their time, little of which seems to relate to generating bad ideas for new laws) – though might also lead to a Logan’s Run scenario for we old codgers.  Still, on the plus side, that would defuse the pensions time bomb rather nicely.

Secondly, the restriction of membership of the armed forces to people over the age of 40 only – which might reduce the desire to participate in foreign wars just to demonstrate our unrequited love for the US.  The more fatal interactions, which currently characterise war, might also be largely replaced by passive-aggression.  If nothing else, it should slow down the pace of war – with troops and their commanders alike keen on getting an early night.  It will also help to tackle the pensions time bomb!

I do realise that the combination of my two wizard wheezes could be a tad dangerous for those of my age, but when producing legislation there is clearly no need to consider the consequences of one’s actions, so I’m sure everything will be fine!


The festival season is now well underway, and for many it’s not a festival unless you are standing up to your oxters in mud, surrounded by tens of thousands of other strongly odiferous, unwashed people with access to only sub-medieval plumbing facilities.

I take a rather different approach to my festival going.  Over the past week, the Cambridge Summer Music Festival has served up a concert hall, two college chapels and an art gallery as venues.  All provided a roof (often quite an impressive one), seating (though its comfort may not always have been of the very first rank), modest volumes of relatively sweet-smelling fellow festival goers and (mostly) modern plumbing.

I suspect the quantity of drugs carried per capita may have been similar at the CSMF to the more rock-based events (you know what those geologists are like!), but in Cambridge I suspect most of the drugs were both legal and on prescription (certainly, between – and sometimes during – pieces, you can feel like you’ve inadvertently stumbled into the bronchitis ward at Addenbrooke’s).

Today’s gig was in the Fitzwilliam Museum and so between the two halves of French piano music on offer, I could survey the work of Matisse, Bonnard and Spencer (among others) whilst sipping from a reviving glass of chenin blanc.  I think I also managed to find a singing teacher in the same interval: a degree of productivity which is rendered only slightly less impressive when I reveal that this was my one, and only, New Year’s resolution (surely, somewhere in the world must start its year in August?).

All of this festival going brings to mind the patron saint of ushers, St Eward, who was martyred (as I recall) at a rather poorly marshalled event in the twilight years of the western Roman Empire.  His death was not in vain, as ladies (and a few gents) d’un certain âge now proudly wear a sash bearing his name whilst ensuring that all are safely delivered to and from each event.