In the bank

Some of you will know that my mother died not so long ago. This brings with it a variety of admin tasks, which you go through as best you can. These can be tiring, but also, it turns out, often bring you into contact with surprisingly friendly and supportive people.

And one effect of bereavement seems to be that you find yourself wanting to talk a lot. Someone asks how you are and next thing, you’ve told them some memories of the person who’s died, or how the death came about, or that no really you’re managing fine because the way you’re feeling is nothing like you imagined it would be beforehand . . . Or at least, that’s how it’s been for me. It’s a different experience for every bereaved person, I think.

Anyway that’s not really what I’m wanting to write about. It’s background. I’m writing about the assumptions that are often made about “old” people and computers.

I had to inform my mother’s bank of the death. This entailed taking a death certificate in and filling in a straightforward form, and I’d made an appointment to do this. The bank had an open area with seats and tables, where people could do banking stuff in an informal atmosphere, and a separate mini-office which could be used if more privacy was wanted. I wanted more privacy, but was waiting in the open area for my appointment.

Also waiting was an oldish lady with a walking stick. I was in a talkative mood, we got talking and I mentioned what I was there for. She said “Oh, I am sorry. How old was your mum?” “89,” I said. “But it wasn’t unexpected. She’d been ill a long time, and . . . ”

“Oh.” she answered. “Well I’m 89!” so I hurriedly reassured her that she was in far better health than my mother had been and that I was sure she’d got years and years ahead of her . . .

At this point I was rescued from digging myself into any deeper hole by the arrival of one of the bank staff. I sat myself further away so as to let their conversation be private. But I couldn’t help hearing most of it anyway. So much for privacy in open-plan banks.

The man from the bank asked how he could help her. “Well,” she said, “I’ve accidentally locked myself out of my online banking. I entered my Face Time password by mistake instead of the banking one, and now it won’t let me in . . . ” From the subsequent conversation it was clear that she used online banking all the time, and that she was perfectly comfortable with it except for the minor issue of it being difficult to remember a different password for everything without occasionally getting one wrong.

Contrast that with the stereotype of someone her age: confused, terrified of computers, totally hopeless when put in front of one, needing to be led by the hand through the simplest of operations . . .

In fact there’s even a similar stereotype about over-50s. Well I’m one of those. In fact, if the calendar is to be believed, I’m 57. (Very odd. I still think I’m 33. Possibly a little older, but definitely no more than 36.) We’re supposed to be unable to use a computer or understand the simplest of jargon . . .

Well. By the time I left university in 1984, I had programmed in Fortran, Algol, Basic, and 6502 assembler. (The 6502 was one of the early microprocessors.) The first computer I had of my own was an Amstrad PCW8256, but I upgraded the memory to a whopping 512 kB. Half a megabyte!

You could use one of these with the software it came with, if you just wanted to use it as a word processor. But I wanted to do more with it. And if you wanted to use your “home computer” for anything more interesting, you had to program it yourself. None of this ridiculous searching around for apps that don’t do quite what you want: write something yourself that did exactly what you wanted, or possibly read computer magazines and laboriously type out somebody else’s program then correct all the typos that were stopping it running and giving you error messages . . .

I wrote BASIC programs for a while, but I knew that was inefficient. BASIC was an interpreter: that is, the computer had to translate the instructions as it went, turning instructions like IF N>10 THEN GOTO 320 into sequences of hexadecimal digits (or really, sequences of 1’s and 0’s, read in blocks of 8 and effectively fed straight into the electronics) which the computer’s processor could execute.

I didn’t like being limited to BASIC. I wanted to program in machine code (the 1’s and 0’s). This is usually done using a program called an assembler: this lets you write short instructions meaning things like “increase the value of register A by 1” or “load the value stored at the following memory location into register B”, which it then translates into the 1’s and 0’s for you. The program you then run is the translated version.

For some reason presumably known to Amstrad, the assembler that came with the computer didn’t have any documentation and I couldn’t get it to work. (It was also, I later found out, written for the wrong processor: it was for the 8080 processor, whereas the computer contained the more advanced Z80.)

So, what did I do? Give up because our generation didn’t understand computers? No, I wrote my own assembler. First in BASIC, but then—once it was working—in machine code. I used the BASIC version to assemble the first machine code version, and thereafter, each machine code version to assemble the next. And you know what? The machine code program ran at 130 times the speed of the BASIC one! I was stunned. It suddenly did in about two seconds what had previously taken it well over four minutes.

What I find sad is that since then, computers have got faster too quickly: rather than run more and more efficient and reliable software, they run more and more unwieldy and bug-ridden software which grinds to a halt on all but the most up-to-date machines. They get away with it simply because processors have got ridiculously fast and storage has got ridiculously big.

I also find it sad that at some point, schools switched from teaching children coding (albeit in BASIC because it was simple), with the excitement of making their own programs do their own things, to teaching them the tedious “skill” of understanding what all the badly-named menu options in some piece of commercial software are for. To my mind that’s not understanding computers—it’s understanding office work. And it’s all in the manual anyway, if the manual’s any good.

So there you go. I think “my generation” understood computers rather well, and I think the 89-year-old in the bank understood hers well enough for all the things she wanted to do on it. She just found remembering which password was for what a bit tricky. And who hasn’t had that problem?

Don’t make assumptions based on age!

Alice, Joachim and Mr Hesketh

My grandmother, Alice Hilda Wright, was born in 1887. By 1976 she had become too forgetful and frail to manage on her own, and was living with us. She died towards the end of that year, aged 89, when I was 13.

I was in the early stages of learning the violin. It’s fair to say I didn’t play very well. I had begun teaching myself from A Tune a Day Book 1 when I was 11, then joined the school orchestra without having had any lessons. A year later, I’d started having some; and now, my teacher was struggling to undo all the destructive things I’d taught myself. I’m sorry to say he wasn’t having much success.

So it’s not surprising—especially at that age—that I absolutely hated anyone listening while I practised.

This created a problem: whenever my grandmother saw I was going to get my violin out, she said “Oh! Are we going to have some music?” and perked up. Typically she then reminded us that she had once played the violin, and that she’d had to give up when she got married “because Pop didn’t like it”. Pop was what she called my Welsh grandfather, who died before I was born. She hadn’t played the violin since she was 20. She loved being reminded of playing, and was obviously looking forward to me practising.

I would then go and do some violin practice, painfully aware that every note was being heard from downstairs.

Being in the early stages of dementia, she had poor short-term memory but a good memory for events from her early life. So she would tell you all about one of these memories, forget she’d told you, and tell you it again another day, and another, and another . . .

Many of these stories were fascinating as long as you didn’t mind hearing them so frequently. In fact my father, who enjoyed restoring tape recorders to good working condition then using them, made recordings of her telling some them. These should still be in the house somewhere, on reel-to-reel tape.

She remembered when Ardwick Green in Manchester was a green, with horses on it. She remembered her childhood at Swinyard Hall Farm in High Legh, and how it was necessary to curtsy to the squire when he came by. She remembered walking, then cycling, five miles to school. She remembered the time she shot underneath a shire horse on her bicycle: the horse was standing sideways across the road, at the bottom of a hill, and she couldn’t stop. So she put her head down, went underneath the horse, and fell off the bike. She said the owner of the horse was really worried she might have hurt herself, but that she hadn’t and was laughing her head off about what had just happened because it was so funny. She told all of these stories many times.

The story

But if you asked about her violin playing, another story often came up. She said—very consistently—that she had once played on Joachim’s violin. That’s right: Joachim, the great 19th century soloist.

I believe the story was set in Alderley Edge, where the family had moved. It was a village in those days, not the suburban town it is now. Her family had what she called “a hut at the bottom of the garden”, which they rented out to people for their summer holidays. One very regular visitor was Mr Hesketh, from Manchester.

Now, Mr Hesketh repaired violins. On one occasion, he had Joachim’s violin in for repair—and when he visited, he brought it with him. He let Alice try playing it, and she remembered this for the next seventy years.

Might it have happened?

Mr Hesketh

For years, I remembered this story but forgot my grandmother had given the violin repairer a name. So I assumed I’d never be able to investigate whether it happened. But after my father died in 2008, the subject came up and my mother said “Oh no, he was called Hesketh! She always called him Mr Hesketh from Manchester.”

So now I could at least check whether it might be plausible.

I typed something like “Hesketh violin Manchester” into a search engine, and immediately found lots of auction reports for recently sold violins. Along with each violin’s final price, they gave the name of its maker and the date on its label. They were all made between about 1895 and 1940. The maker was Thomas Earle Hesketh. The price was mostly several thousand pounds, meaning they were decent quality violins.

Now we need to do some guesswork about dates.

My grandmother was 20 when she married, at which time she stopped playing. So if the incident happened, it was no later than 1907. Coincidentally, 1907 was also the year Joachim died.

At what age would you trust a young player with a valuable instrument? Say 12 as a minimum? That gives 1899 as a tentative early limit. So let’s set the incident between about 1899 and 1907.

Finally, was Thomas Hesketh around at the right time? Yes he was: from the auction reports, he was making violins before 1899 and well after 1907.

Joachim and the violin

OK, so now we need to ask

  • is it at all likely that Joachim would have been in Manchester, with a violin needing repair, between 1899 and 1907?
  • and if he was, would he have taken it to Mr Hesketh?

In 1899, several years had already passed since Joachim’s retirement from full-time playing. However, players at that level very rarely retire completely. They keep on playing as long as they can: just doing less of it than they used to. According to Joachim’s Wikipedia entry he made some gramophone recordings in 1903, so he was still playing then; if I’ve understood correctly, his last visit to Britain was in 1904, when Alice was about 17.

Asking around, I discovered from a player with Hallé connections that after Joachim’s retirement, he still came to Manchester each year to play a concerto with the Hallé Orchestra. I’m not sure how long this continued for—finding out would need someone to check the Hallé’s records or old concert programmes and I’ve not got as far as trying to do that—but it could well have brought Joachim to Manchester in the period we’re talking about.

But if he wanted some work doing on his violin, would he have gone to Mr Hesketh?

The next time I needed my bow rehairing, I went to a violin repairer in Hyde called Harry Ash. He had previously done a superb job of repairing my violin for me, turning it into a vastly better instrument which also made twice as much sound. The repair had involved taking the front off. He hadn’t been able to resist checking all the joints inside and re-gluing them all, at no extra cost. When he handed it to me, he said they wouldn’t need doing again in either of our lifetimes. Then, with an evil grin, he added “Well, not unless you drop it . . . ”

Anyway. Back to the bow rehairing. When I collected it I told Harry the outline of the story. He knew the history of local violin makers, and had also encountered some of Hesketh’s violins. From what he knew of Hesketh’s reputation, he considered Hesketh was precisely the kind of person someone like Joachim would go to for a violin repair if they happened to be in Manchester.

Yes, but did it happen?

There’s not enough evidence here to say for certain whether the incident happened. Almost everything is circumstantial: all we really know is that my grandmother said that Mr Hesketh had brought Joachim’s violin with him and let her play it. The story needs corroborating from another source, which I don’t have.

But there are a few plausible scenarios for Joachim:

  • Joachim was in Manchester to play with the Hallé, and wanted some work doing on the violin he used in the concert—maybe urgently before concert day.
  • Or maybe he brought a “spare” violin with him that needed repairing, knowing there was a good violin maker in Manchester to do the work while he was busy with the concert.
  • Joachim bought a violin while he was in the country, and took it to Hesketh to get it properly set up.
  • Maybe the violin was actually one Joachim had sold after retiring, and no visit by him was involved.
  • Maybe my grandmother somehow got the idea that the violin was Joachim’s when it wasn’t.

And for Mr Hesketh:

  • The repair was urgent and he brought the violin with him to get it done; when he’d finished, he showed it Alice and let her play on it.
  • He felt Alice was a good player who ought to have the opportunity to experience a really good violin, and brought it for that reason.
  • He was excited about having such a famous player’s violin to repair, and was friendly enough with Alice to want to show it her.
  • It was actually Alice he was excited about, and this made him do insane things like taking a famous player’s valuable instrument on holiday with him.

The last is of course the most tempting to speculate about. Suppose it happened when she was 18 or 19, not long before she married at 20. We can immediately see a potential reason why my grandfather hated her playing the violin and insisted she stop. And a reason why Mr Hesketh visited so regularly . . .

But this is all speculation. What’s actually needed is more evidence, for example

  • Living relatives of Thomas Earle Hesketh who have family memories relating to the incident. Did he go to Alderley Edge, or High Legh, for his holidays? Did he once repair Joachim’s violin? Was there an Alice who married a Welshman?
  • Records relating to Joachim. Did he have a violin repaired in Manchester around this time? Is a violin maker or repairer called Hesketh mentioned in any of his correspondence?

If anyone reading this can shed any further light on the story, I would be very pleased to hear from you—you can leave a comment below, or use the contact form to send me an email.

Audio illusion: the accelerating metronome

Here’s an experience I had a few years ago while practising to play in Smetana’s Bartered Bride overture. As I remember, I was playing in the second violins at the time.

The music

The main feature of the overture’s opening is that each violin section has to play a long, continuous stream of very fast semiquavers for the first page or so. (Probably this applies to the other string sections too.) Since  players of other parts have to fit their semiquavers to them when they join in, the music can hold together only if they’re played accurately in time. Accuracy is essential.

This is a dangerous situation: the natural tendency of a stream of equal notes is to rush, and they’ll rush even more if the player is feeling a bit panicky about playing them. In an amateur orchestra it’s likely that at least some players will be tempted to experience such panic. And once any rushing starts, it won’t be unanimous: everyone will accelerate differently so they’re no longer playing the same notes at the same time.

This kind of rushing is contagious, too. So all a passage like this really needs in order to risk disaster is for one player to start rushing and a few others nearby to lose their nerve. It’s a very short step from that to total chaos.

The practice

So this was one of those rare cases where it was a good idea to practise with a metronome. (Normally this is a bad idea; it leads to a mechanically rigid tempo, which in most circumstances is unmusical.) There were two main aspects I had to practise: (i) learning the notes and fingerings well enough not to stumble over anything; (ii) keeping the tempo absolutely constant.

So I practised with a metronome, considerably below tempo at first, and increasing the speed very gradually. (The aim in this sort of practice is to repeat the experience of getting the notes right until you can do so at full tempo—not to repeat the experience of getting them wrong and of being forced to play too fast. Otherwise you’re training yourself to get them wrong, not to get them right.) Eventually I could play the entire passage, up to speed (with a little extra left over for comfort) and in time.

Practising like this involves quite intense concentration on very short timescales: listening to hear whether each note is coming out correctly, paying attention to the feeling in the fingers as they either automatically go to the correct note or try to play the wrong one, keeping the bow stroke metronomic, watching out for any hint of stumbling, and so on.

The illusion

But what was really interesting about these practice sessions was what happened once I stopped playing. Within a few seconds, I had the impression that I could hear the metronome speeding up. In fact it seemed to be accelerating quite dramatically. So much so that if it had been a fellow player in the orchestra I’d have thought they were rushing quite badly. I estimate that the apparent increase in speed was around 15%–20%.

But of course the metronome wasn’t suddenly speeding up; it’s a highly accurate electronic one, and all that had happened was that I’d stopped playing notes on the violin. Yet it was almost impossible to believe that the metronome wasn’t accelerating. I could hear it going faster and faster.

I interpreted this as my perception slowing down, now that I was no longer concerned with what happened from one tenth of a second to the next. It seemed as though my mind had sped up in order to play the fast music, and was now returning to its normal pace.

I wonder whether this is one of the reasons musicians have to train themselves not to rush when playing fast music. If your time perception changes so the music feels much slower than it actually is, you’ll have no idea that you’ve sped up. It’ll feel as though you’re playing at just the same speed you were all along. As musicians we have to learn what kinds of passages are prone to rushing, and how it feels not to rush. Often this involves playing at a speed which feels as though it’s definitely too slow, or making a conscious effort to slow down—while in fact playing at exactly the same speed.

I was reminded of all this today when a friend tweeted a link to this article about an experiment on mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation emphasises awareness of the present moment. The research found that the meditation made time appear to pass more slowly for the participants, in a way that sounds very similar to what happened while I was practising. And maybe for similar reasons: focusing on the current moment as a meditation exercise, and focusing on the current note being played as a practice exercise, seem to me to involve exactly the same focus of attention, even if the mental state involved isn’t identical.

In any case it was fascinating to be able to witness my own sense of the passage of time changing over the course of a minute or so as I came out of intense practice mode.

Democracy without general elections

Here’s an idea which has been in my mind for a while. It’s a tentative idea, and may not be a perfect idea. It is, however an idea, and one which I’ve not seen anyone else suggest. It might even be a good one.

Here in Britain, and in many other countries which aspire to democracy, we elect our government by the familiar process of a general election. That is, every few years we elect, en masse, a new set of MPs whom we hope will represent us. The leader of the party with most MPs more or less automatically ends up being Prime Minister, regardless of whether the’re acceptable to the majority of voters or not. A few years later, we go through the process again.

This seems democratic, but has a number of problems and is open to various abuses. For example:

  • Parties can say one thing before the election (e.g. “There will be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS”) in order to get elected, then do something entirely different once in power (e.g. radically reorganise the NHS).
  • Parliament can be suddenly flooded with inexperienced politicians who, though well-meaning, are clueless about how to organise anything sensibly and therefore govern chaotically.
  • The make-up of parliament depends heavily on when the election is. Even worse, the election date could until recently also be manipulated by the Prime Minister to try to stay in power.
  • I believe the election result also depends heavily on which issues are prominent in the news at the time of the election. These may not actually be issues which will be important for the next five years. They might even be no more than the latest tabloid misinformation.
  • Once you elect a government, you’re more or less guaranteed to be stuck with them for for or five years regardless of how incompetent or otherwise awful they turn out to be. Even if they do the precise opposite of what you voted for, they’re there until the next general election.

In short, general elections seem like a good idea and we’re used to choosing governments that way, but they allow a lot of room for undemocratic manipulation.

But surely, to have democracy you need general elections?

I’m not so sure. Here’s my tentative suggestion for an alternative which I think is at least as democratic and possibly more so. Its main features are:

  • No general elections.
  • Instead, elect five MPs per fortnight. With 650 MPs, this takes five years to get through them all. So each MP is elected for a five-year term, and you vote every five years, when it’s your constituency’s turn to vote.
  • On arrival in parliament, each MP casts their vote for who should be Prime Minister, using a numbered preference system. That vote remains in force throughout that MP’s time in parliament or until they decide to change it (maybe subject to limits about how frequently or under what circumstances this can happen).
  • The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister for as long as the recorded votes of current MPs indicate that they are still acceptable to the majority. (That is: if the recorded votes were cast in an AV-style ballot, the Prime Minister would still win.)
  • To avoid a situation where a Prime Minister goes in and out of office every fortnight as new MPs replace old ones, there’s either a threshold number of votes above 50% that someone has to pass in order to gain office, or they have to be the winner for a specified length of time.

Now, I’m sure there will be pitfalls with this. There are with any voting system. But think of the possible advantages:

  • An unpopular government can’t indefinitely use its majority to force through measures which nobody wants. As soon as it does that, it starts losing MPs, who are replaced by ones who better reflect the current will of the voters.
  • Parties can’t say one thing before the election then do something different after the election, since there is always an election coming up.
  • The makeup of parliament can’t be skewed by whatever happened to be in the news on the day of the general election, because there isn’t one. (Maybe the result of each constituency election can be skewed by the news of the day, but this would ideally just mean that a whole range of issues were represented in parliament. Not just the news of the day, but five years’ worth of news.)
  • There are always experienced MPs in parliament—or at least, ones with nearly five years’ experience.
  • No prime minister feels permanently safe. As soon as they start behaving unacceptably, their support wanes and they risk being replaced.
  • Election dates can’t be manipulated to favour one party rather than another.
  • As soon as an issue becomes important, it’s likely that an MP will be elected who is concerned with that issue.

I can see a couple of risks, though:

  • The responsiveness that I’m trying to bring to the system might turn into short-term obsession with the latest dubious poll. Some thought would need to be given as to whether this is indeed the case, and whether there’s a way to avoid it.
  • Although an unpopular government immediately starts losing MPs, losing enough of them to lose power takes time. There might be situations in which a government is governing so badly that it needs to be replaced quickly, and it could be that a general election is the only way to do that. My hope, though, is that the system would make it difficult for extreme governments to arise.

Anyway there it is. Whether such a system could be made workable or not, I think it deserves thinking about.

Twitter does it again!

As you most probably know, I’ve been learning Norwegian for the last 23 months, largely by conversing with Norwegians on Twitter with the help of two grammar books and various dictionaries. It’s been a fascinating process. (I haven’t blogged properly about the process yet; maybe one day I will.)

What I didn’t quite realise when I first started was the three-for-the-price-of-one nature of the Scandinavian languages. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are really a collection of dialects stretching across Scandinavia, with no clear boundary between one language and the next. The borders between the countries determine which dialects are considered as belonging to which language, but that’s about as far as it goes. It turns out that learning one of the three languages means you can already understand substantial amounts of the other two if you’re prepared to do a bit of guesswork. Bilingual or trilingual conversations are common between the Scandinavians on Twitter: each participant tweets in their own languge, and generally has to explain only occasional words to the others.

Written Danish is so close to the Bokmål variety of Norwegian that Danish and Bokmål mostly just look like misspelt versions of each other. This isn’t very surprising, since  Bokmål is descended from written Danish. (Norwegian had no written form for several hundred years, while the country was under Danish rule.)

Swedish, however, is a lot less guessable, largely because the spelling is so different that Swedish words which are very close to the Norwegian equivalents can look quite different from them. But I’d like to be able to read Swedish without a struggle. I’m encountering more Swedish than I was, both on Twitter and elsewhere: for example I sometimes get Swedish replies to my Norwegian tweets or forum posts. Also one of my favourite authors, Tove Jansson, wrote her novels in Swedish, and I’d love to be able to read her actual words. Her writing is stunning even when translated, and I imagine it’s even more stunning in the original.

So I’ve been feeling the need to learn at least some Swedish. But I’ve no desire to laboriously plough through lots of information which simply repeats what I already know about the Scandinavian languages via Norwegian. What I’m really after is the differences from Norwegian. When is it safe to assume that the two languages work the same way? When isn’t it safe? Does that word which looks similar to a Norwegian one actually mean the same thing or not? It seems to me that learning Swedish this way is both less information to absorb, and a more integrated way of learning. Relating new information to what I already know makes it easier to remember and puts it in context, implying greater understanding than if it were random information.

So I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a book on Swedish written for Norwegians, rather than one for English-speakers.

Now, where does one get such a thing? Probably from a Norwegian publisher, at great expense . . .

Some of these thoughts came up in a recent conversation on Twitter between me, a Swede and a Norwegian. It was a good conversation which confirmed my feeling that getting material intended for Norwegians was probably the way to go. I wasn’t expecting what came next, though. Inger, the Norwegian, mentioned that she had a Swedish–Norwegian dictionary, from when she used to teach in a Swedish-speaking school in Finland. She said she had no further use for the dictionary, and that she’d therefore like to send it to me.

Human generosity is in my opinion a wonderful thing, and it’s no less wonderful when it comes from people you’ve never met. And in this case it came in a form which I’m happy to share in a blog post.

If you think Twitter is about nastiness, libel and boring minutiæ, then either you’re following the wrong tweeters or you’ve missed the point of the communities which form there.