31 December 2008

Israel's onslaught on Gaza is a crime that cannot succeed

I have been meaning to write something about the latest violence in Gazza for some days but have not found the time or the right words. Now I do not need to as Seumas Milne in The Guardian has written an excellent piece on Israel's onslaught on Gaza is a crime that cannot succeed that says all that I wanted to say.

It ends with the statement, "What is now taking place in the Palestinian territories is a futile
crime in which the US and its allies are deeply complicit - and unless
Obama is prepared to change course, it is likely to have bitter
consequences that will touch us all."

The West's response to Israel's aggression is in marked contrast to the anti-Russian statements made when they intervened recently in South Ossetia to protect Russian civilians from Georgian tanks. This is blatant hypocrisy and helps nobody in either situation. This is the time for wise words not partisan dogma.

And where is the voice of the Special Envoy to the Middle East, ex-PM Tony Blair?

27 December 2008

Lib. Dems. butcher more trees

Memories seem to be short in some places and what was a national news item just over ten years ago now passes unnoticed.

When I moved to Kingston around twenty years ago this site was a disused coal power station that was screened from the public gardens in front by tall poplar trees. The Council allowed flats to be built on the site to the height of the chimneys that had been there before, making the new building much more dense and oppressive that the old power station. They are also much uglier, but that's another story.

The Council then cut down all the trees that screened the site, despite them being on Council owned property. Their claim was that they were all diseased and dangerous but the strong suspicion was (fuelled by the Lib. Dems. well deserved reputation for caving in to developers) that they had been removed to provide the flat owners with river views.

The campaign to keep the trees attracted national attention and a number of people moved in to the trees, and in to tunnels, to try and keep the developers at bay. Sadly they failed.

The only saving grace was the Lib. Dem. Council said that they would replace the felled poplars with a mix of other tall trees.



Over the years the new trees did grow and did start to obscure the banal block of flats and to restore some privacy and tranquillity to the park and the path through it that follows the river.

Suddenly in a wanton act of brutality all of the trees have been chopped off to the height of the railings destroying the beauty of that section of the park and, surprise surprise, restoring the view of the river from flats.

So a few residents of expensive flats gain at the expense of the hundreds of us who walk through and enjoy the park every day. As in Richmond, the Kingston Lib. Dems. talk Green but continue to cut down healthy trees.

26 December 2008

German market

I am not sure why but over the Christmas holidays there is a small German market in the market square in Kingston upon Thames.

There are only about ten stall but it is enough to add a touch of continental flavour to the town.

The centre piece looks like a Christmas decoration - at least it looks a lot like a German Christmas decoration that I bought about 25 years ago where heat from candles turns the blades at the top making the whole decoration rotate.

Other stalls sell what I presume is typical German stuff for this time of year, such as a rather impressive range of sausages.

I'm not too sure if the market is aimed at locals or at the significant local German population (attracted by the German School nearby in Richmond) but either way it good to see different cultures being promoted in Kingston.

Elsewhere in Kingston there seems to be a little evidence that this actually is Christmas.

There are a few lights in a few places and some decorations but overall they do not make much of an impression.

The shops seem to be fairly busy though and there were queues for the stars of the sales this morning.

It will be interesting to see what impact the much talked about recession has had on the level of seasonal shopping.

24 December 2008

Listening to more podcasts

The list of podcasts that I listen to regularly is still growing in both number and variety. These are some of the newer ones.

The Bugle from Times Online reunites two comedians who have worked together on several projects, Andy Zaltzman a regular on The Now Show and John Oliver who is part of the team on the Daily Show. They have a semi-scripted conversation on the week's news that is in a familiar satirical style.

I've never got on with Laurie Taylor when he was a regular on Stop the Week (that was some years ago) and have tended to avoid his other programmes as a result. But I was tempted to listen to Thinking Allowed as I wanted to know more about social sciences. It still grates a little at times but it tells me things I did not know and I am grateful for that.

Timeghost (translate it to German) is another comedy from Times Online. It starts Alan Armstrong and Ben Miller, too many credits to mention, as Craig Children and Martin Baine-Jones the pretend Times Online's arts critics, playing the windsock to the cultural wind. What this really means is that two fine comedians who know each other very well talk in an amusing way and we are allowed to eavesdrop.

The final one is Farming Today, which does exactly what it says on the tin. As with Thinking Allowed, this broadens my knowledge into realms that I do not normally venture in to. Farming Today also covers topics that impact all of us, such as the food we eat, the environment that we live in and the changing climate.

These podcasts contribute to a virtuous circle that also includes my iPods and long walks that often terminate at one of the local pubs. I think that I will go for one now!

23 December 2008

SAHB gig cancelled :-(

Hidden behind the story of the fires in Edinburgh is the even sadder news that the Sensational Alex Harvey Band were playing a concert in one of the buildings that burned down.

Nobody was hurt but the band lost their equipment and have had to abandon the gig in Brighton on Monday night that I had tickets for.

Hopefully this is a postponement rather than a cancellation.

Leeds dismiss manager McAllister

Leeds dismiss manager McAllister may not be the biggest shock of the week but I hope that it is good news. I was not that enthusiastic when he was appointed last year as I felt that he had not proved himself as a manager. I hate to be proved right and I seriously hope that our next manager can turn things around and get us promoted this year.

18 December 2008

Stunning art in 2000AD

2000AD continues to be a great read every week and I really look forward to the large white envelope arriving every Saturday.

This issue has three stories featuring regular characters, Judge Dredd, Nikolai Dante and the ABC Warriors, who are featured on the cover.

The fourth story is a quint mystery set in Edwardian England where people say things like, "What ho!". It's fun and a worthy companion to the three "main" stories.

But the main purpose of this post is to say something about the stunning artwork on ABC Warriors by Clint Langley.

The cover shows you what a treat you have in store and the inside exceeds even that expectation.

The story arc ends with a gorgeous two-page spread of Mek-Quake, the former demolition robot who likes nothing more than doing "big jobs", particularly on his former colleagues.

Sadly I cannot find a decent copy on the web anywhere and I do not have a scanner so you have to make do with a photograph, but that is good enough to show the power of the picture.

With stories and artwork like this it was an easy decision to renew my annual subscription to 2000AD and the companion publication the Judge Dredd Megazine.

17 December 2008

Hawkwind at the Astoria

The annual Hawkwind Christmas Concert was held at the Astoria, London, as usual, and I was there, as usual.

It was interesting to see them two night in a row and totally different venues. At The Brook it was up close and crowded and at the Astoria it was admiration at a distance and room to dance.

I managed to wriggle my way to the second row but the band were still some distance away, behind the crash barriers, dance area and monitors, so I concentrated on the music and only took one or two pictures.

The stage made the performance very different from the night before. We saw a lot more of the dancers and they had a lot more space to perform in. A real plus point here was the two performances on stilts, neither of which were performed at The Brook. They were especially dramatic during Sentinel as, er, sentinels.

The band also enjoyed the freedom that the extra space gave them. Tim Blake emerged from his cramped corner in to an open stage where he could perform to the crowd waving his keyboard guitar as if it was a sensible music instrument.

The set was all but identical to the previous night except that better timing allowed for two songs in the encore so we were treated to Flying Doctor as well as the closer Silver Machine.

I was taking bit of a risk seeing Hawkwind two nights in a row but it worked perfectly and I am a very happy bunny. And I have a new Hawkwind t-shirt to prove it.

16 December 2008

Hawkwind at The Brook

For the last few years I have been going to the annual Christmas Concert at the Astoria and London, and I am going this year too, but I could not miss the opportunity to see them at The Brook in Southampton as well.

I've been to The Book a couple of times to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band play and I like the intimate feel to the place.

It is quite a small venue, I believe that it holds just 450 people, and there are no crash barriers so you can get right to the front of the stage - as I always try to do.

The stage is rather high so when you do get to the front it is like lying on the floor at the feet of the band - an unusual and interesting perspective.

Hawkwind's line up changes fairly regularly, sadly most recently due to the sudden death of one of the band.

Dave Brock is at the helm, obviously, and is now joined by Tim Blake on keyboards and theremin, Mr Dibs on bass and vocals, new guitarist Niall Honeand and long serving drummer Richard Chadwick.

Dance and mime is provided by Matt and Laura, here performing during Who's Gonna Win the War; the highlight of the show for me.

The show was a trawl through the extensive Hawkwind back catalogue which picked out some expected gems (Master of the Universe) and some unexpected ones (Silver Machine), while leaving out some that were expected (Brainstorm). They also played two brand new tracks.

But expected or not and familiar or not, they all worked well individually and well together to make an impressive set that had a few high points but no low ones.

The Brook has a small stage so while that meant that I was fairly close to all of the band it also curtailed some of the visual aspects of the show.

The band was not able to move very much (not that Hawkwind are a particularly vigorous band, unlike, say, SAHB) and there was limited room for the two dancers.

This also had a positive side as when the dancers came on stage they had little option but to go right to the front in the middle, i.e. just by me. I got a close radiation scan during Damnation Alley!

But I did not go to The Brook for the dancers or to see the band move around the stage, I went to hear and see Hawkwind close up and that was a great success.

14 December 2008

Reading books on the iPod

The iPod touch keeps getting better and now I am using it to read books, something that I have not been doing much of recently.

There are several eReader applications for the iPhone/iPod but the one that I chose is called Stanza.

Stanza gives you access to several libraries where you can download thousands of books. Obviously I have only explored the free books so far but I have already found a few interesting ones that I am now reading.

A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde is already proving to be delightful. It's a collection of magical short stories about kings, princesses, mermaids, dwarfs, dreams and enchantments.

It rather reminds me of Neil Gaiman in both subject and style. And that is a good thing.

The Stanza software itself is both simple and clever. To move through the book all you do is to touch the screen on the right or left side. This may not sound much but it means that you can read the book with one hand (using your thumb to turn the pages) which is very useful when commuting.

Touching the middle of the page brings up the menu where the display settings can be changed. It is possible to modify the background colour and the font face, size, colour and alignment.

I have chosen dark green (teal) text on black as I often read in the dark. It works well.

What I really like about reading books on the iPod is that this means that I always have some books with me so, for example, I can read a chapter of The Time Machine if the pub is quiet.

Stanza has got me reading books again while pretending that I am just playing with cool technology. And that's why I love it.

13 December 2008

Building Schools for Today

Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is the UK Government's programme for rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school with the aim of raising educational standards.

I was delighted yo have the opportunity to visit one of these new schools recently when a committee that I am on held a meeting there.

First impressions are good. The entrance area has double height glass and is an open welcoming area.

The posts are for students to record their entrances and exits, no more paper registration forms. This is good technology but does give the school rather the appearance of a tube station.

These impressions quickly change when you leave the entrance area and enter the main hall/atrium, and then it looks much more like an airport.

Some constructing is still going on, and things may improve, but while the size of the space is impressive its appearance is not.

The space lacks structure and it is not clear what the purpose of any area is. There is also a confusion of materials used including the metal and wood seen here, but also terracotta bricks, blue bricks and orange plastic.

It's all rather a mess.

On the upper floors the feeling is of a typical office with grey carpet tiles and grey doors. There is nothing here that suggests that this is a school or that it has been built for the future.

I went in to some of the classrooms and was very disappointed.

They looked just like any other classroom with normal desks arranged in straight rows facing the whiteboard at the front and with the teacher's desk in a corner.

The only noticeable difference was that the classrooms were smaller than those that I am familiar with.

The unusual features of the school can be seen in this picture from the top floor looking back across the atrium.

The two curved rooms with large windows overlooking the atrium are the Learning Resource Centre (Library!) and the IT suite.

Apparently these are the cool places to sit and be seen.

The lit area on the ground floor is toilets. The pupils suggested that these open directly on to the public areas to prevent bullying etc. but I am not convinced that this is a good idea. Being bright blue and orange does not help either.

The biggest disappointment for me was the lack of any innovation or forward thinking in the teaching areas. The classrooms were normal and normally equipped, there were no other teaching spaces (apart from the end of one corridor which had a table in it) and the solid construction gives no flexibility for the future.

It seems bizarre to me to design a school that is being built for the future around technology that is just a few years old, desktop PCs and interactive whiteboard, when it is clear that the technology will change several times over the next twenty years or so, and so will teaching styles.

This school is a missed opportunity.

11 December 2008

The Best of The Saint

The Saint makes a very welcome return to print in the UK with the publication of two "best of volumes" - and just in time for Christmas too.

Each of the volumes contains a selection of Saint short stories covering his entire career of thwarting criminals and poking fun at the law, particularly Inspector Claude Eustace Teal, while enriching himself in the process.

The stories are all an excellent read and the weighty volumes (they are 800 and 600 pages long) are stupid value at a ridiculously low £6 on Amazon.

I started my Saint reading some forty years ago with an earlier collection of short stories, The First Saint Omnibus, and the new books are a good opportunity for new readers to become new fans.

9 December 2008

Good conversations on KM

Despite having worked for thirty years, I am still keen to develop my skills and knowledge and with limited opportunities within companies, where training is typically aimed at more junior roles, I tend to rely on events like the Gurteen Knowledge Cafes.

Not only are these events educational, they are also a lot of fun!

The most recent Knowledge Cafe was hosted by Deloitte in the city and three of their consultants led the discussion on the highly relevant topic of How do I know if my KM programme is effective? But that's jumping ahead a little and I should start at the beginning.

These events always start with half an hour of socialising which could also be mistaken for networking. Deloitte provided some very welcome soft drinks and nibbles which always helps people to mingle as they have to move around the room to get their refreshments. As usual I said a quick "hello" to some of the other regular cafe goers and a slower one to some new people.

After the informal socialising came the structured socialising with the usual session of "speed networking". Here you have to find somebody you do not know and have a two minute conversation with them. When the whistle blows you move on to find another new person.

It so happened that I had three conversations with Deloitte people who were there to support their own event in numbers. Which was very interesting for me as their knowledge management needs are very similar to Logica's.

The discussion was fed by three Deloitte consultants who described how each of them sought to measure the success of their KM work. In each case there were some sensible sounding suggestions made but these were then caveatted by a list of issues.

The seeds having been planted we split into groups of six (there were about sixty of us there) to discuss the subject in more detail for around fifteen minutes. Then we moved tables (randomly) to continue the conversations with different people. We changed tables twice to give us three sets of conversations.

The table changing may seem like bit of a gimmick but it works well as each table will head off in a specific direction depending on the interests and personalities of the people involved and when the shuffling happens it is always interesting to see how the previous conversations have developed and to try and build on them to start new ones.

The Cafe ends with a whole-group session. Again this sounds wrong but works. It gives people the opportunity to share a key learning point or insight that they have gained, whether or not that view had been the consensus of their table, the comments made at this stage have all emerged from earlier debate and are richer for this, and those people that do feel daunted by speaking to a large group have still had the opportunity to participate fully in the earlier conversations.

These are the main points that I made during this wrap-up session:
  • To measure the success of what you are doing you must first know where you are.
  • There are often many initiatives trying to address the same issue so it may be impossible to pin the credit on any one intervention.
  • The temptation can be to measure what can be measured, e.g. the number of hits on a web site, rather than the outcome that you are trying to achieve, e.g. winning more business.
  • Stories (case studies) may be the best way to sell a KM program but initially you do not have any of your own stories and so you need to adapt other people's, which may not always be a valid interpretation.
  • One approach is to review knowledge gaps at the end of a process (did we have, or could we find, the information we needed for this bid?) and then look to fill these gaps.
  • At some point somebody will force you to invent hard targets, e.g. to make a business case or to set personal objectives.
  • Some of the benefits will be indirect, e.g. lower staff turnover as staff are happier at work having the knowledge they need to hand.
The session ended with no firm conclusions reached but with everybody happy that they now understood the issue better and had enjoyed the conversations that got them there.

Conversations continue in the pub next door where new angles were explored on the topic and brand new topics were opened, relationships were widened and deepened, business cards were exchanged and promises made to meet at the next event in January. It's in my diary.

7 December 2008

Demonic Darkchylde

Marvel's fashion for running major storylines continues with X-Infernus featuring, just in case you had not guessed it, the X-Men.

Here we see Darkchylde looking suitably demonic in a stunning cover by Peter Finch.

She did not always look like this. Originally she was an ordinary girl, Illyana Rasputin, younger sister of Peter (Colossus).

Illyana then became Magik when her mutant powers manifested themselves and she gained the ability to teleport.

The turning point came when she was stranded in Limbo, the realm next to Hell, for what was just a few moments in our world but was several years in Limbo.

Her story gets even more complicated after that but we get to the situation where Illyana has become Darkchylde and is the ruler of Limbo.

I am looking forward to reading the X-Infernus story soon but in the meantime I'll enjoy the fantastic cover art.

4 December 2008

Back to the V&A

Events conspired to take me to South Kensington so I jumped at the opportunity to pop in to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), as I always do.

I headed first for the Madejski Garden because I knew that there was a new audio-visual display there. This is Forever and is by Universal Everything.

It was very cold so I was one of the few people who ventured outside to fully appreciate the work. I liked the way that the patterns of light changed, the way that they were reflected in the water and the contrast with the traditional architecture of the garden square.

The music that accompanied the lights was electronic ambient, which is good because I like electronic ambient.

The Madejski Garden is meant to be an oasis of tranquillity in what is typically a bustling museum and it succeeds admirably.

One section that I always visit is the small architecture display. I also used to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright room (which was very hard to find) but this has been mothballed to make room for something else. I hope it comes back one day.

Off the small architecture room is an even smaller room that is used for exhibitions. I was delighted to find that it currently hosts The Olympic Stadium Project - Le Corbusier and Baghdad.

This display examines one of the last projects by Le Corbusier, begun in 1957, his fascinating design for a sports stadium in Baghdad. The stadium was to be part of a larger complex of sports facilities, originally the basis of Baghdad's bid for the 1960 Olympics.

With specially commissioned models and several drawings and sketches, it gives a sense of what this marvellous structure would have looked like had the project come to fruition.

With some free time left I then went on a general explore. At one point I found a room full of musical instruments which I do not recall seeing before and am not sure that I could find again.

At its best the V&A combines the elements of Gormenghast and Hogwarts to bring a sense of grandeur, vastness, magic and mystery. It would be a truly wonderful place even if it was empty.

But it is not empty and it has, amongst many assorted things, a collection of silverware, including this fierce statue.

Silverware is not really my thing but, for me, the V&A gets it just right with a display that is not too large and contains an eclectic mix of items.

It's the unexpected surprises at both the macro level (finding a new room) and the micro level (individual items) that makes such a constant joy for me. I'll be back soon.

3 December 2008

KATA quarterly meeting

December's KATA meeting was enlivened by the availability of draught Black Sheep but subdued by the chairman's health which means that he has to contribute less to the society that he formed and has led for 17 years.

We are looking at how we cope with this, if we can, and, from experience, I suspect that I will be putting my hand up to volunteer for doing more than just running the KATA website. KATA continues to be a very useful organisation that promotes the interested of the broad spectrum of public transport users (e.g. as opposed to a bus users group) and publicises information about transport services. I hope that we do carry on.

Most of the discussion at the meeting was about buses. This is not unusual as there are a large number of routes through Kingston, the services keep changing (usually for the better) and many of our members made the livelihoods working with buses.

The most recent changes to bus services involve the somewhat unromantic S3, K4 and X26.

While some aspects of the future of KATA are less than certain, there will be another quarterly meeting in March and I am looking forward to being there.

1 December 2008

Protest and Private View

The Vaclav Havel season at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond upon Thames continues with the another double bill, Protest and Private View.

In Protest, Vanek, a semi-autobiographical dissident writer who appears in both of these plays, visits a former colleague and they discuss the effectiveness of protest under the repressive regime.

As with Audience shown earlier in the series, the play is simply a dialogue between the two players in which aspects of live under the regime are explored.

The highlight of the play is when Vanek's colleague thinks out loud about the pros and cons of him signing a protest letter.

Signing would end his career within the regime but would make him feel morally right, it would add to the weight of the protest but may detract from the protest itself, it might actually have an impact but would stop him from being able to work behind the scenes, etc. etc.

In the end this dilemma is unsatisfactorily solved when the need for the protest goes with the release of the person concerned. Also somewhat unsatisfactory is the timid Vanek who does not come across as a leader of the protest movement. His suit also looked far too tidy for any Czech of that period, let alone a dissident. I suspect that some of these factors were down to the direction rather than the acting as they were repeated in the second play which had somebody else playing Vanek.

But the dissatisfaction with the ending does not seriously detract from what has gone before and Protest offers a compelling insight to life under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia.

While Private View is also a Vanek play it is more akin to Mountain Hotel with its vacuous characters, humour and repetitive dialogue.

Vanek gets a private view of some friends' recently refurbished flat and is encouraged to admire their perfect lives, which include good taste, clever children, good cooking and good sex.

The regime is outside of the door, and is hinted at, but does not intrude into their world.

As the evening goes on the veneer of the perfect lives fades and the couple plead for Vanek to stay to add some real purpose to their existence. When he refuses at first their professed love for him turns to anger then rage until he relents and stays.

Here the characterisations and the humorous dialogue successfully carry the play to its conclusion and we get a good contrast to the first play and a winning combination.

30 November 2008

I was on Lead Balloon!

OK, so it was only briefly in a crowd scene but I was there!

This is a screen shot from Fax, episode 3 series 3 of the highly recommended Jack Dee comedy Lead Balloon.

It shows Jack, as Rick Spleen, taking part in a radio show in front of a real audience. I was there because I had been to see a recording of The Now Show and they asked the audience to stay on and play the audience in this scene.

I am in the front row on the right wearing a rather lovely Liberty shirt which the lighting does no justice to :-(

29 November 2008

Strange boat

On a fairly rare shopping trip in to Kingston town centre last week I spotted this strange boat moored on the Hampton Wick side next to Kingston Bridge.

The only time that I have ever seen a boat anything like this one before was in the excellent Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies" which featured a futuristic stealth boat invisible to the navy's radar.

Incidentally, the Hamburg night club featured in that film was actually the main IBM UK office at Bedfont Lakes, near Heathrow.

I was based there at the time and the office I worked in was just by the place that Bond broke into the club. I first saw this part of the film in a trailer shown in the Planet Hollywood in Disneyland Paris (where I was for an IBM event).

26 November 2008

Struggling to find something nice in Kingston

Every other year the Kingston upon Thames Society presents Townscape Awards in recognition of new buildings, landscaping and artworks that in the Society's view have done the most to enhance Kingston.

The Awards were launched in 1989 and since then more than 50 developments have earned the right to display the Society's coveted certificate of townscape merit.

Society members (like myself) can nominate any scheme that completed in the previous two years and then the committee selects six of these to receive awards.

This year's selection shows just how bad things are in Kingston as they included the refurbishment of a sixties office block that looks like a refurbished sixties office block, a new hospital unit that looks just like any other new commercial building and the refurbishment of a Victorian clock tower.

That is not to say that any of these are poor developments but I feel that if this is the very best that Kingston has produced over the last two years then that is a pretty sorry state of affairs.

The one scheme that did strike me as being worthy of recognition was the rebuilt Chessington Community College, the large secondary school that serves the south of the borough.

I'll admit that it is interesting rather than stunning and only looks modern because nothing else in Kingston does, but given the scope and purpose of the townscape awards it most definitely deserved to win one.

I cannot comment yet on how effective it is as a building but I hope to have a better idea of that next week as I have a Kingston Schools Forum meeting there.

24 November 2008

I'm a "doer" - apparently

Typealyzer's assessment of my writing style in this blog is:
ESTP - The Doers

The active and playful type. They are especially attuned to people and things around them and often full of energy, talking, joking and engaging in physical out-door activities.

The Doers are happiest with action-filled work which craves their full attention and focus. They might be very impulsive and more keen on starting something new than following it through. They might have a problem with sitting still or remaining inactive for any period of time.
This is based on what I have written, rather than what I do, so it is not that surprising that the results are mixed when compared to my own self-perception (which, of course, can also be wrong).

"Engaging in physical out-door activities" is not me, except for walking which is not that physical, but "very impulsive and more keen on starting something new than following it through" seems pretty fair to me. The picture presented with the analysis looks nothing like me though!

23 November 2008

Winter Warmer

One of the few things to look forward to as the evenings get darker, colder and wetter is the prospect of a good seasonal beer at the end of the walk through the dark, cold and wet.

Young's Winter Warmer is an established winter brew and becomes my beer of choice in the many Young's pubs locally, replacing the usual "ordinary". A little care is required though, as the ordinary is only 3.7% proof but the Winter Warmer is a more relaxing 5.0%.

Other local seasonal beers of note include Fuller's Jack Frost (4.5%) and Twickenham Fine Ales' Strong & Dark (5.2%). Must go out now and try a few!

20 November 2008

My local blog is in the local newspaper

For almost two years now I have been creating an on-line archive of photos of the area that I live in. There are various reasons for this but the main one was because I could not find any local photos anywhere else.

Many of the pictures capture beautiful buildings and wild open spaces, and others capture the changes that are taking place, such as new houses and shop fronts.

Among these changes have been various schemes that are meant to improve the area but which are gradually replacing the wild areas with formal constructions and urbanity.

One of our local newspapers, the Richmond and Twickenham Times, has picked up on this and run a story based on what I have said in this blog. Hopefully a few more people will realise what is going on locally and will start to do something about it.

19 November 2008

Beer, rugby and more beers

For reasons that are too complicated to go to here, I found myself watching the recent rugby internationals in an Australian pub in Covent Garden, London wearing a Wales rugby shirt.

I was with a friend of mine from my time working in Prague around 15 years ago and a group of twenty other people who were tempted by the prospect of beers and rugby. It proved to be a good mix!

The pub had free wi-fi so I was able to email friends in South Africa and Australia at half-time to crow and again at full-time to bemoan the local team's bad luck as, on the day, England, Scotland and Ireland all lost to southern hemisphere opponents. At least Wales had beated Canada the day before :-)

18 November 2008

New business cards

An interesting conversation with new people normally ends with me scribbling down one of my URLs on the back of a business card so I thought that it was about time that I got some new cards with the main URLs printed on it, and here it is.

It still has my email address and mobile number on it but there is no postal address, because nobody uses this.

Instead, it has the best websites for keeping in touch with me and with what I am doing. These websites are LinkedIn, Twitter and this blog (Ham Life). From here people can get to all my other web stuff easily.

The on-line service that I used had a wide selection of styles to choose from, let me add a photo and allowed me to tailor the colours and fonts, to produce a unique card that I am very pleased with.

I got 250 cards with a metal carrying case for £10, which is a very small price to pay for improving my network of contacts.

16 November 2008

Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican

My plan to take advantage of the many cultural delights that London has to offer is coming on rather well and reached a high point recently with a visit to the Barbican Centre to see the ballet Romeo and Juliet.

The Barbican is one of London's architectural marvels, combining high-density housing, a school and the arts centre with car-free walkways, interesting open spaces that feature a lot of water and quiet places to sit and enjoy the plants.

The Barbican is a joy to walk through and there is nowhere else in London quite like it.

The proposal for the Barbican was first put in 1955 and it finally opened in 1982. This means that it has all the modern facilities that you would expect from an arts centre.

It has a main theatre, other smaller theatres that are normally used for films, a gallery, lots of friendly communal spaces and a number of bars and restaurants.

And, unlike the older theatres that predominate in London, it is designed for today's people so the seats have plenty of leg room and you can easily see over the heads of the people in the row in front of you.

I had seen the ballet Romeo and Juliet before, something like twenty years ago, but I was attracted to see it again because this version was by choreographer Mark Morris.

I first came across Mark Morris' work on the South Bank Show and enjoyed his angular approach to dance that makes as much use of the shapes that the dancers make as it does of their movement.

I next came across Mark Morris when he did the choreography for the dance scene at the end of Mozart's Idomeneo for a production that I saw at Glyndebourne in 2003. The dancing there delighted me greatly.

Incidentally, that performance was rather very special as it was produced by l'enfant terrible of opera, Peter Sellars, and the orchestra was conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

This new production of Romeo and Juliet featured the original Prokofiev score and his original happy ending. But the story is just a frame to hang the music and dance on to and it plays a minor role in this production.

The simple staging allowed the action to flow from grand hall, to bedroom, to town square, to balcony to priory, etc. without intruding on the dancing.

While there are clearly two main roles played by the two main dancers, what stood out for me was the intricate ensemble dancing which made big shapes, mostly squares, and had action all over the stage.

I particularly enjoyed the wild aerial arm movements made by the crowd as they followed the prince through Verona.

The touching and believable relationship between Romeo and Juliet contrasted wonderfully with the ensemble dancing and gave us scenes of relative calm (fewer dancers and less violent movement) but higher passion.

The various components of the evening came together majestically to make this one of the most delightful shows that I have ever seen. It was just fantastic.

15 November 2008

Sandman: The Dream Hunters #1

The much anticipated, and not just by me, first issue of Sandman: The Dream Hunters proved to be just as gorgeous as I hoped.

The Neil Gaiman story is fairly simple and fits squarely into his familiar territory of magic and myths.

That is not meant to belittle it at all as an "average" Neil Gaiman story is well worth reading, and the simplicity and slowness of the plot allows both the prose and art to flourish imaginatively.

And imaginative artwork is most definitely where P Craig Russell has always triumphed!

The first picture here is the cover which sets the scene. We have Neil Gaiman's version of the Sandman and that tells us that this story involves the world of dreams.

We also see the fox, one of the main characters in the story.

But most of all, we see trees contorted in to delicate shapes and rich pink blossom that contrasts with the dark blue background and makes the scene tranquil and enticing.

Further in to the story we are treated to this page of artwork, taken from P Craig Russell's own web site and showing the art before the lettering is added.

Here the first thing we notice is the unusual layout of the panels, rather a change from the square panel layout the most of us grew up with in comics like the Beano.

We also notice that not much happens, there is little dialogue and no discernible action.

So we linger and look at the art work more closely and then we see exquisite detail, subtle colours and imaginative shapes. And demons. Without knowing the author or what the story is about we can tell that this is something that we are going to enjoy reading.

The bad news is that I now have to wait a month for issue 2 and the worse news is that there are only four issues altogether.

14 November 2008

Lead Balloon is back

TV comedy is still pretty poor these days, particularly on the main channels, so it is good to see Lead Balloon back for a third series.

Jack Dee plays a comedy script writer who is very self-centred and tries to manoeuvre thinks in his favour but they do not just go wrong, they go seriously wrong.

But while Rick's inevitable downfall gives structure to the programmes, the comedy comes from Jack Dee's dead-pan delivery of very funny lines, which is how he got famous in the first place.

Lead Balloon is a hidden gem that keeps those of us who have discovered it seriously amused. Try it.

10 November 2008

Telling stories with numbers, telling stories with words

As a mathematician by training, and inclination, who is employed to exploit words, a talk entitled "Telling stories with numbers, telling stories with words" was always going to interesting.

I was also interested in the possible Knowledge Management (KM) connections as story telling has been a hot topic there for some years.

But let's start with the geeky stuff first. The map shown here is taken from my iPod touch. When at home and on the wi-fi network I can use the maps application to find out where I am going and then save that map as a photograph so that I can access it later when offline. Simple, but very useful.

The talk was hosted by the Royal Society and was in the form of a conversation between Mark Haddon (author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) and Marcus du Sautoy (ubiquitous maths guy) on the similarities and differences between their two practices.

I am not sure that I agree with all of their observations but it was interesting to hear how they see things.

The main difference between the two was that story telling with words was seen as a open world where gaps are left deliberately for the reader's imagination to fill and where the story never really ends whereas as mathematics has to be precise so that all readers get the same message and the story ends with a firm statement, e.g. a proof.

The point was also well made that the mathematics invented (or discovered, perhaps) by the Ancient Greeks is still used today, and always will be, whereas their stories are mostly forgotten.

From a KM perspective, the aim of literature seemed almost to be the antithesis of KM in that the aim is to have uncertainty but in maths it was interesting to hear Marcus du Sautoy describe how he goes from having his original ideas, to sharing them with a small number of people who can understand what he is on about (the arm waving stage) and then writing them down in an academic paper that any mathematician can understand.

Like all good conversations it was inconclusive but it was well worth listening to for an hour and it gave the 200 or so eavesdroppers a few things to think about.

9 November 2008

My newest jacket

This is my newest jacket, bought this morning.

You might think that it is just the same as the one I bought a couple of weeks ago but you would be very wrong. That one was dark grey whereas this one is dark green.

It also cost 1/3rd less because the other one was in the sale and this one was in the end-of-the-sale sale when prices are reduced even further.

Now I just need to get a few more Liberty print shirts and my wardrobe will be complete.

8 November 2008

Piggy Goes Oink (yet again)

I first wrote about Piggy Goes Oink, one of my very favourite episodes of Two Pints ... a couple of years ago and I am pleased to say that BBC Three still has the good sense to carry on repeating Two Pints ... endlessly and I still watch it whenever I can.

I watched it again last night.

Piggy Goes Oink is episode 2 of series 4 which is in the middle of what I think of the golden period of Two Pints ... that goes from near the end of series 3 through to episode 6 of series 4, Mate Date, which is my absolute favourite episode.

Now BBC Three is being very frustrating because they are not showing the rest of series 4 but, instead, are jumping to the beginning of series 5!? But the good news is that there are strong rumours of an eighth series :-)

7 November 2008

Two Havel plays

The Vaclav Havel season continues with a double bill of two very different plays, Audience and Mountain Hotel.

Audience is the first of Havel's semi-autobiographical plays about a playwright made to work in a brewery during the communist oppression.

Obviously this means a lot more to my Czech friends who were there in 1968 but in the meeting between the brewery worker and his manager we learn the the informer is as much a victim of the regime as the informed on.

The play has little action and only two players (pictured) but is successfully carried by the dialogue in which the passion and intensity rises.

The second play is a whimsical contrast that has echoes of Leaving, the latest Havel play that opens and closes the season. Mountain Hotel plays on repetition as a number of hotel guests repeat their conversations in scene after scene. These repetitions change gradually and some of the roles are changed as the same lines are repeated by different players.

It brought to mind Havel's spoken comment in Leaving about having problems remembering who is on stage at any one time and I am sure that Mountain Hotel was one of the plays that he was thinking about when he said this.

One feature that I liked is that the two actors from the first play had almost non speaking roles in this one where they had whispered conversations leading to uproarious laughter.

This repetition with variations (helped by the Philip Glass music used during the scene changes) builds to a crescendo and ends with the who casts on stage repeating lines almost randomly.

Building a play around repetitive movement and dialogue makes a change from the more usual dependence on plot and character but that just makes it a different sort of play and I found it to be both interesting and entertaining.

6 November 2008

Wanted in multiple forms

Mark Millar is one of the hottest writers in comics today but I managed to miss his Wanted series when it came out in 2003, probably because it was published by one of the smaller companies, Top Cow.

The film Wanted from earlier this year was harder to miss as some of the action shots in the trailer were very clever and it starred Angelina Jolie.

Now the film is available on DVD and the comic has been issued with the same cover art (pictured). I watched the film and then read the comic a few days later.

As with most film adaptations of books and comics, there is a something of a lose relationship between the two plots but I do not mind that as the attributes of the two media are quite different. For example, curving the flight of a bullet works well in the film (because you can see the motion) but would be a pointless effect in a comic.

I see little point in comparing the two as they are so different, instead I prefer to consider each on their own.

The comic is fairly typical Mark Millar with strong confident characters, sub-plots of treachery and intrigue and a fairly relentless pace. While I can appreciate the techniques used, and I enjoy some of his other work a lot (e.g. Ultimates), there is something unsatisfactory about the comic and it lacks substance. I cannot imagine myself ever wanting to read it again.

The film, however, is just fantastic for so may reasons. The plot is more realistic and more subtle, the actions scenes are great but do not dominate the film, and there are some nice comic touches too, such as when a keyboard is smashed into a man's face and the keys (and a tooth) fly off to spell "F#ck you". I will be watching the film again soon.