30 April 2008

Music to move to

The new album from Portishead, Third, is a very welcome addition to my collection in what has been a fairly quiet few months for new albums, apart from obvious latest releases from Radiohead, Sigur Ros and P J Harvey.

Third rocks, in a trip-hop electro-funk sort of way. It beats and growls and purrs its way through eleven tracks in a compelling way that gets you moving feet, hands and head without realising that you are doing it. The sudden change of mood half way through The Rip is worth the admission price alone.

Having played Third a few times in a row on my iPod touch I am now back to using my iPod Shuffle for listening to music during the day where Third joins a mixed collection of albums that includes: Black Sabbath, Vol. 4; Blondie, Blondie; Brett Anderson, Brett Anderson; Neil Young, Chrome Dreams II; Hawkwind, The Emergency Broadcast System Samples; Sparks, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins; Sigur Rós, Heim/Hvarf; John Watts, It Has To Be; Queen, Sheer Heart Attack; Marc Bolan & T.Rex, The Slider; The Tea Party, Splendor Solis; PJ Harvey, White Chalk; Rush, 2112.

Looking at that list in the cold light of day makes me realise just how much I still like the music from the 70s!

28 April 2008

Beers, lots of beers

I am an occasional visitor to beer festivals and have been to the London Drinker Beer & Cider Festival in Camden and the Great British Beer Festival in Earls Court several times, so it was good to be able to go to one closer to home.

The beer festival at The Willoughby Arms is a lot of fun. It obviously has fewer beers than the larger festivals but 40 to choose from is more than enough for most people so that is not an issue.

The big positive point is that it is held in a regular pub, and a good pub at that, rather than a cavernous hall. Put simply, your local pub goes from having a few good real ales to choose from to having 40, and that is clearly a good thing.

I tried a couple of beers new to me (most of them I had not had before, despite my best endeavours in that direction) and then settled on Ranmore Ale from Surrey Hills.

Overall it was an excellent event, and I only have to wait until Halloween for the next one!

27 April 2008

Batman #675

Most of the comics that I read are from Marvel but I do also read a few from DC, including the main Batman title.

Batman is possibly the best super hero in comics because he is many things at the same time; he's a brilliant detective, a vengeful vigilante, a frivolous playboy, a successful business executive and he does all this without any super powers.

The latest issue has this stunning cover by Tony Daniel, who also did the interior artwork, which captures the "dark night" aspect of the character beautifully.

The same can be said by the current writer, Grant Morrison, who is, justifiably, one of the current stars of comics, and he's British!

26 April 2008

Heroes Season 2

Heroes Season 2 started this week and is, obviously, must-see TV. It is very early days to make judgements but all the good bits are already there from Season 1.

In particular, we have absolutely no idea what is going on but there are lots of people doing lots of weird things that do not seem to be remotely connected at the moment but we know that they are.

At least this time we have the advantage of knowing some of the characters from the beginning so it is not quite as confusing as Season 1 :-)

22 April 2008

Just say no?

The best thing about living in Ham is that a large part of it is still natural grass lands and woods. The white spaces in this map are all green. So it was with some dismay that I learnt of plans to "improve" some of the lovely narrow, muddy and crooked paths, shown by the colour lines in the map above. The good news is that they are consulting first but the bad news is that this is how Richmond Council are doing it.

You may have noticed that there is not a "no" option on the consultation form. So I sent them this email instead.
I use the various paths in Ham several times a week and am strongly opposed to any further work. The beauty of Ham is its natural open spaces which the Council and other agencies are gradually destroying. Tax payers' money is being spent to make things worse. The new Great South Avenue is barren, Hammerton’s Boardwalk is over engineered, the footpath along Church Road is ugly, the swathe cut through Ham Lands to extend the sight-line from Star and Garter is simple vandalism and there is far too much mowing.

Ham provides a welcome natural respite from the urban landscape, please leave it alone.
I do not honestly expect them to listen, but I had to try.

21 April 2008

The Hulk's saga continues

The majestic Hulk saga continues.

It started with him being sent (through trickery) to another planet to protect Earth, leading a rebellion on that planet with his war bound allies, then seeking revenge on those that sent him away (in World War Hulk) and now with the Hulk back in human form (as Dr Bruce Banner) it is left to his former allies to continue the story.

One of these is Hercules (the actual Greek demi-god) and for the moment the main Hulk book has been renamed The Incredible Hercules. Here we see him fighting Ikaris of The Eternals.

The stunning cover of the latest issue was drawn by John Romita Jr. who drew both World War Hulk and The Eternals mini-series (2006).

As long as they carry on producing comics this good I'll carry on reading them!

20 April 2008

The Now Show (again)

This week's visit to a recording of The Now Show was a triumph of planning. We achieved our two main objectives (eating in Pizza Express beforehand and getting seats in the front row), our secondary objective (getting one of our jokes read out during the audience question section) and also our tertiary objective (getting one of our jokes broadcast).

The mixed news was that Hugh Dennis was missing (Boo!) because he was recording the second series of Outnumbered (Hooray!).

He was replaced this week by Jon Culshaw (Dead Ringers etc.) which was an interesting change as Jon is much better at voices whereas Hugh live is really funny (the famous raptor impressions etc.) but, obviously, a lot of this is missed by the radio audience.

For a show that bills itself as "Everything that's now, nothing that's then" it continues to have some surprisingly old references. Last time we saw them there was a parody of The Goons' Ying Tong Song and this time it was Julian and Sandy from Round the Horne. I'm old enough to get these jokes but anybody under 40 would probably be lost (do people younger than 40 listen to Radio 4?!).

The show was, as always, funnier and longer live which is why it is so worth going to see it being recorded.

18 April 2008

A century of architecture

The Kingston upon Thames Society's latest talk was on The Architecture of the Last Hundred years and was given by George Perkin MBE, a local architect and long-time editor of an architecture magazine.

The talk was a cascade of images from the last hundred years that George Perkin added his knowledgeable insights to. He also added his own views which seemed to coincide with most of the audience, which is perhaps not too surprising when most of them were also late middle-aged and/or architects. I agreed to a lesser extent but not enough to make the talk annoying.

We agreed that buildings like the Sydney Opera House, Centre Point and the Stockwell Bus Garage are worthy additions to the physical environment but he likes the Royal Opera House, Richmond Riverside and Victorian architecture, I don't as a rule, and he does not like Lloyds of London or the original building that is now the Atheneum Hotel in Picaddilly, both of which I think are magnificent.

Most of the talk was about the appearance of building and little was said about the internal
function which, obviously, drives the form so I felt at time that we were only getting half of the story. The other mystery, not a new one, was why some blocks of flats work and others proved to be so disastrous that they had to be pulled down just a few decades after being built.

Architecture is a subjective matter so it is no surprise that a talk like this will provoke some disagreements and that does not detract from a marvellous talk like this one was.

16 April 2008

My Tweet Cloud

Twitter is a unique application for "micro-blogging" and has quickly become an essential component of on-line publishing for geeks like me who spread our thoughts all over the web.

The thing I like most about it is that it is easy to follow what other people are doing and, through this, to respond in almost real-time to events. I am following six people currently, including 10 Downing Street!

The other main benefit is that it can feed other websites that display your status, which is why mine on Facebook always start, "Matthew is twittering: ...". It also feeds sites like Plaxo and MyBlogLog so I need only publish my current status once on Twitter for everything else to get updated.

And if that was not cool enough, we now have Tweet Clouds that summarize all your tweets in a tag cloud, like mine shown above. (Why is "working" the largest word?!). The Tweet Cloud is generated as a web page which gives more information, i.e. how often each work is used. Apparently I have used "working" 73 times!

15 April 2008

Disapointing architecture, but not in the north

As somebody with an amateur interest in architecture I was really looking forward to the new series on BBC 2, Dan Cruickshank's Adventures... in Architecture, simply because it has the word "architecture" in the title and having Dan Cruikshank doing the arm waving gives the programme some gravitas.

Sadly it has not so far (after two episodes) lived up to expectations. Again the reason is simple, there is little architecture in it. Instead the programme concentrates on the life styles and habits of different people with means that it is more like the sort of programme that you would like Michael Palin to do.

A much more rewarding look at architecture came from the recent two parter Magnetic North from Jonathan Meades in which he "travels from the flatlands of Flanders to Germany's spectacular Baltic coast in an attempt to decipher exactly what northernness entails."

Not only was this a more interesting, entertaining and intellectual programme but the subject matter, the architecture of northern Europe, is one that particularly interests me. Indeed, the main triumph of the programme was that it explained to me how the architectural style developed and why it appeals. It also added a few more cities to my "must visit" list.

14 April 2008

BT Broadband ~ is the end in sight?

Numerous phone calls and emails all failed to fix the problems with the broadband upgrade that I ordered in June 2007 but a few hours after cancelling my direct debit, BT called me (from the UK), apologised, fixed the problem and paid me a little compensation for the hassle :-)

11 April 2008

Touch Me, I'm Karen Taylor

On Thursday I took advantage of living within walking distance of the Pinewood studios at Teddington Lock to go and see a recording of the second series of Touch Me, I'm Karen Taylor which is shown on BBC Three.

The BBC says, "this fresh new sketch show offers a raunchy look at modern life – as seen through Karen's own irreverent and lascivious eyes", which I would not argue with.

The sketches are more about situations (late night TV, on-line dating, etc.) rather than characters (in contrast to shows like Little Miss Jocelyn) and the perspective is certainly raunchy; she talks about her "tits" a lot, that's the word she uses. She also uses other words that it would be unwise to use in a blog!

The good news is that it is genuinely funny. I particularly liked the video profile for a dating service where the prospective date said that she liked smoking dope all day and then her phone goes and she answers it with, "Hello. Broadband technical help desk. " The laugh that got from the audience shows how much Karen understand the world we live in and some of the insanities we put up with.

The only minor gripe I had with the show was that the jackpot question on the 3am quiz show was the calculation square root of minus 2. OK, I'd not expect somebody who phones early morning quiz shows to know the answer but when, to make the point, the warm up man put the question to the real audience it was enthusiastically agreed that negative numbers do not have square roots. I did not feel that it was the sort of audience that would appreciate being told that root -2 is 1.41i so I kept quite while feeling sad at the general level of knowledge of mathematics in this country.

Touch Me, I'm Karen Taylor is the third comedy I have seen recorded at Teddington in the last year or so but is the only one that I will bother to watch when it is shown on TV.

9 April 2008

Still strugging with BT Broadband

I am still struggling with BT Broadband following my "upgrade" in July.

The good news is that the non-connecting PC issue resolved itself when the PC in question died of other causes. The bad news is that BT have still not managed to get the billing right and my recent philanthropic gesture has backfired.

I am getting regular emails from BT telling me that I have exceeded my monthly usage allowance and that I will have to pay for the extra but I can avoid this in future by upgrading to BT Total Broadband Option 3. Equally regularly I write to them reminding them that I am on Option 3 and they need to get their act together. They have yet to do so and that battle continues.

While all this was going on I agreed to open up my home wireless network and make it available to others as part of BT Openzone. The benefit to me was that I could then use BT Openzone at other locations, particularly useful for an iPod touch owner.

This seemed to work and I could see both networks but the connection speed on my private network was a lot lower than on the Openzone one. This was not practicable for the high use I make of broadband at home so I called BT to try and get it fixed. BT seemed to think that the best way to do this was to give an operator in India remote control of my PC but this failed as the connection speed was too slow, i.e. the problem they were trying to fix stopped them from fixing the problem.

At the end of the aborted call to India it was suggested that I call another number to speak to the Openzone team directly but as they were the people who told me to call the Broadband team in the first place I decided against this. I removed myself from the BT Openzone instead.

That has not worked out either! BT were quick to remove my free access to Openzone but have not yet disabled the service so the network is still running off my router but I cannot connect to it.

I am about to cancel my direct debit with BT (why didn't I do this earlier?!) so that I can stop paying for the service that I am not getting and perhaps then the mounting debt will force them into fixing the problem.

I have considered transferring to another provider but with so many devices (at least 8) connected to the current wireless network I don't want to risk a break in service. I'd rather owe BT lots of money instead!

6 April 2008

Snow on Ham Common

Snow is such an usual occurrence here that I had to go out for a walk in it and to take some pictures. This is Ham Common taken from the south-east corner looking north-west. The clump of trees on the left of the picture are around the pond and the line of trees on the right of the picture are part of the avenue of trees that leads all the way to Ham House.

Sadly, but predictably, the snow lasted a short time and was gone by midday.

5 April 2008

Secret Invasion #1

Marvel Comics is really on top form with three epics running in the Hulk, X-Men and Avengers lines. Secret Invasion is the third of these and the illustration is the cover of issue #1 which shows the Avengers as Skrulls, the shape-shifting aliens who have been part of the Marvel Universe for many years.

The Secret Invasion is the invasion of Earth by the Skrulls who have taken the place of some notable people. This was discovered when Elektra was killed in New Avengers and she reverted to her natural Skrull form. Now the questions are how many other people are really Skrulls, when were they replaced and what is the Skrulls' plan?

Not a question is whether to read the comic or not. The story is epic is scale, time and impact and is superbly delivered by Brian Michael Bendis (words) and Leinil Yu (art). At a time when comics have so much to offer this series still manages to stand out.

4 April 2008

Chains of Dew at the Orange Tree

Clashes with work trips abroad caused me to miss the last few shows at the Orange Tree in Richmond but normal service was finally resumed this week when I went to see Chains of Dew by Susan Glaspell.

The main theme is about the clash between east coast vivacity and mid-west cosiness in 1920s America and the play brings out both the comedy and the trauma of this conflict.

At the end you find that you have spent most of the evening laughing but you feel as though the story was rather sad and that nobody won but some people lost.

As usual, the play made good use of being staged in the round to engage with the audience. When friends came around to visit we were sitting in the room with them.

Also as usual, the acting was good and, in some cases, excellent. The Guardian review gives credit where credit is due to cast and director and I would like to add my own praise for Katie McGuinness (country wife), on the far right of the picture, who produced a heart-wrenching performance just as she did in Nan last year.

2 April 2008

I'm enjoying The Apprentice

The Apprentice is definitely must-see TV and while we are only two shows in to the new series it is already looking very good. And don't forget it's sister programme, You're Fired, which interviews the person fired that week and gives more insights to the tasks and the teams.

What I like most about the programme is that there is real business in it, i.e. it is about buying, selling, pricing, invoicing, marketing, product design, etc. As a result, the programme informs as well as entertains. This is in marked contrast to the American (original) version of the programme which focuses almost entirely on in the in-team bitching and largely ignores the actual task.

The only problem is that the BBC have pitched The Apprentice against the also must-see programme Dan Cruickshank's Adventures in Architecture, on BBC 2, which has to go on the recorder to be savoured later.