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.

3 November 2008

Playing chess again

A recent, and very successful, feature of technology platforms like Facebook and the iPhone is applications that allow developers to significantly enrich the already impressive environments.

Thanks to the Facebook chess application I am now playing again, including two concurrent games (one with each colour) against somebody I first played about 35 years ago at the Weymouth Chess Club.

I lose almost all of those games but I win most of my others and am now ranked in the top 500 players, out of a total of just over 30,000 :-)

Here is one of my recent wins. I am white and am materially well in front but can you see the wining move?

2 November 2008

My new jacket

I used to rely on two leather jackets for my cold weather casual wear but one of them decayed and had to be put of its misery and I had to look for another one.

I found this unremarkable but perfect for the job Bomber Jacket in UNIQLO. They did not have my size in store but I was able to get one online.

It then occurred to me that this was the first casual jacket that I had bought in the UK for over 25 years!

The (now dead) brown leather jacket was bought on holiday in Tunisia; my green cotton jacket with wide lapels was bought when working in Prague in an attempt to look more like a native; and the blue leather jacket that tries to look like an old denim jacket was an emergency buy in Vienna when it turned out to be much colder than I had packed for.

1 November 2008

Happy Halloween!

Where better to be on Halloween than in a lively pub that is holding a beer festival and has green witches behind the bar?!

This is just what the Willoughby Arms offered and it proved to be a great night.

Some of the beers I tried this time were Knobber, Blonde, Golden Pride, Strange Brew and Four Grains. An interesting mix and all good.

Sadly there is a limit to how much beer I can drink and so I had to leave the party just in time to have missed the last bus home by about an hour - luckily it was not raining and I had an iPod with me.

There's a good chance I'll be back down the Willoughby this evening :-)