29 April 2009

Thinking about text and TVs

The latest Gurteen Knowledge Cafe was hosted by the British Computer Society (BCS) and was on "Imagining the knowledge technologies of the future".

The evening started in the familiar Gurteen way (if it works well, why change it?) with some unstructured networking time fuelled by soft drinks and biscuits before we moved into the large meeting room to find a friendly looking table to join.

The formal part of the evening started with three sessions of speed networking where we are forced to make contact with people we had not met before. For some reason each Knowledge Cafe attracts many first-time attendees so while there are many regulars (myself included) there are always plenty of new people to meet.

In my sessions I met Madeline (knowledge manager for a law firm), Laila (operations manager for a small systems integration company) and Ian (a young geek).

The session on future technologies was introduced by three BCS members Alan Pollard (President), Conrad Taylor (Gurteen regular) and Chris Yapp.

They gave some examples of how knowledge technologies have changed over the years and also some examples of things that have been predicted but not yet happened (e.g. ubiquitous speech recognition and effective virtual collaboration) before leaving us to take the topic in any direction that we wanted on our individual tables of 5-6 people.

After 20 minutes or so there was a break and some people moved tables. This happened again after another 20 minutes so that we each had three sessions on the topic with different people, thus allowing us to get different perspectives on the same subject.

The final session brought us all back into one group and anybody who wanted to share something from their discussions with everybody could do so. It is not necessary to speak in this session and most people are happy just to take away their own thoughts on what they have learnt.

To show the range of the conversations that had been had I'll give an example of somebody else's thoughts before adding my own. One table came up with the concept of a virtual angel that can be summoned to help you with all sorts of life issues, including love. This concept was slightly ruined for me because I had recently watched Disclosure (for the umpteenth time) in which Michael Douglas goes into a virtual environment where the help function is manifested as a rather dubious looking angel.

My thoughts were, unusually for me, rather technical and covered text and television.

My first table started talking about Human-Computer Interaction (somebody else had just watched Total Recall) and it soon became clear that text is still the major way that we share information and is likely to remain so for some time but the technology to support it is old and no longer fit for purpose. We all know that the qwerty keyboard was designed to slow typists down yet we all still use them.

Resistance to change is clearly an issue here as some better text technologies have been developed but have not been widely adopted. I recall a one-handed keyboard with just five buttons winning an award on Tomorrow's World because of it's speed and simplicity. There are also ways to write faster, e.g. Pitman Shorthand. Predictive text is common on mobile phones but has yet to make the transition to PCs (though the ZX Spectrum is a good example of what can be done albeit with a limited vocabulary).

Good speech-to-text and text-to-speech would also improve the way that we create and consume text, Audio input also has the advantage that the play speed can be varied to allow quick listening of simple text.

There is also a case for looking at the English language itself to see if significant improvements can be made in the time that it takes to write correctly, including correction times. Revisiting some archaic spellings could be part of this as could a wider and more formal adoption of l33t; we may not always approve of shorthands like "m8" and "OMG" but they are faster to write!

One of the tables that I joined and started to develop a 2x2 matrix of social and technical capabilities and were looking at the issues that face the group with low skills in both areas. It occurred to me that the television is best placed to help here as it is ubiquitous and easily understood.

Previous convergence attempts had been to marry the PC and the TV, normally by doing little more than using the TV screen as a PC monitor. There is a problem with this approach in that you are bringing the complex PC world to the PC and having a dual use screen does not make this any easier for the non technical user. I think that a better approach is to bring the simpler technologies found on mobile phones to the TV - think of the TV screen as a large screen for the mobile and the mobile as a remote control for the TV. In this world the interactive user would be using applications specifically tailored for the TV rather than going through the generic PC environments of Windows and a browser. Imagine the Apple Apps Store delivered through your TV!

The excited conversations continued over the excellent buffet and wine provided by the BCS and then over the Timothy Taylor's Landlord provided by the Coal Hole nearby.

It was yet another truly excellent Gurteen Knowledge Cafe and I really do not know what I would do for personal learning if I did not go to these. Thanks again David!

28 April 2009

A lucky win at chess

A quick look at this position shows that white (that's me) is three pawns down in the ending and that black's pawns are well placed in the middle of the board.

Normally that would be enough for an easy win for black but I kept the queens on in a desperate attempt to get a draw through repeatedly checking the black king.

I offered black a draw several moves ago but he declined thinking (probably correctly) that he could force one of his extra pawns through.

The luck came when black made the mistake of moving his king away from his queen which meant that his queen could not block checks from my queen.

This mistake was compounded when the black king moved to the edge of the board where its movement is severely restricted.

My previous move was to take my king from g2 to h3, stopping his king from moving to h2, which meant that suddenly my manic attempts to drawn the game were rewarded with a simple win.

The only move that black had to delay the checkmate was to play his queen from e2 to d2 to put me in check but playing my pawn from g3 to g4 blocked black's check and inflicted one of my own. (This is the position shown here.)

Black's only legal move in this position is queen takes pawn on g4 to which I would reply queen takes queen which delivers checkmate. So black resigned and I am one lucky bunny.

27 April 2009

Enjoying local gardens

The nicest thing about the place that I live, Ham in South West London, is the open spaces that range from the large Richmond Park to the small communal gardens in amongst the houses. Ham also has a large number of grand houses that have grand gardens that are, from time to time, open to the public. Last weekend I was able to visit two of them.

Ham House has a multifaceted garden and my favourite part is called the Wilderness. This is a maze like area of hedges and paths. There are four straight paths that cross in the centre, just like a Union Jack, and an ellipse that crosses all of them. This creates the ideal environment in which to play hide and seek, as many children were!

The oddly shaped spaces between the paths are planted in various ways and some include little places to sit too, My favourite places are the ones littered with wild flowers with a curved path cut through them. This seems to me to be most fitting for an area called the Wilderness and has the added advantage of being child-free due to the lack of hiding places.

Ham House is open throughout the year but other gardens are only open occasionally as part of the National Garden Scheme. One such garden belongs to St Michael's Convent on Ham Common.

The garden at St Michael's convent is simply there to be enjoyed by the residents but this is not the most important thing in their lives so it combines a charming mix of formal vistas and more unkempt areas.

Immediately behind the large house is a formal, and fairly boring, lawn but beyond that there is a large wooded section with a wide path that runs under an arch of trees. At the far end is a bench where you can sit and look all the way back to the house.

There are many paths through the garden which allow you to wander off in different directions and to see the various parts of the garden from different perspectives.

One of these paths runs along one of the garden walls (sadly there is a 70s housing development on the other side) where the mature trees provide shade and the bluebells a splash of colour.

Dotted around the garden are summer houses, statues, ponds, hidden benches, a convoluted path laid out with stones, metal arches for plants keen on climbing, and rockeries.

The garden feels unplanned (and probably is) which makes it more fun to explore and because it is only open rarely this sense of exploration is heightened.

As this is England, the visit to the gardens ended with a leisurely cup of tea which allows the real world to seep back in slowly before the journey home.

24 April 2009

The Now Show, 23 April 2009

The umpteenth (i.e. 26th) series of The Now Show ended this week and I was in the audience for the recording; the second show that I had seen this series.

The logistics were much as before, though a school meeting meant travelling to Oxford Circus on the train from Kingston rather than the tube from Richmond, and after dinner in Pizza Express we found ourselves around 40th in the queue for the show and were then well placed in the waiting room for front row seats, which we got.

We prefer to sit right of centre as that is where most of the action is.

Hugh Dennis is roughly in the middle of the stage with Steve Punt to the right and Mitch Benn goes further right still when he plays his three songs and does his various character voices.

Left from Hugh you have Jon Holmes and Laura Shavin who speak a lot less.

No Marcus Brigstocke this week but he was ably replaced by Lloyd Langford who was very funny on and off script.

Anybody who has head The Now Show knows what to expect and they duly delivered. We had topical jokes on the budget and some of this series' running jokes, e.g. kids being amazed by the bleeding obvious.

Also as usual, the live show is around 50 minutes and this gets edited down to 30 for broadcast. I think that the BBC is missing a trick here and I would love to see the full show being podcast. Material World used the lack of time constraints to have a longer podcast recently and I see no reason why The Now Show should not do the same.

One of the loudest cheers of the evening went to Laura Shavin who had to read out a long and complicated Chemistry question from an old exam.

This gives me a good excuse, not that I really need one, to include a close-up of Laura (having failed to do so two weeks ago).

She was some distance away and obviously I could not use a flash during the recording but I am pleased with the camera's ability to sense the light, zoom digitally and allow for my shaking.

There was no audience question this week, instead we were offered the chance to display our audio talents to the world.

Only one person rose to the challenge seriously and you may hear him gargle "Rule Britannia" for about a second when the show is broadcast. In order to do this, he had to sign a page long contract to give the BBC full rights to use the recording of his gargling! Jon Holmes read the full contract in amazement and then Steve Punt pointed out that Jon's contract had all the same clauses in it!

The rest of settled for submitting amusing but impracticable entries and three (of four) of ours were read out so we will be listening to the broadcast version to see if any made it through the editing process. The claimed talents were to do an very quick summary of Alistair Darling's budget ("We're doomed!"), play the Welsh Harp to concert standards (sadly not brought with us) and to be a Wookie who can do Mitch Benn impressions. The last one made Mitch Benn laugh anyway.

The evening ended nicely with a quick word with Mitch Benn and his wife following my chance encounter with Mitch earlier this week.

I have also had chance encounters with Steve Punt (John Lewis in Kingston) and Hugh Dennis (outside Television Centre when I was queueing for Two Pints ...) so either I am a lucky guy or it is all down to effective stalking!

22 April 2009

Anna Mercury: The Cutter

I made a decision a few years ago to buy fewer monthly comics and to buy collected editions (TPBs) instead, and this plan is gradually coming to fruition.

The thing I like about TPBs is that you get the whole story in one book, you buy the book once the whole story has been published and reviewed, and it is easy to get hold of old stories.

At the moment I am addressing some serious Warren Ellis gaps (and that's not because Warren is so cute on Twitter!) and I have just read Anna Mercury: The Cutter which collects issues #1 to #5 of the comic.

Anna Mercury uses some themes common to other Warren Ellis and other English writers' works. From Warren we get aspects of Planetary and Ghost Boxes (e.g. parallel worlds and mysterious agencies) and from the wider canon we get reflections of Luther Arkwright, Oswald Bastable, Tom Strong and a host of other characters who inhabit worlds where old architecture is mixed with more modern technologies (airships are common). This means that the story has a familiar context and is easily approachable.

Also familiar is Warren Ellis' writing style and this is straight out of his action box. We get pages with no words, short sentences, a fair amount of swearing and little in the way of humour or emotion, which is OK for a action story.

Facundo Percio's artwork is sprightly and we are treated to lots of vibrant action shots of Anna Mercury and lots of exciting cityscapes. The example above shows off both of these.

The story itself bounces along nicely without particularly achieving too much or being too surprising. It it does introduce the character and her world nicely and so promises more for the future but overall it comes across as a lesser project and there are much better Warren Ellis books out there - such as the two volumes of the superb Freakangels.

20 April 2009

Portland on a good day

Most of Easter was damp and grey but the Monday was warm and sunny so we could swap the indoors for the outdoors and the outdoors that we chose was Portland in Dorset. And we took my father too.

First stop was Portland Bill at the southern tip of the isle where the sea races past wildly at times but not today. Rocks that are times unreachable due to the violent waves are instead exposed to the equally powerful force of holiday makers.

There is little to do on Portland besides scramble over rocks and the lads on specialist bikes (much like BMXs but without saddles) were most impressive as they did so.

The Lobster Pot Restaurant provided a welcome drink and snack and nothing says that you are on a British seaside holiday than a plate of egg and chips.

The geology here is pretty simple, the layers of Portland Stone can be seen clearly and are almost level. The huts seem intimidated by the stones and are trying their hardest to fit in by adopting a square grey look.

Returning to the mainland takes you down the steep side of the isle through the small town of Fortuneswell. Here the houses cling desperately to the side of the hill in fear of sliding into the sea. Just nipping out to the shops to get milk in the morning must be enough to keep Portlanders fit.

Portland is joined to the mainland via the majestic Chesil Beach that stretches 29 kilometres north-west towards Abbotsbury. The beach rises steeply but still provides an inadequate defense against the fiercest seas so further defenses have been built at the crest of the beach and the houses nearby (including the delightful Cove House Inn) have their own defenses like window shutters and raised doorsteps.

Portland can be fearful, gloomy and unwelcoming but when the sea is tame and the sun is warm then it is a good place to stretch your legs, breath the fresh salty air and admire the views.

18 April 2009

Comedy at The Willoughby

The Willoughby Arms is a good pub in its own right but it also a function room that hosts local clubs and societies and once a month is the venue for a comedy club run by Terry the Stand Up.

Previously I have been reminded of the comedy nights when hordes of happy people have come downstairs during one of the beer breaks but this time I was more organized and got a ticket myself. I'm glad I did.

The format is pretty straight forward. The compere, David Rowan, tied it all together with a mix of humour and ukulele playing. During his linking bits we learnt that one of his many jobs is cleaning windows but, bizarrely, he has not yet learnt to play the George Formby classic "When I'm Cleaning Windows". David also made the best bad taste joke of the evening, it was very funny but I am not going to repeat it!

The acts he linked were Caroline Mabey, Snorri Hergill, Elliot Potter, Toby French and Imran Yusuf, which proved to be a good mix as all were really funny but in different ways.

Caroline Mabey started the evening off very well and she proved to be my favourite act of the evening with her personal stories. Snorri Hergill espoused on being an Icelandic in England (clearly a rich source of humour at the moment), Elliot Potter showed why you should never sit in the front row of a comedy show and Toby French passed his friends' funny stories off as his own. Imran Yusuf closed the show with a dynamic and fast paced set that included a dinosaur impression!

I found all of the acts to be genuinely funny and I laughed out loud a lot. I expect that I will be laughing again on 22 May at the next comedy club night.

17 April 2009

“Ham, Petersham & The Riverside, Then & Now"

Place names around here get argued about. I live on the Kingston upon Thames side of the border with Richmond upon Thames which I think is in Ham whereas others argue that Ham is solely in Richmond.

As you go north from Ham towards Richmond you move into Petersham and people argue about the Ham/Petersham border too - mostly snobs who really live in Ham and like to think they live in Petersham.

As far as I am concerned I live in the Ham/Petersham area and that means I am interested in events that cover both "villages".

Therefore, this year's Petersham Festival talk on “Ham, Petersham & The Riverside, Then & Now" was an attractive proposition.

It was not too clear from the flyer what to expect but what we got was an hour long film made up of photos taken in the 60s put in context by modern aerial photos and with a commentary that explained the history of what we were looking at.

I knew that Ham/Petersham had historical connections with many famous people but the list presented to us was longer than I remembered and included Charles Dickens, George Vancouver, Cardinal Newman, Vincent Van Gough, Tommy Steele, Bertrand Russell and various members of various royal families.

The historical information carried the talk which otherwise consisted mostly of poor quality photos (due to their age) of familiar places with a barely audible soundtrack (technical problems) and spurious background music. So bit of a disappointment overall but just enough good stiff there to make it worth being there.

It has also made me think that perhaps I should offer to do something similar next year based on the 1,100 plus local photos on my Ham Photos Blog.

16 April 2009

The threat to the residential streetscape

April's meeting of the Kingston upon Thames Society (KSoc) was a discussion on the topic "The threat to the residential streetscape in and outside conservation areas".

The discussion was facilitated by members of a local Conservation Area Advisory Committee who presented a number of photographs of Kingston street scenes for us all to comment on.

It will come as no surprise that we generally agreed that the (few) good things were brick front walls, wrought iron gates, street trees and grass verges.

The biggest cause of the bad things was the motor car which could be blamed for road humps, paved front gardens, pavement cross-overs to allow access to the paved front gardens, posts to stop people parking on the liked grass verges, the profusion of road signs and cars parked on paved front gardens but still obstructing the pavement.

The other villain was that fickle beast fashion that has convinced people that their Victorian brick cottage could be improved by painting it a bright colour, removing the front bay, replacing the windows so that they look nothing like their neighbours, or by bolting a porch onto the front.

There was a mixed reaction to modern buildings (I'm a fan) and to 20 mph zones (I think that they are a waste of money).

Overall the discussion was good and it was interesting to hear other people's points of view (be they experts or laymen, like myself) on the physical environment in which we all live.

I hope that the next step will be for KSoc to address the things that we all agree that we do not like, either as individuals regarding specific issues that concern us or as a group by addressing Council policy. I will be encouraging KSoc to take action on this.

14 April 2009

Afternoon tea at the Petersham Hotel

Afternoon tea is a wonderful English tradition comprising of sandwiches (ideally with the crusts cut off), scones with jam and, of course, a pot of tea.

The final, and vital ingredient, is the tea room itself and these can be found in some of the grandest hotels and rooms, such as the Savoy, Berkley and Connaught.

Locally the place to go is the Petersham Hotel which offers a traditional afternoon tea in a magnificent building with views of water meadows and the Thames.

The tea itself is all you would expect, and there is lots of it! The cake stand has three tiers with sandwiches on the bottom (including the obligatory cucumber), a selection of cakes in the middle and topped with scones. Clotted cream and jam are provided to complete the guilty enjoyment.

The only downside is the room which is somewhat at odds with the rest of the building.

The main part of the hotel dates from 1865. It was built as a grand hotel to rival those in Central London and it looks like it.

The plot got a little lost in 1957 when the restaurant was added to the side to provide a large room with views over the river. The views part works well but the exterior suggests that no consideration was given to its appearance and internally it looks like a cheap hotel last updated in the 70s.

So it's full marks for the tea and the views but only half marks for the room which, overall, makes the Petersham Hotel well worth a visit.

11 April 2009

War of Kings

I've always liked Marvel Comics' space sagas, particularly those that build on previous stories, so War of Kings is something to savour.

The kings in question are Vulcan (brother to the X-Men's Cyclops), who is Emperor of the Shi'ar and Black Bolt, Leader of the Inhumans and, now, also the Kree.

Those of us who have been reading Marvel Comics for thirty years or more will appreciate the long interrelated histories behind the words "X-Men", "Shi'ar" and "Kree" and will not be surprised that the latest instalment in that history also involves the Starjammers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova.

This rich cast is part of what I like about these stories as it allows multiple concurrent strands to be added to the story and turns it into a saga.

You can also do more when you have the whole of fictional space to play with. On Earth buildings may get blown up but in War of Kings we have already had one Kree planet completely torched by the Shi'ar. I think that Phoenix (a.k.a. the X-Men's Marvel Girl) still holds the record for killing 8 billion beings in one incident!

It is also good to see that the lead scribe in this epic is Dan Abnett, a British writer who earned his reputation on 2000AD and who has since moved into mainstream comics in America.

There is much to enjoy about this story and that is what I am doing.

10 April 2009

The Now Show, 9 April 2009

For various reasons, including being unlucky in the ballot for tickets, I had not been to see a recording of The Now Show since last July so it was a welcome return this week.

The routine was largely unaltered from the previous visits and the evening started with a pizza at the nearby Pizza Express. The only minor change here is that they have stopped doing the half bottle of Pinot Grigio so I had to have a large glass instead.

The combination of a slightly later start to the recording (it moved to 6:45 from 6:15) and being able to get away early due to the school holidays combined nicely to promote us from our usual 50th in the queue outside Broadcasting House to the very front!

There were slight panics when one of us lost their ticket and I realized that I had brought my penknife with me but a security guard found the ticket and his colleagues failed to find the knife hidden amongst my keys (this works with most airlines too!) so it all worked out fine.

Things were even better when we went to the usual holding room as there were more seats than before and we were able to get four right next to the exit. However, the temporary bar there still charges £3.20 for a 33cl plastic bottle of Grolsch.

The evening dipped when, just before we went into the theatre, we were informed that the first four rows had been reserved for production guests so despite being in the front of the queue outside we found ourselves in the 5th row. This was disappointing (I have already written to the BBC about this) but the upside was that it did allow me to take more photos than usual during the recording.

But the whole point of the evening was the show itself and that did not disappoint at all. After playing (good) reserves for the last few weeks The Now Show team was back to full strength with the return of Hugh Dennis and Marcus Brigstocke to play alongside the other regulars, Steve Punt, Jon Holmes, Mitch Benn and Laura Shavin, and all were on top form to provide over an hour of top entertainment. Listeners to the programme and the podcast will have to settle for the 29 minute edited version.

The proof of a good show is whether you would go and see it again and despite having seen The Now Show several times in the last few years I am already looking forward to going again in a couple of weeks.

8 April 2009

My podcasts (April 2009)

I usually download the latest iTunes software as it becomes available but then do not play around with any new features so I have no idea how long I have been able to display my podcasts like this.

I like this style as it makes it easy to see how many and which sorts of podcasts I listen to. It also clearly shows a not unexpected fondness for BBC programs.

This is how I categorise what I listen to:
  • Fun (11) Archers, Armstrong and Miller, The Bugle, Composer of the Week, Dave Weekly Vodcast, David Mitchell's SoapBox, Friday Night Comedy, Marvel Podcasts, Car Pool, Stephen Fry's PODGRAMS, Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone,
  • Current Affairs (8) Analysis, Crossing Continents, Demos Project, From Our Own Correspondent, John Pienaar's Political Review, RSA Events, This Week in Africa, Weekly Westminster Review,
  • Science and Nature (7) Discovery, Farming Today, Material World, One Planet, Machine of the Week, Science in Action, TED Talks,
  • Business (6) The Bottom Line, Harvard Business IdeaCast, Harvard Business Video IdeaCast, Money Box, World of Business, The Systems Thinking Review,
  • Information Technology (5) Click On, Digital Planet, IBM developerWorks, IBM Institute for Business Value, Ideas from IBM,
  • Social Sciences (3) In our Time, More or Less, Thinking Allowed,
Luckily not all of these podcasts are broadcast at the same time (i.e. most of them have breaks) so keeping on top of my listening schedule is just about possible, provided I do plenty of walking and/or commuting!

6 April 2009

Nesting swan on Ham Common

You can tell that Ham, situated between the town centres of Richmond and Kingston upon Thames, is a real village as it has a village green (Ham Common) with a pond.

Many birds use the pond so it is a good place to walk to and also to sit by at any time of the year. Spring is a little special as this is when the swans build their nest.

Here the pen is almost dwarfed by the nest that she is sitting on while she carefully adds to it.

The nesting swans always attract great interest and many locals watch the progress of the eggs and then the cygnets.

Unfortunately there have been some incidents involving dogs (and their stupid owners) so the healthy progress of the swans is not guaranteed and each visit to the pond is tinged with worry until, hopefully, all the birds have been carefully counted.

5 April 2009

The Story of Vasco at the Orange Tree

The current production at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, is the lyrical, amusing and engaging The Story of Vasco.

The play is by Georges Schehadé, a Lebanese poet and dramatist, and is inspired by France's Algerian war in 1957. This production is the premiere of a hitherto unknown version by Ted Hughes.

The lyricism the play is what carries the story for a shade over two hours and the language reminds you at times of Shakespeare (think Tempest) and Peake. Crows are a constant thread being harbingers and witnesses to the unfolding tragedy.

War in general is at the heart of the play as we see both its tragedy (e.g. villages emptied of young men) and its stupidity (e.g. the undercover soldiers disguised unconvincingly as women and trees).

While it was the Algerian war that was the genesis of the play it is made clear that the play is about wars, not a war. One subtle touch that does this is the way that the various soldiers' uniforms get more modern as the play progresses, we start with the flamboyant bright red of the Victorian era, skirt with the grey greatcoats of the Second World War and end with modern camouflage.

The characters play a secondary role to the war itself so the main purpose of the actors is to deliver their poetic lines. As usual the cast is well up to the task and special mention must go to Laura Rees, a romantic gypsy girl, and Richard O’Callaghan her father.

The Story of Vasco is a change of pace and style for the Orange Tree and its a very welcome one. It is because they keep putting on interesting, challenging and entertaining plays that I keep going to the Orange Tree.

4 April 2009

Wild Beasts delight with their first album Limbo, Panto

I am buying very little music these days, apart from new albums by a few old favourite artists like Neil Young, simply because I have heard very little new music that I like.

In the past I have bought quite a bit of indie and Brit-pop and I am a big fan of bands like Suede and Pulp (not Blur!) but the initial invention in the genre disappeared years ago and we were left with a string of bland identikit guitar bands like Travis, Cold Play and Snow Patrol.

So I was very pleased to come across Wild Beasts on a Dave Vodcast (look for it on iTunes) who identified three bands to watch in 2009.

Wild Beats are quirky and quirky is good so I tried their album and I am loving it :-)

It has hints of all sorts of good things, including Sparks and PJ Harvey, but mixed up in a new way that is exciting and fun. At last, I have some new music worth listening to.

3 April 2009

No Turning Back for UK politics

A few years ago I was quite active in local politics helping Labour in election campaigns, standing for the council myself twice and almost getting in once.

Since then I have become sufficiently disillusioned with the Labour Party to leave it and with local politics (as represented by councils) to stop campaigning. My beliefs have not changed but my political association has (I now vote Green) and so has my activism, I prefer to work directly with schools locally and to join rallies on national and international issues.

For the last few years I have been on the mailing list for Compass, an independent democratic left pressure group, but have kept at arms length and have not joined the organisation nor been active within it. That has now changed.

The spur for getting involved was the excellent debate that I went to at the Houses of Parliament this week, hosted by Compass, on the subject of No Turning Back.

The key points for me were that now is clearly the time for change, with the demonstrable failure of the market system, and change is possible by using the techniques of, and harnessing the passion of, the many organisations and people who get involved in community politics. What we need to do is to bridge the gap between community politics and electoral politics where politicians are generally seen as unrepresentative, remote, ineffectual and even corrupt.

I also liked the comment made by the Chair of Compass, Neal Lawson, who quoted the statistics 9-6-0 in relation to the 10 ideas in the manifesto for change in the Spectator article that he co-wrote. Of these 10 points, the Greens said that 9 were also their policy, the Lib. Dems. claimed 6 and Labour none.

The next step is the Compass Conference on 13 June were over 1000 people will come together to discuss and debate how we build a new political economy for the 21st century.

1 April 2009

Space Ritual at Hootananny Brixton

In many ways this was an unusual Space Ritual gig; it was a late addition to their schedule following the rescheduling of the Hawklords event, it was held in a pub in Brixton (an area of London normally associated with words like "riot" and "shooting"), Sam Ollis was missing, and it finished not long before 2am on the morning that the clocks went forward stealing an hour's sleep.

However, the music and the mood were reassuringly familiar.

I would like to get a few live recordings to compare the Space Ritual sound but I get the distinct impression that this year they have become less rocky and more jazzy (well, not jazz obviously as I cannot stand jazz and I love Space Ritual).

The songs are more fluid and the delivery of some of them is quite different, tonight's rendition of Reefer Madness for instance was sung very differently.

This slight change of mood is reflected in the recent changes in the set list which is seeing less of the original Hawkwind material and while Hawkwind songs still feature prominently in the set they are mostly from the Bob Calvert Space Poet era, which is absolutely fine with me!

And Space Ritual are still spacey thanks to the incessant twiddling (or whatever it is that he does) by Chris Mekon.

Chris was also made more visible by having a light shining directly on him all evening.

The loser here was Mick Slattery (guitar) who was deprived of light due to the positioning of the monitors and so is missing from these photos.

Jerry Richards (bass) normally hides in the dark, and dresses for it too, but his increasing vocal role brought him to the front enough to be captured on film.

Similarly Thomas Crimble (keyboards) is often forced to play side on but here he had enough space to face the front and to participate fully in the singing duties.

Terry Ollis (drums) sits right at the back and does not expect to be photographed!

The Fabulous Ms Angel does get photographed a lot, particularly when wearing her angel outfit that has been sadly missed at recent gigs.

The crowd also had many of the usual faces and it was good to spend some time with Joanne and Melissa (who had also been at the Wishbone Ash gig the previous night).

But, it's the music that really matters and Space Ritual were absolutely fabulous. There was a slight stumble over the set list in the middle and one of the regular drunks was a little annoying but these were only minor distractions in an excellent two hour set performed excellently and when they closed with the twin classics Brainstorm and Master of the Universe we were all dancing, singing and very happy.

I thought that their previous gig at the 100 Club was their best ever and this was almost as good.