31 December 2010

LIKE takes a night off (almost)

The librarians and knowledge consultants at LIKE enjoy networking so much that we decided to meet on our regular last Thursday of the month over the holiday period just for a social.

A LIKE social comes with many of the best characteristics of a (slightly more) formal LIKE meeting. We had planned to arrange something simple but Jenny's natural organisational instincts took over so we got a decent venue, a proper guest list, a web questionnaire to order our food and somebody to collect the money.

Every organisation needs a Jenny and I'm very glad that Jenny is ours.

We gathered downstairs at The Ship Tavern in Holborn, conveniently situated next to the tube station and a dazzling number of bus routes. The long bar had several seasonal ales to choose from and I started with the Rosey Nosey before moving on to the Rockin' Rudolph.

Once safely gathered with our drinks we went to the restaurant upstairs where our long table awaited us.

The reactions to the meal were mixed from "fine" to "excellent" so that part of the evening went well but the real reason we were there was for networking, the posh word for socialising, and that went superbly.

The fifteen of us, including a few new faces, were arranged a long thin table which meant that we broke up in to a number of small conversation groups when we could not but help ourselves from occasionally turning to topics of librarianship and knowledge management. We talked about other things too :-)

Jenny put another helping hand on the tiller and got us to shuffle places between courses (three were on offer and I was just a little pig and only had two).

The conversations flowed easily but this time nobody was taking notes, apart from a few tweets!

LIKE is blossoming out from its strong routes and this year the regular meetings have been complemented by a Summer picnic, a guided walking tour of the City of London and this party. Next year starts with a visit to the British Library's Growing Knowledge exhibition. I'll be there.

29 December 2010

Rumble Strip by Woodrow Phoenix

I heard and met Woodrow Phoenix at a Comica event earlier in the year and he signed a copy of Rumble Strip for me. Now the Christmas holiday has finally given me the opportunity to read it. And believe me, I have many books that have been waiting to be read for much longer than this!

I was attracted to Rumble Strip by both it's unusual construction (e.g. no visible narrator and no story as such) and by the art with its harsh depiction of the streetscape.

You get some of the sense of the artistic style from the (refreshingly honest) cover of the book with its heavily black road, contrasting road markings, some street furniture and the absence of cars and people.

Many of the pictures are even simpler that this with just the road and markings while some are a little more expansive giving us wider views of bridges, wind turbines or electricity pylons.

One of my favourite sections (there are several) is about car parks where we are treated to expanses of black marked with regimented lines that govern where we drive even when the park is empty.

I love this stuff. I'd take photos like these if I could.

The pictures show us how the car has changed our physical environment and the words expand on this theme.

We are told of the unequal physical struggle between cars and pedestrians (Cans versus Spam), the way that we respond to this by forcing pedestrians away from the streets and also of the freedom that cars give us to travel.

The message is delivered as if it was a magazine article cut up in to little sections and spread across the pages.

The example here is typical of the picture/words mix.

The words are important, and they certainly resonated with my natural disdain for cars and their impact on our environment, but for me their main purpose is to lead you through the wonderful series of pictures.

It's not a story so it's a little hard to classify, a Graphic Polemic perhaps?

It may be hard to classify but it is easier to say how I felt about reading it and I found it to be a  feast for the eyes peppered with words that made a lot of sense.

Rumble Strip is distinctly different, and that's definitely a good thing.

26 December 2010

Hawkwind at the HMV Forum

Seeing the Hawkwind Christmas Concert is one tradition I like to keep.

As traditions go it's a little modern and a little variable but I can live with that. The concerts started at the Astoria in central London but Cross Rail put paid to that and so it moved west to the Shepherds Bush Empire last year and north to the HMV Forum this.

Sadly the Southampton concerts were missing from the tour this year so I was only able to see Hawkwind once.

The other difference this year was the support act that I saw was in a different venue to the main act preferring Hoaxwind playing in the pub next door to the official support.

Then Hawkwind did what Hawkwind do. And do rather well.

The music is tremendous and is played with precision and love. Hawkwind's stage presence lacks somewhat, only Tim Blake moves at all, but they know that and compensate with stunning lights and some exotic dancers with a penchant for costumes and stilts.

With a new album on the way we were treated to several new songs but they sounded much like the old ones and they went down well with the fans. I made no attempt at compiling a set list but I fondly recall singing (or shouting) along to true classics like Spirit of the Age, Psi Power, Robot and, of course, Brainstorm.

Sadly the evening was a little upset, but not ruined, by some of the crowd behaviour. I had managed to get myself to the second row to the left of centre and I found myself on the route for a few idiots intent on finding space at the front. Nothing too serious but enough of it throughout the set to be distracting.

But you cannot blame Hawkwind for the behaviour of some of their fans and what they did on stage is what really matters and that was spot on. Nobody sounds quite like Hawkwind and nobody does songs quite like them either. And for that I am very grateful.

25 December 2010

Hoaxwind at The Bull and Gate

It was an audacious plan but it worked.

With Hawkwind playing their London concert at the HMV Forum in Kentish Town Hoaxwind had the brilliant idea of taking advantage of a gathering of fans of space rock to give a concert in the pub next door with two sets timed around Hawkwind's.

The only bad point in their plan, and this had nothing to do with Hoaxwind, was that the concert was on a working day that was also cold which meant some judicious juggling of clothes that were suitable for the office, walking outside and a rock concert. The usual suit was cast aside and some smart casual black trousers and shirt came to the rescue.

I got to The Bull and Gate nice and early, coming from Victoria, and was pleased to see some good beers on offer and the Camden Bitter proved to be a good choice. The bad news was the lack of food but the beer made up for that, as it often does!

I headed for the back room and had a few words with some of the band who were putting the final touches to their preparations, such as getting their costumers sorted. This was the usual eclectic mix of white coats, flying gear, skeleton outfit and long-haired wig.

The stage suited Hoaxwind and was several leagues better than some of the places I have seen them perform. The sound system was good, there was plenty of space for all seven of them and the lighting was effective.

The room was a reasonable size too and it soon filled with Hawkfans, a frightening number of whom I knew or recognised from gigs across London. Say hello to Pete, Nick, Adrian, Ralph and the others.

With an enthusiastic and receptive audience the stage was literally set for the show to begin and Hoaxwind launched in to their celebration of (mostly) Calvert-era Hawkwind songs, such as Urban Guerrilla, Death Trap, Kerb Crawler, Quark, Strangeness & Charm, Ejection and Shot Down in the Night.

These single-length songs are drawn out lovingly and the seven instruments and electronic devices dance above the familiar rhythms. This is music to sing and dance to.

The first set of around an hour ended with classic Master of the Universe and it was time for us to tramp next door to see Hawkwind.

Two hours later we were back and Hoaxwind picked up from where they had left off with the audience more warmed up and more willing to dance. Not me though, I know my limits!

It had been a little while since I last saw Hoaxwind and it was a warm reunion with the music even better than I remembered and expected. This could have been the sound system or they could have been rehearsing hard, or both, but whatever the cause the music was bouncy, funky, rocky, spacey and majestic.

This is what nights out should be like.

24 December 2010

Kew Gardens in December

A free Sunday morning meant the opportunity to brave the harsh frost and head back to Kew Gardens for a brisk stroll, some to delve in to unvisited corners and linger in the familiar warmth of one of the green houses.

The Temperate House is easily my favourite of the three large green houses so I went in at Lion Gate and headed straight there delighting along the way in disturbing the many squirrels who clearly were not expecting somebody that early on such a cold day.

There is lots to like about the Temperate House and the decorative architecture pulls you towards it from a distance. Each step closer reveals more of the beauty.

The architecture is just as good inside as out and here the straight white lines of the window panes play against the natural curves and greens of the plants. But this is not a battle of styles, it's a harmonic duet.

A redundant mechanism for opening windows is being claimed by the greenery and it takes a while to realise that it is not natural but the Victorian elegance still manages to shine through.

Elsewhere the confusion of supporting structures and tropical leaves collide wildly and joyously. This is why I never tire of going there and why I always take the steps up to the upper walkway.

The Temperate House is a magnificent achievement but there is lots more to Kew Gardens than that and the leisurely walk towards Victoria Gate for the necessary coffee leads you to the formal lake.

Here some Autumnal colours linger in the sun encouraged by the marginal warmth of the water.

The walk around the lake is surprisingly varied. Most people choose to go around the west side, past the Palm House and the formal flower gardens, which makes the east side unexpectedly quiet.

This is also where you'll find the classic fountain nicely placed off-centre in the lake.

A couple of hours or so and all I did was barely scratch the south-east corner of the gardens. Do the sums, you can spend a lot of time here and/or visit it many times. I plan to carry on doing quite a bit of both.

20 December 2010

Echoes in Berrylands

I love the music of Pink Floyd and I love the way that Echoes present it.

This love affair only started a few weeks ago when they played the Alexandra Tavern just down the road and went through a rough patch a couple of weeks later when they pulled out of another local gig (blaming the snow) but more than recovered when they played the following week at The Berry in Berrylands.

Berrylands is a nondescript part of Surbiton occupying the enviable position between the main line to Southampton, Bournemouth and Weymouth and the A3 to Portsmouth. It has its own railway station, that only the most local of services stop at, which has a few shops clustered around it. And a pub.

The Berry (formerly The Berrylands) is much better suited to bands than the Alexandra. The latter is long and thin which traps the band and their music at one end whereas The Berry is refreshingly wide allowing the music to run riot throughout the pub.

It's also conveniently situated next to the bus stop where the K2 links you to Kingston town centre.

This time I had the presence of mind to make a note of the songs as they played them
but while I am unable to do a direct comparison between the two sets it is clear that they were very similar and they may even have been the same. No problem there, it's a great set.

A quick scan shows a smattering of songs from Meddle, Animals, Momentary Lapse of Reason and Wish You Were Here but the bulk of the two hour set comes from Dark Side and The Wall so we get the crowd pleasing classics Time, Money, Great Gig in the Sky, Dirty Woman, Comfortably Numb and Another Brick in the Wall.

But great songs are not enough, you need a decent band too and Echoes are more than that.

From the opening blast of In The Flesh the rich sound pounds, probes, prods and pulsates filling the room and drawing you in to the unfolding story. This is not a band that plays quietly in the corner while the punters chat over their drinks.

The richness, warmth and depth of the music comes from having five, sometimes six, musicians and just a few tapes to provide the special effects that help to define the Pink Floyd sound.

A few weeks ago I had not heard of Echoes but now I'm determined to see them as often as possible. Next time should be the Fox on Duck on 25 March, as long as the snow has gone by then!

18 December 2010

Hungry Ghosts at The Orange Tree

Hungry Ghosts scored heavily in several departments but some serious flaws let it down. But let's start with the a little scene setting and some of the good news.

A British F1 driver, Tyler Jones, (with hints of Jensen Button) lives the rich bachelor playboy life until during preparations for a race in China he gets embroiled with F1 politics, rumours say he will be replaced by a Chinese driver to keep the people with money happy, and through a chance encounter he also gets involved in the real politics of dissent in China.

Clearly this is fertile ground and the plot's multiple threads grip you firmly from beginning to end. So do the characters (mostly). We have the Tyler's PA/PR who is bright, sharp, feisty and sexy. A journalist who comes to interview Tyler has a history of dissent and has since made a fortune through his Party connections. His sister still dissents and looks like a Che Guevara revolutionary so that we get the point.

The staging and direction are up to The Orange Tree's usual high standard. This standard is so high and so consistent that it is easy to overlook it but it would be criminal to do so.

The was that The Orange Tree exploits its unique layout and, through this, interacts with the audience is what makes an evening there such an event.

And the acting performed on this stage was also very good, especially the PR and the journalist. They were all unknown to me and I guess that they were recruited specifically for this play as the actors playing Chinese roles looked Chinese.

Despite all these considerable strengths the play failed for me on two counts.

The plot hinges on two characters suddenly changing course and both changes are somewhat unconvincing. Both had a lot to loose by the change and no real motive for doing so.

It also makes a large play on human rights in China that was even less convincing given the unfortunate timing of what wikileaks is now telling us about our own government behaves, the detention without charge of the man behind them and the fractured state of our own democracy that has given us a government that nobody voted for and is breaking every promise it made just a few months ago.

Unfortunately China bashing has been popular in recent years and it's a shame that this play, that is strong in other ways, has to leap on this simplistic bandwagon.

15 December 2010

Good fun (again) at the BCSA social

I (almost) never miss the monthly BCSA "Get to Know You" socials at the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead because they are an excellent combination of conversations, drink and food (in that order).

There tend to be a few regulars, like Richard, Ruzena and myself, and also a few new or rare faces to mix things up a bit. This time the rare faces making a welcome return included Craig, Veronika, Jamie and Sona. As a result it was mostly British men and Slovak women.

Ruzena might have been the only Czech there but I was not taking names, this was a social not a workshop!

The evening progressed much as they always do. First-up was a Pilsner Urquell and a Smazeny Syr. One day I'll try something else to eat, but not just yet.

I then went on to the Zlaty Bazant (pictured) and was a little embarrassed when Jane corrected my pronunciation - I would have sworn that there was an accept about the first "z" too.

Not only is Zlaty Bazant an excellent Slovak beer it also comes in a cool glass, and that is important.

It also made a good subject for a poncy photograph taken at an odd angle (a trademark) and with the colour accent feature set to highlight the greens (my new favourite setting).

One or two more beers followed (but no shots this month!) but they were almost a side issue to the conversations, a way of keeping the mouth lubricated for action and something to do when somebody else was talking.

Again no notes so no real recollections of what we discussed but new definitely covered the new X-Men film (Jamie is in it), mobile phones (I think we convinced Ruzena to ask Santa for an iPhone4) and the weather (Slovakia was unseasonably warm at that time).

Somehow four hours whizzed passed and it was time for the traditional frantic dash to one of the three West Hampstead station to catch the Overground train back to Richmond.

I like having fun that is funny and this was definitely funny fun.

14 December 2010

secondSight warm up on a cold night

This was bit of a strange gig but there's nothing wrong with that.

The venue was The Old Explorer just off Oxford Circus, and just a reasonable walk away from where I work in Victoria. First impressions are that this is a chain pub in the Wetherspoons mould with thick carpets, an assortment of tables and chairs and a bland corporate menu of meals prepared elsewhere. My choice, the Red Leicester and Spinach Burger, revealed this to be a Greene King pub.

The band were setting up downstairs when I arrived. This is an extension of the ground floor (same d├ęcor another bar) but was roped off a "private party".

The area assigned to, or claimed by, the band was generously wide which gave a lot of space for Chris Baboon to wave his tambourine in (he does that a lot) and for Nick Loebner to swap between his impressive collection of guitars.

The room being devoid of regular customers, I was able to grab a table in the centre of the room (somewhere to rest the occasional glass of Royal London) with the band just a metre or so away. It was just like having the band in your own front room.

The front room illusion started to fade a little as the secondSight groupies started to fill the room but the lack of privacy was offset by having other prog rock nuts to speak to about, er, prog rock.

But soon it was time for the talking to stop and the music to start.

I had seen secondSight a couple of times before so was expecting a selection of prog classics with a heavy slug of Genesis and that is what we got, starting with The Knife.

The important thing about secondSight is that they are tied to one band's catalogue so there sets contain more variety and more surprises than some.

This was evident early on when The Knife was followed by Aqualung then Epitaph; possibly my favourite two songs of the set.

Along the way we got some Yes (Siberian Khatru), Pink Floyd (Money, Dogs and Comfortably Numb) and loads more Genesis (Musical Box, Afterglow and Supper's Ready). There was some Cardiacs too but I'm not familiar with their stuff.

Some of these songs were clearly new and we were seeing them mid-rehearsal ahead of their big gig in Croydon so it was no surprise that there were a few fluffs (who was meant to say "A flower"?!) but, as previously, I was impressed by their musicianship (if not with Nick's Michael Jackson jacket!).

Another fine evening with fine music, fine playing, fine beer, fine company and a passable burger. Must do it again sometime.

13 December 2010

A day trip to Cambridge

This was my first visit to Cambridge and I went with few expectations and any I had were shattered by the initial walk up to the city centre from the station.

The areas around stations tend to be grim and Victorian for obvious historical and economic reasons and Cambridge is no different. I had no reason to expect it to be otherwise but I guess that I did.

It's a good mile before Cambridge starts to look like Cambridge should look when the first of the colleges comes in to view.

The transformation is sudden, dramatic and very welcome. Walking stops being a chore necessary for transportation and becomes a delightful way to flow past architecture and nature.

The centre of Cambridge is surprisingly small, particularly when compared to the long walk to get to it, and before you know it you hit the river which forms the border on the North and West sides.

A tempting path pulls you along the river, thick with punts waiting for warmer days, towards the flat open space of Jesus Green somewhat where bored and disdainful avenues of trees pay scant attention to the walkers below.

Back in the city there are more old buildings to discover and cafes to sit in when the legs get tired and the siren call of coffee triumphs.

Rested, there's time to explore the rest of the city, not that that takes long.

The colleges blur in to a succession of quadrangles and chapels conjuring up memories of a Gormenghast that somehow seems more real than the city before you.

Behind the colleges lie fields and the A1134 that takes the traffic around the city and brings the coach parties to it. King's College seems to be their destination probably because its the one college we all recognise from Christmas tv and that CD of carols that we all have.

Bridges stretch their claws across the Cam as if anchoring the city to the rest of England. One day they will snap and return Cambridge to the dimension from which it was magicked. Hopefully the station and the road to it will go too.

12 December 2010

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella at Sadler's Wells

Cinderella is a favourite show at this time of the year but it's not usually told like this.

Sadler's Wells' Christmas show this year is Matthew Bourne's version of Cinderella so you know that it is going to be innovative and exciting. You can also guess that it's a show that is going to tempt me to Darkest North London.

And getting there proved to be bit of a challenge. I allowed two hours for a journey that should have taken little more than one but got there with literally just a few seconds to spare.

First the bus was held up in Richmond due to some incident that the Police had to deal with, then all the trains to London were severally delayed to an accident at the level crossing at Barnes, and, finally, I got a taxi for the last leg because waiting for a bus was not working only to find the odd route the taxi took put me behind the bus that I was waiting for!

Ignoring the hassle of getting there, I like Sadler's Wells.

The reception area opens up quickly in to an inviting and comfortable space where you can move and mix easily and also treat yourself to something nice like a glass of champagne or an ice cream.

I got there too late to have any treats beforehand but there were two intervals so I was able to have both the champagne and the ice cream!

The auditorium is nicely modern, which means and attractive and functional space with seats that you can sit in for two hours and can see the stage from. Other theatres take note.

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella retains the essence of the familiar story but is transplanted from a mythical fairy realm to a gritty London during The Blitz.

Other changes include some brothers for the ugly sisters and a complete absence of mice and pumpkins. The shoe remains. But this is a dance and so, like opera, the story plays a minor part in proceedings.

Cinderella (the dance, not the dancer) swirls around the stage with an exuberance of motion, lifting and sweeping limbs. Ensemble work is a real strength of Bourne's choreography and Cinderella shows why. Here the additional brothers and sisters help to fill the stage from the very start.

With Cinders playing a minor role initially, it is left to her exotically lush step-mother to shine above the crowd with humour as well as grace. She's probably meant to be evil but she looks too sexy to be bad. Cruella de Ville is misunderstood too.

There's a lot going on in the story and if I'd bought a programme or could find a synopsis on-line then I would tell you more about it but I did say that the plot does not matter that much and that is true.

What does matter is the dancing, the music and the staging all of which meld together to make a seamless whole that delights and stirs the senses. Like the champagne and the ice cream, the show is a real treat.

11 December 2010

Grandville and the Anthropomorphic Tradition continues

Another year, another Grandville book and another signing and talking tour by Bryan Talbot.

Granville Mon Amour is the second in the Grandville series but I'm not allowed to read it until Christmas so I'll tell you about the talk instead.

I saw Bryan Talbot give his presentation on Grandville and the Anthropomorphic Tradition continues at the ICA last year but it was worth a second visit and Bryan had told me that it had been updated for Granville Mon Amour which made it even more compelling.

The occasion this time was the Richmond Literary Festival and the venue was the Orleans House Gallery. As the crow flies this is no distance but the Thames denied me that route but even after a detour through Richmond this was still a local event.

It was a cold evening and the gallery is bloody hard to find, even for us locals who have been there before, but a healthy crowd made there way there and enjoyed a glass of wine before settling down for the talk.

We were told to expect a talk of 45 minutes followed by a Q&A session but what we got was a knowledgeable, erudite and passionate talk that lasted for 75 minutes and could have gone on for longer such was Bryan's enthusiasm.

The content was, as expected, much the same as the last time I saw it but it is such an intelligent and interesting talk that the repeat was as rewarding as the original.

And I dare say that I'll see it again when Grandville Bete Noir comes out.

After the talk came the signings and the chance to have a few words with Bryan. He signed my copies of Grandville Mon Amour and Adventures of Luther Arkwright while we joked about him calling me a "cheap git" in a comics forum. At least I'm pretty sure it was a joke...

Bryan Talbot has an exceptional talent for producing comics and another for talking about them. And he's a charming man too.

8 December 2010

Big Ideas for Christmas

The Big Ideas Christmas Drinks morphed nicely in to a normal Big Ideas discussion but with fewer people, which made it much cosier and gave us all more opportunity to talk. A good result all round!

A few good souls braved the harsh cold to make their way to The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia for the very loosely defined Christmas Social. The evening started well with the discovery that the pub had Black Sheep Best Bitter on tap. A long-time favourite beer of mine, and from Yorkshire too!

The Social started as socials do with the usual exchange of pleasantries about who does what for a living during which it became apparent that people in IT and/or who are Project Managers are those most likely to be drawn to these events. I scored on both counts so was the saddest person there.

The ice broken, a table claimed and another round of drinks ordered, we moved on to the more philosophical topics of the role of the state in delivering public services, the ethics of discussing a patient's condition with their immediate family and other such diverse topics that were driven by our current situations.

Somewhere along the line, Nathan (one of the founders of Big Ideas) confessed that this was a philosophy group which unsettled me a little as I don't do or rate philosophy. He must have got that wrong as philosophy is pants but Big Ideas is cool!

Through this we got to know each other a little better too and I had to confess to sending a child to a private school and of trying to manage junior doctors.

I judge the success of evening like this by how much I talk and how late I stay and I think I got the balance of both right. I got all my main points across while (I hope!) allowing others to contribute their views too and I left about an hour after I originally planned.

Going to Big Ideas meetings is going to become a habit of mine.

5 December 2010

The Glass Menagerie at the Young Vic

This was my first time at the Young Vic, apart from a visit to the popular bar after another event, so I did not know what to expect from the theatre.

I thought I knew what to expect from the play, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie but that proved to be wrong.

The original flyer claimed that the play was "seriously funny" and the Culture Show implied that it was about the relationship between a mother and her son but neither of these is that true.

Let's start with the theatre. The layout is unusual, in my limited experience of such things. The stage is a square with bench seating on two sides. The construction is modern and metal. The only comparable layout I know is the Rose Theatre in Kingston but this is on a larger scale and is refreshingly stark.

The Glass Menagerie tells the tale of an American family in the aftermath of the Great Depression when times are tight and the world is changing fast.

The family consists of an organised mother, a drunkard son in a dead-end job and a crippled daughter who stays at home and whose only interest is her collection of glass animals.

The father is absent physically but he still casts a shadow over the family through his picture on the wall and several references are made to his drunkenness and his wanderings.

The scene is set with the family struggling to survive with few prospects for the future. Tales are told of happier days, when the mother was young, and she relies on these tales to bring hope for the future. Many of these hopes are foisted in her daughter who, because of her disability and shyness, does not have the men callers that her mother wants and expects.

Then her brother brings a colleague home and the play's purpose becomes clear as we witness the evening and, through that, get more of a view of morals and manners of that time.

So, not very funny and not really about the son. What it is though, is a tense emotional drama that grabs you quickly and refuses to let you go even after the final curtain.

2 December 2010

LIKE 20 - Networking with Santa!

"If you don't know who I am then you're crap at networking!"

This provocative comment by Lesley Robinson opened LIKE20's exploration of networking, something we all do but mostly not as well as we could. During the evening we played a few games and shared experiences to try and get a little better.

We started with some speed networking where we swapped some basic details about ourselves, like our names, favourite TV shows, where we live and our last holiday.

A simple technique but having some standard topics to start a conversation with and talking about your holiday probably beats "do you come here often", though, as was pointed out in the group discussion "do you come here often" is entirely appropriate at LIKE events.

And so the evening progressed with networking mingled with discussions about networking in which we all picked up some useful tips. For me it was ideas for breaking in to groups and, much harder, escaping from them again. I also got some useful holiday suggestions, including Lille and Marrakesh.

The networking continued enthusiastically over the buffet (a change for Xmas) and further drinks.

During a lull in the conversations I took the opportunity to capture this picture of some of the other regulars just to show that librarians and information managers are normal people too, even if they like talking about work in the evening.

Somewhere along the line we talked about everything from wikis to charred guinea pigs.

As the evening drew to a close we started thinking about the next event and agreed that the end of January was too far away to wait and that we would squeeze another meeting in over the Xmas break.

It's a testament to the success of LIKE that people would rather go to one of their meetings than be on holiday!

1 December 2010

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is a stonking read

Confession time.

I first came across Luther Arkwright in the pages of Near Myths (the UK equivalent of the American Heavy Metal, which is a copy of the French Metal Hurlant) way back in the 70s. And now I've finally read the complete story.

The spur was various conversations with the author, Bryan Talbot, on a comics forum where royalties were raised and somewhere along the line Bryan called me a "Cheap Git". That's a badge of honour that I'm proud to wear!

Having bought the book, I was faced with seeing Bryan give a presentation (that story is to come) which compelled me to use a long train journey to actually read the thing. And what a great thing it is.

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is one of the very best graphic novels that I have ever read. I'll try and explain why.

Let's start with the story itself. It's a steam punk, multi-verse, alternative history yarn that has echoes of Michael Morcock and Dr Who. That's not to say for one instant that Arkwright is derived from either of them, it's just that they all come from the same rich English stock.

The story starts in a Crystal Palace that still sits in Hyde Park, we have German and Russian empires carving out Europe between them, the descendants of Oliver Cromwell run England with an iron fist, and we have references to Bosworth and the like.

The story is very good but the artwork is outrageously gorgeous.

The drawings are dense and intense in a way that makes you read them slowly so that you savour the detail. The page layouts are challenging in a good way. Each panel is a story in itself and the styles of composition and drawing mix subtly across the pages and even on the same page.

There are solid black blocks, almost whimsical dream-like visions, earthy reality in fields and slums, and the complexity you would expect with futuristics marvels.

Picking one panel is hardly going to convey all this but I hope that this gives a flavour of the delights within the book. The composition is striking with the bold flag in the background and Luther is drawn with great detail. And this is just one panel on a page rich with similar images.

People, knowing my interest, quite often ask me to recommend comics for them to read so that they can try and understand the medium, and I usually suggest things like V for Vendetta and Sandman. Luther Arkwright now joins that select list of books that I would happily recommend to anybody. Try it yourself.

28 November 2010

The Thin White Duke gets Petersham singing

Another conversation with another mate in another pub (Willoughby Arms) led me to see The Thin White Duke at the Fox and Duck in Petersham where they delighted us with highlights from David Bowie's long, illustrious and varied career.

Bowie had the advantage of changing bands every time that he changed moods but The Thin White Dukes does a pretty fine job of imitating those styles with a single line-up. There is a tendency to go for the later, funkier versions of songs like The Jean Genie and Rebel Rebel but there's nothing wrong with that.

The set list is stuffed full of Bowie classics, like a teenage girl's handbag, and over a couple of hours we were treated to songs like Ashes to Ashes, Life on Mars, Changes, Fame, Fashion, Let's Dance and Heroes.

But there were a few surprises in there too, like Time, The Man Who Sold the World (a hit for Lulu!) and Five Years.

A surprise omission was Station to Station which is where the term "the thin white duke" comes from but it would be churlish to criticise them for this when there are so many good songs to choose from that many favourites were bound to be left out.

The songs were delivered with precision and infectious enthusiasm and it was not long before we were all singing along; even me, and I don't do singing.

The set ended with Starman which is where Bowie and I started with his Top of The Pops performance back in July 1972. From there it was a short step to Ziggy Stardust, the farewell tour, a lifetime of buying all his albums and finding things to appreciate in all of them, even Tin Machine!

The Thin White Duke compress all that love and excitement in to a couple of magical hours.

24 November 2010

Echoes of Pink Floyd

A mate in one pub alerted me to a concert at another one that led me going to see the band play at a third one; the three pubs being the Hand and Flower, Fox and Duck, and Alexandra Tavern.

The band are Echoes who play Pink Floyd covers but not, oddly, Echoes.

The Alexandra Tavern has gone through some changes recently so it was good to see it packed on a Friday night.

And it was even better to see quite a few familiar faces from the days when I lived around the corner in Kings Road.

But, the beer and pleasantries aside, it was the music that I went for and that worked out very well too.

Echoes opened with the familiar words "So you thought you might like to go to the show" from In The Flesh? off of The Wall and stayed comfortably in that zone for the next couple of hours or so to the clear delight of the fans and casual observers alike.

Echoes are a five piece band, rising to six when a saxophone is required, though the cramped setting meant that the poor drummer was only visible when he moved away from his cage for the interval.

They sound a lot like Pink Floyd too, which is definitely a good thing.

Their set plunders The Wall and Dark Side to a predictable extent but their are a few surprises in their too, like Pigs.

It was a lot of fun to be able to sing lines like "Hey you, Whitehouse, ha ha charade you are" once again.

It's hard to fault a band playing good music well; so I won't. They were spot-on with their song selection and their delivery and it was an excellent evening. So much so that I will be doing it all again in a couple of weeks.

Next time I'll try and pay more attention to the set list and less to the singing!

23 November 2010

Opening the information floodgates

An unexpectedly quick return to the Royal Society was again caused by the word "information".

This time it was bundled up in the phrase "Opening the information floodgates: the technologies and challenges of a web of linked data", which is enough to get any geek moist with anticipation.

Rising to that challenge was Professor Nigel Shadbolt of the University of Southampton (which is where I learnt all the maths that I have now forgotten) who gave us a view of how the web is evolving to encompass structured data.

Along the way he gave us this illuminating star system for assessing connectivity:
  1. Put your data on the web (any format)
  2. Make it available as structured data, e.g. csv
  3. Use open, standard data formats
  4. Use URLs to point to your data (so that people and machines can get to it)
  5. Link your data to other people's data
This is the essence of the semantic web where the content has meaning allowing new deeper connections to be exploited. Some examples were given, such as the ASBOrometer iPhone app, but these were the familiar mash-ups of geographical data against one other set of data that have been around for years.

So far so good, but there is a big problem. And that's quality.

The example Professor Shadbolt gave us was the official data on the location of bus stops which has 5% error records in it.

This problem, while admitted, was rather glossed over with the enthusiastic claim that the crowd will fix the problem, as it has with matter-of-fact issues in Wikipedia.

But that is to gloss over the examples that go against this.

For example, if you Google "Slovak Currency" you are still told that "1 Slovak koruna = 0.0280875591 British pounds", almost two years after the Slovaks upgraded to the Euro.

And I've pointed out problems with map data previously.

Data interpretation, or Information Literacy if you prefer, is another big issue that has yet to be addressed too. Sharing data makes lots of assumptions about what it means, as anybody who has tried benchmarking knows.

For examples, to compare data about hospitals you need to know about any specialities that they have (more people die of cancer in hospitals that specialise in cancer simply because they take proportionally more cancer patients) and the catchment areas they serve (proportionally more people die in hospitals that serve unhealthy regions).

These concerns were obvious to the audience and most of the questions that were asked at the end were about quality or interpretation of data.

The semantic web sounds a good idea in principle but there is an awfully long way to go from PowerPoint to implementation.

21 November 2010

Kingston Townscape and Greenscape awards

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.

This year they also added Greenscape awards for the spaces between the buildings.

When I wrote about the awards two years ago I said that they were struggling to find something nice in Kingston. This year was worse.

The first award winner, a church hall, was little more than a standard garage/shed with a glass wall at one end. Other winners and nominees included a wall and a sign. Nothing much to crow about at all.

The one exception, i.e. a building I actually like, is the sympathetic restoration of 133 London Road (pictured), just along the road from Tiffin School where the meeting was held.

The Victorian industrial heritage is obvious, and that's a good thing.

That stretch of London Road has mixed industrial use which makes it all rather scruffy so a bright refurbishment like is welcome.

We learned that the building was originally part of the power supply to the trams. Another good thing.

The Greenscape awards were a little better, but only a little. Kingston Hospital has done a good job with trees in a neglected corner of their large prominent site, the new site managers for Charter Quay have spruced the area up, residents have reclaimed a forgotten spot in their road and a local curry house has made their welcome grander through palm trees and flower beds.

But the good news stories cannot disguise the fact that there has been very little to cheer about regarding developments in Kingston.

18 November 2010

Strawberry Hill is a Gothic delight

The first look at Strawberry Hill tells you that it is something special.

The official website tells us that Strawberry Hill was created by Horace Walpole in the 18th century and is internationally famous as Britain’s finest example of Georgian Gothic revival architecture.

Now we can see for ourselves how true this is because the house has just reopened after an extensive period of restoration which is still in progress.

Outside diggers are hard at work in the garden (sadly it looks as though it's to build a car park) and inside some of the rooms are still closed suggesting that further delights are to come.

The tour of the house starts with a short film and then it's on with the overshoes and the exploration begins.

The star attraction is the main stateroom that occupies most of the first floor on the side of the house that overlooks the garden. Here the ceiling is simply stunning and compels you to look upwards and then to follow the decoration as it drips down the wall where the obscenely decorated fireplaces then demand attention.

The long wall on the other side has a series of windows (you can see them in the picture above) that entice the sunlight in to dampen the effect of the dark read walls and give the eye something else to look at if they ever tire of the internal decorations.

The other rooms are in various states of restoration.

Some are bare apart from a couple of features, e.g. a fireplace or the windows, while others have ornate plasterwork and screens.

Stained glass windows are everywhere, apparently bought as a job-lot from Holland, adding a splash of colour and interest to even the most modest room - though "modest" in a Gothic folly is obviously a relative term.

The house is large but not enormous and a tour takes around half an hour, maybe forty minutes. The website suggests it should be one and a half hours but I can only assume that they have factored in a generous amount of time in the museum room, shop and cafe.

Strawberry Hill is a unique house and has to be seen close up and in person to appreciate the detail of the original conceit and the way that this has been painstakingly restored. This closer look confirms the first impression that the house is special.

15 November 2010

Red Kew

This Autumn has been mostly grey wet and miserable, like you expect Autumns to be, but there have been a few bright days in which to enjoy the seasonal colours.

And where better to go on a day like that than Kew Gardens?

Trees dominate large areas of Kew so any walk through it is going to be impressive but choices have to be made so I went in through the Lion Gate.

The next hour or so was spent tramping through the gardens from one colourful tree to the next.

Autumn is rich with colourful leaves and berries and Kew was thick with yellows, browns, greens, reds and oranges.

Faced with such an embarrassment of riches, I've chosen to highlight the reds.

Not as a homage to our next Prime Minister (that's Red Ed, in case you've not guessed) but because they shrieked for attention above their more numerous but less glamorous neighbours.

As leaves fade and fall the berries burst in to life to the delight of the wildlife for which they are food and of the visitors, like me, who appreciate their colour and the way that they cluster together like giggling girls at a party.

The absent leaves also open up the gardens to different views revealing what the trees once tried so hard to hide so Kew changes shape as well as colour, making every visit there pleasingly different.

Winter is now starting to announce its coming with morning frosts and dark evenings but Kew knows what to expect and how to respond. I'll be back there soon to tell that story.