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.

11 November 2010

The Company Man at the Orange Tree Theatre

The Orange Tree delivered an intense evening with The Company Man, a new play by Torben Betts.

The Company Man, now retired, is surrounded by his dying wife, her long-term friend Jim, their grown-up daughter who is caring for her mother, and his son who makes a surprise visit looking for refuge and help (i.e. money!).

We are then treated, if treated in the right word, to an in-depth view of the workings of the family, warts and all. We have alcoholism, terminal illness, breakup and infidelity ranged against the joy of children and some hope for the future.

The dark side wins, but it's a close fought thing.

We are told the tale non sequentially and the cast move between the ages seamlessly. The set remains the same and the time changes are achieved simply by great acting.

I have no idea what the playwright was trying to achieve with the play but the theme that I picked-up on the most was opportunities lost and taken.

The Company Man started at the bottom and took his opportunities to rise to the very top. His son threw away the opportunities that his privileged upbringing gave him. His daughter seized the opportunity presented at the end, made possible by her mother taking her own opportunity, having turned one down some years ago.

The play leaps from crisis to crisis (there are some slow bright points, but not many) in a way that is exhausting to watch but exhilarating too and when the climax is reached (and then surpassed) it is with same buzz that you get at the end of a ride at Alton Towers.

The emotional turmoil that swirls and loops menacingly around the stage is made that much thicker, deeper and personal by being served in the round. It's very much like being one of the family with all the discomfort that that brings. The climax I mentioned earlier happened just 1/2 metre from me.

Some recent visits to the Orange Tree have been a little off their normal high standard (despite being well worth going to) but this is a storming return to form. The experience is hard to describe but the memory the evening it will haunt me for a long time, but in a nice way.

9 November 2010

The pond on Ham Common

There are several good reasons for living in Ham, and this is one of them.

Ham Common is just a short walk away at the far end of Ham Parade and from their the greenery opens wide in both directions, like a butterfly's wings, with Richmond Park on one side and Ham Lands on the other.

Ham Pond tries to hide in a corner of Ham Common but the willows and the playful children give the game away.

Get a little closer and you'll soon see the swans, ducks, geese, coots and, if you are really lucky, a turtle.

If you like this then you can find more pictures of Ham Common on my other blog.

8 November 2010

A short burst of SecondSight

Live progressive rock in a good local pub has to be worth going to. So I did.

The venue was the Grey Horse just down the Richmond Road that has a justified reputation for delivering live music for many years and the headline act was SecondSight who I had seen play there before.

I arrived a little early to give time to mix etc. and made the mistake of seeing some of the penultimate act whose rambling Texas rock did absolutely nothing for me.

Somebody asked me who I was there to see and when I said it was SecondSight he moaned that they were useless old farts, or words to that effect, before confessing to being their lead guitarist! Nice one Norman.

Not liking the music I retired to the bar with fellow prog rock fans Pete and Adrian to pass the time with musical conversation and some decent beer.

Time passed and so did the official start time and it was quite late before we were back in the room ready for SecondSight to entertain.

The late start meant a reduced set of around forty minutes which, being prog rock, meant only around five songs.

Genesis got us going and popped up again in the middle. Not my favourite band but good enough and SecondSight do them well with two guitars and keyboards.

I felt that the Yes song, Siberian Khatru from Close to the Edge, was less successful but that's because I associate the voice of Jon Anderson so much with Yes and few other singers sound anything like him.

Jethro Tull's Aqualung was another strong song and a welcome addition from the previous set that I had heard.

And all too quickly the cruel curfew fell and that was it. Nick (bass) then said how angry the band were with the reduced timing but it is to their credit that this anger was not at all apparent during the set and they played with obvious enjoyment, love and skill.

SecondSight may have been short-changed this time but they are getting out more now and I hope that they get a better crack of the whip when they play Central London in early December. A chance to hear the rehearsed but unplayed Dogs perhaps.

7 November 2010

Spanish story. French music. Slovak dancing. Great drama.

I love dance and am trying to find ways to see more of it. Mostly this means getting myself more organised!

The latest opportunity came via my Czech/Slovak connections through whom I learned that the Slovak Dance Theatre were performing their version of Carmen for two nights only at Jacksons Lane in Highbury.

I did not know anybody else who was going but I was free that evening and Highbury is not that hard to get to (when the Northern Line is working) so I thought that I would give it a go. And I'm glad that I did.

The first good news was that the tube strike had no impact on my travel and the second was that some people that I knew were also there. One of them, Ruzena, is Vice Chair of the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) and she had done some publicity for the event and had been rewarded with a ticket. A quick word with the organisers from here and I had a reserved seat too.

Jacksons Lane, a former church, looks to be an excellent community venue. The theatre seats around 120 people, there is a nice cafe that boasts a good selection of vegetarian food, a small bar and a mix of community spaces some of which were also in use that evening.

I had a little idea of what to expect from a short video but that's never a fair way to judge anything so I sat in my seat in the middle of the second-back row with an open mind.

The first thing you notice is that it's a small group so each of the dancers has several roles, sometimes crossing genders to do so.

The dancing is energetic and expansive making full use of the depth, width and height of the stage. The set remains constant and largely anonymous as a series of scenes are played out before it, smoothly flowing from one to the other as the story unfolds.

The tension of the drama is maintained throughout (there is no break) as we watch the various couples come together, argue, split, flirt, reconcile and, eventually, kill.

The standing ovation at the end was well deserved.

This is only the second time that I've gone to see dancing by myself at short notice and it's worked better than expected both times. Must do it again.

6 November 2010

LIKE 19: Open Source software for libraries

LIKE 19 continued the impressive run of monthly meetings, this time looking at the use of Open Source software at the King's Fund Information and Library Service.

The minor teething troubles LIKE had at their first meeting were quickly and ruthlessly removed. The layout was much more open to improve networking and the organisation was faultless. I had the honour of being orange juice monitor for the evening and was allowed to wear a LIKE badge as a reward. Shame I left it at home :-(

Our speaker for the evening was Ray Phillips, Head of Information Services at The King's Fund. He spoke articulately as he told an interesting story about the koha Library Management System (LMS) that informed, provoked and captured our attention.

I'm hardly an expert in LMS, unlike most of the people in the room, but I do have some pedigree, my very first computer programs for Dorset County Council way back in 1978 were for their new Library system which was then introducing the new wand technology to read the labels in the books.

But it was the open source aspect of the story that interested me the most and there were some cross-industry lessons here that I found useful.

The main argument for Open Source is the cost, i.e. it's free (though maintenance is extra) and normally this is seen as sacrificing functionality for price, e.g. MS Office v OpenOffice. Ray Phillips told a different story and explained that software developed by the community for the community is actually better than standard commercial software.

Organisations are geared up to buy expensive software and don't really know how to buy things that are free. Traditional procurement procedures are long and expensive and are based on making a decision strictly on cost. Thus makes the cost of buying more expensive than the thing that is being bought and leads to the wrong questions being asked.

The talk and questions over, the food and second round of drinks arrived and it was full hurl in to the networking, which is where LIKE excels.

The conversations flowed.

Among these was a long session on Information Management methods with Debbie and Ben, comics with Laura, holidays with Sally-Ann, the BCS with Conrad, bears (again!) with Marja and future LIKE topics with Nova.

I may have volunteered to lead a session on personal information management (e.g. email techniques) but hopefully this will have been forgotten.

There were more conversations with more people but pen and paper were put away by then so I have to rely on a memory that has never been very good with names. However, I think that you get the point that the talking and the mixing both work very well.

It's rather like speed dating but without the embarrassment of finding out how few people want to see you again at the end of the evening. Besides, you already know the answer to that as most of us will be back there again next month.

3 November 2010

Moving forward with Depaul

Back in June I was very pleased to be involved in the initial work that TFPL have been doing with homeless charity Depaul and last week I was equally pleased to be involved again. So much so that I made the trek in to the City of London for the meeting even though I was enjoying a week's holiday at the time.

The evening started with an update on progress from two TFPL consultants who have been working with Depual. They presented a view of an organisation that relies heavily on the skills, dedication and goodwill of a few people.

It's also an organisation that does a lot of good work, has a strong sense of it's mission (i.e. the six areas of need it needs to address to help people to recover their lives) but which is still prepared to ask for help when it sees the need.

After a couple of months of work, those areas of need had been crystallised down to branding, fund-raising, case studies and volunteering and we organised ourselves in to four groups to address these.

I chose the branding workshop because of my recent experience with this at Logica and at The Mount/King's Oak.

We had a wide-ranging discussion at our table, as you would probably expect, and I'll do my usual unfair thing and pick out just a few points from the notes that I took at the time.

Homelessness has dropped off the media radar as an issue and most people probably think that the problem has been solved. The biggest issue Depaul has, therefore, is in raising the profile of the problem rather than how they try to solve it.

Depaul need to be clear on their mission (and I think they are) which is to take a holistic view in addressing individuals' needs. In contrast, Crisis is more an emergency fix and Shelter more of a political campaign.

The view of the customer is key. The brand needs to speak to their needs and to compete against options like a no-hassle night in the cells.

The all-tables wrap-up session allowed some  cross-fertilisation of ideas and provided a fitting end to the evening. Closing conversations with the Depaul people there suggested that they found the evening valuable and, in the end, that's what really mattered.

The work over and still buzzing with intellectual adrenaline we headed to the nearest pub for more conversations and a gentle warm down for our weary brains.

This is exactly the sort of thing that I like to do on my holidays.

2 November 2010


RED is a triumphant addition to the rapidly growing list of films based on comics.

And it comes with some serious pedigree, the original comic was written by Warren Ellis and the film's stars include Bruce Willis and John Malkovich.

Last Saturday I helped myself to a double-dose of RED by watching the film then reading the comic. It was not a strategic decision to do things in that order it's just that I was not able to buy the comic any earlier.

About fifty of us crammed into one of the small theatres in the Odeon Studio in Richmond and quite an odd group we were too ranging from small boys (under ten) to grannies (over seventy) with a smattering of young women. I was expecting just lads of all ages.

RED hits the ground running and never stops. Within the first minutes Bruce has single-handedly taken out a SWAT team who fired even more bullets than were used in The Matrix.

The film continues in much the same rich vein of action laced with clever humour. There's a good plot too and some wonderful acting by people who are obviously playing their roles more for the fun than the money. It really was a lot of fun.

The comic came as bit of a surprise having seen the film as the only element common to both is the hardly original theme of an ex-CIA agent been chased by his former colleagues. Perhaps they paid Warren Ellis just for the name RED.

The comic is more about a killer coming to terms with what he has done and, as such, brings to mind Joe Haldeman's All My Sins Remembered. It's a short comic, only three issues in the collected edition, so there is less to get your teeth in to than the film and so, while the comic has undoubted merit, it's hard to recommend it to a casual reader.

The same is true of Kick Ass and Wanted, both of which are reasonable comics but much better films.