qatsi: (dascoyne)
2017-07-25 09:15 pm
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The Geneva Trap

Book Review: The Geneva Trap, by Stella Rimington
Rounding up a backlog of reviews, I found this in the Mortimer station book swap - I was curious about the author, without any great expectations. As such it's been on my "to read" pile for a while, and I got through it in two or three days, aided by some time waiting for the Proms. This is several novels in to the series of the character Liz Carlyle, and concerns a Russian diplomat in Geneva who has information that a "Third Country" has infiltrated a top-secret US/UK encryption programme. The book is somewhere between the cerebral world of John Le Carré (with political machinations between MI5, MI6, and various international counterparts) and an action thriller (rapidly jumping between London, Geneva, Marseilles and elsewhere), which may go some way to explaining the variety of opinions I've seen on Goodreads in not entirely satisfying either of those positions. Some technical details bothered me: the lack of technical understanding among some of the managerial characters combined with their complacency is caricature, but sadly plausible. Call me old-fashioned, but if you require separation of two computer networks and you're serious about security, then you will have two physically separate networks; having only a logical separation and sharing the hardware is, well, asking for trouble. Weaving Carlyle's domestic life as a parallel strand worked quite well and gave some extra dimensions to the story. On the whole, I enjoyed it, although I'm not sure I would actively seek out other books in the series.
qatsi: (bach)
2017-07-24 08:29 pm
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Long Ride in a Slow Machine

Book Review: Hallelujah Junction - Composing an American Life, by John Adams
I picked this up a while ago in a work book sale, but it sat on the shelves waiting for the right moment. I decided, with Adams' music featuring in the First Night of the Proms, that it was now time.

It makes for an interesting read. Adams traces his roots back to the dance hall Winnipesaukee Gardens, in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, where his maternal grandparents had a troubled relationship; his parents ended up in modest circumstances and his childhood was comfortable but basic. From an early age he was interested in music and played the clarinet, showing enough talent to take lessons and eventually play orchestral parts. He also liked the idea of conducting in particular. Conventional classical music training in the eastern US in the mid twentieth-century was focused very much on twelve-tone serialism, which did not much appeal to Adams, who was steeped in jazz and interested in rock and roll as much as classical music. Despite offers of further tuition, he eventually decided to spread his wings (or at least, a rickety Volkswagen camper-van) and head west.

Through the seventies Adams made a career mostly as a conductor and concert organiser; a few of his own works, such as Shaker Loops and Harmonium started to make his reputation. He goes on to describe the collaboration with Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman that led to Nixon in China, which became one of his most successful works, and The Death of Klinghoffer, which has always been one of his most controversial. Later chapters in the book go into some depth, creatively and bureaucratically, as well as musically, on several works; Adams also ponders the creative process in general. He has an easy writing style, and acknowledges problematic works as well as success. The foreword to this edition notes the 2012 performance at the Proms of Nixon in China as one of his career highlights; I'm glad he thinks that, because, having been there myself, I agree.
qatsi: (sewell)
2017-07-23 04:30 pm
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The Great Wave

We'd known the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum would be popular and we'd booked in advance; just as well, as advance tickets have now sold out, and day tickets had also sold out when we arrived. There were long queues for the museum as a whole now that the bag search has become ubiquitous - having a pre-booked ticket allows you to fast-track through some elements of this, but it's still hassle. Sadly it's an arms race of security theatre - if one place does it, they all have to do it for fear of being left behind, a softer target. It's job creation all right, but I rather doubt these are quality jobs.

We had allowed plenty of time and wandered through the free, smaller exhibitions of British Watercolours, which was a mixed bag but had some interesting pieces by Paul Nash, his brother John Nash, Ravilious and others, and Pacific North America, marking the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Canada in a possibly rather awkward way, but at least acknowledging the indigenous culture.

The Hokusai exhibition itself was very busy, essentially a slow-moving queue from end to end, which didn't make for the best experience, but it was worth it to see the range of works, starting with the summoning of a dragon, proceeding through many views of Mount Fuji (including the Great Wave itself), but also flower and bird paintings, a few portraits, and two unusual aerial views of Japan and China. It was interesting to compare with Hiroshige's slightly later paintings of Mount Fuji; on the whole, Hokusai was more monochromatic, frequently using (the then novel) Prussian Blue for his main colour scheme. At the end of the exhibition there are also one or two works by his daughter; sometimes these were passed off as by Hokusia himself in order to increase their value.
qatsi: (proms)
2017-07-22 08:59 am
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A short time ago, in a concert hall not very far away ...

Prom 8 - Film Music of John Williams - was always going to be popular; I believe it was one of the first concerts of the season to be a sell-out for seats. As I joined the queue I only saw a couple of people I recognised in front of me - there were another twenty or so who were "tourists". This can be good or bad; on this occasion they were fine, although one person in front did manage to blag their way in without a raffle ticket to join their two friends who did have tickets. Somehow I ended up in front of them; that's karma, I suppose.

The BBC Concert Orchestra, very much at home in this kind of music, were conducted by Keith Lockhart. Williams has contributed scores for more than 100 films, so it would not be possible to please everyone, but I think the concert captured a good cross-section of his most famous works; perhaps Schindler's List was the only obvious omission. The concert began with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and other well-known pieces in the first half were from Jaws, Superman, Harry Potter and ET. But there were other less well-known pieces, for me at least: Goodbye Mr Chips, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Terminal, War Horse, and The BFG. These showed another side to Williams away from the bombast; Jamal Aliyev's cello in Memoirs of a Geisha was very evocative, clarinettist Annelien Van Wauwe and accordion player Mark Bousie hinted at klezmer and east European inspiration for The Terminal, and War Horse captured the English pastoralia and seemed to quote from The Lark Ascending.

The second half began in a more serious mood, with music from JFK, Munich and Amistad - the last of these featuring young voices from Haringey Vox and Music Centre London. Then, another mood shift to The Witches of Eastwick and, with Jess Gillam playing a beautifully steampunk saxophone and Alasdair Malloy on vibraphone, Catch Me If You Can. Finally, we moved on to music from Star Wars. I would really have liked the Imperial March and Cantina Band, as in the 2013 Sci-Fi Film Music Prom; but as I observed above, you can't please everybody, and it made sense to include music from the latest film in the saga, so the programmed numbers were March of the Resistance and Rey's Theme from The Force Awakens, before finishing with A New Hope - Main Title.

Encores generally fall into two categories: extravagant, showy, virtuosic or comic on the one hand, and quiet, reflective on the other. Unfortunately The Imperial March falls into neither category. But I could tell there was going to be more, and spotted the drummer sneaking in to the orchestra. The quickest way to silence the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall is for the soloist to take up position at the instrument, or for the conductor to raise the baton to the orchestra once more, and so Keith Lockhart did. Some jazzy scales began - just enough for you to wonder, "what's this?", before I remembered that the orchestral version of The Cantina Band has just enough intro to throw you off before the big tune begins. So there you have it, for the first category of encore; and a little more from Harry Potter finished off the concert in a more reflective mood.
qatsi: (proms)
2017-07-19 08:22 pm
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Tempora mutantur nos sed mutamur non in illis

Oh dear, oh dear. It's all changed this year: the queueing system has changed, an attempt to disperse people which leads to a much less social atmosphere, and there's additional security theatre (a modicum of which has a potential effect, but much of it striking me as somewhat pointless). At least some of this must have been thrust upon the Royal Albert Hall at short notice, because it has driven a coach and horses through the Proms Extra events: essentially, Promenaders who are in the front half (say) of the queue will lose their places by going to the pre-Prom talks, and I gather attendance has slumped correspondingly. I'm sure this scheduling debacle wouldn't have been designed. The other deplorable innovation is that yet another phase of building work means that the Arena Day and Season Ticket holders are being admitted through the same door in parallel, which has apparently produced some "tired and emotional" moments. There's a long-standing convention that Season Ticket holders stand in the left half of the front row, and Day prommers stand in the right half - when admitted carefully in two separate queues from opposite sides of the hall this works quite well, but with the vagaries of bag searches and ticket scanning, there is only one stream entering the arena, with correspondingly random results.

Anyhow, after the initial disorientation, I was in any case four or five rows back for Prom 5, which was the first in a pair of concerts by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård. I'd picked this concert because it was full of favourite works of mine. Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 does seem a slightly odd piece with which to begin a concert, but it's a single movement work of about 20 minutes duration. It worked quite well, and I preferred Søndergård's ending in particular to the rendition by Osmo Vänskä in the Proms' Sibelius cycle a couple of years ago - holding the final chord a little longer, but not too much. As Jonathan Meades says, good is not always the same as authentic.

For the next piece, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, the orchestra was joined by pianist Bezhod Abduraimov. I found it an assured but not arrogant performance. Being a few rows back I decided on this occasion to stand on the left side, which sometimes gives you a better view of the pianists's hands; however it turned out I was in line with a couple of rather tall people and I didn't see that much detail. Søndergård gave the work indulgent tempi at a few points; but it is a late Romantic work and to be honest, I think Stephen Hough just took the piece far too fast all those years ago. On this accasion I found there was a positive chemistry between soloist and conductor, right through to the final bars. Remarkably there was no applause between movements, and Abduraimov indulged us further with a Tchaikovsky Nocturne as an encore.

After the interval, another orchestral workhorse: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. I remember reading once that Shostakovich paces the final movement of this work just right - that there's a long, but not too long, introduction. In fact I think this sentiment applies across the work; the themes shuffle around in the long first movement at just the right pace. In fact I found myself starting to fade during this long concert, but made it through to the end unscathed.

It was a late finish, and I finally arrived home at about ten to midnight. As I entered the estate, there were two Southern Electric vans parked ominously under an arc-light; even worse, two more, with a digger and a pneumatic drill closer to the house. There were no power problems in my home, but the other side of the street seemed to be off, including street lights. Although the work seemed to be going on for some time, I found my earplugs were fortunately tuned to block out the industrial noise.

Having understood the changes to the system, I planned for the following day more carefully, and this resulted in a place in the second row. The same orchestra and conductor, but a less familiar programme. In fact, I didn't know either piece in the first half - Shostakovich's symphonic poem October (a Proms first performance) and then his Violin Concerto No. 1, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist. This, of course, made it a popular concert; the work is certainly virtuosic and she played it strenuously. I recognised fragments; Shostakovich frequently quoted or reused material, and there were certainly themes and passages that feature in other works such as the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and strings. Benedetti gave us an encore of a version of Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns, arranged by Petr Limonov. In the second half, we had Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, a more familiar and favourite work. The orchestra seemed to me to be a little patchy; in particular there was one chord from the brass in the scherzo that just seemed like noise. But, by the end, Søndergård had everything under control and the final "big tune" was a great success.

After an earlier finish, I was lucky with connections and made it back to Reading by about 22:20. As I walked from the station to the car park, I was rather surprised to discover the IDR had been submerged under the bridge by the station, with one or two cars helplessly marooned in the water. Clearly there had been a downpour at some point in the evening. The car park I was in was unaffected, but the road by Burghfield Bridge was awash (shallowly) from one side to the other. I'm looking forward to less eventful journeys home for the rest of the season.
qatsi: (meades)
2017-07-15 12:05 pm
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The Antidote to Cookbooks

Book Review: The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, by Jonathan Meades
When I saw this in the work book sale, I reached straight for it, no questions asked, as I knew it was already on my wish list.

Imagine, if you will, a cookbook written by Jonathan Meades. And there you have it, more or less. If you are unfamiliar with his TV programmes, the MeadesShrine YouTube channel is a good starting point, although these programmes are generally architecturally rather than gastronomically focused. An acquaintance once declaimed that Meades was best watched "with a glass of wine in one hand, and a dictionary in the other".

Meades did spend some years as a restaurant critic, and became morbidly obese for his efforts. The collection of recipes here is, for the most part, surprisingly practical, though several refer to unheard-of ingredients (many of them I believe to be cheeses) for which one might have to imagine more quotidian substitutions, and the elephant gratin is, on a detailed read of the ingredients, somewhat disappointing. Interspersed with anecdotes and musings on the question of whether anything in food is truly original, this is an audio book, albeit without an MP3. What did you expect?
qatsi: (urquhart)
2017-07-12 08:39 pm
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The Strange Death of Liberal England

Book Review: The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield
This had been on my to-read list for quite a while and the inconclusive aftermath of the [first] 2017 General Election seemed as good a time as any to pick it up, especially since there had been no rebirth of "Liberal England". (Not that increasing the Lib Dems' seats by 50% wasn't a good result - but it's still a fraction of the number in the 2010-2015 parliament).

Dangerfield identifies a prologue, and three main threads, in the politics of the period 1906-1914: firstly, he deals with the House of Lords, and its ubiquitous role in blocking Liberal policies from the House of Commons. Ultimately this behaviour resulted in the Parliament Act, but it's a situation that is still not fully resolved today. The three main issues are of Irish Home Rule, Women's Suffrage, and Industrial Relations. On Irish Home Rule, Dangerfield presents a curious picture in which the Tories seem to oppose change largely for the sake of opposing it; the Unionist position in Ulster is presented as extremist, and desirous of belonging to some fantasy Union that doesn't actually exist - a situation that hardly seems altered today with the DUP, given that I have never felt I have much in common with those who claim to represent Northern Ireland and its desire to remain part of the UK. On the question of suffrage, Dangerfield writes almost exclusively about the cult of personality surrounding Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Their campaign is presented as violent and absurd; but the debate and progress (or rather, lack thereof) on the issue in Parliament is presented as equally absurd, and it becomes difficult to work out which came first. On industrial relations, the situation is just a mess, but unfortunately it is reminiscent in some ways of today, with extreme and ill-thought grass-roots positions undermining and replacing more moderate Union leadership, and a range of attitudes among employers, from enlightened through to abusive.

The cumulative effect of reading about these is to reveal how safe and orderly Britain is today, given that only the suffrage issue is incontrovertibly resolved (though, in Dangerfield's writing, the Suffragettes' campaign is the most consistently violent of the three); the polarised political situation on Brexit and its economic implications does bear some resemblance with the industrial issues of a century ago. Dangerfield doesn't actually synthesise how these threads caused the death of Liberal England, rather assuming the general atrophying political climate (which again, is surely echoed today) produces this outcome, but leaves the outbreak of World War I as his ending point. The choice of the word "England" in the title would make our contemporary sensitivities bristle, but Scotland barely gets a mention at all, and there's not much about Wales either.
qatsi: (penguin)
2017-07-08 04:19 pm
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Words on words

Book Review: The Word Detective - Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson
One great thing about the work book sale is that you can try something different knowing that, even if it doesn't work out, it has cost very little; in many cases I suspect it's cheaper even than a secondhand charity bookshop. This one looked curious, but risky: it could be very dry. Fortunately, it has turned out to be very readable. It's part personal biography (John Simpson, not that John Simpson), part a biography of the OED itself. Simpson joined Oxford University Press in 1976 and worked his way up in the Dictionary department. Slowly the prospect of a Second Edition of the OED emerged - the first, having been completed in 1928 with an irregular series of supplements since. At the same time, technology was evolving, and Simpson sought the help of others and the budget to computerise the half million definitions contained on card indexes. It's not a political book but one can easily imagine the heated discussions that must have taken place; the impression conveyed is that OUP always did the right thing, but perhaps sometimes after exhausting some of the other options. The Second Edition combined the original with the supplements, and was available on CD-ROM as well as in print, but rapid advances pushed for a Third Edition, and an evolving online resource. Simpson brings the story to a personal conclusion with his retirement in 2013. The personal aspects of the biography are small, and focus mostly on his family life, including coping with a disabled daughter (he doesn't name any condition, but some of it sounds like severe autism). Scattered throughout, Simpson highlights words in the main text and chooses to divert into their etymology, history and current usage, which reveals his enthusiasm and helps to breathe life into his subject.
qatsi: (urquhart)
2017-06-26 08:59 pm
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The Final Cut

We were on holiday in Portugal when news of the Grenfell Tower fire broke. As such, we probably didn't get the wall-to-wall coverage a major incident in London would provide to a domestic audience, although we certainly gleaned the grim details and the abject failure by the Prime Minister in visiting emergency services but not victims. (In contrast, the Queen did visit; but I don't think that's especially comparable. She's explicitly not a political figure and her privilege - like it or not - stems from a different provenance. Though I do wonder whether the folk memory of the bombing of Buckingham Palace in World War 2 - and the 1992 Windsor Castle fire - might have played their part.) Blair or Cameron, or even Brown, would have done better.

May's role, however, just reminded me more and more of Francis Urquhart in The Final Cut. When it was first broadcast in 1995, I felt it was a weak final instalment of the trilogy; the contemptuous attitudes of Urquhart and his government had gone beyond satire. I re-watched it this weekend, and it no longer seems so unbelievably bitter, because we all know that life itself has gone beyond satire in the last year or so. Urquhart's undoing is the death of a schoolgirl in a shoot-out between British troops and a paramilitary group in Cyprus, in a situation brought about directly as a result of his orders to the armed forces, which in turn is indirectly intended to benefit himself financially.

Neither the poor owner of the faulty fridge-freezer nor the manufacturer can be held responsible for the resulting inferno beyond a single flat; what idiocy produced a process that allowed the building to be refurbished with the materials that were used? I imagine the local council's motivation was cost-cutting rather than malevolence (and, as I don't know the chronology, they may be able to claim they were using cladding on the basis that other councils had used it too); but it inevitably brings to mind the corruption of T Dan Smith. The council plainly had no effective plan for a major incident that required re-housing, either. Unlike Urquhart, this tragedy isn't May's fault personally; but May has played her part in creating the culture that has allowed it to happen. It seems to me that her legacy is already set: the wheels are coming off, one aspect of the country after another (security, housing, NHS) falling apart after years of austerity and weakening of safeguards.
qatsi: (penguin)
2017-06-24 11:40 am
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As Seen on TV

Book Review: Nice Work (If You Can Get It), by Celia Imrie
I enjoyed the recent TV series Our Friend Victoria, at least as much as one can enjoy an extended obituary: there's something about Victoria Wood's work that leaves you feeling uplifted even if the subject itself isn't cheery. I get a similar feeling from Eric Coates' music. I'd seen publicity for this book somewhere, and when I saw the book in the work book sale it was an easy decision to give it a go. I was curious to see how Imrie would fare as an author, and also to see whether it had a similar vein to Wood, and it felt like appropriate holiday reading.

I enjoyed the book, and it did feel a bit like reading something by Wood; not in an imitative way, but just in the sense that they were part of a team that obviously shared some common ground (although I have the impression that Wood was the sole writer for her TV shows). This turns out to be number two in a series by Imrie, but there is no need to have read the previous volume as the characters and their situation are explained straight away. The book is set in Bellevue-sur-Mer, a small French town somewhere near Nice (hence the book's playful title) and Cannes. Our heroes are a set of British ex-pats, who have decided to set up a restaurant in the town, mostly for the purpose of keeping themselves occupied. The story follows their trials and tribulations, through French bureaucracy, Russian oligarchs, Sardinian Mafia, and the expats' own dysfunctional friends and family, including minor and major actresses descending for the Cannes Film Festival and behaving theatrically.

Two things make the book a bit tricky: there is a relatively large cast, and it's sometimes a bit difficult to remember who is who, and what their relationship is to the core of four people setting up the restaurant. Inevitably, from time to time I imagined the characters portrayed by the cast of Wood's shows, which was a little awkward, as Duncan Preston took all the male roles. The second thing is that sometimes the plot moves on a bit jerkily, with a paragraph or two summarising quite a large leap forwards. It is perhaps the sort of thing you wouldn't really notice in a film or TV programme, but it can feel a little clunky in print. But neither of these things prevented me from enjoying the book and confidently adding its predecessor to my to-read list.
qatsi: (baker)
2017-06-18 09:11 pm

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

I was hesitant about booking a holiday in Portugal in mid-June, but was persuaded to go ahead. We had a good time - eventually - although, really, much of it was too hot for me; generally into the 30s and possibly hitting 40°C in Lisbon yesterday.

Things didn't get off to a good start, when we tried to check in on Thursday evening, 12 hours beforehand; BA's website just gave us an error message and told us to go to the airport. So we waited for the exit poll, raised our eyebrows, and went to bed, getting up the following morning at ridiculous-o'clock. There was an unexpected queue at 5:30 in the morning at the entrance to Purple Parking, but the airport wasn't too busy.

Unfortunately, we were told, BA had overbooked the flight. We were given standby boarding passes and told to wait. Later, we were told to take everything airside. This didn't seem entirely correct, but it was a new experience, so we did exactly as we were told. Security, however, insisted that our hold baggage had to go back to the drop-off desk; so, we did that, returned, and ended up having to run through Heathrow Terminal 3's delightful "retail experience".

We made it onto our flight, but our checked baggage did not. Though we both had suspicions, we weren't informed of this until a semi-decipherable tannoy announcement at Lisbon told us to go to the baggage enquiries desk. Many years ago I had a colleague to whom this happened, and I knew his luggage had been couriered to his hotel by the evening, so I had hopes this was a standard process. It seemed to be so; but BA promised the luggage would be on the afternoon flight, and it wasn't. Our hotel was informed that it would be on the overnight flight, and it did indeed turn up by the following morning, but it didn't make for the most relaxing of starts.

Fri 9th: Arrival, somewhat discombobulated. The Metro appears to be straightforward to navigate and we head to the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which houses a considerable collection, including some interesting Persian carpets and Turkish ceramics. We walk across the Parque Eduardo VII to the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres, a survivor of Lisbon's 1755 earthquake.

Lisbon - Aqueduct

Sat 10th: After reacquainting ourselves with our possessions, we head off to explore the city centre - Baixa and Chiado. It comes quickly to our attention that there are many people wandering around the streets more-or-less openly offering drugs; one assumes that the police don't care much.

Lisbon - Elevator

Later in the day we head over to the Castle. As well as taking in the building and museum, we pause to listen to the tango band rehearsing on an outdoor stage in the gardens.

Lisbon - Castle

Sun 11th: We take a tram to Belém. By this point it is becoming apparent that the Vivagem cards for public transport (basically like Oyster in London) aren't of the greatest quality (they're made of cardboard) and are prone to failure. Although the card only costs 50 cents it's quite annoying that you have to be so careful with them. The tram is packed and Belém is even busier; it's about a half hour queue in baking sunlight to get in to the Mosteiro doe Jerónimos, which is very ornate but otherwise not especially spectacular. The queue for the Tower on the riverfront is shorter, though not trivial.

Lisbon - Tower of Belém

Mon 12th: We head out to Sintra. The train from Rossio station is straightforward, but once there, the Rough Guide map isn't entirely clear and the text doesn't explain strongly enough that you should get the bus to the palace at Pena. Naïvely I reckon it's about a kilometre, but I haven't allowed for poor signage. We do eventually make it on foot, but our patience is tried. Fortunately, it's worth it. We return via the Moorish Castle.

Sintra - Pena Palace

Sintra - Moors' Castle

Tues 13th: Another trip to Sintra, this time for the Palácio Nacional and the Quinta da Regaleira. Though I've only visited the house at West Wycombe Park, the cave system in the grounds at Regaleira suggests to me the Hell-Fire Caves; the Initiation Well seems like an inside-out Tower of Babel.

Sintra - Initiation Well

Wed 14th: We wake up to the news of the Grenfell Tower fire; after the attack in Borough Market and the coalition of crackpots, it adds to the stream of disturbing UK news. We spend the day in Lisbon, firstly in the Alfama district, visiting the Paneão Nacional (Pantheon), São Vicente de Fora, and the Water Museum at Barbadinhos. Although there's an exhibition we're really there for the steampunk of the preserved pumping station.

Lisbon - Barbadinhos Steam Pumping Station

Later we trek out to Estrela; the basilica is disappointing, but the nearby park is pleasant and a granizado is refreshing.

Thurs 15th: More museums. There's a queue of about 15 minutes just to use the automated ticket machines at Cais do Sodré station, but once we get to Alcântara, the streets are quiet. The Museu do Oriente is excellent, but sadly it's almost deserted. After lunch we go to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which has a respectable number of visitors but is far from busy.

Lisbon - Musical Instruments of the Chinese Opera at Museo do Oriente

Fri 16th: We take a long-distance trip to Porto. We're a bit pressed for time, given the hilly nature of the city, so we don't venture too far from the centre, and don't make it to Vila Nova da Gaia, where the wine lodges are. But we do experience a Franceshina for lunch, and see the famous Lello bookshop.

Porto - Bridges across the Douro

Porto - Lello Bookshop

Sat 17th: It turns out the botanical garden is closed, so we skip that part of the plan and move on to the Decorative arts museum. After lunch we take in the small Casa Museu Dr A Gonçalves. Although Lisbon Airport is chaotic and the check-in machine tells us to go to gate "undefined", the flight home is smoother. I notice smoke on the ground as we ascend from Lisbon Airport and wonder if it's a wildfire; we are oblivious to the catastrophe going on a few hundred kilometers away, though the train to Porto passed through Coimbra. On return, only about half of the electronic passport gates are in use for some reason, and Purple Parking's IVR is awkward and unforgiving, hanging up rather than repeating a question when you didn't hear it clearly the first time.

Lisbon was busy, but it didn't strike me as particularly commercial: the metro doesn't start until 6:30 in the morning, and there are often long intervals between trains. Likewise, the local trains were patchy - good for Sintra, but not so good in the direction of Cascais. Food was good though sometimes slow, and the hawking waiters in the city centre were even worse than the drug-dealers and selfie-stick sellers.

Lisbon - Trams

qatsi: (dascoyne)
2017-06-04 04:06 pm
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An Ealing Comedy

Book Review: The Secret Life of Ealing Studios, by Robert Sellers
The work book sale is a charity sale; but unlike browsing through a second-hand or charity bookshop, the books are completely unsorted (with the exception of children's books, and large-format volumes, which are filed to one side), so you have to look through everything. This provides scope for serendipity, such as this one, which I doubt I'd ever have discovered otherwise. The book covers the period from the late 1930s, when Michael Balcon took over, through to the late 1950s, when it was sold. It's very clear that Balcon was the controlling mind of the studio throughout; in the war years, he was determined to play his part in the domestic war effort, and after the war it was very much his view of Britain that was portrayed in Ealing's films.

The book aims to record personal experiences, so there are many first-hand interviews with people who worked in all sorts of back-stage roles. The picture that emerges from them could almost form the plot of an Ealing film itself: most (but not all) people felt there was a close family atmosphere (certainly "who you knew" was often a factor in getting through the door); there was a lack of rank in some aspects (but a clear class distinction in others), and general consensus with occasional artistic differences. In the era before health and safety there were near misses from time to time, which can be told quasi-comically now, but were no doubt sometimes more serious. Another theme that emerges from the book is the intransigence of trades unions at the time, doing what would be considered nowadays far more in the area of restrictive practices than could be justified by protecting their members' interests. Indeed, it's implied that Peter Sellers' observations of Ealing technicians while working on The Ladykillers was put to full use later in I'm All Right Jack.

After the war years and the comedic post-war heights of films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and Passport to Pimlico, the studio slowly declined in the 1950s; to some extent this was probably due to its small scale operation, but also to Balcon's limited vision in being prepared to face the future. The site was sold to the BBC and the company was absorbed into MGM. However, after an uncertain period from the 1990s, it's good to note that the studio has survived into the twenty-first century.
qatsi: (wally)
2017-05-23 08:58 pm
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Elasticsearch in Action

Book Review: Elasticsearch in Action, by Radu Gheorghe, Matthew Lee Hinman, and Roy Russo
In a previous job I'd come across Solr, but these days, I'm told, Elasticsearch is where it's at, at least where I work now. Ultimately, both are built on top of Lucene; which does, actually, make you wonder whether that has any competitors.

This book was published in 2016, but one of its weaknesses is that it's very clearly somewhat out-of-date already, as it refers to the "latest" Elasticsearch being 1.5, with 2.0 in development. (There's been some creative arithmetic, but the current release is 5.x, and over that time there have been significant changes to some APIs.) Uncharacteristically for Manning, I did encounter a few badly worded sections, or examples or diagrams that didn't make sense or had incorrect values; cumulatively these things make me wonder whether the book suffered long delays and then finally got pushed out in a hurry without adequate proofing.

Hopefully the underlying principles remain much the same, with chapters on basic CRUD operations, index and analyzer configuration, search syntax, and relevance scoring. It is always against my intuition that many search queries are exact, when my expectation is for the results to have some degree of fuzziness; of course, in practice that's where the scoring comes in. There are also chapters on techniques for modelling parent-child relationships between documents, scaling, performance, and administrative tasks. Somewhat unfairly, several topics are relegated to appendices, including geo-search, hit highlighting, percolation (which was completely new to me but seems potentially very powerful, discovering which queries will match a given document) and completion/suggestion. It seems to me these are at least as, if not more important, than parent-child relationships and aggregation functions, but maybe that's just my use case.
qatsi: (bach)
2017-05-14 08:35 pm
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The Art of Noise

Book Review: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
I picked this up straight away when I saw it in a recent work book sale, as I knew it was on my to-read list. The book takes three episodes in Shostakovich's life, probing the inner turmoil and unanswerable questions that must have been forming in his mind. The first episode is probably the most well known: following Stalin's critical review in Pravda, Muddle instead of Music, of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the composer fears that he is about to be deported to Siberia; to spare his wife and child disturbance in the middle of the night, he takes to staying on the landing by the lifts in his apartment block, reflecting on his life up to this point. Spoilers )

I haven't read any Julian Barnes before, so I can't comment on whether it is similar to his other works. While I don't think it's necessary, some prior knowledge of Shostakovich certainly helps. This is quite a short and easy (but not comfortable) read, but nonetheless profound.
qatsi: (lurcio)
2017-05-06 05:32 pm
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Ridebis, et licet rideas

Book Review: Release Your Inner Roman by Marcus Sidonius Falx, by Jerry Toner
This was a random selection from a work book sale a while ago; it's supposed to be a satirical take on self-help books, written from a Roman perspective. In fact, although the satire is there, it's not as laugh-out-loud as I'd expected, and it is perhaps surprising how much of Falx's advice doesn't seem outrageous or unreasonable today, though of course in some areas we have moved on quite a lot. It seems to me that Toner has successfully captured the rhetorical style of Roman writing, as it does read quite like the translation of a classical text. But the other thing Toner has done, which reduces the laughter but also adds an educational aspect to the book, is to provide a commentary at the end of each chapter on what the Romans thought on the subjects under discussion, and to give sources for those keen to investigate further.
qatsi: (gatherer)
2017-05-02 08:18 pm
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Tales of the City

Book Review: City of London - The History, by David Kynaston
This is something of a doorstop, but it is also the distillation of Kynaston's four-volume history, and therefore presumably represents the edited highlights. The book covers the period 1815-2001, and I think that is symptomatic of one of its Achilles heels, that it assumes quite a lot of the reader. The Royal Exchange dates from 1570, and Lloyd's of London and the Bank of England from the end of the seventeenth century, and there is only a cursory preamble in the first chapter of the book. Likewise, the terms accepting house, discounting house, and issuing house are introduced without explanation; the book could really do with a glossary.

Setting these misgivings to one side, the book focuses on the increasing financial aspect of the City of London, while also highlighting that, historically, it was also a mercantile and more broadly commercial area. The rise of the Barings and Rothschilds families in particular is noted, while the Stock Exchange contributes Railway mania, and a series of less successful institutions produced a number of banking crises in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It's striking that the City has always been international in character (initially, offering and managing sovereign debt for other monarchies), and often criticised for it (as a distraction from providing a useful financing service for domestic industry). Private banking slowly gives way to joint-stock banking companies; the First World War deals the fatal blow that governs the next fifty years or so, a largely futile battle to reinstate and maintain the Gold standard. Labour nationalises the Bank of England in 1946; mergers, acquisitions, and asset-stripping become rampant in the 1960s and 1970s; the Stock Exchange slowly introduces new technology, only to discard it a few years later; and so on. The discussion of the "Big Bang" of the 1980s is interesting: it was forced upon the Stock Exchange as a deal to resolve a restrictive practices investigation in the early Thatcher years; indeed, one gets the impression that careers in the City were distinctly leisurely until relatively recently. The overall impression is that the City is apolitical, stridently demanding independence from political interference but rarely able to regulate itself effectively.
qatsi: (proms)
2017-04-20 08:46 pm
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BBC Proms 2017

The 2017 season of the BBC Proms has been announced. There's a pattern here, in which I initially think there's not all that much of interest, and then I find I have a long stream of browser tabs open.

So here are some highlights for me:

It's noticeable that quite a few of these are repeats for me; I regard that as an indication that the repertoire isn't as broad as I'd like more than that I am just set in my ways.

And here are some others that are worth pointing out, though probably not my cup of tea, or just for snippets to catch on the radio or iPlayer: probably giving Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique a miss again, due to its proximity to other concerts, and the dreaded words "BBC co-commission"; also by Berlioz, The Damnation of Faust; Monteverdi's Vespers; Handel's Israel in Egypt; showtune time - two performances of Oklahoma!; Schoenberg's Gurrelieder with Simon Rattle; Bach's St John Passion; Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito; Proms in Hull, Southwark Cathedral, Peckham Car Park, and Wilton's Music Hall; and Stravinsky's take on the Song of the Volga Boatmen.
qatsi: (sewell)
2017-04-09 08:06 pm
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The Tatlin Flyer

Due to several busy weekends in March, I'd left it a bit late to go to the Royal Academy's Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition, so I set off early on Saturday morning. Once again GWR demonstrated their failure to match supply with demand, with a train busier than at "peak" times on an average weekday.

It's a large exhibition, marking the centenary of the 1917 revolution and taking as its scope the art of the USSR's first fifteen years (approximately). Mostly the exhibits are paintings, though there are also photographs, films, domestic and commemorative artifacts, and physical reconstructions. There is a political element to many of the works; some, of course, appearing rather kitsch nowadays, and the airbrushing of Trotsky out of early Soviet memorabilia is funny-but-not-funny. I found a number of highlights: Boris Kustodiev's Demonstration On Uritsky Square (note the young Jeremy Corbyn at the bottom right, studiously reading his copy of Pravda), The Bolshevik, and the chocolate-box-esque Carneval; two contrasting portraits of Stalin, by Isaak Brodsky and Georgy Rublev; the technological Globe at the Moscow Telegraphic Central Station and Leonardo-inspired Letatlin; the weird colour palette of Pavel Filonov; in the style of war art, Alexander Deineka's The Defence of Petrograd and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin's After the Battle; but also the timeless Day of Annunciation by Konstantin Yuon and Blue Spring by Vasily Baksheev. The exhibition culminates in a room marking the start of Stalin's cult of personality, with a vase commemorating blimp flights between Moscow and New York, and a model of the Palace of the Soviets.
qatsi: (capaldi)
2017-04-05 08:50 pm
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The Drake Equation

Book Review: Five Billion Years of Solitude - The Search for Life Among the Stars, by Lee Billings
I picked this up around a year ago at a work book sale. It turned out to be quite a patchy book. There is some interesting science in here, but Billings has chosen to make it more of a human-interest story, which doesn't work as well as it sounds it should, given the subject.

The first chapter starts off with a discussion about the Drake equation, and quite rapidly focuses on the longevity of a technical civilisation as the critical factor. The rest of the book weaves through the advances and discoveries of exoplanets in the past 20 years or so, and also terrestrial evolution, past, present and future geology and chemistry. Depressingly, the other rocky planets in our own solar system show that it is easy for such worlds not to be hospitable to advanced life. However, the book is also a story of planet-hunters, astrobiologists, space scientists, and dreamers; and where humans are involved, politics is not far away, with rival groups within the scientific community arguing over the validity of their techniques and which projects to spend money on, and the US government (the book is essentially US-focused) regularly reprioritising NASA and trimming its budget.

It's speculative that we would recognise signs of life (though we would recognise signs of life sufficiently similar to ourselves); it's speculative that we could detect such signs (though that is probably only a matter of time); and if we did, what then? Dubbing such a world "Earth 2.0" hints at our colonial ambitions, but surely such a world would be already taken. In the mean time, we need to take care of the only world known to support (allegedly) intelligent life.
qatsi: (Default)
2017-04-04 08:57 pm

I, for one, am not too keen on LJ's new overlords

Another day, another LJ drama. I suppose it's been on the slide for quite a long time now; in that sense, maybe a shake-out is no bad thing. Springing new T&Cs without notice is a bit off, and for the time being in principle I'm leaving that alone. Fortunately, in some previous incident, I exported my LJ to WordPress, though its handling of locked posts is miserable in comparison to LJ's, so here I am, ready to give DW a go. So far, the worst has been looking at a large number of rather over-designed themes to find one a bit nicer than the very basic DW pages.