Archive for the ‘art’ Category
I think it’s time for another annual update, though I doubt that this one will be shorter than the last. The “shock of the new” has worn off, somewhat, and there have been fewer surprises. It hasn’t been a boring year, however.
The second year at University College Dublin (UCD) did not go quite as well as the first, but I’m still on track for a solid 2.1 degree, a.k.a. “Second Class Honours, Grade I” in B.Sc Structural Engineering with Architecture. A “First” is a little beyond me, since it requires excellent results on all subjects, and I don’t see that happening. In some subjects – not all – I’m running in to problems with the teaching and assessment methods.
My grade point average (GPA) was dragged down by two subjects in the second semester: in one, Theory of Structures, I enjoyed the lectures very much, and did well in tutorials etc., but when it came to the exam, I found that I could not remember every procedure and every formula. So much of it was empirical in nature, derived from experiment and not from first principles, so there was nothing “behind” most formulae for me to hang on to.
In another subject, Statistics, the problem was that the lecturing was frankly poor, with the lecturer often late and wasting time on silly things. He seemed to expect the students to be computers, remembering random pieces of information from his and other subjects. When no-one gave an instant answer to an integration problem (from calculus), the result was a 20-minute rant on how we were not trying hard enough. As if that was not bad enough, I found that Statistics affected me like no other subject ever has: an overwhelming, enervating, sense of “I don’t care”. I know that some of it is relevant to my future – I was already aware of some parts – but I could not help thinking that most of it was not, and I may never see any of it ever again.
In particular, I’m getting more frustrated with examinations. For most courses in my programme, I think it does not make sense to have the whole course depend on what I can cram in to my head and regurgitate on to paper, by hand, in a room filled with students, in a two-hour period. You end up studying to pass the exam, not to further your understanding of the subject – though you would expect those two goals to overlap. The degree to which this applied depended on the subject, an in one subject in particular, there was no exam, and the entire course was based on continuous assessment, i.e. assignments.
If this was happening in every subject, I would start to suspect that the problems lay primarily with me, but a few other subjects showed me just how good it can be. In Mechanics of Solids, the lecturer was excellent, focusing primarily on actual problems and not on abstract theory. The assignments were challenging but doable, and the exam fell in to place nicely, leaving me with a solid A-.
In my past work experience, the standard of work we had to produce meant that it was always necessary to check sources, and use whatever resources and tools were available to us, and not try to do it all from our heads with pen and paper. I do not expect my future to be much different: rather than using my head to store information, it will be used to process information in to knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom. I thought about drawing a “wisdom pyramid” to illustrate what I mean, but a quick internet search shows that many are thinking along the same lines. The diagram to the right is courtesy of the Institute for Innovation & Information Productivity (IIIP).
At this stage in my degree programme, UCD seems to be expecting me to operate at the lower levels, wasting energy that could be better spent on a deeper understanding of the subject. It looks as if I that will have to wait for the Master’s years – if I can afford them.
The only thing to report on this front is that I’ve passed the end of the two year trial of FTY720, and am now on the extension phase of the trial. In this phase, I’m definitely on the drug – no more placebos – but I’m not being told what the actual dose is. I should soon be told what I was on in the first two years of the trial.
With multiple sclerosis (MS), the symptoms can be highly variable, and dependent on factors other than the MS itself. It changes how your body reacts to certain stimuli and situations; for example, I have been warned against extreme heat, a warning I definitely violated this past summer (which I will say more about later). In general, though, I can consider the situation well under control.
There are certain constants in my case: the L’Hermitte’s Sign in my neck can be considered a marker of permanent spinal cord damage: I can not bend my head forward without tingles shooting down to my feet. The severity varies: it’s worse when I am tired, but also first thing in the morning, after my spine stretches during sleep.
Some things vary, such as my memory performance, which partly let me down during the last university exams. I do experience fatigue, but it doesn’t just happen: I don’t get tired if I don’t do anything, but when I do things, I get more tired than I used to, and more quickly. I can still walk miles a day, but I feel the effects more. Still, this is turning out to be a very manageable condition.
After a few attempts at finding work, I could see that the employment situation here in Ireland is such that I need not bother. Where there are openings, they are being bombarded with applications, with the result that you need to be a perfect match to the position, complete with plenty of relevant experience. (I saw reports of a thousand applications being received for one simple temporary teaching post.) At this in-between stage in my study, with only summers free, I am not a fit to any job at all.
May was largely taken up by university exams; June by preparations to move house – again – and the move itself. My new place is closer to the university in general, and much closer to the parts of the university I will be visiting the most, specifically the Civil Engineering department. July was a quiet month of settling in, with several hospital visits associated with switch to the FTY720 extension trial. Finally, August arrived.
On the last day of July I flew to Houston, Texas, to visit old friends of mine, staying in their house about 50km north for four weeks. The daytime temperatures rarely went below 30°C, usually exceeding 35°C, which explains why everything is air-conditioned. I think the kids were pleased to see me: there are photos of me, on the couch, with all three of them on top of me (a classic dogpile). We visited Johnson Space Centre, including Mission Control, had a good steak dinner, and even got to go to a baseball game. (The Houston Astros beat the Florida Marlins 4-1.)
My interests in architecture and cities meant that I really wanted to see downtown Houston too, which took some doing. My friends live in a different county, out where the Houston Metro buses don’t run, so the best way to do it was to travel to my friend’s office, which was closer, and get the buses from there. The service was surprisingly good: the buses weren’t that regular, but they did run to schedule, so you could plan the trip. best of all: a trip costs just $1.25, including a free 2-hour transfer if you use a smart card, which I did.
The scale of Houston made it slightly daunting to someone on foot, in that heat, but after a little research and familiarization, I found Houston scored highly on my “friendly city” criteria: you could tell where you were and where you were going, things worked as advertised, and it was possible to leave the map in the pocket and navigate by intelligent guesswork. The downtown area features a network of tunnels linking the various buildings, complete with coffee shops and restaurants; these cater to office workers, mostly closing by 3PM. Up on the street, though, the locals suffering the heat presented the other side of Houston: largely Hispanic or African-American, and clearly impoverished, some apparently refugees from New Orleans.
One pleasant surprise: it was possible to walk straight in to the tallest building in Houston, the Chase Tower, and take an elevator to the Sky Lobby on the 60th floor: no cost, no formalities of any sort, just an elevator that makes your ears pop. I also paid a visit to the Museum of Fine Art, wandered through a wall-to-wall Who’s Who of Impressionism, and found myself standing in a room holding seven Picasso pieces. The place was nearly empty, even though it was Free Thursday.
Back in Dublin, I’m preparing to start university again on Monday, though I’ve already been back there several times. I’m involved with the Mature Student Society there, and helped out on the orientation day last weekend, giving a short speech about my experiences and motivations. I still find it easier to speak in public than in private, for some strange reason.
The Asus eee PC 1000 is still going strong, running the Ubuntu Linux Netbook Remix. It survived the trip to the USA with flying colours, and over the last year, about the only problems it’s experienced have been those I caused myself. In the university library it’s kept me typing for over five hours at a stretch.
My Houston friends gave me a parting gift, in the form of an Apple iPod Touch (8GB). I wouldn’t normally buy any Apple products, due to their corporate policies (DRM, lock-in, the walled garden, etc.), but this is turning out to be extremely interesting. It’s a very good MP3 player, but I didn’t know it had wireless networking, email capability, and more. It’s basically an iPhone without the phone, which coincides nicely with my current plans to cancel my current mobile phone account. (I’ve been overcharged by my current provider, and I’ve had enough.)
The applications are also very interesting. For example, I’ve found a version of the Ilium eWallet software I’ve used for years, for storing passwords and other sensitive information. There’s also a version of Skype, as well as some interesting games, such as Jelly Car and iMafia III. It’s only been about ten days at this time, so I’m still getting used to the iPod.
Another year, another birthday, another 60 credits, another step closer to … what? I ended the previous annual report with a hope that the world wouldn’t fall apart under my feet, and look at what happened. I was expecting a housing market crash, but I was not expecting such a monumental balls-up. Never mind sub-prime mortgages, I had much more to learn about insurance, derivatives, and the dreaded Credit Default Swap. Still, it could be worse: I seem to have picked a good time to be absent from the job market and living a low-income, low-expenditure lifestyle. I’m having health checks and receiving MS therapy at no cost to me, and I even had enough slack, financially, to afford a trip to the USA, so I have to say that life is pretty good. I think it’s time to put this report to bed, and follow it there. Until next year, good night.
Katharine Hepburn died yesterday, at the age of 96. This is headline news around the world, and for good reason. It’s not quite correct, in my opinion, to call her a Hollywood legend. She didn’t really seem part of it, not bothering with the usual Hollywood vices (drink, drugs, big houses, plastic surgery etc.).
- “Acting is the most minor of gifts and not a very high-class way to earn a living. After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.”
She used the “star system” to her advantage, and is still the only actress to hold four “Best Actress” Oscars. As well as the cover page of the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), the BBC have a good story.
- “I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, as long as I enjoyed it at the time.”
The American Film Institute ranks her as the greatest actress of all time, and I can’t say I disagree. We can expect the raft of DVD re-releases to mark this event, but Bringing Up Baby is scheduled for an airing here this coming Friday, and that will be a very good way to remember her. Not that I’m likely to forget.
In the next week or so I should be taking delivery of a Kawai K5000S synthesiser. I’ve never owned a proper synthesiser before, the closest I’ve come before was a Casio home keyboard that had some synthesiser-type control over waveforms and a filter. More recently, I’ve been working with virtual synthesisers, mostly two programs from Native Instruments:
- FM7 starts as a digital recreation of the Yamaha DX7, which can use original DX7 programs, but it then goes much further. Some additional features were not possible with 80′s technology, e.g. total flexibility in modulation, or not considered suitable for a digital synth, such as the distortion and the analogue-type filter.
- Reaktor is effectively a synth construction kit, allowing me to put together any combination of components that will get me the sound I want. This is the platform on which I built the whippet synthesizer.
With both these synths, real-time control will be a real help, since moving things on screen with a mouse takes too long and is too clumsy for live use. While it is possible to buy a separate MIDI controller box with knobs on it, all the models I’ve looked at seem to be lacking in some way or too expensive for what they do. The K5000S has some excellent real-time control facilities, including a 16-knob control bank and a much better quality keyboard than the cheap “master” keyboard I have currently. This is all in addition to the primary reason for buying a K5000S: its Additive Synthesis engine, which will need a little explaining.
Additive synthesis is a way of constructing sound by building it up from its fundamental harmonic elements, i.e. sine waves of different frequencies and amplitudes. A Hammond organ, believe it or not, is a primitive additive synthesiser since, by manipulating its drawbars, you are adding tones together to build up a complex waveform. The K5000 series uses digital signal processors to do this, but with far more precision and detail than any organ or analogue synthesiser could ever manage.
This is the opposite of the subtractive synthesis found in most synthesisers, in which the filter is a primary influence on the final sound. Whatever the sound source is used there, the filter selectively boosts or cuts frequency ranges. The SOS review (see below) of the K5000W, the first in the K5000 family, describes the differences by analogy with the visual arts: sampling as photography, subtractive synthesis as sculpture, while additive synthesis, by the same analogy, is like oil painting. Painting with sound: where have I heard that phrase before?
All synthesised sound can sound boring if the method used to produce the sound is “static” over time, unchanging. A Hammond organ is rarely seen without a huge rotating “Leslie” speaker attached, or electronic simulation thereof, to add some life to the results. My own attempts at additive synthesis by calculation, over the years, weren’t very interesting because of this, but the K5000 engine has been designed with the modulation facilities to get around this. It isn’t the most fashionable of instruments – they were only made for a while during 1996-7 – but they have a cult following, and are only going to get more expensive as time goes by.
Sound On Sound magazine have two useful reviews: the K5000W is a different model in the same family, but the review includes a good explanation of the Additive Synthesis engine common to all models. The K5000S review covers the model I’m buying, with more on performance features such as the excellent Arpeggiator. The SonicState page for the K5000S has mostly positive user reviews, some quite comprehensive, a few of the “it rocks | sucks” school of (un)thought.
Kawai were to Additive as Moog were to analogue synthesis and Yamaha were to FM synthesis; the pioneer in practical applications for a technology that would otherwise have stayed academic, unusable in a live musical setting. What I’ve heard of the K5000S so far sounds very lively, while more recent reviews I’ve seen have friendly warnings about potential speaker damage, while extolling its benefits as a creative instrument. I don’t mind admitting it also appeals to the math geek in me, but there’s no shame in spending hours playing with sounds, as long as I get to use them live or on record too. We’ll see.
Damien Hirst is back in business – another reason to go to London later this year, I think. In an interview in The Guardian, he talks about how he went off the rails a little – well, a lot – but has cleaned up his act a little. Quote:
“I remember once I wanted to cover a pig in vibrators like a hedgehog. It was going to be called Pork-u-pine. Thank God, I didn’t do it.”
Now he’s aiming at organized religion, an easy target, but one that never ceases to amuse. He’s produced several works loosely themed around the Last Supper painting, which will be in London later this year. One will show Christ and his apostles as ping-pong balls bouncing on fountains of wine – which, in Christian mythology, gets transformed into blood. (He couldn’t use real blood, presumably for reasons of hygiene.) This will sit next to a six-legged cow titled In His Infinite Wisdom. A general guideline I use: if I don’t know what the hell it is, it must be Art.
Still no news from the bank, I’ll give them a few more days before I call them again. The amounts involved are not enough to cause me serious financial concern, and I think I’m lucky that money doesn’t mean that much to me.
I’ve never seen Strictly Ballroom before, but I recorded it last night, wondering what all the fuss was about. Highly predictable in a “Fame” way, of course, but with a healthy wallop of post-modern Australian mockumentary humour. This was the breakthrough film for director Baz Luhrmann, who went on to direct Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge.
It has one plot feature that annoys me every time I see it: when you see an ugly duckling at the start, you know she will be transformed into a beautiful swan by the end; and you know she will start off wearing glasses, which will be removed later. In this case, the glasses are cheap and ugly, and compounded by blotchy skin and frizzy hair. In general, though, spectacles alone are seen as a sign of repression, of gawkiness, especially among women. Real women don’t wear specs, do they? You don’t see them in the cast of Friends, Melrose Place, or Buffy.
Why is this? Specs are a normal part of life, worn for sensible medical reasons, and I fail to see why they are so stigmatized in the popular media. Example: there’s a commercial on at the moment that features a nightclub scene with horse-racing commentary. Various guys, named like horses, try to “pull” a girl; of course there’s a guy wearing glasses, given the name “Hopeless Case”, who lasts about one-and-a-half seconds. (And you wonder why I don’t go to nightclubs?) In commercials for cleaning products, even, the guy using the “wrong” product is a bespectacled wimp.
In TV and film, specs are seen as an “accessory”, to make a point in a plot, so the prop master makes the actor wear a pair that stands out in an obvious ugly fashion on screen, like a huge pimple. That doesn’t match what I see every day, starting with the Armani set that I’ve had for over four years, since they’re very well made and my eyesight appears to have stabilized. I wear glasses by choice now, they actually serve to “enhance” my “coarse” features.
There aren’t many women in the building I work in, but a high proportion wear glasses all day, every day. I take that as a good sign, indicating that they have their priorities right, and aren’t going to jeopardise their eyesight for the sake of fashion. I tried contact lenses over ten years ago, but they were too high maintenance for me, and actually made me queasy at first (a known problem). Now that disposable lenses are more freely available, and more reliable, I should try them again, especially if I get the extra role in King Arthur.
My eyesight isn’t a problem in my daily life, but it has stopped me from doing something I’ve always wanted to do: fly. The new European rules applicable in Ireland are slightly tighter than the rules I remember reading in the UK years ago, both of which effectively bar me from flying, for reasons of colour vision and the extent of my short-sightedness. Even laser corrective surgery wouldn’t help, since the rules explicitly reference your eyesight before the surgery.
The good news is that the UK is introducing a new Private Pilot’s License standard for recreational flyers, under which your eyesight must match the rules for heavy vehicle drivers, and colour vision is not a factor. I know that flight simulation programs are not as detailed as the real world, but I’ve seen nothing there that makes colour blindness a safety factor. I guess the rules were required in the early days of flight, when pilots had to pick out runways or other landscape features in darkness without navigational aids, but that’s no longer the case in general aviation. I expect to fly only in daylight, and I’m never going to confuse a red light for a green light. If I move back to the UK, then, that’s something I expect to pursue. Ceiling Unlimited, and all that.
This evening I finally got around to watching Spirited Away in its entirety, and haven’t quite returned to this world yet.
It’s gathered a whole raft of awards, including the “Golden Bear” Best Picture award at the Berlin Film Festival and an Oscar® for Best Animated Feature this year. It’s also the most popular film in Japanese box-office history. There’s no question that it’s “mainstream”, then, and the US release was masterminded by John Lasseter of Pixar and released by Walt Disney Studios, but that doesn’t detract from its art.
I watched a third of it last weekend with two kids, six and four, who were totally engrossed and who might have made it to the end, but it was already past their bedtime. While it’s generally safe for kids, a few scenes might give Western kids some strange dreams..!
Hayao Miyazaki, writer and director, based his story around a little girl, Chihiro, who becomes trapped in a spirit world after she and her parents stumble on it. The parents are turned into pigs after gorging themselves on food from the world, and are headed for the abattoir unless Chihiro can get them out. She manages to talk herself into a job at the local bathhouse, run by a witch, where the gods come to chill out and get cleaned up, and finds herself in some very strange situations.
The idea of gods inhabiting every inanimate object is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Minzoku (Folk) Shinto is the best-known version of this concept, but it’s refreshing that they don’t take it too seriously. One awe-inspiring scene has Chihiro forced into helping what appears to be a “Stink God” – with even her hair trying to run away from the stench – until she notices he has something stuck in his side, and pulls. The result is totally over-the-top, yet somehow true to the story.
It’s truly amazing how much detail has been crammed into the animation. Little details, such as the way Chihiro taps her feet after putting her shoes on, or the fish swimming over the submerged train tracks. The bathhouse boilers are controlled by a gruff six-armed humanoid called Kamagi, who even appears to be trying to give up smoking, since there’s an ashtray full of barely-smoked butts. Then there’s No-Face, a god undergoing a serious personality crisis.
I don’t know if Spirited Away is the greatest animation feature ever created, but it’s right up there with Fantasia or Shrek. While it’s taken the USA by storm, it’s not been heard of much in Europe, which is a real shame.
Quick online update using my friend’s broadband connection (luxury). I did get to the Saatchi Gallery yesterday to see the Damien Hirst retrospective. The pickled animals, while impressive, didn’t do that much for me, but I was cracking up when I saw what appeared to be pharmaceutical labels, but for bottles containing “Meatballs”, “Beans”, and other food products. It’s supposedly a comment on food additives and processing, but I just found the surrealism hilarious. (He’s preaching to the converted on that score.)
Another great Hirstism: a large fish tank, holding a PC and monitor, but with an obstetrics chair in place of the standard one – a comment on how we are born to work, I suppose. Yet the negative pressure is totally absent, courtesy of dozens of fish swimming around freely, without even the conception of work, or any awareness of the futility of their little lives.
The rest of the gallery appeared to be the Sensation exhibition that caused such a furore a couple of years ago. There’s a huge painting of Myra Hindley, in a magnified pointillism (splotchilism?), plus various disturbing works, including lifelike dummies of men in pieces, hanging from a tree, with certain bits hacked off. Tracey Emin’s My Bed went totally over my head, though there were touches of humour in the consumer products spread around the bed, including both condoms and a pregnancy test kit. The most “high concept”, for me, was Marc Quinn’s Self – a cast of the artist’s head in his own blood, kept frozen since 1991.
Tomorrow it’s back to London and then to Dublin, but with a heavy suitcase, holding some clothes, books, and the remains of my CD collection, about 200 CDs with only the inserts, no jewel cases. Let’s see if the people X-raying the case, as it passes through the baggage system, tell the customs people, who may think I’m a software pirate or such. But there are no customs as such within Europe any more, they’re only interested in drugs.