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Archive for July 2002

up northwest

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The train system in the UK is a little messed up, shall we say? Not just the scheduling, but the pricing too. My return ferry & train ticket (€59) gets me as far as Crewe, which is the first main hub between the Holyhead ferry terminal and the rest of England. I chose to do things that way because I was travelling in a triangle: from Crewe I went east to Nottingham, a straightforward if lengthy journey. After my week in Nottingham, it was then due south to London. Today I headed north-west from London to Holyhead, and as I write this, I’ve just left Birmingham on a Holyhead train.

The whole fare pricing structure here presumes that you will be travelling from point to point and back again. As a result, return fares are only slightly more expensive than single fares. The length of the stay is not a factor, up to a month or so. For example, I could have had a return fare from London to Birmingham for £17.00. The single fare cost £16.90. The same principle applied to my trip from Nottingham to London last Saturday, £42 vs. £43, but that was on the fast train. If I had taken the fast (Virgin) train today, from London to Crewe, the fare would have been £48 vs. £49. I took the slow train, which in practice is costing me an extra hour and £20 less. (Birmingham to Crewe is £11, so I’ve paid £28 vs. £48.). And I won’t get home any quicker, since the ferry runs to a fixed schedule, so the excess would be spent waiting at Crewe station.

The hotel turned out quite reasonable in the end, but I found out that they haven’t actually fixed the web site. The street address is correct, if a bit vague – North Woolwich Road is quite long, and has no street numbers, so even drivers will rely on the map to find the place. It’s popular with truckers, who were no problem; however, on the first night, I was woken up by a drunken couple carrying on a pointless screaming argument below my window. The hotel appears to be piloting a new (to me) innovation: unattended reservation and check-in. If it works, you could literally turn up at the hotel and get a room, if available, without seeing any staff till the next day. Definitely geared towards people in cars, who can just drive to the next Etap hotel if the first one is full.

Bringing the laptop was a bad idea, at least this new Compaq. It’s big and heavy, and I had to take it everywhere I went because it’s valuable. I was able to watch a new DVD (The Witches of Eastwick, even better than I remembered it), but otherwise it’s been a millstone round my neck. Next time I’ll do without, or at least make do with my old & slow IBM Thinkpad, which is much smaller and lighter, and more than adequate for this blog and other writing. At least the weight seems to be where it matters, in the chassis & hinges etc., making this a pretty tough machine, I think.

Now playing: Up North by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, the live version from Stamping Ground. Must… fight … urge… to… whistle… along. This must be my favourite Earthworks piece of all, by the first Earthworks line-up, featuring Django Bates and Iain Ballamy, who were even then jazz stars in their own right. I saw these guys some time in the early 90’s, and then the Mark II lineup, which temporarily included bassist Brian Gascoigne – also well worth it. Bruford has evolved a jazz drum style all his own, the main idiosyncrasy to my ears is his sparse use of the bass drum, far removed from his work with King Crimson.

Speak of the devil: I’ve just finished reading In the Court of King Crimson, by Sid Smith. Sid is a long-time Crimfan™ who worked for the local government in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and who accompanied the Crim offshoot ProjeKct Two across America as a roadie and merch man. He’s written the first serious biography of possibly the most mysterious group in rock, who had a tendency to break up just as major success appeared on the horizon.

Robert Fripp, the guitarist, is the only constant factor present throughout the 30-year history of King Crimson. He has always refuted suggestions that King Crimson was his band, but the band’s history shows that that was very much the case. From day one, Fripp pushed the band in the direction he thought best, and used all manner of tactics to achieve that aim. At times this meant allowing the others their way, but he soon yanked the leash on them if they strayed too far from the doghouse.

Personally, I’ve never been that much of a Robert Fripp fan, but he’s certainly something to hear when he’s firing on all cylinders. I met him a few years ago, and enquired whether anybody ever called him about film music. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was not that complementary to Hollywood or the people who work there. I’m not surprised that Hollywood hadn’t called since the Neuromancer debacle, but independent film-makers are more open to strange beautiful music. Vincent Gallo actually borrowed an old Crim song, Moonchild, for his film Buffalo 66, for a scene in which Cristina Ricci was tap-dancing in a bowling alley. I’ve always though that King Crimson’s music was cinematic in many ways, and the current band in particular can produce some terrifyingly extreme soundscapes.

My introduction to Crim was more to do with drummer Bill Bruford, who I had heard with Yes, and with Tony Levin, who at that time (1985) was already one of the top names in the bass world, almost mandatory for a budding rock bassist to investigate (alongside Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, etc.). I had been concerned about how Crim might sound without Levin, but Trey Gunn’s work on The ConstruKction of Light is bass of a different colour, quite frightening in itself.

I’m surprised to see that Fripp’s work with David Sylvian is given such scant coverage in Court, since Sylvian was actually asked, by Fripp, to join King Crimson in the early 90’s. He declined, but the subsequent Sylvian / Fripp albums The First Day and Damage (live) are considered by many (including myself) as “lost King Crimson albums”. Both feature Trey Gunn extensively, and the Damage tour was where Pat Mastelotto first worked with Fripp. Both are members of the current King Crimson. Another “lost King Crimson album” is 1970’s McDonald & Giles, which is covered extensively in the book.

Is 1000+ words in 1 hour a good rate of work?

Written by brian t

July 31, 2002 at 3:29 pm

Posted in england, music, travel

up the hill sideways

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Back at the EasyEverything web cafe for another update, with a keyboard even worse than the last. Not only is the space bar malfunctioning, the right cursor key and the whole top numeric row are offline. Go on, bring it on, I can take it.

A nice couple of days of sweltering weather here in London, well over 30degC at times. Did most things I planned, but didn’t get to see the Tate Modern, since it shut at 6PM today – why? Today was extremely hazy, like being inside a cloud, no risk of sunburn. It tried to rain a bit, but we all ignored it and it went away.

The overarching theme of this trip has been the revisiting of my old stomping grounds, including Muswell Hill. I started at Highgate tube station, then wandered through Highgate Wood. I forgot what it could be like in Summer – loads of mothers and nannies, an average of 3 kids per adult. After that, it was no surprise to find that the Muswell Hill coffee shop had turned into a Starbucks – they’re taking over London, it’s much worse than I saw in New York a year ago. From there, through Alexandra Park to Alexandra Palace, the site of the world’s first proper TV facilities, including studios and broadcast tower. Then down the hill into Wood Green, in London’s multicultural Tottenham borough. The shopping centre there has a bargain stall section where I used to stock up on cheap empty calories (in the form of exotic snacks) when I was unemployed, Finally, down Wood Green High St. towards Turnpike Lane tube. I had never done that walk in one piece before, since I lived in Muswell Hill, but it presents a neat microcosmic slice of North London life.

I’ll almost certainly head back to Dublin tomorrow – no reason to stay longer. I have a couple of musical toys to try out: an Alesis AirFX, and a TL Audio FAT-1 preamp & compressor, both found at very nice prices, well below those quoted in the reviews, too. Also, I found a Nikon CoolPix 880 digital camera, for way under half-price, which is how I took the picture yesterday. It’s called “refurbished”, but I think it was returned because it has one dead pixel in the monitor (boo hoo). Which has no effect whatsoever on the camera’s functionality or the quality of the results. So, you’ll be seeing more pictures on this site, even in this Blog.

Not much more will be happening here until 7 August, when I get back to work. When I get back to Dublin, I’ll spend 6 days doing as little as possible, perhaps a bit of writing, maybe some engineering course work. I don’t have a land-line, nor a mobile phone, so I’ll be basically un-contactable. You need something from me? Tough titty, I’m on holiday. Bye.

Written by brian t

July 30, 2002 at 9:19 pm

Posted in london, travel

on the ground

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I arrived in London yesterday after a productive week at Nottingham University, on the Summer School for my 2nd year Mechanical Engineering course. What a difference a week makes. When a 90-minute lecture teaches you what weeks of poring over the books fails to do, what does that say about the books?

One of my fellow students, L, is an RAF Flight Officer, not that you could tell by looking at her. I thought we were getting along well enough, with some future potential there, except that the only time I saw her light up was when she was discussing cars and bikes with the other guys. She drives some “hot hatch” and a Ducati 916, typical “live fast, die young” vehicles. She’s not a fighter pilot, so she doesn’t have that excuse. I don’t drive at all, and I stayed in Nottingham for the night after the course ended, happy to look around and enjoy my time off. In contrast, she jumped in her car and roared off the minute she could, not bothering to exchange contact details. Oh, well. If I feel like contacting her, I have her name and RAF base details.

My attempts to find accommodation in York over the bank holiday weekend were a total non-starter, so I’ll be heading back on Wednesday, unless I can find somewhere to spend a couple more days. There’s always that Marillion concert on Friday in Sheffield, but I do not fancy travelling in a holiday rush or paying inflated hotel rates.

Arriving in London, I wandered around the centre for a while, until I remembered that I had to post my assignment, and then dashed around looking for an open post office. Just as soon as I gave up, I then found one, so my assignment should get to Belfast by the end of Monday. I hope it does, because over the course of the week I went from don’t-give-a-damn through it’s-worth-a-go to I-can-really-do-this-stuff, thanks to the clarifying lectures.

So, early Saturday evening, I head for my hotel. I clearly remember where it is, according to the map on their web site, and I booked it because it’s close to public transport. When I get there… no hotel. Ask at another hotel nearby? They have a number for a different branch. OK, call them, the phone just rings and rings. So I call directory enquiries, they don’t know them at all, the whole chain, but I remembered that they have a sister chain, and I got their number. After all that, I have a number for the hotel, but the phone just rings engaged. Try the other hotel again, and someone there gives me an address which is a mile away from the address I had. The cab driver knew of a hotel roughly matching the description, and it turned out to be the one, and it’s over half a mile from there to public transport, barely manageable. They say they fixed the web site 2 weeks ago? I booked 3 weeks ago.

The view from my hotel window...It turns out that this hotel (ETAP City Airport, London) was only completed a month ago, which is why no-one’s heard of it. They couldn’t explain the phone problems. I wish they’d pick the whole thing up and move it somewhere accessible. Based on the construction of the place, I suspect they could do just that. It’s a wood frame building, wooden floors and plasterboard walls, with a lovely view of some light industrial facilities. There are still piles of building material in some corners, but at least they’re neat piles. The room is perfectly adequate, cosy, if a bit creaky. The shower is the really powerful type I like, meaning you get a more satisfying shower in less time, probably saving water in the process. Everything about it is designed to keep costs down, from the window blind (no curtains) to the single towel (good thing I brought my own big fluffy one). The price is the best I’ve seen in London, so I’ll probably be back. As I said before, I don’t expect much from hotel rooms, as long as the basic functions are well taken care of, and they are in this case.

From the time stamp on this, you can probably guess that I didn’t go to the Farnborough Air Show. I could have, but decided not to, as a mark of respect to all those who were hurt in the air show disaster in the Ukraine yesterday. As I write this, the casualty list is 83 dead and 118 injured. I don’t know if Farnborough air displays went ahead today – I suspect not. Watching the footage last night, it’s clear that the plane (a SU-27 “Flanker”) was stalling, unable to stay in the air, but it remains to be seen whether that was due to pilot error or technical problems. An engine failure could cause the pilot to pull up too sharply while attempting to avoid the ground, stalling the plane. On top of that, there’s been another plane crash today, near Moscow.

I’ll probably have another update on here by Wednesday, before I leave London. I have no agenda for Monday, but Tuesday will be Art Day, including the V&A and the Ansel Adams At 100 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.

Written by brian t

July 28, 2002 at 5:11 pm

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In an idle movie-related conversation with a colleague here, we were struck by how many great American actors are not American. In comedy, in particular, it’s amazing how many stars are Canadian, or part thereof. Examples:

  • Dan Aykroyd
  • John Candy
  • Jim Carrey
  • Sarah Chalke (Scrubs)
  • Michael J Fox
  • Brendan Fraser
  • Rick Moranis
  • Mike Myers
  • Matthew Perry (Friends) (US/Can)
  • Keanu Reeves *1
  • William Shatner *2
  • Martin Short
  • Donald Sutherland
  • Scott Thompson (Kids In The Hall, Larry Sanders Show)

*1 Keanu Reeves a comedian? Well, I’ve seen Johnny Mnemonic.

*2 William Shatner was a comedian long before he got involved in Star Trek, and has returned to comedy since, e.g. Miss Congeniality, or his famous “Get A Life” sketch on Saturday Night Live.

Written by brian t

July 17, 2002 at 12:06 pm

Posted in america, canada, humour, movies

ku klux kops

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I’ve just finished watching a classic movie for the first time: D W Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation (1916). Wow.

It was shown on Irish television starting at noon today, with no fanfare of any kind. All I knew about it was its status as a classic, at least technically. I was not aware of the claims of racism made against it, even on its release, until I looked it up in my encyclopaedia prior to watching it.

Even allowing for the times, it’s still pretty damning to watch. After covering the US Civil War, it focuses primarily on the Reconstruction period, when the process of bringing the Southern states back into the United States sparked friction on many fronts. Griffith spins a tale of “negroes” taking over towns, led by a “mulatto” named Lynch (!), and aided and abetted by a sympathetic politician, who only realises his folly when his own family is threatened. Not having had an American education, such as it is, I am not well-versed in the vocabulary of the period. I had to look up terms such as “carpetbagger”, which is still used now but originated in that period, to describe white Northerners who went to the South to do various kinds of business, mostly exploitative. During the film’s climax, who rides to the rescue of the town (and Lillian Gish)? The Ku Klux Klan!

Griffith was reportedly surprised at the hostile critical reception received by Birth Of A Nation, and next made a sprawling epic called Intolerance (1917), which attacked both racial and cultural intolerance. It didn’t do well at all in the USA (it was the Heaven’s Gate of its day), but became required watching in the Soviet film school taught by Lev Kuleshov, whose students included V I Pudovkin and the great Sergei Eisenstein.

Now taping: The Elephant Man. It will have to wait: I have work to do.

Written by brian t

July 13, 2002 at 11:04 pm

Posted in america, history, movies

mmmm… cheesy

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Today’s culinary cock-up:

“Vegeterian Pizza with Tomato and Olive’s topped with melted cheese.”

She is? How do I get her number?

Written by brian t

July 9, 2002 at 5:02 pm

Posted in food, work

pointless patriotism

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I wrote the following on Saturday with a view to sending it to Jerry Pournelle, but even I think it’s a bit much in this form. I might cut it down to size first. It’s in response to a Robert Heinlein essay he reproduced, in full, on his Mail page last week. Most of the essay can be found here as well. I suggest reading the essay before my reply, of course.

I enjoyed reading Robert Heinlein’s speech transcript on the topic of patriotism. For an all-American good ol’ boy such as Heinlein, who served his country and enjoyed the benefits of being American, it must have appeared simple. In contrast, I hope you won’t object if I quickly outline my own background, and some of the questions it raises with regards to nationality and patriotism.

I was born in Scotland, where I lived until nearly 7, but I haven’t lived there since. I grew up in South Africa, went to school there, and was nearly drafted into the army, despite the fact that I held a British passport. I ended up “serving my country” by playing the bagpipes, which had nothing to do with my Scots background, actually. I moved back to the UK in 1991, spending 8 years in London. In late 1999 I moved to Dublin, Ireland, to take up a position with a major computer company.

Had I entered the South African army, I might have ended up fighting in Angola, prolonging the civil war, which only ended this year. Since I am not South African, do you blame me for “draft-dodging” an unjust war? Can you say the same about those who fought, or not, in Vietnam? Now that I live in Ireland, what would happen if war broke out? I have no idea what I would do in such a situation, since I feel little patriotic loyalty to any of places I have ever lived in.

If people ask me where I’m from, I say Scotland, since a) it’s technically true, b) it’s fashionable, c) everyone is from somewhere, and d) everyone laughs if you call yourself “a citizen of the world”. I hardly know anything about modern Scotland, and what I do know is not flattering (alcohol, drugs, American tourists). Its history is a bit more encouraging.

  • Would I want to live there? No, I’d rather live in Canada or the USA, or even London.
  • Would I fight for Scotland if it went to war with England? Perhaps, if I thought it was just.
  • Would I fight for Britain against Europe or others (e.g. Argentina)? They would have to catch me first.
  • Would I fight for Europe or NATO against, say, China? No, since I have no loyalty to Europe or any grudge against China.
  • Would I fight for Earth against aliens from Mars? Probably, since humanity would be under immediate threat, and such a war would surely find me anyway.

Patriotism, as expressed by the saying “my country, right or wrong”, makes the assumption that you have a country, and that it’s worth fighting for. The thing is: a country’s morals are expressed by its actions, as ordered by those in power. How many US troops in Vietnam were happy with President Johnson, but not with President Nixon, and how does that relate to the way the Vietnam War ended?

In Britain in 1982, the general public supported the Falklands War, as long as professional soldiers were doing the fighting thousands of miles away. Surveys at the time indicated that relatively few people were interested in volunteering, and had conscription been required, support would probably have vanished, much as it did towards the end of the Vietnam war. (The Falklands War ended 20 years ago last month, an anniversary that went almost unmarked in Britain.)

The example given at the end of Heinlein’s speech, of the couple and the stranger killed by a train, might elsewhere be called altruism. I agree with Heinlein that that is a higher moral imperative than the duty to fight for oneself or one’s family, but I can not agree that “country” fits easily into the “moral hierarchy”, or that patriotism is always justified. My country, assuming I have one, can be wrong, because the people who control its (and my) actions can be weak and unworthy of respect.

Written by brian t

July 8, 2002 at 7:58 am