Wednesday, 30 December 2015

of cucumbers, scalpels and cans of ham

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I remember starting 2015 above London in the Shard. Seems that we've finished in a similar fashion, with more views across the Thames.

My picture of Tower Bridge is actually from about half way up the Shard, in the cocktail bar. There's a scale to the view below from this level that really works well and gives different scenes from each side of the building.

Its getting that even St Pauls has to compete for a view now, with all the new skyscrapers going up around the City.
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Another nine are planned for the next 2-3 years, including One Blackfriars (The Bobbin), Canaletto, The Scalpel, The Cucumber, The Stage, The Can of Ham and others.

It could all get rather more crowded if this artist's impression is to be believed.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

London signs get the helpful new year makeover

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One of those temporary illuminated signs showing various reminders as the new year approaches.

That one is from close to the well-known London tourist-only sightseeing spot known as M&M World. I must have strayed although I've not been inside since the Swiss Centre days.

I wonder whether this other sign will work?
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Monday, 28 December 2015

in between

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It feels as if it's time for a London picture, so here's part of the central tourist area, complete with a red bus and a few lights.

The barriers are already going up ready for New Years Eve, and Eros is completely boarded up. This year it is once more a tickets only event to get along the river for the fireworks.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

mistletoe in Covent Garden

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There's plenty of mistletoe hanging from the roof of Covent Garden. I recollect that Christian churches banned mistletoe because of its pagan connotations, but back in the days when I worked in a greengrocer's we used to freely give it away to customers at Christmas.

The Norse god Baldr is supposedly at the root of the mistletoe story, having been made invincible when his goddess mother made every living thing on earth swear not to harm him.

She somehow overlooked the mistletoe and in an Eastenders plot moment, trickster spirit Loki made a dagger from mistletoe wood, gave it to Baldr's blind brother and tricked him into stabbing Baldr, which killed him.

All the gods mourned Baldr the Beautiful's death and decided to make mistletoe a symbol of peace and friendship.
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Thursday, 24 December 2015

Festive Music Quiz

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There's a chocolate yule log being mixed as I type this.

The festivities have arrived and we're fully moving into Yo-Ho-Ho.
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Seasonal Greetings to all, and just for fun I have uploaded one of our Xmas music quizzes for anyone who wants to try to guess the tunes.

By way of a warning, there's probably about 50 tunes in the mix, sometimes as mash-ups. It starts slow and speeds up. The tunes and singers are mainly easy to guess and family audience friendly.

Spin that platter and pass the mince pies.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

shopping reality fault


Inevitably this week has featured some grocery shopping.

The television adverts tell me how great it is all going to be, but there seemed to be a some sort of logistical glitch.

There seemed to be a surfeit of green pallets in my particular choice of vast food hall.

In fairness the staff did mainly wait quite courteously when they were pushing them around. Although it did seem surprising to need to completely re-arrange the Bucks Fizz along the underside of the freezer cabinets when the store was really quite busy. As Luther's sidekick might say "You're not just giving me busy work, are you?"

Altogether it wasn't a particularly fun experience having to dodge other shoppers, various sized trolleys and also the huge number of the wheeled green stacks.

I can understand that the brussels sprouts or glazed bombe possets needed to be replenished frequently, but it did seem odd that there were so many pallets in motion in the 'flagship' store that I visited.

We eventually ditched the expedition to this store and found another one with wider aisles and an altogether easier experience. I noticed they also had the green pallets, but theirs were collapsible when empty and seemed to need less staff to manoeuvre, despite a similarly rapid turnover of product.

And free coffee. Ahhh.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

the Jessica Jones turbo sessions


My turbo cycling late this year seems to be consuming a vast quantity of TV box-sets. I've gone past my annual cycle miles target and am simply clocking a few low energy miles to keep the legs spinning. The theory goes that one should do interval training with peaks and troughs to get the most from the turbo, but I'm balancing the mince-pie season and have decided that a bit of telly may be a more sensible option. I looked today at my annual mileage which is now around 4,300 miles/6,900 kilometres so I'm not too worried about a few episodes of Jessica Jones whilst pedalling.

Marvel comics seem to be doing rather well since the Walt Disney takeover. They've taken residence in Hell's Kitchen and are pumping out some good television. The Jessica Jones series is a case in point, and one first brought to my attention by a fellow blogger trialling Netflix.

I don't know the Jessica Jones back-story and the series doesn't directly introduce it, to the extent that I watched the first episode wondering if I'd somehow missed a pilot episode. Actually, I sort of prefer that way of working nowadays. We, the viewers, have to piece things together as we go along, instead of having a long 'First Act' to explain everything.

It's a dark series, which embraces the private investigator genre, in this case with a hard-living, hard-drinking tough woman in the leading role. I think I'm supposed to also say hard-boiled when its a noir series, so there, I've done it.

This is a Netflix set, and all the episodes were issued simultaneously. I wasn't sure how many to expect, so when we got to around episode 8 I wondered how it would all end - with fortunately a further four to bring together a conclusion.

We get the dimly lit brown wood end of corridor office for Jessica. The office door is already broken at the start and although it gets fixed for a while, it's broken again by the end. Most other times it is open, in any case.

She befriends a bar owner who notices her penchant for bourbon. His bar is the kind you'd find Tom Waits sitting in with Jim Jarmusch talking about Tesla coils.

The storyline is of one utter force of evil, played by the 'British' David Tennant, who has obsessions, including one about Jessica. He starts as a shadowy form and is frequently offscreen or only partially in frame for the first part of the series, just like some of the best kinds of monsters. They've also let him sneak in a few 'Britlines' which made me chuckle because some might well be lost in translation.

There's a strong cast of characters too, including some that get 'parked' for parts of the story and then reactivated later. That's something of a soap-opera technique (the main series runner has Eastenders form) although it doesn't feel at all soapy the way it's been done, and the individuals all have sufficient characteristics that you regard them as known quantities as they re-appear.

Some could say that parts of the plot are conventional, but it's also good crowd-pleasing stuff as the nasty man does nasty things and the goodies have to figure out how to stop it. I'm tiring from the many UK procedural cop series that kill a woman in scene one so that an emotionally damaged detective and his hot female sidekick can sort it all out usually after a couple more gruesome deaths.

So I've reached the end of the Jessica Jones series. Because it is part of the Marvel galaxy (a.k.a The Marvel Cinematic Universe - really), it may mean that we don't get another one. Marvel's MCU has a road-map of their various characters and how they get together to become various supergroups like The New Avengers. I haven't watched Daredevil yet, but I assume that is also part of the same scheme - this time with a blind attorney ('Justice is blind', anyone?).

Of course, it may not go that way, with Jessica Jones acerbically rejecting a superhero costume during one of the episodes (I since learned it was the one that she was supposed to wear in later Marvel life).

So Marvel's plan is kind of working. I've watched enough to have bought into the current series and I'm going back to watch another one.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

not the wrong kind of seed?

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The birds around our way will treat any form of hanging feeder with disdain until this time of year.

Then, the memo arrives and they all go into holiday mode, seeking out the seeds and feeds made available in various gardens around the area.

These three goldfinches are clearly confused. They are supposed to go for the niger seeds which are in an adjacent feeder, but they've decided instead to opt for the sunflowers. The starlings, sparrows and dunnets will be most irritated.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Dun-Dun-Dun - I watch Beano Star Wars again


A few of us were chatting about the galactic movie franchise that has returned to the planet over the last few days. I'll have to quietly admit that I've struggled to watch the various Star Wars films.

I always liked the idea of the first one, with space ships a bit more grimy and used than, say, something from Kubrick's or even Star Trek's version of space. I remember Star Wars as largely a comedy and that as they added episodes they had to make up a longer back-story.

We seem to have the first 3 movies in the rashbre central on-line viewing library, although I can only really remember the first one featuring the princess with the Cinnabon hairstyle. I've probably seen the one with those big four-legged robot walking things but I mainly remember seeing them at MGM Studios in Florida.

I decided to take a quick look on-line to see what it said about the second tranche of movies (in case I wanted to complete our set and give it all a proper viewing).

They are confusingly called Episodes I-III and are the so-called Prequels. Weirdly, many of the fan comments seem to be somewhat negative...These were the first few reviews on Amazon.co.uk. I've shortened them but left in the positive bits.
  • Great set to own: May the Force Be With You!! Bought the whole set - prequels and all - thought the "prequels" a bit long and sometimes boring, but the original films (i.e. 4,5,6) really great - as they always were.
  • The Blu-rays are pretty good if you actually like the films though: I forgot how awful Episodes I-III really were and nostalgia made me want to watch them again. Oh God was that a mistake. The Blu-rays are pretty good if you actually like the films though. *shudder*
  • A flawed attempt to rekindle the magic: George Lucas made several mistakes in filming these prequels. Firstly there is an over reliance on computer graphics. Sometimes, such as the battle at the start of Revenge Of The Sith or the factory chase in Attack Of The Clones, it feels like you are watching a computer game. The star destroyer at the star of the original Star Wars still looks like a real object, even now. The CGI is particularly dated in The Phantom Menace.
  • Shocking: The few good points Darth Maul while he is in it, nice seeing the Jedi Council and more use of lightsabers but way too many bad points, wooden acting especially from a miscast Hayden Christensen, Jar Jar binks totally annoying every time he is on screen, way too much CGI and a flying R2D2 laugh out loud, roll on JJ Abrams and the force awakens.
  • Moderately good action let down by some terrible script directions: i like star wars like most fans do, i have good points and one massively bad gripe which really throws the films out from episode 2 and part of 3. but right now however a small opinion is that its got good action sequences with a good plot but how they went about it is rather disappointing in some sense because i was hoping for a lot more.

Maybe the Dark Side got at the Amazon reviews? The newest movie still has masterful marketing however. I saw the original cinema sting for it back in early 2014, when it already announced December 2015 as the release date. Altogether a great ramp up time for the merchandise. This week the supermarket is loaded with Star Wars products and some of last century's space toys seem to be making a comeback. Here's the Beano Part 2.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

typical midwinter scene of bumble bees and blossom

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I glanced out of the window yesterday and saw bumble bees buzzing around the cherry tree and collecting nectar.

No, I thought, I'm imagining it. So today I took a picture. Look carefully and you can see the tree lights.
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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

the weather strikes back


And far, far away on Channel 5, Luke out for a really stellar weather report.

spaced


I didn't see the televised live launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome yesterday, although I watched the docking of the capsule with the International Space Station at around 8pm UK time - at which point there were also various replays of the day's events.

The starmen then had a photo opportunity and phone calls home.

You could sense they were both exuberant but also shattered, having just done what used to be a two or three day sequence compressed into around six hours, culminating with the manual (instead of automated) docking of their capsule with the space station.

I guess this mission has better UK media coverage because of Tim Peake (pictured above), the British astronaut/cosmonaut on the journey. The sight of a Soyuz rocket at take off is striking if somehow retro - I think the original design is from the 1960s and it still somehow looks like 60's futurism. The American rocket designs are more like utility vehicles whilst the Russian designs are more sports-car.

I've been to NASA at Cape Canaveral/Kennedy and the various UK-based space exhibits. It was striking how some of the components looked so primitive, with mechanical relays and switch controls that look like they were repurposed from old gas cookers. That's not to say that systems like the Soyuz aren't reliable. Soyuz has been launching rockets at the rate of 12 per year every year since 1997.

It's interesting to note that there's another two space launches today, PSLV - TeLEOS 1 at 1230 GMT from Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota, India carrying five satellites. Then there's Long March 2D - DAMPE from Jiuquan, China which is launching the Dark Matter Particle Explorer, a satellite designed to measure high-energy particles in space.

Then on the 17th December there's another Soyuz, this time from the Guiana Space Center in South America and carrying two satellites for Europe’s Galileo navigation constellation. After that there's a couple of days gap before a SpaceX Falcon 9 carries Orbcomm OG2 on the 20th December at 0125-0425 GMT launched from Cape Canaveral.

Then it's back to Baikonor Cosmodrome for another Soyuz - Progress 62P which lifts off at 0844 GMT carrying the 62nd cargo delivery ship to the International Space Station.

There's another 4 launches after that before the end of December, so I guess it's a busy month. That's before another 14 launches in January and February 2016. So, even if it doesn't always feel like it, we really are in the early space age.

No, not to scale

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

random music predictions?


I decided to try that 'Year in Music' thing to see what it reckoned I'd been listening to this year.

Very strange.

It picked my summer season favourite as 'The Beach Boys', which seems to me to be a wild and inaccurate guess rather than anything I'd play in quantity. Then it picked my top artist as James Bay (nice enough bloke but not sure I'd put him 'top') and my top track as Dreamer by Isbells. I can't say that I recollect that last track.

At all.

So I've just listened to it on youtube, to check. I still don't remember it, even if shows as part of the soundtrack of 2007's 'Into the Wild', which was that true story movie about a guy road-tripping to the Yukon, where he accidentally ate poisoned seeds.

I usually play my 'owned' tracks with iTunes so that explains some of the skew in the results. Plus the car, which has its own iPod, which I hardly ever re-dock with the main system. 6,000 minutes a year hardly supports needing a Spotify subscription, so that's a bit of a blooper too.

Although, for part of the year, I tried that Apple Music thing before abandoning it. I still prefer Spotify for discovering new tracks and setting a mood.

Just not the one that 'year in music' has illustrated.

Monday, 14 December 2015

ableton push button delivery of alligators into swamp


Another test track (Alligators) created using the Push 2. This one is a slide guitar, drums, bass and some horns. Theoretically it is clickable on Splice, but I'm not sure if you need to be a member or if I need to release it (which I haven't). Anyway, I've included a click-through link in the picture above.

Below is another short video of me creating it, using a few quick samples dropped into the Push 2 and then played back live. The samples are all warped loops on Ableton Live 9.5 and I'm just using the keys on Push to trigger the relevant pieces, which are set to around 120 beats per minutes.

I know it doesn't sound much like a normal synth session, but it's sometimes fun to just mess around. The video is a few of the worst clips from the camera on my phone.

Next I'll have to try something that sounds more like a synthesiser.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

test triggering Ableton Push 2

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Any excuse really.

All those synth tracks in Mr Robot has made me think about programming some new stuff and then seeing Rita Ora on TFI Friday doing synth-laden 90s pop. It must be okay again.

Fortunately the replacement Ableton Push device arrived. I did that thing where you can exchange the old device and it goes to a children's music charity.

I briefly compared the Push and the Push 2, but it should be obvious that there's a whole lot more screen read-outs in the higher resolution screen on the new one. Less obvious is the highly increased sensitivity of the pads, and the ease of navigating through sample directories.

A short test live mix below in session view. I was going to put it up as sound only, but I'd deleted my usual hosting directory. It's more guitar-based than synths, although I'm only testing it at the moment.

You get to see me dragging in and triggering a few samples - before I get down to any proper programming. I'd better call Christina Nott.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Bo Hai Dumpling Town


I've been continuing with my bike riding, but moved to the turbo, using a quite gentle 0% gradient setting since I've tipped over the 4,000 miles mark this year (4,110 today). It's giving me a chance to watch a box set or two and the latest on the screen has been the cyber thriller Mr.Robot.

Set in today's world, seen through the eyes of an often hoodied and raddled hacker, it includes a 'grand scheme' plot line.

The setting has some of the edginess of Fight Club, flitting between dingy New York alleys and ultra bright corporate blocks. We've big cyber security businesses doing their thing and plenty of computer talk about IP addresses, distributed denial of service and spoofing. They do use some improbably high IP addresses: 172.258.62.296 anyone? It kind of breaks the octal.

It's still a step beyond normal IT-speak in the scripting, without quite reducing the language to dog.

There's a big plot about breaking something - using a wired-in Raspberry Pi as the hack to make it all work. I haven't seen whether they are successful or not yet, even assuming everything is what it seems to be.

If some of that sounds nerdy, then it's because the lead character Elliot (Rami Malek) is a jaded uber-geek. He operates as a morphine dependent psychotic and we get jittery camerawork around him when he's explaining himself to his imaginary friend, which is us, the viewer.

The series uses digital and social connectivity to illustrate that we can all be just a few clicks away from being found out.

I've also been fascinated by some of the filming, with framing to drive isolation, disconnection and occasionally a convergence. There's an often synth-led soundtrack breaking us through to the world of digital. We can sense the parallel digital world at every twist and turn. Evvvven the glitches.

I'm enjoying the series. There's a few pieces I deliberately overlook and which are offset every so often with some scripting gems as the characters step it up a level. They haven't used "the root (kit) of all Evil" yet, but I can sense it's hovering there somewhere..

To prove a quick point I even found Elliot's home address next to the Chinese restaurant on Broadway. Check out the food reviews.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

edge games for energy tariffs


At the start of 2014, four years after they started a Retail Market Review, Ofgem forced UK energy suppliers to introduce a new tariff structure for retail customers. It was claimed to create a simpler and clearer market, removing confusing and complex tariffs to help rebuild consumer trust.

It was built around suppliers offering just four tariffs per customer for both electricity and gas and to help customers get the best deal.

It makes a great example of the law of unintended consequences.

Take my current well-known supplier as an example. If I forget to switch to their new tariff at the end of the one year period, instead of being put onto their new 'best for me' tariff, I automatically get switched onto their worst tariff.

That's about £350 per year worse than the previous tariff. Of course, they don't call it 'worst' tariff because that would alert me. No, they call it their 'standard' tariff, which somehow implies it is what they give to a lot of, well, standard people.

A well-organised person might arrange to pre-switch to the next best tariff, but I bet there's plenty of consumers who don't take any notice and through inertia (aka accidental loyalty) get moved to the lazy and expensive tariff. I calculate it charges about the equivalent of a Netflix plus a Spotify plus an Amazon Prime annual subscription extra, per annum.

The number of tariffs hasn't tracked to the number of years either. I notice we are already up to 16 variants of electricity and a further 16 variants of gas billing since the new rules came in back in January 2014.

The Ofgem principle was about 'Treating customers fairly and profit was not an entitlement'. Although Ofgem has taken some steps in the right direction, the utility suppliers have still been pretty good at playing the edges.

I notice in the 2015 Which report about energy companies that the most well-known names are all in the bottom half of the satisfaction survey. I'm not sure that 50% happy is anything to be proud of.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

the pink and blue hippos and elephants are slightly early this year

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Some would say it it still early to be putting up the Christmas lights and hanging things from the tree.

Not us. We've already started our festive season. It's meant the annual trip to a couple of shops to get special fillers for party bags, accessory hats and enough miscellany for a pretty large pass the parcel.

Some years it's been Hamleys for the bits and pieces; I think it's the 4th floor that is particularly useful for small items to be used as stocking fillers. Another time it's been Harrods although they are not usually cheesy enough. My secret weapon for finding small spinning tops and tabletop basketball games is a combination of Tiger as well as Hawkin's Bazaar. Whether it's small neon monkey erasers, butterfly hair accessories, crystal tops, microphones for pretend karaoke or even clockwork swimming hippos and elephants (4 for £1.49) the two shops between them will always provide the answer.

Just stay clear *cough* of the rather dubious Secret Santa items...

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

more zig-zagging around the highways


A midweek visit to a shopping centre.

The area has been successfully blockaded by roadworks originally planned for completion by November 2015. The new finish is now March 2016. I looked up the project plan and all the dates have been changed, so if you didn't remember the old date you might be none the wiser. Nicely done - although I'm bemused that the cost seems to have remained the same?
I expect the newly constructed John Lewis and Waitrose which requires access from the incomplete road system will be delighted. They have managed to open their newly built store in time for the Christmas season, to now see that roads in the area have various 'please avoid' notices applied to them by highways england (Yes they do spell england with a lower case 'E').

Despite the road system being downgraded to single lane whilst they finish their half hamburger roundabout, the main shopping car park was still filled. Perhaps the cars are trapped inside?

I guess I've got spoilt by shopping outlets like Westfield, which have lanes with signs that tell you the way to the empty parking spaces and include counts of the number of spaces available.

Inside this centre's multi-level car park there is just a complex maze of largely unmarked routes, sometimes blockaded by those plastic barriers. I decided to try for an upper floor but they had even managed to hide the ramps to go upwards. Not a pleasant experience.

However, once I'd eventually found a place to park, I was able to burst out into the bustling mall, which had what I'd describe as a busy Saturday shoppers' profile. All ages, all buying.

I wondered if I somehow missed the memo about this week being an emergency shopping week?

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Man in the High Castle


Around by Bank station in central London there's a golden grasshopper which flies over the top of the Royal Exchange. It's one of those things that I've 'always' known although probably most people going about their business in that part of London are blissfully unaware. I like to think it talks to the golden dragon that flies half way along Cheapside.

I mention it by way of a reference to 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy' which is inscribed on the reels of film in Amazon's TV series reinterpretation of Philip K. Dick's novel 'The Man in the High Castle'.

I've found it compelling and disturbing viewing and it feels more like watching a series of movies, rather than a typical TV show.

It describes an oppressive parallel version of 1962 in which the Nazis and the Japanese have won World War II and taken over much of the United States with a buffer zone running along the Rocky mountains.

There's several main plot lines underpinned with the central one about a series of films depicting another version of the future. The future shown on the films appears to be reportage footage of the version of events that we, the audience, know.

The tv show depicts America under German and Japanese rule as consequence of losing World War II after the Germans dropped an H-Bomb on Washington. A subsequent US civil war led to their surrender to the Axis forces. The Germans have ruthlessly eradicated everyone they don't agree with including much of the African subcontinent. They've subjugated many to slavery whilst keeping a veneer of normality towards those they consider to be Arians.

The Japanese have established a strong-arm rule over the Americans on the West Coast, but are fearful of the larger German presence in the east and the more advanced industrialisation of the Germans with their Heisenberg bomb and rockets. It's another form of Cold War, with the Americans as losers squashed between two grimly dark superpowers.

The highly sought cans of film represent some form of resistance token - its not completely clear how they achieve this, but I'll live with the artifice.

They are a difference from the original Philip K. Dick novel, which used a book whose story about the grasshopper showed the possibilities of an alternative future and was itself rooted in aspects of I Ching. The reels of film present a more definitive view of the alternative future based upon the footage.

In the novel, many of the central characters had copies of the easier to reproduce (though illegal to own) book, whereas the rare film's content is only slowly released. Resistance people in the east and west are trying to track down these reels of film although most don't know what they contain.

As well as I Ching there's also a '12.5' in the mix. Is it a time check? No, it's that bit of Ecclesiastes that references fear of heights, terrors in the road, the blossom of an almond tree, a grasshopper dragging itself along and desire failing. Kind of gloomy references to the fleeting actions of man, and a proper theme in the Philip K. Dick novel.

I'll say that some of the novel's plot elements survive into this TV-show retelling, but although we see the Japanese Trade Minister uses his yarrow sticks to create hexagrams, the I Ching is not so overtly linked into the TV adaptation. If we see the Trade Minister making notes from his readings he draws three straight lines for the outer trigram (force and heaven), but we never see them combined to create a full hexagram and I Ching meaning. I guess it would all get rather complicated to explain in tv narrative? Having said that, I believe I glimpsed a few complete trigrams scattered on walls, so maybe there is some attempt to use them more indirectly?

That's where the novel and a tv show have to take different paths. The novel is altogether more cerebral than a popular tv show can present. I'll happily live with both.

There's been plenty of styling in the tv series. The chilling versions of the alternative reality are convincing. Some parts of this 1962 languish in the 1940s whilst monorails and supersonic jets appear like artefacts from Tomorrowland. There's rockets too, but they don't seem to go to Mars in the tv version. And no Elvis Presley, obviously. Some of the uses of German abbreviations and iconography looked wrong to me, but I guess that's movie shorthand at work.

There's extremely Bladerunner-esque scenes included, and other sections that reflect straightforward 40s noir. A whole character turns up looking like a hat-tip to the Cowboy in Mulholland Drive and there's a direct reference to a character named Deckard. That's just a smattering of the movie references to spot as the series runs along.

The lead characters are mainly strong, with some clever and sharp dialogue which I guess comes from the original novel. Occasionally it fades and I'm guessing that it is an effect of taking the original story and chopping it into episodes where there are occasional commercial needs (like well-timed cliffhangers).

There's also several different stories to watch. Want resistance stories? check. How about a spy? check. Art forgeries? check. A political power struggle? check. An assassination plot? check. And mainly it doesn't get too soapy and includes enough jump cuts around to keep up the interest without losing continuity. No mean feat with something so complex. Oh yes, in this tv version the main women get purposeful roles too.

The scripting works well and assists the creation of monsters like the family-man Obergruppenführer John Smith (played by Rufus Sewell) who demonstrates a particularly advanced form of passive aggressive behaviour. The normalisation of ruthless traits in him and others applied to this parallel world sends cold shivers down the spine. In many movie tropes there are parts where you'd be expected to feel sorry for him. Not me. And then when we meet his boss Oberst-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (one of the most despicable men in real modern history) we see the same type of behaviour again, only even more pronounced.

We also get various cultural clashes, some of which work and others seem odd. What does come through is a horrendous matter-of-factness to some the terrible practices which are allowed to persist in this new parallel world. On the other hand, I've worked with plenty of Germans and even amongst themselves there is still a kind of formality which didn't quite come through in some of the screenplay American interactions. I could partly understand if the Americans had won and the German culture was being subjugated, but this is the other way around yet we have American informality.

I suspect something similar would apply with the female American white face working at the Nippon Embassy - formality and prejudice which is somehow reduced in the television mix. I guess this is all very sensitive. Even Amazon's New York subway wraps advertising the show had to be pulled - I guess even this small taste of what it could be like is too much in real life.

But my detail comments are really me nit-picking.

Overall I've enjoyed and been terrified by this thought-provoking series - which I will watch again to extract more from some of the scenes. I'm intrigued at where it has left off too, because it seems to be going along a different path to my hazy recollection of the original novel. I like the idea that the tv show is now playing with the parallel futures and maybe introducing yet another one.

I've just ordered it the novel again on Kindle - as well as a separate PKD omnibus of short stories which was on sale for 47p.

Trailer below (Zoom to full screen - worth it)

Sunday, 29 November 2015

I watch Black Souls and remember an Italian road trip


Sometimes when I watch a movie, I can't help having that 'been there' thing play in my mind. It was the case with a recent mafia-style movie which is set mainly in the toe bit of southern Italy.

We'd been on a road trip holiday which had somehow ended up deep down in Italy at an agro-tourism farmhouse. Vines and olives, that kind of thing. Multi national guests, sharing evenings with farmhouse food. The last few kilometres to the farmhouse and its converted barns were along one of those Italian white roads, which kick up dust and rightly give the impression of being in the middle of nowhere.

Our nearest village was similarly remote, up on a hill and with people who could have lived there for many generations. They'd be out sitting in groups on the pavements and the older folk chattered to one another with a kind of genial familiarity that could have gone right back to their schooldays.

My recollection of our time in the southern part was of sunshine, although this movie mainly reserves the sun for the north of Italy, with the southern home village giving a pervasive tone of darkness.

In Black Souls, the movie settings show sleek glassy business blocks in an opulent version of Milan. That's where the practicing gangsters operate. Then down south to the goatherding part of the same family in their small Calabrian hometown.

There's three brothers in this ‘Ndrangheta family. A mafia family, two of the brothers are involved with Columbian cocaine trafficking and the movie starts with them in Amsterdam doing a drug deal with a Spanish smuggler. There's the leather-jacketed action man hoodlum brother and the well-dressed crime syndicate book-keeper brother.

Hundreds of kilometres south in Calabria, it is rural to the extent that it's difficult to see how any of the crime money would have found its way back to the village. Indeed, the third brother has got out of the life and instead tends goats. Okay, he could buy half of the adjacent mountainside, but what would he want it for? He'll get along with this simple life.

His 20-year old son doesn't agree and wants to go north and get into the main family business. He'll need a suit and a scrub-up to impress in Milan.

Before he leaves the village he shoots up the signs on a bar close to home. It belongs to a rival family where a balance of peace exists but the machismo vandalism can only mean an old feud will reawaken.

There will be trouble.

The real ‘Ndrangheta is big business. Nowadays they reckon it turns over around 3% of Italy's GDP. It is reckoned to be bigger than McDonalds if its books were visible. As a part of the wider mafia, it probably represents around 1/3 of their circa €160bn annual turnover.

So, to lighten the tone a little, here's a piece by Andrea di Marco, explaining the background to that particular branch of the well-known crime syndicate.

personal cycling gold moment 2015


Yes.

My own Gold cycling target just achieved.

I'll keep on until the end of the year although I know December can be somewhat troublesome.

In miles it would get me across all of Europe, most of North Africa, as far as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia maybe to Perm in Russia or to Hammerfest at the top of Norway. Except there's more gradients than I've actually covered.

Or I could fly to the edge places in about 6.5 hours. I'll keep on cycling though.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

in which my television doesn't understand me


I commented the other day about talking to my car and it generally getting the directions right.

It's the same with the dictation that I've tried for the NaNoWriMo this time. I'm up around 65,000 words at the moment and I'd honestly say that my spoken sections have better typing than the pieces I've tapped in manually. I've not been so good on rendering all the punctuation in my speaking version, but it's still made a decent job of finishing sentences and so on.

Less so when I've talked to Cortana in Windows 10. The party tricks all work fine and the Cortana Susan voice sings a mean 'man on the flying trapeze' as well as a few other out of copyright tunes and answers questions about Siri with aplomb. It even works with "what's the time?" and "what's the temperature?" type quizzing. But I've decided Cortana doesn't know about Essex. I've asked it things like 'How to get to Newcastle by road' and it will return maps and timings.

Then when I tried "Hey Cortana, How do I get to Upminster, Essex" it decided to go bonkers. Nothing useful although it was prepared to show me some American football games. I decided to try the near neighbourhood of Romford. Similar problems. When I just asked for "Essex" it gave me a route to a fishing tackle shop on the Suffolk border. No, I fear that piece of technology has a way to go.

What about Apple TV? I've given up on the voice controls at the moment. Even Skip Forward and Skip Backward jump it out of the movie and back to the iTunes Store. Perhaps I'm not buying enough.

I've also got one of those Amazon Fire systems. Slightly better luck if I'm hunting for movies, but it will still go all desperate on me and list a bunch of unrelated stuff if it's not sure. And that's even when it has managed to decode my speech properly.

At least the Amazon Fire aggregates the better versions of Amazon, Netflix, iPlayer, ITV Hub, UKTV, Curzon Home Cinema and even Plex. It still needs a proper version of Spotify and at that point it will be a pretty complete viewer.

Maybe I'll practice some more with the voice control although I'm not convinced that the Apple and Amazon boxes have any heuristics to improve their recognition.

Still, I've reprogrammed both of their nifty little handsets to work instead from the Logitech Harmony. Harmony seems to be the strong silent type.

Friday, 27 November 2015

you say you want an evolution


I like this little picture of the evolving desktop, although it raised a few questions (some might say points of view) as well.

It somehow reminds me of that Beatles Yellow Submarine/Nowhere Man sequence and lyric as the desktop reduces. With increasing miniaturisation I suppose the desktop ends virtually in the cloud. Blackburn potholes anyone?

Thursday, 26 November 2015

calculating how to shake dice


When working with big planning spreadsheets there is a fairly well known scenario along the lines of: "Big Chief needs to make a speech and show some efficiencies. What can we do?"

A related modelling spreadsheet technique boils down to 'slide to the right, change the gradient and backload the numbers'. I've picked a random graph related to the universal credit rollout which illustrates the principle.

It's also fairly intuitive to graph readers. Things get delayed - in this model we see something yielding a lower result after an approximately five year slip, which occurs at the rate of around a one year slip per year, generally introduced in two phases.

There's a similar technique used on the OBR (Office of Budget Responsibility) report ahead of George Osborne's Spending Review on Wednesday.

The new OBR chart shows it will all come level in five years' time, although with some dramatic stuff happening in 2017-18 when there's a big tax hike as well as increased spending on RDEL and CDEL (Resource and Capital Department Expenditure Limits). That's all just far enough away for the government to have time make something up. It also means that some of the future difficult actions don't have to be revealed at present.

The planned outcome in all of this is that the numbers are still shown to come right by the end of the graph. It's like pushing the lump along under the carpet and hoping that there's somewhere for it to go without anyone noticing. The OBR don't do this, of course. They are reporting on what appears to be happening rather than actually dictating policy.

I'm guessing that someone had to have a 'Big Chief' conversation before the Spending Review. The apparent spreadsheet result has given Osborne some theoretical money to play with, magicked out of revised planning assumptions. That's where another spreadsheet technique comes into play.

I'll call it 'smudging' and it's the effect when producing graphs of numbers that look similar enough but can be used to tell a different story. In the above example we see that tiny smudge width which is the difference between the July and November OBR forecast. The value of the gap between the lines is around £27bn, so not bad for a smudge.

Osborne hasn't really mentioned that the gap is an aggregate (i.e. it is the 5 year aggregate, not a one year figure). It means the figure of £27bn being bandied around in Osborne's Spending Review needs to be treated with some caution.

There's a further subtlety, that although he's dropped the tax credit cuts, the Universal Credit system will eventually have a similar effect. It's described in the OBR chart 1.1 above - The scale of the yellow area represents the dramatic increases in taxation that tapers at first and then dramatically steps in.

Hidden behind all of this are the much bigger spreadsheets that don't just show the £27 billion delta. Instead they show the underlying debt of nowadays around £1.6 trillion. That's £1.6E12 - yes it's large enough to refer to with scientific notation, because it won't all fit onto some calculators. And strangely enough, the steepest increases have been over the last few years...

In Osborne's post-speech interviews he said he wasn't gambling with the money. The OBR fan charts in the same report hint at otherwise.

I know these figures are really to protect the OBR's own forecasting, but they illustrate the potential volatility based upon use of high level modelling charts. The fan shows potential variance, banded with 20% probabilities. The message is that there's plenty of potential for things to change - risks one could say. The OBR is polite about some of the headline ones:
  • economic risks, including UK productivity growth and the implications of lower growth in China
  • uncertainties with the delivery of reforms to disability benefits and universal credit;
  • the implications of the decision to reclassify housing associations from the private sector to the public sector;
  • ongoing uncertainties around the large financial asset sales that are planned to take place over this Parliament; and
  • the Government has set out a number of ambitions that have not yet been confirmed as firm policy decisions.
In planning terms it might be prudent to start looking at which of these risks can be turned into contributory factors for the next series of 'adjustments'.

Time for another shake of the planning dice?