prophecy theme by brian eno

Any regular readers out there will probably groan as Brian’s name is mentioned here once more. Its most recent appearance in this blog was a quote from him on a poster for Penguin Cafe. This time, it’s because I recently went to see David Lynch’s’Dune’, some thirty years on since its original release, and he appears early in the pre-film credits: “Prophecy Theme by Brian Eno”.

The Arts Picturehouse’s publicity described the film as “under-valued”, but I was keen to see it again on a large screen, and I certainly wasn’t the only one as the cinema was virtually fully-booked.

Yes, the film was still a disastrous mishmash of exposition giving its stars very little to do, and its battle scenes cling to old, out-dated war films, so it doesn’t stand up well to expectations of emotional involvement in the action, but I still like its art direction vision of a futuristic Edwardian art deco.

So, what of Brian’s prophecy theme? It was understated and subtle, especially in comparison to the rest of the soundtrack by Toto, almost to the point of being unnoticeable under the pumping sound levels pounding through the cinema like thumpers summoning giant worms.


Thursday, February 26th, 2015 film No Comments

on the unexpected benefits of algorithms

I was recently talking to one of the volunteers at work, discussing the well-known exercise in probability theory where there’s a game show with three doors. Behind each door is a prize, one of which is very valuable while the other two are worthless. The contestant has to pick one door, then one of the other doors is opened to reveal a worthless prize. The contestant then has the opportunity to change his/her mind and choose the remaining door. What is the contestant’s best strategy?

The answer, perhaps counter-intuitively, is: switch and pick the remaining door.  Precisely because it seemed counter-intuitive, I decided to write a simple programme to show the results of a large number of iterations, but, while planning the code, I proved to my own satisfaction that changing your mind is the better strategy. So I had the strange experience of learning through preparing to code, with the outcome that I didn’t need to write the code!

In effect there are only two courses:

  • either the contestant picks the door with the valuable prize (a 1 in 3 chance), in which case it would be unwise to switch; or:
  • the contestant picks one of two doors with the worthless prize,  (a 2 in 3 chance), in which case it would be wise to switch.

Since the latter course is more likely, the better strategy is to switch. QED. The revelation of the prize behind another door is merely a distraction.

Conclusion: the discipline of writing an algorithm helps to think logically about the problem.

Monday, February 9th, 2015 coding No Comments

penguin cafe (nee cafe orchestra)

“Eccentric, charming, accommodating, surprising, seductive, warm, reliable, modest and unforgettable”

Brian Eno

That’s what Brian thinks about Penguin Cafe, according to their publicity material and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. They performed a rare concert last night in the impressive new concert hall at Saffron Hall, and played live on Radio 3 in the run up to the concert.

Arthur Jeffes (son of Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra) is in a difficult position. The group, now called Penguin Cafe, opened their concert in Saffron Walden last night with ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’, which never fails to make me smile, and closed their encore with the joyous ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’.

Between these two numbers, they performed a mixture of old (‘Southern Jukebox’, ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, Bean Fields’, ‘In the Back of a Taxi’) and new pieces mainly from ‘The Red Book’ (‘1420′, ‘Black Hibiscus’, ‘Bluejay’, ‘Odeon’). Arthur introduced them all, often with fond reference to his father’s work, and sometimes mentioning his childhood memories of them. The older pieces, usually involved a wider range of instruments, such as a melodica, are still quirky, lively and eccentric, and obviously pleased the crowd.

His enthusiasm for ‘1420’ was obvious, but he appeared slightly nervous when introducing two pieces as ‘world premieres’. He described a new piece called ‘Birdwatching’ as a reworking of a favourite tune by Cornelius, who is, apparently, a “Japanese Brian Eno”, which for me is a good introduction that made me warm to it in advance, and it rewarded my openness with the lively passion and quirkiness I expect of PCO.

For the first encore piece, Arthur played solo piano for Harry Piers (sp?), a piece he wrote for his father’s memorial.  It, too, had emotion, presumably from the memories it evoked, despite its repetitive minimalist style, and was played with passion.

In contrast, the newer work generally lacked the energy and eccentricity of the older pieces, which is why I described Arthur as being in a difficult position. The choice of encore was clearly justified as they finished to an almost unanimous standing ovation. Can Penguin Cafe create new work that meets the expectations of fans of the older music, and continue to perform the older pieces with the required freshness and vitality? On the basis of last night’s concert, they most definitely can, providing they don’t let it slide into bland niceness.


Sunday, February 8th, 2015 music No Comments

the phantom tollbooth

After recently discovering the existence of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, I promptly downloaded a copy from Amazon and read it. Wow! It’s crying out to be animated. Yes, I know MGM released a film of it in 1970, but I’ve never seen it, and I don’t want to until I’ve developed my ideas of how I would tackle it. The movement in one scene really stands out for me:  where Humbug, Milo and King Azaz the Unabridged are discussing whether or not Milo should rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air, with Humbug believing and arguing two contradictory points of view. I can clearly imagine Humbug sliding back and forth from king to boy, alternating between outrage and persuasion.

It’s such a stimulating story that I’ve started using trello to plan a film. Its system of lists and cards that can be dragged and dropped (or should that be drag-and-dropped?) is perfect for experimenting with different arrangements.

Saturday, February 7th, 2015 animation No Comments

skynet is alive and well and living in digitopolis

In a more or less arbitrary way, I decided to create something, only to discover that someone had beaten me to what I thought was my idea, which just goes to show that creation should come from itself not an independent self-conscious decision. Recently I’ve been lulling myself to sleep at night by mentally listing homophones. It’s an almost infinite list, so it’s not the best aid to relaxation. I toyed with a diversion into word play, and tried to link it to the idea of digital natives, which got me wondering where digital natives live, and voila, we have the city of digitopolis.

First, I made a brief, unhelpful excursion into the etymology of digitalis then a further Google search led me to The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Digitopolis, it turns out, is one of the capital cities in the Kingdom of Wisdom, and is where the one of the rulers, the Mathemagician lives. Why have I never heard of this modern classic, far less read it?

Alternative names for the residence of digital natives include Numeropolis, apparently used by Juster in early drafts and Digital City, resonant of some futuristic space opera, but in practice this turns out to be a much more prosaic project in Teeside. Cyber city is apparently a cyberpunk anime and that leads us into the territory of Chiba City and Neuromancer. But it turns out I’m already there.

I recently started using Chrome in addition to Safari, and installed extensions for Sidekick and Kifi. Twitter has started sending me discover messages, which I turned off, but it feels like I’ve crossed an event horizon.  StumbleUpon was an early attempt at a curated web but it never lived up to my expectations. Now it seems that the web is curated either by an Artificial Intelligence or a hive mind of real people.

But at least I found The Phantom Tollbooth using only Google.

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 artificial intelligence, creativity, web No Comments

silent (and absent) partners

Silent Partners, the exhibition at The Fitzwilliam Museum about mannequins, is simultaneously fascinating and disturbing, the latter effect hinted at by the exhibition’s subtitle: from function to fetish. The exhibition is certainly wide-ranging in content, starting with the changing role of mannequins from implicit and unacknowledged artists’ models to arty jokes acknowledging their use to criticisms of the formality and rigidity they lead to. In the third and final room, the exhibition covers the introduction of children’s dolls and the development of shop window dummies, which leads neatly into their portrayal in surrealist art and finally in contemporary work by The Chapman Brothers. Given the inclusion of such recent activities, I expected to see mention of other recent uses of mannequins, such as Dr Who storylines from the 1970’s where shop window dummies came to life. That could link to the repeated appearance  of Showroom Dummies and robots in the music and visual imagery of Kraftwerk, and from there to animatronics in entertainment, and then the use of armatures in stop motion animation. The creations of Mackinnon and Saunders for films such as Corpse Bride are fascinating in their miniature mechanical precision, with eye movements adjusted by controls inside the ears.  Lest you think this last point too far removed from the theme of the exhibition, I draw your attention to the large images projected onto the wall of the stairwell leading to the gallery. They include one of these armatures but I saw no reference to it in the exhibition.

Monday, October 27th, 2014 art, Exhibitions No Comments

keep music live

In my younger days, I went to many live music concerts, and have fond memories in particular of seeing both Laurie Anderson and Kraftwerk on several occasions.

In more recent years I’ve been to very few concerts. Indeed, the most recent live music I’ve experienced was hearing guitarist Steve Bean play at my wedding in July this year. I really enjoyed that experience. He is highly talented with a wide repertoire (from Rodriguez’ Caravan d’Aranjuez to Bohemian Rhapsody) and has played with Rodrigo y Gabriela.

A recent quick perusal, however, of the What’s On section of the website for the Cambridge Corn Exchange, revealed two must-see performances.  As a result, I now have tickets to see Philip Glass perform Koyanisqaatsi there on 14 November and the afore-mentioned Rodrigo y Gabriela on 1st December. Exciting! It almost makes up for missing Steve Reich and Kraftwerk perform in a double bill at the Manchester International Festival around 2009.

Monday, October 6th, 2014 music No Comments

sci fi sfx in shock revelation!

So, it turns out that all those Sci-Fi films and their SFX were right after all! With a bit of manipulation, there’s an amazing ultra high-definition time-lapse video of Earth from the orbiting International Space Station, made from photographs  taken by ESA astronaut Alex Gerst. Hat tip to Twisted Sifter. (So, if the SFX are right, does that mean that there are blue Na’vi on planet Pandora? Perhaps unobtainium exists too. Maybe all the stories we thought were just stories were really documentaries after all. Maybe there really is a Force with light and dark sides.)


Monday, September 15th, 2014 photography No Comments

confessions of a first time web developer

I’ve made my first foray into the murky world of web development. It started oh so innocently when I embedded a Google map into an .html page, creating a marker on the map that was centred slightly away from the venue location, and zoomed at an appropriate level. Then it suddenly escalated firstly to creating a Twitter follow button, then creating a Twitter timeline which I then embedded in another .html page. I blame Twitter for making it so easy and tempting me in. All I had to was cut and paste the code into the correct <div>. Now that I’ve started down this slippery slope, where will it all end?


Friday, August 15th, 2014 coding, Uncategorized No Comments

one down, three to go…

At 22:19 tonight I was out in the back garden equipped with camera, tripod and shutter cable release, waiting for the first of four passes tonight by the International Space Station over the UK. The sky was almost completely clear of cloud apart from a few wisps, and there was no breeze so it was a perfect evening for long exposure shots of of the night sky. I didn’t see the station, however, because I was busy setting up the camera kit. It had been a last minute decision to try to capture the ISS. I’d just been reading Twitter feeds and saw a message from Virtual Astronomer retweeted by Prof Brian Cox, alerting the world to the bright passes tonight. It will be pass overhead several times again over the next few days but the weather forecast is bad, especially for Saturday.

Still, according to Meteor Watch, there will be  many more passes over the UK  during June, and it will return in August evenings during the Perseid Meteor shower, but perhaps my best chance of photographing it will be to wait for the second pass tonight at 23:55. I’d better go and make sure the kit is ready in time, because although I might be around to capture the third pass at 01:32, I definitely won’t be awake for the final pass at 03:08.

Update at 23:59. The pass was definitely “overhead” as described on Meteor Watch, so much so that my tripod head couldn’t cope. Ah well, it was still a splendid sight in a clear night sky.

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 photography No Comments