Sunday, 30 January 2011

Megamind

a film by Tom McGrath

Of course, baddies make better heroes than goodies, but still: two supervillain 3-D animated features in a row? Can’t they think of anything else? Despicable Me was not terribly original. Now imagine an even less original movie.

So what? It turned out to be unexpectedly good. It could have been better, of course. My main problem is with the soundtrack: I mean, why two AC/DC songs? And Michael Jackson’s Bad — man, that’s what I call evil.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Color and Light in Nature

by David K. Lynch and William Livingston

Speaking of Saffron Walden library. A few years ago there was a book sale and I bought this book for something like two quid. (Now, Amazon sells the very same book for $218.) It is one of the best and prettiest science books I’ve ever held in my hands, let alone owned. It holds the answers to many if not all questions one can ask about the world as seen by naked eye. And then some more.

  • Why the low sun is flattened?
  • What are the “ghostly, indistinct little bits of ‘something’ drifting lazily across your field of view”? (Floaters)
  • How to photograph spider webs?
It has exactly the right amount of physics — mostly diagrams, a few tables and, refreshingly, no equations; beautiful photographs throughout; and very accessible writing, with occasional gems like this:
Well-chronicled in the (difficult to find) little book Die Dämmerungserscheinungen, the explanation of alpenglow is straightforward.
You just can’t make this stuff up.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Genuine Negro Jig

by Carolina Chocolate Drops

I spotted this album (or rather, its cute cardboard sleeve) in the Saffron Walden library. It has a modest CD section; even so, CDs are divided into categories (presumably made up by the music industry). This one was in the “country” section. Frankly, I don’t care that much about country music, it’s just happen to be located over the “folk” and that one is over the “jazz and blues”. I though it was misplaced. No prizes for guessing why: look at the cover picture, the title, and the name of the band.

What a lucky discovery. Of course Carolina Chocolate Drops ain’t no country act. They are old-time string band. Nominally it consists of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens (the beauty in the centre) and Justin Robinson, but five tracks on Genuine Negro Jig also feature Sule Greg Wilson. And their permutations. On a beautiful rendition of Why Don’t You Do Right? it is Giddens (vocal) and Flemons (guitar) plus Wilson providing “leg” percussion. On a title track, it is Giddens (fiddle), Robinson (hand clapping and foot percussion), Flemons (bones — wait, bones?) and Wilson (computer hard drive “triangle”). On Reynadine, Giddens sings unaccompanied. And so on. All wonderful through and through, but my favourite song here is an “acoustic hip hop version” of Hit ’Em Up Style.

Monday, 24 January 2011

More trombone harmonics

On trombone, you can take the same note in more than one position. For instance, F3 can be played in both first and sixth positions, C♯4 (D♭4) in both second and fifth positions. Here’s the chart of trombone pedal tones and first five harmonics in seven positions:

The harmonic series go further than that but for a moment I constrain this chart only with those I can play.

Yesterday, I modified my blog template layout to enable the JavaScript-based SyntaxHighlighter by Alex Gorbatchev, with help of these instructions. SyntaxHighlighter does not understand the LilyPond syntax, but it is still useful. For one, it allows you to copy the code to clipboard in one click. Here’s how the LilyPond input for the above harmonic series chart looks like:

% ****************************************************************
% Trombone Harmonic Series / Positions
% ****************************************************************
\version "2.12.3"
\layout {
  ragged-right = ##f
}
\header {
 title = "Trombone Harmonic Series"
}
\score {
  \new Staff
  \transpose g bes 
 {
  \clef bass
   g,,1 g,1 d1 g1 b1 d'1
 }
  \header {
  piece = "1st Position"
  }
  \layout {
    \context {
      \Staff
      \remove "Time_signature_engraver"
      \remove "Bar_engraver"
     }
   }
 }
\score {
  \new Staff
  \transpose g a
 {
  \clef bass
   g,,1 g,1 d1 g1 b1 d'1
 }
  \header {
  piece = "2nd Position"
  }
  \layout {
    \context {
      \Staff
      \remove "Time_signature_engraver"
      \remove "Bar_engraver"
     }
   }
 }
\score {
  \new Staff
  \transpose g aes
 {
  \clef bass
   g,,1 g,1 d1 g1 b1 d'1
 }
  \header {
  piece = "3rd Position"
  }
  \layout {
    \context {
      \Staff
      \remove "Time_signature_engraver"
      \remove "Bar_engraver"
     }
   }
 }
\score {
  \new Staff
 {
  \clef bass
   g,,1 g,1 d1 g1 b1 d'1
 }
  \header {
  piece = "4th Position"
  }
  \layout {
    \context {
      \Staff
      \remove "Time_signature_engraver"
      \remove "Bar_engraver"
     }
   }
 }
\score {
  \new Staff
  \transpose g ges
 {
  \clef bass
   g,,1 g,1 d1 g1 b1 d'1
 }
  \header {
  piece = "5th Position"
  }
  \layout {
    \context {
      \Staff
      \remove "Time_signature_engraver"
      \remove "Bar_engraver"
     }
   }
 }
\score {
  \new Staff
  \transpose g f
 {
  \clef bass
   g,,1 g,1 d1 g1 b1 d'1
 }
  \header {
  piece = "6th Position"
  }
  \layout {
    \context {
      \Staff
      \remove "Time_signature_engraver"
      \remove "Bar_engraver"
     }
   }
 }
\score {
  \new Staff
  \transpose g e
 {
  \clef bass
   g,,1 g,1 d1 g1 b1 d'1
 }
  \header {
  piece = "7th Position"
  }
  \layout {
    \context {
      \Staff
      \remove "Time_signature_engraver"
      \remove "Bar_engraver"
     }
   }
 }
As you can see, I simply wrote the pedal tone and first five harmonics for 4th position (lines 065 through 081) and transposed it six times. The only new LilyPond trick here is \layout { ragged-right = ##f } which makes the staff length to be stretched to equal that of the line width.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Road to El Dorado

a film by Eric ‘Bibo’ Bergeron and Don Paul

By now, our kids have grown out from most of Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks and even Studio Ghibli films. Luckily, this underrated pre-Shrek DreamWorks cartoon has endured the test of time. I say “luckily”, because it gives me an excuse to watch it again! Apart from one or two too many Elton John’s songs, it is perfect.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

by Paulo Coelho

Dear reader,

unless even if you habitually enjoy humourless quasi-spiritual drivel, don’t bother with this book. Possibly the worst book I read in the last forty years.

By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept: A Novel of Forgiveness

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Timur’s playlist

Timur got Sansa Clip+ 8GB MP3 player as a New Year gift. It is very much like Yuri’s one except there is a plus sign after the word “Clip” and its controls are more squarey. Timur specifically requested Putumayo’s Cajun compilation and Rocky Road to Dublin (as in Sherlock Holmes movie). We copied some more music on it today. Here’s the latest playlist:

Sansa Clip+ 8GB MP3 Player Colour BLACK

Monday, 17 January 2011

Alentejo Blue

by Monica Ali

At first, I thought each chapter was a separate if open-ended short story, the only thing in common being the location. (Welcome to Mamarrosa, an “imaginary” but very much recognisable village in the heart of rural Portugal. Even there, the internet café is opening one day.) Then, little by little, the characters start to interact with each other until, in the final chapter, all of them and more congregate for a festa. This last chapter alone could be made into a hilarious play (it actually has a plot reminiscent of Gogol’s Ревизор).

Alentejo Blue is written better and is more interesting read than Brick Lane. But, all its shortcomings notwithstanding, I was sympathising with Brick Lane’s heroes. No such luck here. At best, inhabitants of Mamarrosa provide comic relief; otherwise, they are pathetic (especially British expats). It seems to me that the author was enamoured of the place but not of its people.

On her way to do the shopping Telma Ervanaria stopped off for a pastry and a cup of apple tea. Dona Linda was there, sitting at a computer and pulling her bottom lip inside out.
‘What is that you’re looking at, Dona Linda?’
‘It’s a bench in the main street of a village called Little Rock in Canada.’
Telma Ervanaria looked closer at the dark, grainy blur. ‘I can’t see anything at all.’
Dona Linda sighed. ‘That’s because it’s the middle of the night.’
The woman was obviously crazy. ‘Wake up, Dona Linda. It’s ten in the morning.’ Telma Ervanaria grabbed her arm and gave it a little shake.
‘There,’ said Dona Linda. ‘It’s the middle of the night there.’
‘It’s a photograph?’ said Telma Ervanaria, pulling up a chair.
Dona Linda shook her head. ‘It’s a film. There’s a camera fixed to a tree or a lamp post or something and it films everything that goes on. And it all gets sent through the air or the wires or something to every single computer in the world. Armenio explained how it works.’
Telma Ervanaria put her nose up to the screen and snorted. ‘But there is nothing going on. Oh! Little Rock, that’s where your daughter is.’
‘Little River. But I thought maybe they were close together. I mean, what if I see her walking down that street? She might sit on that bench.’
‘In the middle of the night?’
‘Telma Ervanaria, how do you think I raised my daughter? Of course not in the middle of the night.’

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Friday, 14 January 2011

Dance

by Blowzabella

I was unaware of this English band until last week when I noticed Dance in the Saffron Walden library. As the title of the album suggests, this is dance music. The dances are: bourrée, hornpipe, jigs, mazurkas, schottisches, waltzes. How do I know: the liner notes give concise and informative descriptions of each track (and sometimes what the audience were doing during the recording, e.g. “The audience are dancing The 5 Hand Reel”). Yes, this is what one calls “folk”, but the band — accordion, bagpipes, bass guitar, clarinet, fiddle, hurdy-gurdy, saxophones and whistles — sounds like nothing else. The sax players, Jo Freya, Paul James and Jon Swayne, add a gentle jazzy feel throughout. You can listen to couple of tunes from this album, The Rose Of Raby and Il n’est plus temps / Famous Wolf, at the band’s MySpace page. The closing track, Blowzabella / Shave The Monkey / Boys Of The Mill, is a medley of three jigs, the first of which, of course, gave the band its name (back in 1978).

Dance

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Raggle-taggle and friends

First published 10 January 2011 @ just some words

Knock-knock, zigzag, hobson-jobson — words and phrases like these appear in English thanks to reduplication. According to Wikipedia, there are three types of English reduplication: exact, rhyming and ablaut (which is a fancy word for vowel permutation).

Exact reduplication is self-explanatory.
We are often creating exact reduplications on the fly when we want to stress that something is “real” or “authentic” (as opposed to its pale imitation). For example, in an interview with Tomer Zvulun I read:
You’ve been Assistant and Associate Director here at Seattle Opera in the past. What’s it like to come back, now as Director Director?
Apparently, “Director Director” here means “real” Director.

Wordle: raggle-taggle

Although their parts rhyme, rhyming reduplication may be not the best term for the phrases in the table below. They are not just rhymes — apart from the first consonant, they are identical.
An amateur etymologist in me would like to see Latin nolens volens not only in Italian volente o nolente (that is kind of obvious) but also in Russian волей-неволей, English willy-nilly, Dutch willens of onwillens — of course, modified according to the law of Hobson-Jobson. But what about Albanian dashur padashur, Dutch goedschiks of kwaadschiks, French bon gré mal gré, Greek εκών άκων, Hungarian kénytelen-kelletlen, Malay mau tak mau, Polish chcąc nie chcąc or Romanian vrând-nevrând? It looks like we humans just love to rhyme.

A special case of rhyming reduplication is so-called shm-reduplication. It is often used to convey a dismissive or ironic feeling for a thus reduplicated word, as in metalinguistic, shmetalinguistic or forbidden, shmershmidden (courtesy of Bender Rodríguez).

In ablaut reduplication, it is the vowel (typically, the first vowel) that change. Many words formed this way are onomatopoeic.
Both rhyming and ablaut reduplications can be further classified like this:
  1. A combination of one meaningful word and its “mutated” form present for emphasis: jibber-jabber, super-duper
  2. Apparently nonsensical combination of two meaningful words: bee’s knees
  3. Apparently nonsensical combination of two nonsense words: heebie-jeebies
  4. Meaningful combination of two meaningful words: telltale, walkie-talkie
One can argue that the latter case has nothing to do with reduplication because the both parts already existed on their own.

Phrases like creepy-crawly, hunky-dory and topsy-turvy are similar to reduplications (in that they sound like baby talk) but they are neither rhyming nor reduplications.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Rough Music

by Eliza Carthy

Sometimes knowing the language of the song adds nothing to my ability to enjoy it. Even worse: completely spoils it. The English-language songs I was happily humming along when I was a child now cause nothing but embarrassment — doubtlessly a side effect of my new relationships with the lyrics. This is true for most of jazz standards (corny), 1970s prog-rock (pretentious), contemporary R&B (dumb), Christmas songs (sickening) — the list goes on.

A few years ago I discovered, to my surprise, that I can tolerate English folk music even if I do understand the words. And if I had to single out an English musician to be held responsible for this discovery of mine, that would be Eliza Carthy. I think that this 2005 album is her best so far.

In the liner notes, Eliza explains the meaning of the term “rough music” but concedes that “we’ve tried to make the album a bit nicer than that”. What a typically English understatement. Rough Music is not “nice”. The whole thing is a work of beauty. Even so, my favourites are Mohair, Tom Brown and an instrumental Cobbler’s Hornpipe.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Chocolate: The Consuming Passion

by Sandra Boynton

This is, simply, the best book on the topic ever written, illustrated, and overresearched. The book of ultimate truths, so to speak. An inexhaustible source of quotes, any of them a surefire way to enliven a dull lecture. A perfect gift for a choc lover. A perfect gift for a lover. Even shorter: a perfect gift.

Chocolate: The Consuming Passion
Whoever said, “The best things in life are free”, was, of course, just kidding. The best things go for $6.50 a pound and up.
There always seems to be someone looking over your shoulder, just waiting for an opportunity to lecture on The Darker Side of Chocolate.
Chocolate was never meant to be shared.
Invariably, the chocolate department goes by a French name, such as “Le Chocolatier” or “Au Chocolat” or “La Maison du Bonbon”.
It is possible to overestimate the intrinsic value of hand dipping.
Chocolate is not a privilege; it is a right.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Snow Country

by Yasunari Kawabata

To quote Wikipedia, this novel “established Kawabata as one of Japan’s foremost authors and became an instant classic”. I am sure it did; yet I failed to enjoy the book, thanks to clumsy translation by Edward Seidensticker. This is positively the worst English translation of a Japanese book I ever read.

“It was such a beautiful voice that it struck one as sad”
“The high, thin nose was a little lonely, a little sad <...> There was nothing remarkable about the outlines of her round, slightly aquiline face”
“A powerful black dog stood on the stones by the doorway lapping at the water”
“Her laugh, like her voice, was so high and clear that it was almost lonely”
“The shape of her slightly aquiline nose was not clear”
— you get the picture. Or maybe not. The plot, if there is one, is not particularly engaging: a wealthy playboy spends some time away from his family at the hot springs in company of a young geisha. So what? At the time, there was nothing shocking or even remarkable about this. According to Seidensticker himself,
In Snow Country Kawabata has chosen a theme that makes a meeting between haiku and the novel possible.
Well, “possible” is not enough to make a good reading. The poetry is lost, the conversations are utterly meaningless, I couldn’t care less about the characters — what a waste of time.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Seven Chances

a film by Buster Keaton

Just back from Saffron Screen’s annual celebration of silent film, with live piano accompaniment by Gail Ford. This time, it’s Seven Chances. A great film — and one of the most hilarious chase sequences I’ve ever seen.


Jimmy Shannon (Keaton), pursued by hundreds of brides, causes an avalanche of rocks.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

by Yann Martel
So I wrote. I wrote another play — an absurdist pastiche, awful — before switching to prose. I wrote short stories — all of them bad — before writing a novel — equally bad — and then more short stories — none of them good. To pursue the violin analogy, I drove the neighbours crazy with my bad playing. But something drew me on. It’s not that I saw a future in it; to think there was a link between my scribblings and books on shelves was preposterous. I didn’t think I was wasting my time when I wrote — it was too exciting — but nor did I think I was building a life. The fact is, I wasn’t thinking at all; I was just doing, madly, like Paganini (without the talent).
Author’s note

It is a nonsense to compare this book of short-ish Borgesque stories (apples) with Martel’s magnum opus, Life of Pi (orange). Let’s concentrate on apples.

In 1986, two Canadian students (the narrator and his friend Paul) decide to write together a family saga. Each year of XX century, or rather, an event of choice of that year, corresponds to one episode from life of a contemporary Finnish family. We never learn much about Roccamatios though; that’s the part of the beauty. The saga is not going to be completed: Paul dies of AIDS around 1962.

In The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton (my, that’s a long name), the narrator attends a performance of Vietnam War Veterans’ orchestra and meets the said John Morton, who is working as a janitor. Probably the best story in the collection.

Just like the title story, Manners of Dying deals with parallel universes. A warden of “correctional institution” writes a series of letters to the mother of certain Kevin Barlow, sentenced to death. Each letter describes Kevin’s last hours, starting with his last meal. Details vary significantly, the outcome is always the same. In Manner of Dying 760, Kevin asks for pen and paper and writes through the night; the resulting pile of papers is “enclosed” with the letter but nobody (with the possible exception of Kevin’s mother) will ever see it.

The Vita Æterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come is the most magical story of the four. What is the secret ingredient of old mirrors?

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Techniquest

If you happen to find yourself in Cardiff Bay, you could do worse than spending a couple of hours in Techniquest. The last time we were in Cardiff I didn’t get there, so yesterday I had (and used) a chance to correct that. I am not a museum-going type, so trust me: it is great. With 150 or so interactive exhibits, you definitely won’t get bored.