Friday, 27 March 2015

Joan Armatrading at the Barbican

Joan Armatrading albums
I haven't written about any music gigs lately. Yesterday we were along to see the great Joan Armatrading in the intricacies of the Barbican. This was the 120th gig of Joan's current tour and the first time she's performed a tour completely solo.

An immediately recognisable singing voice and some rebuilds of well-known songs as well as a few less familiar. Joan plays a tidy lick on the guitar too, weaving acoustic, slide, jazz, blues and stinging rock into the set. She accompanied a few songs by piano and modest loop and synth for a couple of the very familiar tracks from the set.

I'd last seen Joan Armatrading at Glastonbury where she was playing a bluesy set on the Jazz stage. Here, for the Barbican, she mixed it up using a small selection of guitars (including what looked like a blue Variax) and the keyboard.

I realised just how much I'd listened to both of my vinyl copies of her early albums over the years and was treated to several tracks from them, mainly re-worked for the solo performance as well as some full-on dialled-to-eleven guitar work in other numbers.

Joan is clearly very comfortable performing and with around 40 years of touring she's met and played with many well-known folk. About half way into the set she kicked back and gave us a slide show of some of the moments along the way. Elton John, Paul McCartney, her MBE, a one-to-one with Nelson Mandela all featured as well as small stories about being photographed by Annie Leibowitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Patrick Lichfield. And to round it off - yes - a cartoon strip in the Beano.

It was a fine crowd in the full house too, warm applause when she arrived on stage, singing along when she asked, creating an encore for which she waited patiently on stage.

A great evening of entertainment from a powerful performer. And I just found the Beeb's recording of 'Love and Affection' from Glasto.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

don't look back in anger, i hear you say

The BBC really ought to re-screen 'Our Friends in the North' what with that there election coming along.

Maybe it's too complicated, from a contractual standpoint, with so many of the then fresh faces now as big names in their own rights. Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong, Daniel Craig and Gina McKee in the starring roles. Malcolm McDowell, David Bradley, Peter Vaughn - even Julian Fellowes as a multi-jobbed politician.

And there's the point. The storyline, which spans 1964 to 1996, tells of four main characters and their intertwined lives around Newcastle and partly London's Soho, in situations that start with a story involving inadequate and poorly built housing but which leads to corruption, sleaze, drive-by politicians, tabloid press tactics - the list goes on and on. And although it starts in 1964, the themes still seem very topical today as well as against their original backdrop of Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher.

The BBC series was originally made in the 1990s, and it's interesting to look back on the older 60s parts and marvel at the access to the locations and the items needed to make it look authentic. Thirty years after the earliest events, most things required were still available, and it adds a kind of haphazard authenticity which is harder to recreate another twenty or so years on. The London scenes are similarly well painted and it's fascinating to see the action on location outside the Old Palace Yard of Parliament in a way that security has long since banned.

I've still a couple more episodes to re-watch. Right now I'm still in the power cuts of Heath's three day working week. Swan Hunter has just closed. Even by the end the rejuvenation of the Quayside won't have occurred. There's no Sage or Hilton looking down from across the river in Gateshead. Of course there's no Gateshead Millennium Bridge. The south side of the Tyne Bridge looks empty. Some things change, whilst the series shows that others remain just the same.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

the gnats have started a miniature singles' bar in the back garden...

Another sign of Spring as the gnats have formed a sort of singles' bar in the back garden, doing that spirally dance. Accidentally walking through them and thinking the obvious expletive is probably a pretty accurate description of what is happening.

I know that trick to hum at the gnats to make them change their flight patterns, but I've also noticed that it works a lot better with a guitar. A few chunky chords on an acoustic and bizarrely you can have the gnats responding by dancing up and down in no time.

I think it's something to do with the way they listen to wing beat patterns. Maybe I'll film it some time.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

in which i try using the internet to work out 'who should you vote for?'

Instead of just throwing a knife at a target, I thought I'd try the who should you vote for? quiz, to see what it thought my vote should be in the upcoming election.

I expect I'll try it again in a couple of weeks because there were a few questions where I didn't really have a strong opinion, which might dilute the result.

Then I decided to look up the candidates for around here. A curious mix in this curiously 'C' shaped constituency.

The prior MP is standing down, and so we have a new entrant as inevitable successor.

The new person will win simply because they belong to the party which has a huge majority around here. More votes than all of the other candidates' votes combined.

I googled the official party web site where there was a recent picture of the new candidate and a small amount of text, combined with three central party office questions. I suppose this constitutes the nearest thing to a platform for this follower of the line. Not my cup of tea, but my vote won't really affect things.

The candidate from the conventional opposition to the likely winner didn't have a declared email address or picture on theyour next MP web site. I soon found it though, when I looked at this 26 year old's impressive LinkedIn web site entry.

This competitor probably didn't have time to add the information. A still-in-twenties candidate who has already had 29 different job roles, mostly as advisor. It includes supporting the last Obama campaign in the USA. More than a dozen International Awards, and active support for more than 15 causes, including cheering the London Olympics bid to victory in Singapore, supporting Sochi on the ground and planning to visit Rio to support the Olympics there.

I think this candidate still lives in another area around 50-60 miles away and may not have quite such comprehensive knowledge of this constituency's environment. Perhaps scaling back on some of the wide-ranging activities (like being a Managing Director) could help?

A more likely competitor to the one that will actually win gets around a quarter of the votes around here. They don't have a picture on 'your next MP' website nor on their own party web-site. Actually, the whole constituency had been left out of the front page 'meet the faces' section of the Party web-site. Maybe I'll call this candidate's mobile (the number I found easily enough) to let him know his own Party are hiding him.

Next up, and with a picture, is the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, although I notice it's billed as simply 'Loony' on the candidate list. Their Manicfesto is as bonkers as usual and I notice their results don't get listed in the final mix. As they say, they are loonies, not nutters.

That brings me to the final candidate, a local lad and friend of Farage, seen together in chummy and suited photos in grandiose once-tobacco-stained lounges and smiling. This man is clearly a self-starter having set up his own branch of the party before selecting himself as the candidate.

So what to make of it all?

Firstly, I doubt if many people do what I just did and trawl through the candidates. Based upon the paltry information gleaned, I can see why.

Some people I ask don't actually know the name of the incumbent MP for this area. Most probably don't know who the candidates are, where they live or what they represent beyond the big ticket top 2-3 ideas punted onto television.

Presumably we'll still get the slips of paper through the door when it all kicks off properly.

I guess it can still come down to that moment with a pencil in the booth, trying to find something recognisable to put a cross against.

Against my preferences, it seems to be coming down to a 'least worst' over a 'none of the above vote' at the moment.

Friday, 20 March 2015

no eclipse, just a pigeon on a tv aerial

No sign of the eclipse, so here's a pigeon
Oh well. I didn't see today's eclipse of the sun.

We had clouds in the sky from first light. Complete coverage. I'd even selected a longer lens for my camera in case I could catch the event, but to no avail.

It brightened up later. Enough for me to have the sunroof on the car open. And the windows down.

Quite different from yesterday, when I took the bike for a quick spin but came back rather chilled. I knew shorts were a bad idea.


I took this picture of a pigeon sunbathing on a TV aerial. Or perhaps with that lens it's a distant space probe piloted by an alien.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

almost time to visit a rockin' roller coaster?

Yesterday, I could hear the budget speech coming through on a distant radio. It was the braying and hee-hawing sounds that gave it away. Parliament in action.

Curious that just a few weeks before the next election we get something like this, with all its political loops. Although, come to think of it, the opposition response was rather basic, resorting to "don't believe it" type phrases.

Ozzy riffed through a barrage of statistics which rock 'n roller coastered from GDP to church roof funds with some penny-off-a-pint assumed crowd pleasers in the middle section.

Has he tried beer in London lately? A penny off a pint of London Pride would take it from, oh, £3.80 to £3.79. A 0.26% reduction. The first third of every pint still goes to the Government.

That's the trouble with the way the budget was presented. It's not just what's said, it's also what gets left out.

Even the Office of Budget Responsibility published some quick spreadsheetery which has that 'then a miracle occurs' look about some of the numbers (as well as a few odd-looking adjustments in 2016?)

Here's a version of the statistics that can build one of those sets of roller coaster graphs. They are on Page 202 of the post budget report along with 'uncertainty ratings'.

It's the OBR's table and below is my quick graph. Note there's plenty of wiggle in there, too and even more if you look at the fan graphs in the OBR report.

The OBR numbers are the surface of a bigger set which lead to the UK budget deficit. It's around £1.4tn (£1,400bn) which is about the same as the UK total GDP. The Public Sector Net Cash Requirement (PSNCR née PSBR Public Sector Borrowing Requirement) to plug the gap in finances each year is around 11%-12% of GDP.

This deficit represents the number that the Chancellor needs to remediate. It's also where the miracle needs to occur. I plotted the figures from a few weeks ago.

Now we can add a couple of vectors to the graphic, including a tweak of the revised budget figures. I've looked at prior successful remediations, spread over the period starting in 1980.

For simplicity, I've expressed the trend line of the remediation as a gradient in degrees. It's a bit like a dial in Startrek - the further it is yanked, the more chance the engines might explode.

In the 1980s the remedy was around 14°. In the 1990s it reached 32°. The current remedy since the peak in 2009 is around 38°.

Our Chancellor wants to push this up to around 52° (my green arrow) to remove the deficit in 2018.

So where are the big numbers coming from? There must be a lot more happening than the figures highlighted in the OBR analysis of the budget.

Of course, the spreadsheet hides the fact that much can change in the five year forward period.

The graph already has one of those optimistic forward bursts of gain (shown in 2017-2018), where in a trippy Planet Caravan scenario the dial has to move right up to 63° to achieve the required numbers.

It almost certainly relies on there being so many other changes that these figures will get quietly adjusted over the next 18 months.

I also notice that using the already steep 38° line, it shows that the fix won't have occurred by the end of 2020. Oops.

Perhaps I'm being paranoid? Or maybe Ozzy has hidden more in the rat's salad of figures? And perhaps that is really a 'vat' of salad?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

pragmatic use of DVD format with iTunes

Usually I've only converted DVDs a few at a time to work inside iTunes, so it was my recent short blitz of about 30 DVDs that made me take a little more notice of the format.

My pragmatic view is that it is still 'good enough' for many movies, even though there's increasing HD streaming and the declining Bluray as alternatives.

Traditional European PAL standard television has 625 lines of which 575 are used to make the actual picture, with the rest for controls and suchlike. The Americans use NTSC which uses 525 lines of which 483 are used to make the picture.

As a consequence, PAL DVDs are usually either 576 or 540 lines in their source definition. The normal width is 720 pixels, making a total pixel count of around 400,000 or 0.4megapixels.

In practice, the width is often stretched to make the wide-screen formats which mostly show up on television as 16:9. The original widescreen movie formats with 35mm film stock use anamorphic lenses to compress the image widthways and then have it stretched back out when projected in a cinema. See the squashed looking car below...

Otherwise, only a small part of the film frame would be used when making the movie.

Television/computer playback uses a similar trick, stretching letterbox and widescreen formats so that they look right on replay.

That's how systems like Panavision worked and the technique persists to this day, although increasingly with digital filming, the sensor ratios can be adjusted for the format.

It also means that home entertainment systems have to handle upscaling from the standard definition format, so that the picture isn't just a small rectangle in the middle of the screen.

Ever since the old cathode ray tubes gave way to flat panels, the number of available pixels (lines and columns) has been increasing. The commonest 1080p HD format has, yes, 1080 lines instead of 575. Blu-ray goes to 1920 across × 1080 lines of pixels. The newer 4k is 3840 x 2160 (8 megapixels) and 8k is 7680 × 4320 (33.2 megapixels). Naturally, as the pixels increase, so does the replay bandwidth requirement.

Confusingly, digital cinemas have either 2K cinema screens (2048×1080 or 2.2 megapixels) or 4K cinema (4096×2160 or 8.8 megapixels). And IMAX? It's often a projection of 70mm film although they are also using doubled up 2k projectors nowadays.


So back to my conversion of DVDs. Tradeoff of content, quality and convenience.

I'll simply preserve the original quality of the DVD. That means the maximum I can squeeze out of the DVD is 720x576. With anamorphic conversion this goes up to generally a maximum of 1080 across. The rest becomes a function of the upscaling available on the playback equipment. 15 minutes to convert, auto-catalogue with MetaZ, adding the 1.3Gb image size with 5.1 sound to iTunes.

And you know what? For practical day-to-day viewing at normal distances, the DVD quality still seems fine as a tradeoff between quality and convenience. Wanna see that old favourite movie again? Yes, it's here and right now.

Of course I'll still watch movies in higher definition from streaming or occasional Bluray (weird that it auto-corrects to blurry?) and I'll sometimes notice the difference for the first few minutes. Then the story kicks in and with a few exceptions, the technical wizardry isn't as significant.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015


I see that the woodpecker and weasel combo now have their own commemorative sign in Hornchurch Park. I hear they may be starting an airline.

Monday, 16 March 2015

A typewriter in the House of Cards

It took me a while to get into the third series of House of Cards. Somewhat at odds with the first series, which I watched almost over a weekend.

I think it was the 'Doug Stamper' story which slowed me down. Compared with many events in the show, it was a rather slow burn story dominating the start of the series.

By about the third episode, things had picked up and there's a great pre-roll sequence when the Russian President 'Viktor Petrov' visits Washington. And if V.P. isn't Putin, then at least the two Pussy Riot members play as themselves later in the episode.

We still get the asides from Kevin Spacey, doing a great job as an increasingly unlikeable President. And we're into the 2016 election run-up, so there's a kind of faux-topicality to the various shenanigans.

I'm missing some of the more Shakespearian moves in this series though. Underwood can still push people under the bus (so to speak), but some of the better plotting seems to be occurring offshore.

And President Frank has still managed a scene with his Underwood typewriter whilst retaining a Chief of Staff called Remy (Remington). [CR] [LF]

Sunday, 15 March 2015

cross referencing the 'top 250' movies

A bit of fun with movies.

After I added my recent DVD acquisitions to iTunes, I thought it would be interesting to see if there were any obvious gaps in 'popular' coverage, based on films I've seen rather than ones that I own.

The IMDb database is a good starting point which, whilst it may have a populist and perhaps slightly American bias, still gives a useful list of a top 250 movies 'of all time'.

They've used a Bayesian weighted voting formula of their regular voters to create this top 250, as follows:

weighted rating (WR) = (v ÷ (v+m)) × R + (m ÷ (v+m)) × C


R = average for the movie (mean) = (Rating)
v = number of votes for the movie = (votes)
m = minimum votes required to be listed in the Top 250 (currently 25000)
C = the mean vote across the whole report (currently 7.0)

I guess it is based upon access to movies rather than a fully critical viewing and The Shawshank Redemption in the number 1 spot might have been aided by it being given away free as a DVD in various publications.

It's not close to my personal ranking (e.g. it has The Good, The Bad and the Ugly in the top few), but it's still a useful starting point to check for obvious gaps in what I've seen.

As well as the ranking uncertainties, there's only a few foreign language movies in the list, which might skew the European variations. To get a flavour, the top few movies are as follows:

Weirdly, when I recently snapped some DVDs to illustrate a post, three of the randomly included movies were The Godfather trilogy, Pulp Fiction and The Black Knight. Another one visible is the Swedish version of 'Let the Right One In', so I can honestly say it was pure co-incidence that I hit 4 of the top 5.

I regard this ever-evolving Top 250 list as a light guide more than anything.

There's a few films with colons in their titles (franchises) and the recent Whiplash, Boyhood and Kingsman are already tripping their way into the chart. There's also some classics like Casablanca, 12 Angry Men, City Lights and Vertigo, a few British crime movies like Snatch but, for example, no Ealing comedies.

I copied the Top 250 into a spreadsheet, to look for any obvious gaps in my own viewing. But I don't think I'll be attempting my own alternative selection...

Saturday, 14 March 2015

springing out of the pub

"Do you mind if we stand outside?"

We'd been in a pub after the last meeting of the day. It was still early and I'd had a couple of small drinks with colleagues, before we split up for the rest of the afternoon.

A month or so ago everyone would still be huddled inside unless in need of a cigarette. Now we're in the early stages of people preferring to be outside.

"Is that your coat?" I was asked as we sauntered into the sunlight.

"No coat today."

I'd packed an umbrella but my suit was sufficient for the meetings around town. Worst case would be the need for a taxi, although walking and the tube worked just fine.

Friday, 13 March 2015

bottom gear

I've been watching the situation around that alleged fracas caused by the television presenter who reportedly used extensive vitriolic language and blows with his producer over no steaks in the hotel restaurant at 9.30pm.

Hundreds of thousands seem to be rallying around the presenter, although I disagree.

Like others who get a certain leverage from their position, he is now living on the power he has been gifted on behalf of the rest of us. He enjoys a privileged role as clown entertainer and has used it to make comments that in most organisational settings would be considered inappropriate.

There's plenty of lower level cheap shots too about slowing down to 70 mph on a motorway to pick up a bus wifi signal, of aiming vehicles at cyclists as well as the oft-quoted examples about lorry drivers, Mexicans and other nationalities.

I don't see it as clever, more as bullying. An apparently untouchable and disagreeable dinosaur who happens to be able to drive fast cars around a track and make their tyres smoke.

Apparently he doesn't work directly on the BBC payroll, having his own sage special arrangement which also includes profit sharing of the syndication rights. Nice work if you can get it although I assume he's found an advantage to moving elsewhere in any case.

There's a couple of other presenters in the show who emulate the behaviour in a toned-down sort of manner, so long as they kowtow to their leader. It's all very smug and elitist in a blokey sort of way. "Shall we race the Ferrari against the McLaren and the Porsche?"/"Let's do something stupid with normal cars to show how pathetic they are compared to a Bugatti Veyron". Even the one who makes other television programmes about toys has owned a plane with a cockily personalised registration, so they are all doing okay, thank you very much.

The whole programme is shot in lovely supersaturated colours with cracking soundtracks. The production values make all of it look like a scene from Hollywood, rather than a rainy airstrip. Maybe the bullied producer has something to do with making it look good as well as fetching the sandwiches?

Some people are saying that the lead presenter has made the show what it is. That's a great reason to ask him and perhaps the rest of the presentation team to step aside. Let some different folk take over and reboot what has become a tired and repetitive format.