Friday, March 12, 2010

Re-evaluation: a couple of albums from the 90s

The 90s were my most prolific album-buying period, coinciding as they did with my student days, a large degree of lack of responsibilities and a general folly-of-my-youth period.

Of the getting on for 2,000 LPs and somewhere around 1,000 CDs in my collection there's a lot of dross, bought because I liked the artist, thought I should like the artist or on general impulse. However, occasionally I unearth a gem that I might only have listened to a couple of times but which has stood the test of time better than most.

This process of re-evaluation has been made infinitely easier my the lovely Spotify service. No longer do I have to go digging in the racks (okay then, the garage) in order to find stuff I want to listen to; 90% of the time it will be on Spotify, along with much of the rest of the artist's discography.

A trip to Oxfam in Clifton this afternoon reminded me that I'd been meaning to listen to some World Party output for most of the last could of decades. I quick trip to Spotify told me I really shouldn't have been so bothered. There may be some gems in their output, but I'm yet to find them.

Quite how I got from there to Jah Wobble, I'm not really sure, but I was reminded that I had a copy of his Heaven and Earth album in my collection. Eclectic to say the least, thankfully only the shortest track could really be described as filler. With performances from Pharoah Sanders and Bill Laswell - he of Herbie Hancock RockIt and controversial Miles Davis rework Panthalassa fame - there are some heavyweight sessioneers lending their muscle. Perhaps the best is left for last, with Najma Akhtar performing vocals on Om Namah Shiva sounding not unlike the late, great Ofra Haza. Arguably, much of this album is derivative, sounding like other works you half-know but can't quite place. In this case, though, that degree of "fresh familiarity" seems to work to excellent effect.

A decade after Hancock and Laswell were arguably kicking off the fusion of hip-hop and jazz, British saxophonist Courtney Pine tuned his sights towards the idea of using samples on his 1995 release Modern Day Jazz Stories. Clearing the sample rights for this album proved expensive, so for the follow-up Underground in 1997, the 'samples' were largely reproduced in the studio by musicians and vocalists. Not that you can really tell, as the resulting tracks have been mixed very much in a turntablism style. Moving his virtual genre-mix dial further towards the jazz end of the scale than many crossover artists, Pine dishes up just the kind of mix I would be proud to call my own if I had the record collection and skills on the decks. Thankfully free of the kind of throwaway rap which spoils Us3's otherwise tight Blue Note plundering 90s output, Underground somehow sounds like the soundtrack for an unmade 70s remake you really wish you'd seen before it disappeared from the arthouse cinema circuit. Underrated and highly recommended.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

In Transit

Heathrow Terminal 3: never before have I experienced such a bizarre juxtaposition of cattle-market seating and high-bling shopping in the same space. On the one hand, we have seating so close together than you can't get your calf through the gap between the corners of sets of seats at right angles to each other...

...and on the other, we have baubles and trinkets from your favourite pushers of shiny things all the way up to the Cartier level.

The flight over to Toronto was delayed by a couple of hours, so it turned into a very long day, not helped by the fact that half the population of the Western Hemisphere seemed to want to get into Canada with only about a dozen folks checking passports. Still, these things are send to try us, you can't make an omelette etc...

Talking of omelettes, the one I just shared with Alex for breakfast was lovely...

Great apartment we have for our first week here, views out over the University of Toronto and Downtown areas, and from the other window we can see the CN tower.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Two-ish miles per hour...


Age: 22
Wheel size: 23 inches
Number of gears: 15
Speed: 2-and-a-bit miles per hour

Lesson: you can't always tell what's going on on a ride from the raw statistics.

Set off to ride the four whole miles to Ashton Court with 7-year-old Alex on his 6-speeder. More enthusiasm than speed or fitness, but then perhaps I overestimated what such a youngster is capable of. And let us not forget that a typical young-un-bike is relatively speaking a gas-pipe special in comparison with our grown-up steeds.

I usually ride in a 78rpm stylee. There may be lots of breaks for chatter between the records (especially these days) but I tend to go for it when I'm actually pedalling. But once I'd clicked into the 33 1/3 pace of things I had a ball. Despite my recent decision that I would never go there again due to being too out of shape, this ride had 'singlespeed' written all over it. Stopping every hundred yards or so to look at something or have a drink, I was left wondering if I have simply never grown out of my childhood mind's propensity to get distracted easily. Wonderful how time with the little ones teaches you about yourself.

Prosecution Exhibit A: high-altitude doughnut stop.

Doughnut stops and climbing an Avon Gorge beacon tower, under the suspension bridge and over to Lockside for a pooh stop. Accidentally take the long way round to cross over to the far side of the river and back down the gorge before crossing the disused single track railway to meet the main road up to the Court.

Busy, narrow, little in the way of pavement. A somewhat cheeky solution presented itself, even if only 20m at a time was rideable due to steps: much more fun to be had coming down, I'd wager. Alex manages more than I expected, but needs his bike carrying at times. Get to the top, onto pavement. Alex promptly manages to fall off. Bad choice of gear perhaps. We decide to push.

Check in with H at the top of the hill, then over to the Timberland. Decide to ride it the 'right' way round despite this being pas-de-rigeur. Alex must be pooped by now, but does a sterling ride at his own pace. I pick my way slowly through the lines, some easy, some hard, get some variety in, wanting a return trip as soon as possible so I can do my own thing.

Damp and grey now, time for some flapjack before taking a shortcut to head for the warmth of the car and hot beverages. Get there just as the cafe is closing, but H has already got the round in. The young'un admits to having had a great time despite being exhausted. Mind you, he's still going strong after a shower now his Polish cousin has got the games going on the laptop.

I'm off for a bath, out for a curry tonight. Three hours and then some to do all of about seven miles, yet still I have a huge grin inside and out. Things may be different with a little one in tow, but for sure that's no bad thing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Does the Twitterverse need a new tag symbol?

If one thing has become obvious since the Iranian elections, it's the importance of social networking sites in getting information out of places where restrictions on other forms of communication are put in place. Anyone following #iranelection on Twitter certainly won't need me to tell them that.

Or should I say trying to follow?

The problem at the moment with #iranelection is that the signal-to-noise ratio is abysmal. Anyone in Iran trying to get new information out on Twitter by using this hashtag is just going to get swamped in the noise - unless they already have people following their posts.

This post by @swombat summed it up nicely:

"Interesting to
think that maybe what Twitter needs is some kind of way for users to
indicate their approval *without* polluting the hashtag."

To which I replied:

@swombat We need another symbol: if @ is for ppl and # for tags, how about % for support? #iranelection"

...further polluting the hastag... but how else to get the message out there? My thought was that the % tag looks like a pair of eyes, so is a tag for "this is what I've seen, check it out".

@swombat came back to me:

@DoctorRad The question would be, then, how to make it catch on..."

To which the only answer I can think of is to publicise the idea and see if it catches on.

So, if you're actually posting something new which is directly related to the subject rather than further commentary, use the hashtag, e.g. #iranelection, but if you're re-tweeting or want to show your support, use the eye-tag, e.g. %iranelection.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Everything's Gone Green

Mikey boy rang me to talk turnips. About a dozen of fair size from lotty now in fridge along with two bags full of tops - turnip greens for our US readers - ready to make sag.

An Emotional Time

Medication taken? Check. Eaten recently? Check.

Wondering what's wrong.

Or maybe it's what's right.

It's been a long time coming.

Rode for the first time in years with other people on Sunday. Crappy hire bike with three-year-old on tag-along. But had fun and lots of it.

Wanting to ride more for the first time in years.

Antique FSR out of mothballs. Maintenance needed, spares run to Decathlon this evening.

Very emotional, lots under the surface wanting to come out. Found lots of people I used to know are still around, should be out with some of them on Saturday.

Nine years since I lost my mojo, I think it's coming back.

Oh my God, it's coming back...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Was Kepler Inspired by Islamic Art?

Recent news reports have covered a publication in the journal Science concerning the use of what we know in the west as quasi-crystalline geometry in Islamic art dating back to the 15th Century:

Those wanting more wonderful pictures should take a look at the Supporting Online Material.

In an interview with the BBC, the lead author on the paper, Peter Lu, is quoted as saying that the Islamic artists "made tilings that reflect mathematics that were so sophisticated that we didn't figure it out until the last 20 or 30 years."

The authors are referring here to Penrose tiling, discovered in the 1970s by mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose. The significance of this class of patterns is that they fill space without repeating themselves, despite having five-fold rotational symmetry. If you had two copies of the pattern on transparent plastic, you would only be able to match the patterns up with the sheets in one position relative to each other, unless, that is, you rotate one of the sheets.

Penrose's discovery led to work by Alan Mackay in the early 1980s, describing for the first time the phenomenon of quasicrystals: three-dimensional structures which fill space in an orderly way, but which do not possess translational symmetry. Quasicrystals are in effect a generalisation of Penrose Tiling into three-dimensions.

In the development of Penrose Tiling, Sir Roger was inspired by the work of Johannes Kepler. One tiling in particular from Kepler's 1619 publication Harmonice Mundi showed that is possible to tile a two-dimensional space completely using shapes which have five-fold symmetry, so long as one also uses the shape now known as "Kepler's Monster". These "fused decagon pairs", as Kepler also called them, are essentially the gaps left in the skeleton formed by the arrangement of five-fold symmetrical tiles.

Many of the patterns which Lu and Steinhardt examine also show sets of "fused decagons", depicted clearly in this image from the BBC website. While these appear to be extensions of Kepler's Monster, one subtle difference is clear. Whereas Kepler's shape is formed by the fusion of two decagons from each of which two faces have been removed, leading to a sixteen-faced Monster, the shapes in Lu and Steinhardt's work are all formed by decagons meeting at a single face. The resulting basic eighteen-faced Monster can be seen clearly in figures S3D and S4C of the aforementioned Supporting Online Material.

Despite these differences, the similarities in these patterns are striking, and beg the question as to whether Kepler was himself inspired by Islamic art. It is well known that Kepler's work was significantly influenced by that of the great Islamic scholar Alhazen, who was himself the first person to discover the laws of refraction. Roger Penrose is quoted in the Daily Telegraph recently as saying that Kepler produced "a true portion" of a Penrose pattern "a great deal closer to my tilings than any of the Islamic patterns I have seen so far". Is it not a possibility, however, that Kepler's work is in effect a stepping-stone between that of the ancient Islamic artisans and that of Penrose?

There is a tantalising possibility that we may one day know more of Kepler's work with such patterns than we do already. Writing here, an anonymous Wolfram employee mentions that Penrose is aware of the possible existence of a letter from Kepler in which he "went into much greater detail about his intentions with the tiling". Penrose has apparently thus far not been able to track down this letter, but the possibility of its existence implies that there may yet be more dots to be joined in tracing the history of quasicrystallographic geometry.

As an aside, I am indebted to the work of Victor Ostromoukhov for first informing me of the connection between the works of Kepler and Penrose. Of his work, this paper outlines a novel recent application of the properties of Penrose tiling, and this work concerns the computer generation of a different class of patterns to be found in Islamic art.