Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Parrot Driving Instructor

West Yorkshire police were astonished recently when they pulled over a learner driver on the M62 motorway — because she had a parrot in the car with her. Parrots are very clever birds but they are not known for their ability to drive cars. In any case, even if the parrot was a qualified driver, the learner driver would still be in trouble. Learners are not allowed drive on the motorway under any circumstances, even when accompanied by someone holding a full licence, or a parrot.

"The rules of the road exist for a very good reason," said Chief Inspector Mark Bownass, before warning of the dangers of putting too much faith in the driving abilities of parrots.


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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sad Elephant News

Joyraj the elephant has died. He was 73. The 3.35 metre tall pachyderm had spent his life in the Kaziranga National Park in the Indian state of Assam. He had spent most of his life as a working elephant, transporting tourists into the park's jungle to see rhinoceroses and other animals that lived there. He also helped break up fights between unruly male elephants.

Joyraj has been in retirement since 2008, but was still a much loved fixture in the park. Mohan Karmakar, his mahout, wept at the animal's death, but it seems that that the other elephants in the park have also been mourning Joyraj's passing, loudly trumpeting and visibly crying at their loss.

The picture shows Joyraj with Elke Riesterer, an animal body therapist who treated the elephant for a number of ailments in 2008.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

MAINLINER & WÖLFBAIT (live); Acid Mothers Temple (recorded)

I went to see MAINLINER recently. I went on the basis that they are a side project of the popular Japanese sensations Acid Mothers Temple. They were playing in the Grand Social, a venue in part of what used to be the monster pub Pravda.

MAINLINER were supported by Wölfbait, a local act. They are a band I associate with the world of Hunters Moon and all that, but I am not sure if they actually are linked (I could be mixing them up with Wölflinge or someone like that). Anyway, they were quite good in a broadly experimental kind of way, but not so engaging that I can remember too much about them several weeks later after taking no notes at the concert.

MAINLINER themselves comprise Kawabata Makoto (as you know, the AMT frontman) and a couple of other people. One of them is the current AMT drummer (or the guy who was drumming last time I saw AMT, or something), while on bass they had a sexy lady. Or so I thought, based on her attractive dress and long black hair, but then I realised it was actually a man sporting these items. Oh well, least said, soonest mended. And I think that was it — power trio action.

They certainly rocked out, and I could not fault the musicianship etc., but this did not quite fall into place for me. Maybe I am just too much of an AMT stalwart to enjoy seeing Kawabata onstage, knowing that he is not going to launch into 'La Novia' or 'Pink Lady Lemonade'. At the time I found myself concluding that I just prefer AMT to AMT side-projects, though of course since then I have learned that MAINLINER are the band Kawabata was in before Acid Mothers Temple. Still, whatever the reason I only half-liked this concert.

Nevertheless, I feel obliged to buy an album or two every time I see Acid Mothers Temple or a subset thereof. With other bands I shun records with saucy covers, but somehow this time I decided that the best thing to do would be to purchase the record with the most salacious cover. So I went for an album by Acid Mothers Temple & the Cosmic Inferno entitled For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Goofy Funk? The cover features two young ladies who are very good friends.

The record is entertaining, as is always the case with AMT. The first track is a surprisingly funky tune called 'Space Hurricane Funky Night'. While it does not disappoint in its guitar wig-outs, the overall sound is rather different to what one expects from Acid Mothers Temple. This is not a problem. They follow that with a much heavier short tune (only six and a half minutes) before the very long title track gets into its own stoner groove, again one owing a surprisingly large debt to the world of the funk. Finally a ten minuter with vague sitar and faux Theremin noises brings the album to an end. Like most AMT records you could argue that it is no more essential than any others of their releases, but that would largely be to miss the point.

image source

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Thursday, January 09, 2014

Adaptable Penguins Soldier On

Everyone loves emperor penguins. The large flightless birds who swim in the seas around Antarctica and breed on frozen sea ice had their curious ways popularised by films such as March of the Penguins. But concerns have been expressed about the future of the black and white birds, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifying them as "near threatened".

Unlike other animals, the penguin is not threatened by human encroachment into their harsh environment. Rather the fear is that the changeable weather conditions created by man-made climate change will disrupt their habitat and prevent them from successfully breeding. With the penguins typically breeding on sea ice, concerns have been expressed as to what they will do if climate change leads to the ice forming late or not at all.

However, scientists observing four particular penguin colonies have discovered that the little fellows are more resilient than expected.When their preferred sea ice is not available, the penguins move to alternative sites, somehow climbing up onto the almost impenetrable ice shelves closer to land. Although this puts them much further from the sea and atop strange and unscaleable cliffs, the penguins still manage to travel to and from their breeding sites to gather food for their young. It appears they slide or jump down the cliffs on the way to the sea and then make long detours around them when returning back to feed the little chicks.

It is unclear whether this penguin adaptability is unique to there four colonies, or if all emperor penguins are able to seek out new breeding sites when necessary. It is also unknown whether other penguin species are also as adaptable. But the plucky behaviour of these penguins suggests that the flightless birds will not be easily defeated by climate change.


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Monday, January 06, 2014

Comics: "Alex + Ada", issues 1 and 2

This is a new comic from Image, created by Jonathan Luna (story, script, art, lettering, design etc.) and Sarah Vaughn (story and script). It is set in the near future and is about information technology and its effect on humans and human society. It has themes of loneliness and alienation, though these are not presented as straightforwardly a product of the onward march of progress. The title also looks at consciousness, self-awareness and what it means to be human. It is a bold and ambitious work and on the basis of the first two issues it might just be the best thing currently being published monthly (which admittedly would not be that hard as there is currently something of a comics drought).

The first issue follows Alex, the protagonist, as he gets up in the morning and flicks through the morning news (a handy way of filling in some background). He has little drones to bring him his cup of coffee and an implant that allows him to think instructions to appliances in his house. TV news projects on holograms, and we learn that in the recent past some AI became self-aware and went on a homicidal rampage before being shut down; fears remain that something similar could happen again but Alex does not seem too worried. In fact Alex seems emotionally flat, not because he has been dehumanised by all pervasive technology but by something more timeless, a bad breakup. The clean lines of the art and the bleached out colours accentuate the sense of emotional flatness that surrounds Alex.

A friend invites him over for a quiet celebration of his birthday. His rich grandmother rings and talks about the expensive robot she has bought herself— basically a robot gigolo that can also perform domestic chores, something that looks human and mimics being conscious without actually having self-awareness. Alex is aghast at her suggestion that he get a female one for himself. He goes to the friend's house for the quiet celebration, but it turns out to be a much larger surprise party organised for his benefit. They have invited along a woman who is clearly enamoured of Alex, but he is too self-absorbed to notice. In a great wordless sequence, we see him looking round the party at a succession of happy couples, people enjoying an intimacy that he is cut off from.

Then he goes home and finds that his grandmother has actually had one of the androids delivered to him. She/it says "Hello" and that ends the episode.

The second episode follows Alex as he deals with having this unwanted android dumped on him. In some ways it is like having a puppy gifted on you against your will, but this puppy can talk to him in an ostensibly cheery manner and is designed to be sexually attractive. The faux consciousness of Ada, as Alex calls her/it, is fascinating here and I think something that we may soon find ourselves interacting with in real life. She acts in a manner designed to mimic human self awareness but is still not quite there, for all her obvious computational power and ability to interact with humans in an almost natural way.

Where the story is going I do not know. Maybe we will follow Ada on the path to actual self-awareness, maybe we will start to wonder if such a thing is illusory, or maybe the focus will remain on Alex, with Ada either bringing him out of his alienated state or perhaps ultimately increasing it. Either way I am hooked and will be with this till the end.

Image sources:

Issue one cover (Jonathan Luna's website)

illustration (another review of issue one)

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Film: "47 Ronin"

47 Ronin is this floptastic big budget action film set in Japan and starring Keanu Reeves. It turns out to be based on a true story that is apparently famous in Japan. Some feudal lord assaulted another visiting lord who was a court official of the Shogun. For this terrible affront, the Shogun obliged the feudal lord to commit ritual suicide. His samurai then became masterless — the 47 ronin of the film's title. But they decided to avenge their master's death by taking on the court official lord, who had in some way been asking for the assault their master meted out to him. Thus they laid their plans and carefully embarked on a campaign of vengeance.

The film takes this bare bones story and throws in both fantasy elements and Keanu Reeves. And it is in 3D. It is a reasonably enjoyable confection. Like many films, there are things wrong with it, but the same is true of many films that go on to be seen by many people. So I am curious as to what exactly went wrong with this one.

Let me consider first the film's problematic elements. Adding in fantasy elements is not a bad thing in and of itself — sword fighting samurai are great but samurai fighting shape-changing witches are even better? In this case, however, the CGI effects used for the fantasy elements are distinctly second rate and severely detract from the suspension of disbelief required to accept that the guy with the sword is actually fighting a snake monster. The people who make films seem to think that CGI is far more convincing than it actually is, leading to any number of films like 47 Ronin featuring risible monsters. With this film they would have been far better advised to tone down the fantasy elements and foreground the people laying into each other with swords, leaving the witch as a more subtle presence (or writing her out completely).

The use of 3D was also a bit unhelpful. 3D is meant to make films more realistic but here there was a counter-intuitive distancing effect that made it oddly difficult to follow what was going on in some of the action sequences. That 3D was being combined with ropey CGI meant that things became very murky.

The film attempts to court a PG audience by toning down the violence a bit, so in this film we miss severed limbs, blood, and flying heads. But again, this weakens the action sequences so that we end up a bit vague as to what is going on.

Yet for all these negative features, the film is not without its charms. The good guys have a nicely heroic quality, gamely following what they see as the path of honour yet knowing that it will bring them to their deaths. The bad guy and his witch associate are properly evil and make for great pantomime villains. And I liked the whole sub-plot they created for Keanu Reeves. He is an outsider adopted by the original master of the 47 ronin, but he has to endure the suspicion and hostility of the lord's established servants. That they eventually have to make friends with him to advance their goal of vengeance makes for some great male bonding stuff.

The ronin successfully avenge themselves on the evil lord. And then it follows the original story rather than embracing a Hollywood ending. Because they have defied the will of the Shogun, who forbade them from avenging their master's death, the ronin are themselves obliged to commit ritual suicide. And that's how the film ends, not with Keanu Reeves shacking up with the aristocratic lady who loves him but with him and his friends disembowelling themselves. This defiantly unhappy ending may be the real reason why it tanked so badly in the West, as it follows narrative norms so different to what we are used to. But it did not do that well in Japan either, so who knows.

image source

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

An account of my travels in Greece, Part 3: Sparta, Mystras, Kardamyli


Previously: Athens; Nafplio, Mycenae, & Epidauros

From Nafplio I made its name to Sparti, the modern town built on the site of ancient Sparta. The handy thing about going there is you can say, "This is Sparta!" without fear of contradiction. Walking around naked but for leather kecks is also not something that attracts odd looks - for in Sparti it is nigh mandatory. There is not that much from ancient times to see there, however, as the ancient Spartans did not hold much with stone buildings. I did see the ruins of some ancient temple where older Spartans used to flog the youth as part of some crazy religious festival (it might be the Festival of the Naked Youths mentioned by Herodotus). I also saw the rubbley remains of some effete Roman settlement near the ancient Spartan acropolis, which boasted that most un-Spartan of buildings, a theatre.

Aside from being able to say "This is Sparta!" and visiting a town in Greece that seems largely untouched by tourists, the other big attraction here is the nearby abandoned city of Mystras. At one time it was the capital of the Peloponnese, now it is a Hellenic Pripyat, showing to the world how quickly nature retakes a town deserted by its inhabitants. For although Mystras flourished in the middle ages, it was only abandoned in the 19th century when the Bavarians built modern Sparti and persuaded the locals to all move there.

Mystras is a strange and interesting place and it surprises me that it is not better known. Being built on a 45º angle would make any town look scenic, even if trees and plants were not growing everywhere. It also has a castle at the top, fortunately less than 900 steps up. And there are old orthodox churches with icons and frescoes and stuff. And a shop, where I bought two CDs of Byzantine music by some fellow called Costas Zorbas. One was of Byzantine religious music (kind of like you would imagine) and another of Byzantine secular music of somewhat nautical bent, which turned out to sound rather Middle Eastern in its sound.

I probably had my nicest and most enjoyable meals in Sparti, in a restaurant called Elysse that my guidebook recommended in a lukewarm manner but which turned out to be a purveyor of tasty noms. And I generally enjoyed Sparti as the most Greek of the places I went to, for all that it was built by Bavarians.

From Sparti I travelled across the Taygetus mountains (by bus), on crazy hairpin bends where I only thought we had driven off the side of a cliff once or twice. The mountains were very scenic and featured some old ladies selling honey by the side of the road. On the other side I arrived in the town of Kalamata and hung out in the local bus station trying to get my fare together before heading on to the town of Kardamyli. This is in the Mani peninsula, albeit near the top, and is famous for being where Patrick Leigh Fermor lived for a bit. It also has a hotel that is always advertising in the London Review of Books. When Fermor was there it would have been a pretty remote and wild spot but now it is basically another tourist town, albeit a very small one. It is not the worst place in the world (they are all nice tourists) but I was hoping for somewhere a bit more… something. Still, the town is nicely situated for walking in the countryside, which was nice.

On my second day there I had the great idea of going for a walk along a dry riverbed. The bed was made up of loads of small white rocks that always threatened to move as I walked on them, making a trip and perhaps a sprained ankle an omnipresent risk. There were also places with overhanging walls of rock, with ominous signs warning passers by to beware of falling rocks. Were something untoward to happen that would have left me immobile, I would be unable to telephone for help, as the high walls of the river valley blocked any mobile single. And I had cleverly not told anyone where I was going and was talking on my own on a desolate route on which I met no other hikers. "What a clever fellow I am!" I thought.

Nothing untoward happened on my walk - phew. But I did come round a bend in the river and find myself only a few metres away form a monstrous snake. I nearly jumped out of my skin and uttered an involuntary expletive. But the snake seemed equally perturbed by my presence, hastily slithering away. I then continued on my journey without further incident.

I returned to Athens by bus, falling asleep on the fellow beside me on the way. Then I flew home with popular airline SAS, with a stopover in Copenhagen. So now I can claim to have also visited Denmark, albeit not entirely convincingly.

More pictures:

This is Sparta!

Mystras - Pripyat of the Peloponnese


All my Greek pictures

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

An account of my travels in Greece, Part 2: Nafplio, Mycenae and Epidauros


Outside Athens I went first to Nafplio, a compact town that was briefly Greece's capital when the country first became independent. It is now mostly a tourist town, though when I arrived it had a strange end-of-season character as everyone seemed to have gone away and wind blew through the picturesque but empty streets. Come dinnertime, Nafplio was revealed as being not quite so empty, but it was not as rammed as I bet it must be in high season.

Attractive enough in its own right, what drew me to Nafplio was its proximity to two other sites. Firstly Epidauros, which in ancient times was famous as a cult centre of the healing god Asclepius. The place is mostly another picturesque rubble park now, but its great claim to fame is its well-preserved Roman-era theatre, where theatrical events would have been staged for the entertainment of people looking for healing and the various other people who lived or visited the town. It is famous for its astonishing acoustics, with the jangling of keys or the rustling of a plastic bag in the centre of the theatre being clearly audible on the back seats. People kept testing this out, and other people would demonstrate the acoustics by breaking into song, which would typically generate a round of applause from the tourists present. Another great thing about the theatre, in which they stage ancient Greek plays in the summer, was the presence of a cat who went up to two visitors and despite their clear lack of interest kept trying to see whether they had any tasty treats in their bag.

The other great site near Nafplio is Mycenae, an olde palace whose heyday was around 1600 BC. They say that it was the residence of Agamemnon, who led the Achaeans at Troy. It is now largely fetching rubble (you may sense a theme here) on top of a hill, but it is beautifully situated beside two enormous hills and does still have the famous lion gates guarding its entrance. There are also a number of flash tombs, named fancifully after various figures from Mycenae in the myths of the Trojan War. In one of these was found the so-called Death Mask of Agamemnon; in another, the jewels of Clytemnestra. There is a sense of the great passage of time here, a place that was mysterious and ancient to the classical Greeks and which is much older than many of the things I saw in Egypt.

I mentioned that Nafplio itself is something of a tourist town. It is also somewhat Italianate, as it was owned by the Venetians or some other lot like that in the Middle Ages. Above the town - some 900 steps above it - there is a fortress that of course I climbed up to. There are amazing views from there, but the strange qualities of the fortress itself were most astonishing - it seems to have been designed by MC Escher and reminded me very much of the Doctor Who story Castrovalva - linear movement between two points is impossible and advancing in any direction seems to bring you to somewhere completely different than the place you expected.

The other Mycenaean-era site of Tiryns is just outside Nafplio. I did not visit it but I did see it from the bus. It looks quite impressive in an and of itself but its setting is far less spectacular than that of Mycenae.

The journey continues and concludes here.

More pictures:




All my Greek pictures

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