30 July 2015

Zadar sunset

Sunset in the historic walled Adriatic seaside town of Zadar in Croatia, taken on 7 June 2015.

29 July 2015

Mastermind & Peter Sinclair

Peter Sinclair (screencap via The Spinoff)
Steve Braunias' column today about the penultimate grand final of the New Zealand edition of Mastermind in 1990 brought back fond memories. I was fortunate to appear in the final series of Mastermind the following year (indeed, I'm fond of claiming my appearance was its death knell) and can endorse the appraisal of the hugely experienced host Peter Sinclair as the consummate professional and just a decent, nice guy. Like the 1990 winner Hamish McDouall (now Deputy Mayor of Wanganui District), I was a relatively young competitor - either 17 or 18 at the time of filming, and from memory I may have been the 2nd youngest competitor in the programme's NZ run. 

It proved surprisingly easy to get onto Mastermind. At the time I was reading anything and everything, which is one of the benefits of doing the first year of a BA degree, so I made up for my lack of experience with a reasonable amount of book-smarts. And I surmised that in a country of three or so million, not many would actually put their hands up to be on Mastermind, which turned out to be accurate. My specialist topic was a series of books I was mad about at the time - the Belgariad fantasy novels by David Eddings. Not high culture by any means, but I knew them back to front, or so I thought.

My first appearance on the programme - also my first appearance on TV in general - went by in quite a daze.  It became obvious that the all-black background was convenient because it meant TVNZ could spend the bare minimum on set-dressing.  I don't think I met Sinclair before the recording, but I knew what to expect and my specialist questions were all straightforward. The general knowledge round wasn't particularly hard either, and I emerged the winner of my heat by quite a decent margin. The main memory of the night is the thickness and orangeness of my caked-on TV makeup, which was required due to my noxious teenage skin, which of course could not be permitted on viewers' primetime screens.

Some months later I returned for the first semifinal with three fellow contestants including, I think, a father and son duo, Olaf Peek and his son, whose name I can't recall. The competition was much keener, and the questions on my books had been toughened up quite a bit. University exams were on at the same time, so I hadn't had time to re-read the the five books before the recording. In the end I came something like 3rd in the semifinal - not good enough to progress to the final - and kicked myself for never having heard of Don McLean's 'Vincent', which was admittedly released two years before I was born.

Afterwards I was able to talk briefly with Sinclair, and he was particularly kind when he saw how disappointed I was. Rather than winning a much-coveted trip to England, it would take me six more years to finally reach London under my own steam. Sinclair revealed that he and the crew had thought I might be able to go on and emulate McDouall's feat of the previous year, which was a very nice thing to say. And I witnessed a moment of quiet dignity too, when some numbskull audience member asked Sinclair if it was alright to have his picture taken in Sinclair's hosting chair in front of the Mastermind sign. Sinclair of course offered to be in the photo too, and the man replied, 'Nah, that's fine'. It may have just been a thoughtless remark but it struck me that Sinclair just smiled and let him get on with it, ignoring the insult. A true gentleman through and through.

[The above text is a lightly edited cross-post of a comment I posted on the Braunias blog]

26 July 2015

Wellington 150: a capital anniversary

Wellington c.1865 (via National Library)
In honour of the 150th anniversary today of the opening of the first Parliamentary session held in Wellington following the formal transfer of capital city status from Auckland to Wellington, here's the local newspaper's account of the opening of the general assembly back in 1865 during a traditional Wellington winter howler:

OPENING OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY. Yesterday afternoon, at two o'clock, the ceremony of opening Parliament took place for the first time in Wellington since the removal of the seat of Government. The weather, unfortunately, turned out very wet, although in the morning it had given promise of a fine day. The Wellington Rifle Volunteers were ordered to parade on the Reclaimed Land at a quarter to one o'clock, to form a guard of honor for his Excellency [Governor George Grey], and at that time they had mustered in pretty strong force, there being present Major Gorton, commandant of Militia and Volunteers, Captain Kirwan, Captain Pilmer, Lieutenant Mills, Ensign Holmes, and about sixty rank and file. At half-past one o'clock they marched up to the House of Assembly in Molesworth Street, and on arriving there, were opened out into two ranks facing inwards, and after the usual preliminaries of "eyes left," "dress," &c., were ordered to stand easy as if such a thing were possible in the very uncomfortable state of the weather. In fact, the belles of Wellington, who had sent their gallant defenders to take part in the grand demonstration on the day, must have been grievously disappointed at the appearance of their heroes, for however prim they might have left home, the soaking they got there would doubtless damp all esprit de Corps

However, after waiting patiently for some time in anxious expectation, an Albert Car was driven up smartly to the entrance, and necks were stretched to their utmost extension to catch a glimpse of His Excellency, but only to be disappointed, for the occupants turned out to be three ladies, who, although not expected were probably all the more admired. At a quarter to two o'clock some one in livery rushed out of the door in frantic haste and commenced ringing a large bell in a most energetic manner, the meaning of which ceremony was to warn all laggard members to take their places. This passed over, and a few minutes before two o'clock expectation was gratified by seeing a small body of dark figures leave Government House and take road to the House of Assembly. A bugler (or perhaps we ought rather to call him a Herald) sounded a call on his instrument and immediately the gallant Major gave the orders "shoulder arms", "present arms" the band of the company playing inspiriting music during the time of transit from the gates to the House. His Excellency, accompanied by Major Grey, A.D.C., Capt. Bulkley, A.D.C., the Rev Mr Thatcher, Private Secretary, a Native Assessor, and other members of his staff, all in full uniform, advanced uncovered between the two lines of volunteers, but the effect was much marred by the sparkling uniforms being hid under horse cloaks, worn in consequence of the rain. After divesting themselves of these outer garments, His Excellency and suite at once proceeded to the House of the Legislative Council.
- Wellington Independent, 27 July 1865

See also:
History: Anzac Day eve street parade, 24 April 2015
History: Wellington Anniversary Day 1850, 22 January 1850
History: Pencarrow Lighthouse 1859, 20 January 2014

25 July 2015

Dobbyn & Orpheus

Dave Dobbyn and band practice with the Orpheus Choir for their performance on 25 July 2015 at Parliament to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Parliament shifting from Auckland to Wellington.

23 July 2015

Fra Mauro's map: an instrument of the imagination

'If you walk to the western corner of St Mark's Square, climb up the stone steps of the Museo Correr, pay 16 euros, saunter through nineteen rooms of marble, coins and globes, you end up at a glass door. This is the Biblioteca Marciana, the civic library built in the 1530s to house a vast collection of Greek and Roman manuscripts and later a copy of every book printed in Venice. And there, between the museum and the library, visible through the glass door but accessible only with special permission from an attendant, is the work of a Venetian monk named Fra Mauro, who somehow, in 1459, knew more about what was where in the world than anyone else.

Mauro lived and worked on the Venetian island of Murano, already famous for its glass by the time he established his cartographer's studio there in the 1440s. He had travelled more than most, and some of his early naval and trade charts were drawn from experience. His circular world map (coloured ink on parchment, about two metres in diameter) was constructed for King Alphonso V of Portugal, and although the original no longer survives, we are fortunate that a copy was made for a Venetian lord.

The map contains almost three thousand place-names and a vast amount of explanatory text, and although it contained the usual misplaced rivers and regions, it was a geographical masterpiece. It is also - almost definitively - transitional, hovering between the old world and the new, and between the medieval depiction of the earth as one round "planisphere" and the dual-hemisphere projection that emerged in the sixteenth century. It is the last great map of a former age, history as soon as it was framed. Venice's role as "the hinge of Europe" was beginning to come to an end, and Mauro's vision of a world enclosed within a fishbowl would also lose its dominance. Columbus would set sail within a couple of decades, and Mercator would chart his voyages on a map enticingly open to the navigable oceans'.

- Simon Garfield, On the Map, London, 2013, p.75-6.

'My map ... was only one version of reality. It would only be of any use if it were employed as an instrument of the imagination. It occurred to me that the world itself should be seen as an elaborate artifice, and the expression of a will without end'.

- Fra Mauro, quoted in Peter Ackroyd, Venice, Pure City, London, 2009, p.345-6.

Images of the Fra Mauro map on display in the Museo Correr at St Mark's Square, Venice, 13 June 2015:

Fra Mauro's map

South is at the top

The mysterious far east, informed by Marco Polo's travels

Mare Indicum, the Indian Ocean

See also:
BlogThe Sunday morning train to Verona Porta Nuova, 15 June 2015
Blog: The tyranny of distance didn't stop the cavalier, 1 February 2011
BlogVenice in peril, 18 February 2007

21 July 2015

Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

Within producer-turned-director Bill Pohlad's 2014 film Love & Mercy there is a solid drama featuring John Cusack as a mid-1980s Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame and Elizabeth Banks as the resourceful woman he meets in a chance encounter, who ends up falling in love with Wilson and rescuing him from the untender ministrations of a deeply manipulative psychiatrist (a menacing Paul Giamatti). This particular half of the film is sweet, affecting and engaging.

But there's also the other half of the film, featuring a typically standout performance from Paul Dano as the younger 1960s Wilson: a supremely gifted songwriter who drags the arch-traditional sound of the Beach Boys kicking and screaming into psychedelic modernity, in doing so earning himself a spot in the rock pantheon reserved for true geniuses. Dano's half of Love & Mercy is a cut above, and offers a truly compelling role.

The pressure of this musical responsibility fell on the shoulders of a complicated man, troubled by the unfeeling cruelty of his ruthless father and faced with the task of single-handedly competing with three of the most gifted songwriters of the 20th century in Messrs Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. It is Dano's musical and psychological journey from the top of the charts into drug-fuelled psychosis that sets the scene for, and is arguably a class above, the interspersed Cusack and Banks scenes.

Throughout there are plentiful glimpses of the Wilson studio genius, and the scenes with session maestros The Wrecking Crew primes the viewer for film festival screenings of the doco of the same name. And the film's take on the intra-band rivalries, with the bearded Mike Love demanding Wilson return to simplistic, deeply retrogressive surfer ditties to bring on the hit singles, brings back memories of the oft-used catchphrase of the Popdose website when discussing the Beach Boys: 'F**k Mike Love!'

19 July 2015

Mad Lancias of Verona

One of the small pleasures of travelling in Europe is spotting all the cars that are never seen on New Zealand roads. No trip is complete without a small chuckle at seeing a bug-eyed Renault Twingo or a pint-sized Fiat Seicento. And there are whole marques that are never seen in New Zealand because our market is too small. The Seat from Spain is one such car, so we miss out on the VW subsidiary's ace small cars that are popular on the roads of Western Europe, such as the Ibiza and the Toledo. And on a recent visit to Italy I was reminded of the century-plus legacy of the Lancia, a fine Italian brand with a proud heritage of rallying success

A decade or two ago Lancia produced straight-lined sturdy boxes with a macho air, like the Delta. But things have changed quite a bit since then, and the thing I like about modern Lancia design is its idiosyncratic styling - many could uncharitably be described as ugly. But I absolutely love that a multi-million euro manufacturing line is devoted to producing cars that actually look different to all the other cars on the road. Even if I probably wouldn't buy one with my own money.

This came to mind last month as I was walking alongside the Adige river that runs through the heart of Verona. The hot June sun made for slow progress, so I was able to pause occasionally and notice a fine range of Lancias (Lanciae?) with their distinctive swooping rear ends and elongated tail-lights. For some reason all the vehicles I spotted were black. Mad Lancias of Verona, I salute you!

Lancia Ypsilon
Lancia Delta
Lancia Musa
See also:
Blog: Baby boomers have more money than sense, 11 January 2015
Blog: Two-thirds of the distance to the Moon, 8 November 2014
Blog: Te Awanga British Car Museum, 28 October 2014

12 July 2015

Pathfinder 60

Checking out a binary system in the Asp Explorer
Having just returned from a week-long mission in the Asp Explorer, it's time for a stock-take in Elite Dangerous. Departing LHS 317 a week ago, an initial outbound leg of 881 light-years to trailward took me to HIP 42822, followed by a detour above the galactic plane to Wregoe OT-J B38-1 and onwards to the farthest point of the journey, the binary G and M-class star system of Wregoe KX-J D9-10, around 1100 light-years from Federation space. As usual for my exploration runs, I failed to find a single Earth-like planet, but as a consolation I managed to scan four new water-worlds for the interstellar cartographers. I also chanced upon my first black hole, and as any pilot worth their salt would do, I approached as close as possible to get a good look.
First visit to a black hole
In this particular exploration mission - which was admittedly small by hard-core travellers' standards - I visited 137 systems and performed 589 Level 3 scans, moving from an exploration rank of Pathfinder 37 to Pathfinder 60. With a healthy haul of high metal content planets discovered along the way, the trip netted me just under 5MCr. My usual approach to exploring is a once-over-lightly method - the main priority is keeping moving towards the ultimate destination (in part because I must confess I do get a bit bored on exploration missions). The main star is always scanned, and then if the rest of the system hasn't been visited before, I target the innermost planets - as long as they look likely to be high metal content planets or 'better'. Anything beyond 1000 light-seconds has to look pretty interesting for me to venture out to scan it. Gas giants I target only if they're within about 1500 light-seconds, because their mass means they generally can be scanned from around 500 to 1000 light-seconds out. I only scan moons if they're orbiting the last planet I'm visiting in the system, because then it doesn't matter how deep I go into its gravity well. Icy planets 5000 light-seconds out at the edge of the system, or entire star systems orbiting secondary stars 100,000 light-seconds out? No thanks, some completist can scan you.

One of four Water Worlds discovered on this trip
I can see that if I really want to progress as an explorer I'll have to venture much further afield, but I doubt I can cope with the time commitment of a massive expedition to the galactic core. Wherever my next exploration adventure takes me, it will certainly be in the new Diamondback Explorer, to take it for a test run.

Pretty ringed HMC planet
Now I'm back in Felicia Winters' territory the intention is to strike out in a new direction. Don't tell my faction paymasters, but the idea is to take my Vulture on a jaunt into neutral space and then defect from Winters' cause, becoming a true freelancer once more. (The Powerplay dynamic hasn't really grabbed me, and it makes flitting around inhabited space less easy). Then I'll head over to the Empire to start rising up the ranks of the Imperial Navy so I can fly an Imperial Courier for the first time. If I like it, there's the chance to stay longer and work my way up to a sufficient rank to fly the Imperial Clipper too.

Asp Explorer back at Bacon City, Carnoeck
See also:
Games: Elite Dangerous: realising childhood sci-fi dreams, 27 April 2015
Games: The occasional jaw-dropping beauty of Elite Dangerous, 2 April 2015
GamesA thing of beauty, 26 March 2015

09 July 2015

Earthquake swarms have limited prediction value

Research has also shown that swarms of small quakes of the sort [the Italian town of] L'Aquila experienced before the 2009 quake - and that Tuscany was experiencing on the day I visited the institute in Rome - have limited prediction value. If a region experiences a swarm, it becomes more likely to experience a large quake. The problem is that it's even more likely not to experience a large quake. Italian geologists who examined seismic data from three earthquake-prone regions found that if a swarm contained a medium-sized shock, it was followed by a major shock 2 percent of the time. This represents a significantly elevated risk, but it means that if you use a swarm to try to predict a major quake, something like 98 out of 100 times you'll be wrong. Most swarms end not with a bang, but with a whimper.

- Elizabeth Kolbert, 'Aftershock: The Shaky Science Behind Predicting Earthquakes', Smithsonian Magazine, June 2015

04 July 2015

The grime of blues, the menace of punk

Tonight I watched for the first time Julien Temple's film Oil City Confidential, a 2009 documentary about the Essex band Dr Feelgood. This was an ideal introduction to the group, about which I knew too little - the only time I had seen them was on a clip from 1975 on the BBC music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test. For time in the mid-seventies Dr Feelgood was the leading live rock band in Britain, achieving a chart-topping live album in 1976, sandwiched between the pop powerhouses of the Stylistics and Abba. 

The band's mix of gritty blues-rock and ominous (some would say menacing) stage presence combined to bring Dr Feelgood into the spotlight and contributed to broad popularity with rock fans across Britain and Europe. Their success was also despite their unfashionable pub-rock roots, and their defiantly unglamorous style and origins (being from down-at-heel Canvey Island in Essex, a bleak seaside oil refinery town). It was only the departure of lead guitarist and main songwriter Wilko Johnson in 1977 that prevented the band from becoming world famous. 

The film is a valuable insight into the personality of the surviving members and a testament to the commanding stage presence of frontman Lee Brilleaux who died of cancer in 1994. It's a pleasure to hear the confident young chancers jokily dismissing the long-haired loon-panted prog rock that was in vogue when they first emerged as 'girls' music', and to soak up the tumbling avalanche of anecdotes from Johnson, who recently won a reprieve from cancer and teamed up with Roger Daltrey for an album (Going Back Home) that was definitely not called Roger Wilko. 

Here's a cracking 1975 TV performance from the Tyne Tees show The Geordie Scene that's a useful sampler of the band's commanding stage performance - featuring all the elements: Lee's swaggering, gravelly delivery and propulsive harmonica breaks, Wilko's machine-gun lead guitar, glowering 40 yard stare and deranged stage wandering, a John Lee Hooker cover to puzzle the 15-year-old girls trying to throw disco moves in brown cardigans, plus John B Sparks and The Big Figure in the back keeping things tight. The only pity is the stage is too small for Wilko's proper perambulations, and the daft wazzock introducing the items.

01 July 2015

Anticipating the Film Festival

It's that time of year again - the time to shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of viewing marvellous, obscure, treasured glimpses of cinema from outside the megaplex mainstream. It's always the highlight of the season and a chance to see what inevitably turn out to be some of the best movies I see throughout the entire year.

In 2015 my roster is the largest I remember booking - 19 films in total. While there is the notable omission of any New Zealand films in my list this year, most of the usual bases are covered. I'm legitimately thrilled to be seeing yet another modern classic from the Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu, whose family dramas I Wish and Like Father, Like Son made previous festival outings so special. There's also the chance to see the eternally idiosyncratic Canadian director Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room, savouring his singularly peculiar filmmaking that in a previous film, The Saddest Music in the World, saw Isabella Rossellini cast as a legless brewing magnate's wife who performed a cabaret dance with glass beer-filled legs. There's a great selection of documentaries and music films, an Icelandic family drama, and a sure-fire crowd pleaser in The Assassin from Taiwan. And who could fail to be charmed by the prospect of Lawrence Arabia performing live accompaniment to a 1928 silent film?  

Friday 24 July, 6:15 PM
’71 (dir. Yann Demange, UK, 2014)
Troubles drama :: The Roxy Cinema 99 mins

Saturday 25 July, 7:15 PM
The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson, Canada, 2015, feat. Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling)
General surrealism :: Paramount Bergman 130 mins

Sunday 26 July, 1:00 PM
Lambert & Stamp (dir. James D. Cooper, USA, 2014)
Music doco - The Who's 'management' :: Embassy Deluxe 117 mins

Sunday 26 July, 3:15 PM
Jauja (dir. Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2014, feat. Viggo Mortensen, Vilibjork Mallin Agger)
Drama - Viggo's gaucho tale :: Embassy Deluxe 108 mins

Tuesday 28 July, 6:15 PM
From Scotland with Love (dir. Virginia Heath, feat. music by King Creosote)
Found footage of Scottish memories :: Paramount 75 mins + Q&A to follow

Wednesday 29 July, 8:30 PM
Best of Enemies (dir. Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville, USA, 2015)
Doco - Gore Vidal & William F. Buckley Jr.'s telly rivalry :: Penthouse Cinema 88 mins

Saturday 1 August, 1:30 PM
The 50 Year Argument (dir. Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi, USA, 2015)
Doco - the New York Review of Books :: Paramount 97 mins

Saturday 1 August, 6:30 PM
The Assassin (dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 2015, feat. Shu Qi)
Nie Yinniang
Epic historical drama :: Embassy Theatre 105 mins

Sunday 2 August, 1:00 PM
The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt, USA, 2015, feat. Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Becky Ann Baker, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack)
Dramatisation of a famous interview with David Foster Wallace :: Paramount 106 mins + short

Sunday 2 August, 6:00 PM
Kiss Me Kate 3D (dir. George Sidney, USA, 1953, feat. Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller)
Technicolor widescreen 3D garishness :: Embassy Theatre 110 mins

Sunday 2 August, 8:30 PM
Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014, feat. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro)
Pynchon on the big screen :: Embassy Theatre 149 mins

Tuesday 4 August, 6:15 PM
Rams (dir. Grimur Hakonarson, Iceland, 2015)
Two estranged brothers, butting heads :: Paramount 93 mins + short

Wednesday 5 August, 6:15 PM
The Wrecking Crew (dir. Danny Tedesco, USA, 2008)
Legendary sessioners for hire :: Light House Petone 101 mins

Thursday 6 August, 6:15 PM
Very Semi-Serious (dir. Leah Wolchok, USA, 2015)
New Yorker cartoons and their awesomeness :: Penthouse Cinema 83 mins + short

Thursday 6 August, 9:00 PM
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller, USA, 2015, feat. Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig)
Coming of age black comedy :: Embassy Theatre 102 mins

Friday 7 August, 8:45 PM
A Poem Is a Naked Person (dir. Les Blank, USA, 1974/2015)
Music doco - Dr John :: Embassy Deluxe 90 mins

Saturday 8 August, 6:15 PM
Queen and Country (dir. John Boorman, UK, 2014)
Drama - National Service in 50s England :: Embassy Theatre 115 mins

Sunday 9 August, 2:00 PM
Lonesome (dir. Paul Fejos, USA, 1928)
Live Cinema with Lawrence Arabia and Carnivorous Plant Society
Live accompaniment to a forgotten silent film classic :: Paramount 69 mins

Sunday 9 August, 3:30 PM
Our Little Sister (dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2015)
Umimachi Diary
Japanese family drama of three sisters reunited :: Embassy Theatre 128 mins