Monday, March 12, 2018

Five days of karate

I'm into the final day of five days of karate. Every year Ishinryu Australia hold a summer camp at the Wollongong Surf Leisure resort. This was my third year of attendance, my first of staying over for the full three days, beginning with a Friday night session.

On the Thursday prior the dojo hosted a special session from Sensei Wayne Otto, a nine times World Karate Championship winner and current coach of Norway. Also a bloody good teacher of kumite techniques and someone who can bring a smile to kids' faces no matter how well they try to suppress it!

The course was fantastic and I learned (or tried to learn) heaps of good stuff, including kumite moves, improving my kata and knife defense. There was an early morning session on the beach where I discovered that mindfullness and mean a pair of shorts full of wet sand.

Alex stayed with me. It was a lot of karate for a nine year old and he was a bit ambivalent about some of it until the Sunday when he entered the team blocker competition. Team up with our Sensei's daughter and her best friend the three of them made it to the final.

He drew his bout, then his team mate won hers. The other team won their round, but by only a single point, not enough to win on aggregate, so the combined scores were tied. So another round was fought, but they drew as well! It came down to Alex and another nine year old from his dojo.

Alex won and so his team got gold!

This was his first gold for anything and he had won it for his team. The look of joy and pride on his face was amazing and I was so proud of him too. No more "Can we go home now?" He wanted to stay for the presentation in the afternoon (and was even prepared to do his homework first!).

He had also competed in the team kata on the previous day and by virtue of there being three teams won a bronze trophy, also his first trophy ever. Considering the age and skill level of his team, especially compared to the high belts of the other competitors, I was just proud that they all gave it a go and tried so very hard.

I think we'll be back next year!

Tonight it's just the regular Monday session in the dojo, but the fact that I can sustain so many days of karate in a row is evidence of how far I've come in three years. Still stiff though!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Star Wars in Concert with the SSO

For so long have I waited for this concert series. The original Star Wars trilogy played by a live orchestra.

I grew up with Star Wars. Yes there are lots of people that can say that these days. I have it, my son has it, his sister has... Well no, she doesn't because he doesn't have a sister. But you know what I mean. Star Wars was what introduced me to the music of John Williams, was what opened my mind to the world of film music.

Unfortunately, it seems like the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (and many others in Australia) has decided that the only time they'll now perform film music is in front of the source film, complete with dialogue. I'd rather just focus on the music without the dialogue and the visual distraction, but beggars can't be choosers.

So I payed far more money than normal for a movie ticket and bought premium seats at the first of the concert series, Star Wars A New Hope in Concert.

This was my first visit to the venue for the performance, the new International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour rather than the Sydney Opera House. The entrance displayed the concert name on the big screen, giant lightsabers were setup for a photo op with characters in costume and an area set aside for Jedi lightsaber training.

Inside were other characters in costume. We had our photo taken with a huge Chewbacca. There was a Darth Vader and stormtroopers and even a George Lucas lookalike with an R2D2 unit.

Then we filed into the cavernous hall and took our seats. The orchestra gradually took their places, eventually joined by young conductor Nicholas Buc, who introduced the concert with the help of a couple of stormtroopers.

The Twentieth Century Fox prelude sounded and the concert began.

When comparing the soundtracks to the three original Star Wars movies the first of them always sounds a bit "thinner" than the others, as if the orchestrations weren't quite so full. That was true here as well, so perhaps it is not just the sound quality of the original recordings. There were times to that I wondered if the sound was coming direct from the orchestra or via the big overhead speaker installations.

I know the music intimately after four decades of listening to it, but I didn't mind that sound levels from the different sections of the orchestra didn't quite match the original recordings. It offered an element of novelty and highlighted hitherto unrealised contributions, especially from the piano.

The music itself is rich and complex, tearing my eyes from the screen to watch the strings racing or the brass and woodwind in unison was fascinating.

Yet there was something missing in the performance. Maybe it was the acoustics, but I felt like the orchestra just wasn't contributing as much as it should. The real letdown was in the performance of the final credits, which was messy and lacking in love and energy. I've heard it performed so many times by this orchestra and others, but I've heard it better. It was a disappointing end to a much anticipated night.

Maybe I should look to go down to Melbourne for the subsequent performances. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra hasn't failed me yet and it is my spiritual home for Star Wars...

Monday, January 01, 2018


Here, in the first hours of 2018, and I cannot sleep. Outside the open windows of this Avalon beach house the waves pound furiously at the sand and rocks, as if trying their best to erase them from this Earth. Celebratory searchlights still dance in threes across the clouded sky, competing with the flashes of yellow lightning from an offshore storm, as the roar of the waves obscures the thunder.

The sea breeze gradually cools this hot upstairs room in which three people attempt to sleep on two pushed together single beds, but the open windows also allow in the tempest outside.

Now the pop pop pop of illegal fireworks released in the park by the beach wakes them briefly.

I should be tired like the others, worn out as they are from fighting the waves on the beach and each other with glow sticks turned magic weapons. But the world outside is trying to tell a story, its unfamiliarity calling out in the dark to we of the further inland.

"Come out, let us embrace you, chill you, sweep you away," demands the sea.

Gradually, unwilling to gaze too long into the grey world outside, the constantly dancing song lulls, and I feel myself ready to dream its magic and the new year, in hope of one less tumultuous than the reality outside.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Into the labyrinth of remembered music

Some music never leaves you. In the late 70's or very early 80's there was a television advertisement featuring an offshore oil drilling platform. I think it was for BHP or Esso. I don't remember much about it but that the music went something like this (mp3). It stayed with me and I wrote something that used those elements, which is what you hear in the clip.

The music is played in the Dorian mode. That mode was used again in a television show I watched on ABC Television in the eighties and again it stuck with me. I found it in my head last night and finally decided to try to find it.

I seemed to recall that it was written by a Carl, maybe Carl Davis or Carl Vine, but that search returned fruitless. So I dredged up what I could remember and tried:
"1980s English tv series children underground magic kingdom"
Success! It was a series called Into the Labyrinth about three children who travel through time searching for a magical object called "The Nidus" and the music was composed by Sidney Sagar.

Several episodes are available on YouTube.

Now, what I remembered of the music (mp3) is a little different to the actual segment from Sidney Sagar's score (mp3), though it is better developed towards the end of this clip:

I found a few other television shows from my childhood on YouTube. Children of the Dog Star was another whose music has stayed with me.

Such cheesy Amiga graphics from New Zealand! Also from the same New Zealand team was Under the Mountain with the scary Wilberforces.

Finally, Chocky, whose music I had forgotten.

Some of my childhood series, like The Goodies and Monkey Magic, I've managed to share with my son. And some shows from my childhood continue to this day, such as Doctor Who and, on the big screen, Star Wars (the Last Jedi will be released this week). Their music has made a huge impact on my life - witness all the concerts I've attended! But listening back to some of these other shows it's interesting how epic the music is remembered in your mind, but how cheesy it often sounds when listened to in the actual show. Into the Labyrinth was filmed in Cheddar!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bare Conductive Arduino MP3 Player

I found the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit while searching for activities to do with my almost nine year old son over the school holidays. It contains a custom Arduino board with a built in microSD card reader and audio output along with twelve electrode that can be used for touch or proximity sensor input. There is also a jar and tube of black conductive paint, a brush for painting them on alligator clip wires and adhesives, stencils and cardboard cutouts for designing the sensors. A 128 MB microSD card, USB card reader and portable speaker round out the collection.

The idea is that you either paint on the sensors or clip the wires to metallic objects so that when touched it triggers the playing an MP3 track.

It turned out to be a bit too complicated for a 9 year old, but my son likes to fall asleep and wake up to music and I had the idea that I would use the kit to make an interesting MP3 player on Alex's bedhead.

The first thing was to program the Arduino board, something I was now familiar with after the ticket gate project. The code examples provided were only for the triggering of single tracks, whereas I wanted proper player navigation. This included the ability to:

  • Stop, play, pause and skip tracks
  • Shuffle tracks
  • Change the volume
  • Play collections
By default the library used by the code only plays files named in the format TRACKxxx.mp3, where each x is a number 0 to 9. I did see some code for alternative names, but couldn't get it to work so I stuck with that format.

When the shuffle mode is selected random tracks are picked. Each played track is added to a list which is scanned to ensure that it is not repeated. Skipping a track forwards or backwards only moves to the next number and doesn't use random selection.

For playing collections I made a subdirectory, in my case called sleep and placed the relevant tracks in there. I also swapped the 128 MB microSD card for an 2 GB card I'd got with an old phone. This is the largest size supported by the FAT16 library. 

The code, listed at the bottom of the post, is memory intensive and occasionally locks, but it mostly seems to work.

The need to manually copy and rename tracks made the player impractical for use by my son, who also likes current pop. Instead a I got him a portable bluetooth speaker and an old mobile phone with Google Play Music installed.

Still, after all that effort I decided to get my player working anyway and painted up a pre-primed MDF board with the stencil, affixing the Arduino board and speaker at the bottom. Each silhouette corresponds to a control. It's not intuitive, but it is artistic and I might add to the design later. I like the look of the bare white, gold and black Arduino as well, a nice reminder of what is usually hidden inside the designs.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Raspberry Pi 5 inch and 3.5 inch touch screens

After making the Arduino ticket gate I've been inspired to play with some of the other "maker" offerings available. I recently purchased a Raspberry Pi 3 and Raspberry Pi Zero W to experiment with. That actually takes the Raspberry Pi in the house to three as I previously bought my son a Kano Computer, which also uses a Pi board.

The Raspberry Pi can be hooked up to a standard HDMI monitor, but I wanted to try something a bit smaller so I obtained an Adafruit 3.5" PiTFT Plus and a 5.0" HDMI touchscreen. The former came with a badly soldered header and I've yet to get it working. Its instructions are also woefully out of date and unsuitable for the current Raspbian Stretch version of the Linux OS. 

For both screens what you need is the LCD-Show code. However, if, like me, you installed Raspbian via NOOBS then you are likely to get a kernel panic after installing. Don't panic!

I found these instructions to be helpful, but in my case I needed to slightly modify the boot partition statement.

  1. You need to edit /boot/cmdline.txt on the SD card, either before your Pi reboots or using a second Linux machine (fortunately I had the other Raspberry Pi Zero and a MicroSD card reader to do this on).
  2. Replace root=/dev/mmcblk0p2 with root=/dev/mmcblk0p7
If editing on a second computer put the MicroSD back in the Pi's slot and reboot.

Everything should now work and you've now got a small Linux device. Not as small as my old Zaurus handheld PC's but a lot more hackable.

Size comparison between the Raspberry Pi with 5" screen and a standard mouse

Friday, October 06, 2017

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Concert

I wonder if they intend performing concerts for all the Harry Potter movies. In April we attended the Philosopher's Stone, tonight it was The Chamber of Secrets. Next April, Prisoner of Azkaban, assuming that I can get tickets.

What do all three have in common? Well, apart from being Harry Potter movies, of course.

These were the three movies where the legendary John Williams composed the score.

Williams was rather busy during the production so his music was ably adapted and conducted by William Ross.

For this performance at the Sydney Opera House the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the effervescent American Jeffrey Schindler. As with the previous concert he exhorted the audience to cheer at their favourite moments and actors, which they duly did.

The performance was great, though it was sometimes hard to concentrate on the music at times due to the distraction of the movie. Williams' action score really shines through during the live performances and this was no exception, though there was one point I wasn't sure if it was Quiddich or chasing Jango Fett on screen. Williams was busy at the time...

The Chamber of Secrets is Alex's favourite Harry Potter movie out of the first three (all he's seen) and he was rapt the entire time, despite the late hour.

Earlier he and I had caught the expensive lift up Sydney Tower. Though the views were good I've seen them a lot lately out the windows of planes and the large groups of tourists reminded me how much I hate being surrounded by tourists, even when I'm one myself.

I'm looking forward now to John Williams' best Harry Potter score in the Prisoner of Azkaban. Hope I can get good tickets!

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