Friday, April 20, 2018

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in Concert



Of all the Harry Potter movies this was both my favourite to watch and to listen to. And tonight watching it performed live by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House all I can say is "Wow!"

After a swathe of these concerts over the past few years, including the first two Harry Potters episodes last year, you know the drill. Tonight they got the balance just right and allowed John Williams' complex score shine through.

It had so many wonderful moments, from the cartoonish jazz of the Knight Bus to the drama of quidditch, the soaring Buckbeak's flight and choral mystique of the patronus charm. The most beautiful of the gentle Window to the Past as Harry remembers his parents.

If you've only ever heard the recorder played badly at primary school then you will be surprised just how lovely it sounds here.

Williams' orchestration is sophisticated and apart from the recorder many other instruments and sounds drew my attention away from the action on the screen. Subtitles meant that the dialogue didn't overshadow the score.

A fair amount of the score, including many beautiful fleeting themes, is lacking from the soundtrack release so there is much to listen for during the performance.

Unlike the previous Star Wars performance I couldn't fault the Sydney Symphony Orchestra or its conductor Nicholas Buckbeak's here. I simply enjoyed it all.

I had kind of hoped that they would stop at this point, when John Williams left the scoring duties, so I wouldn't be "forced" to pay for more performances (I've got the Empire Strikes Back later this year) but tickets to Patrick Doyle's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire go on sale Monday and the other scores are pretty good...

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Emergency broadcasts


The air is fragrant with smoke, the sky transected with grey. Since last night we have been told to stay at home and defend our house from ember attack.

Bush fires are a fact of life in this area. Back in 1994 my wife was living with her family in another part of this suburb and I was in Canberra, proving updates to the world over Internet Relay Chat based upon television reports.

Now as a resident of the affected area I have a personal interest in how information about the fire is communicated. The nature of media has changed since then and I've got some thoughts about the coverage of the bush fires from a local perspective.

Expectations


We live in the Information Age and as such expect to have access to instantaneous and detailed information about events. The better the information you have, the better you can plan your actions. That is true both for those fighting the fire and those potentially affected by it.

I'm not certain how much information is gathered and available to the fire service from assets on the ground, in the air and in space. It would be interesting to find out. Potentially a lot, but combining that information into something useful for making decisions would be a challenging task.

I can imagine a mesh of sensors on firefighters, fire trucks, drones, aircraft and static assets all sending information back to base to be processed and combined by artificial intelligence. Challenging indeed.

And how to make that information available to the public?

Traditional media


During emergencies we are expected to turn to television, as I did in 1994, and radio for information. I did both but found the experience somewhat disappointing. Being a Saturday night the commercial television stations were more concerned with sports events and the sole free-to-air 24 hour news station, ABC News 24, was primarily filled with non-current news programming or reports on the airstrikes in Syria. This is the problem with being an underfunded national broadcaster, most of your audience are unaffected by regional fires.

Instead you are suggested to turn to ABC Local Radio, which suddenly presents an issue. Who has an AM radio outside of their car these days? I've got an old cassette player downstairs, but if the power went out I'd be in trouble finding any big batteries for it. Most devices run on something smaller.

I still have some FM radios in older mobile phones, though they too are being phased out by manufacturers. Still, it's a pity they don't have an FM broadcast instead. It does suggest I should buy a small AM capable radio, which would have the advantage of picking up the cricket as well!

Fortunately you can listen to ABC Local Radio streamed over the internet, but this takes up valuable bandwidth in emergencies and the infrastructure is more vulnerable to destruction than a distant radio transmitter.

Much as I like the ABC, the other downside of having to listen out for updates over the radio is putting up with their regular programming in between. I just have a different taste to music.

Social media and the Web


The other major source of information these days is social media. Everyone thinks it's something new, but as mentioned above, I was using it back in 1994!

There are useful websites such as the official Fires Near Me and Google's Crisis Map. The issue with the former is the very limited information it provides.

I followed updates from the NSW Rural Fire Service Twitter account, which shared interesting line scan maps of fire areas and videos, and local Facebook pages.

The problem with social media is information pollution. Official updates on Twitter get lost in streams of irrelevant updates from other accounts and on Facebook masses of non-time ordered questions and comments from ordinary (or worse, narcissistic) citizens. There is also the big issue of incorrect or malicious information (so called "fake news") can be inserted into these streams.

There should be an app for that


If one doesn't exist already I'm thinking it would be useful to have an official emergency warnings app for mobile phones. The app would have the following features:

  • An ability to detect the user's location or allow them to subscribe to other locations (useful when you are outside the area)
  • Emergency push broadcasts (eg imminent tsunami or new fire detected in your area)
  • On demand lookup as well as broadcast streaming of updates 
  • Interrupt media streams when updates are broadcast, allowing the user to listen to locally stored or streamed music or video without missing updates
  • Audio and video output as well as text (user selects).
  • Provide maps of affected areas and relevant transport updates.

Maybe there could be a forum or social media component to it focused only on that event, but not sure if that would be necessary or just too much trouble.

Might get chatting with some people at work to see what is already out there and what they think.

Right now the conditions have eased and it looks like we should be able to get a good night's sleep tonight. Even if we haven't as yet been directly affected it's certainly been a good opportunity to consider our disaster preparedness. And many, many thanks to all the emergency services for working so very hard to keep us safe. They are fantastic.


Monday, April 09, 2018

4th Kyu


Okay, a bit of self-gloss. Alex and I graded to 4th kyu purple belts in Ishinryu karate tonight. It took us 45 minutes and nine and twelve months respectively. And I got my first distinction!

I'm very proud of that. I thought I might have it in me this time. Everything has felt so natural these past few months, even the two katas, which definitely benefited from the additional instruction at the camp in March.

Two gradings ago I was a mess and felt terrible after my grading, after putting so much effort in while stuffing up many basic things. The most important things I've learned and practiced in karate and life since then is to relax.

I learned some techniques to relax from the flight anxiety course but also Sensei Alison and others telling us all to relax between each strike, each block, between moves in the katas.

Even last night when I knew I needed to sleep but was struggling to I used breathing techniques and muscle relaxation to focus the mind and body and stop it thinking and worrying. It worked last night.

And it worked tonight. Time to relax!

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

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.


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