Monday, December 31, 2018

Farewell 2018

The year began with fireworks and a rumbling sky and it promises to end that way as well. No surprise really.

Looking through my non-travel highlights for 2018 and it seems they are mainly concerts or karate. The first concert of the year was Star Wars with the SSO in Sydney, the last The Empire Strikes Back with the MSO in Melbourne, just this month.

As for karate, by the end of the year both Alex and I had graded to third kyu blue belts and we both won medals in the club tournament, though my was more due to a lack of competitors.

Alex was also awarded the MVP trophy for tee-ball at school. It's the first year he's done interschool sports, first soccer, then tee-ball. I'm very proud of him, even more so for his amazing academic achievements.

We hosted another Japanese student, Satoe, through the school. She was great, another big sister to Alex.

Both B and I worked hard in our jobs. It's been a stressful year for her, learning the ropes of her new role. But she's got through it.

I was very pleased to release version one of a new WordPress theme framework that promises to make developing new themes much easier for us. We "finished" it just before Christmas, so we'll see how it goes in the new year.

The other two haven't last until midnight and even the dog would rather be in bed. The neighbours have been letting off their own fireworks, but I'll stay up to watch the city midnight show from our driveway.

Hope your year has been good and all the best for the new one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Empire Strikes Back in concert with the MSO

A long time ago in a city far, far away a young boy went to his very first movie at the cinema, an epic of duelling starships, aliens and a mysterious power called "The Force".

The year was 1980, the movie, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the city, Melbourne and the young boy was me aged six.

My best friend Dishan and his father picked me up from home and together we drove into the city for a night time viewing of the second Star Wars movie. I recall loving it, but being rather confused at some points. Why was (force ghost) Obi-Wan Kenobi good at the beginning and evil (hologram Emperor) later on? What should I call the dog walker vehicles (AT-ATs)? And... Well, I can't remember because it was such a long time ago.

Afterwards I used the small amount of pocket money given to me by my parents to buy a Kit-Kat.

And so began my long love affair with Star Wars and its music.

I saw the Empire Strikes Back at least twice more in Melbourne, saw Star Wars on video and then at the cinema, queued up for Return of the Jedi. Even though we then moved away from Melbourne I managed to return to view Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens at cinemas there.

In my mind the movies, the music and Melbourne are inextricably linked. When I hear Yoda's Theme I am always taken back to the elegant southern city of my birth, recalling the yearning to return from my many years of exile elsewhere in Australia.

So despite watching The Empire Strikes Back in Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra back in July I knew I had to go down to Melbourne to see it there as well.

When it comes to performing film music I have always sensed a resistance and lack of respect from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, whereas the opposite is true from the Melbourne Symphony and that was another incentive to head south.

Prior to the Sunday matinee concert the three members of The Art of the Score, comprising the conductor Nicholas Buc, Andrew Pogson of the MSO and Dr Dan Golding, held a highly informative pre-concert talk. I admit that, despite my passion for film music, I rarely analyse it, so I learned a lot from the talk and will be downloading their podcasts in future!

The Dad Joke level humour was also much appreciated and it was great to have a chance to talk to the team.

Meanwhile, in the lobby there were Stormtroopers and Imperial Officers, along with a jazz band doing a fine rendition of the cantina music from the first Star Wars movie.

The performance was held in The Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre's Plenary, a huge venue that I'd previously sat in for a couple of Doctor Who concerts. Unlike in Sydney, this time I was seated in a premium row close to the stage with a perfect view of both the movie and the orchestra. The acoustics sounded fine to me with great definition of the individual instruments.

Seated next to me was Dr Golding of The Art of the Score, a nice surprise. I'll apologise for any incoherence in my conversation, coming off an overnight trip on a train.

Armed with the knowledge from the talk I had fun identifying elements within the score, keeping a closer eye on the orchestra than on the film itself. One surprise was how often the piccolo features in the score, from that very first rendition of the Imperial March soon after the opening credits (which I never realised until it was pointed out) onwards.

I don't know what to say about the performance itself except to say that it was as close to perfection as you can get, an incredible feat considering that the music is performed in real time. Studio recordings are done over days and weeks with the best performances edited together.

I left the concert feeling like the effort and expense of getting there was fully justified. It may be 38 years since I first saw the film, but today I was a young boy feeling the thrill of seeing and hearing one of the best movies and scores of all time all over again.

Onwards to Return of the Jedi!

Monday, September 24, 2018

3rd Kyu

Bit more self gloss. Two terms after the last grading I've now made 3rd kyu blue belt in Ishinryu Karate, with distinction.

That was unexpected! It took me five terms for the last grading and only two for this one. Then again, I have been spending between five to six hours a week, three to four days, at karate and even helping out with a bit of instruction.

I think that helped a bit because I certainly wasn't perfect tonight. I'm not sure if it was the anxiety of grading or something else, but I felt awful all weekend and today.

Alex has been busy with tennis and wasn't read to grade. Next term. One of his best friends from school failed his green belt grading, along with most of the others going for it. Very sad.

Next stop brown belt. It's getting serious!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in Concert

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire marks the halfway point in the series and the first of the movies where John Williams was not responsible for the music. Instead Scottish composer Patrick Doyle takes the up the reins for his sole outing in the series.

I'm not particularly familiar with Doyle's body of work, Harry Potter and Thor being the only two soundtracks I have listened to. Both they and today's concert make me want to add to that collection.

Hamish McKeich continued on from the recent Empire Strikes Back concert conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, this time as the Sydney Opera House. The performance was again fantastic with the only a tiny slip up by the brass at the very end of the titles, forgivable after the effort of the past couple of hours. The Durmstrang/Viktor Krum entrance theme was also lacking in power compared to the movie, though perhaps that was due to the lack of a choir and post recording processing.

I was seated seven rows back from the front of the stage which gave an exciting view of the amazing string performance and the conductor, though it did mean that I could see little of the rest of the orchestra. Most importantly, the sound there was great, both for the thrilling action and the haunting Harry in Winter theme.

I've already got my tickets for the rest of the series next year and I'm very much looking forward to them. What I hope won't be repeated is Sydney Trains' awful performance with long delays due to a system failure. Maybe it's better to ride a Nimbus 2000 instead.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Japanese homestay 2018

Two more years have passed since we last hosted a Japanese exchange student as part of Alex's primary school connection with ELS21 in Sakai, Japan. This time we welcomed an 18 year girl, Satoe, into our home.

This was Satoe's third and last time in Australia as part of the program and she was eager to improve her already good English.

During the first week we also looked after Hiromu and his host student Ollie, one of Alex's best friends, in the mornings and afternoons as the usual before and after school care wasn't available to the Japanese students.

Satoe was a fantastic big sister to Alex and a wonderful guest. On the second weekend we drove her to eat meat pies and bush walk at the recently discovered (for us) scenic Fitzroy Falls near Kangaroo Valley, the Famous Doughnut Van at Berry and the Blowhole at Kiama. Being a teenager we suspected she might prefer shopping so the next day crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the train to Chatswood, where she tried Malaysian cuisine (the laksa was too spicy for her). On the way back we stopped by Luna Park where she and Alex rode the rollercoaster and dodgem cars.

Okay it's not as impressive as Osaka's Universal Studios, but a retro amusement park was a bit of a novelty and makes for great photos for the Japanese Instagrammer. The young ones would have stayed longer but it was getting late so we caught the ferry one stop back to Circular Quay, this time heading under the bridge.

Each of the students we've hosted described their mother's role as "house wife". That felt like my position as, unlike B, I have the option to work from home so took on the duties of taking the kids to school, making lunches, shopping, looking after many of the dinners when we didn't eat out. And doing my regular job as well. Quite exhausting really, especially when it was three extra kids, although Satoe was really very easy to look after.

Alex hopes to have one more student before he finishes primary school and so do we. Unfortunately the program is a bit up in the air right now. In the intervening period since the previous visit our school got a new principal and she, in her first role, wants to do everything by the book. That means no older kids. Hopefully something can be worked out, maybe with the nearby high school.

To be fair, if this trip was any guide, things do go wrong. One student was involved in a car accident and another witnessed someone jumping off a cliff. And yes, there is some disruption to the students' learning programs. But I really feel they all get a lot out of these visits. Anything to break down this horrible insularity and racism that has reared its head so viciously in the media right now. The only reason I didn't feel more embarrassed by the nightly news was that I know Japan has its own governing politicians who say the most awful things as well.

May our kids not grow up sharing the same views as many older people who should know better.

The farewell assembly at school was full of emotion, with both Satoe and the ELS21 principle reduced to tears. Fortunately for Alex and the rest of us the parting was not so sad as we look forward to catching up with Satoe, Mayumi and Machiko again in a few months time when we visit Osaka. Until then we have plenty of happy memories and gifts of Japanese treats to enjoy!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Empire Strikes Back in Concert

The latest in the film with live orchestra concerts series was Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I have a story to tell about The Empire Strikes Back, but I think I shall keep it for next time. I have tickets for Melbourne, where the story resides. For now let me tell you about the Sydney concert.
Like Star Wars: A New Hope, tonight's concert was held at new Sydney's International  Conference and Convention Centre in Darling Harbour. The theatre is huge and I was seated quite far from the orchestra, though in the middle. The distance detracted from the excitement of watching the orchestra up close, their movement adding to experience. At least I could see the entire orchestra.
Nicholas Buc, who seems to be in Japan, was replaced in conducting duties by Hamish McKeich from New Zealand. Unlike Buc and some of the other previous conductors, McKeich gave no introduction to the audience, no encouragement to cheer at opportune moment. Indeed the audience was rather passive tonight, applause fairly scattered until the end.
I wasn't fussed by this as I was there for the music and indeed it was good to clearly hear the orchestra over the movie. I did wonder if the sound was rather enhanced by the speakers, at that distance it was a little difficult to tell.
The Empire Strikes Back is one of those soundtracks and movies I know back to front. Before the full score was available I used to listen to an audio recording of the movie, mentally filtering out the dialogue and effects. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed to my satisfaction, the live experience allowing me to pick out sounds somewhat lost in the recordings. A few little niggles with the pacing of the opening and closing bars, but that was it for any criticism of the performance.
The movie was naturally the post-prequels special edition which meant that some parts of the score sat uncomfortably with the spliced in scenes. The addition of sequences of Darth Vader returning to his Star Destroyer from Cloud City were particularly unnecessary and only served to disrupt the thrilling score for Luke's rescue. But there is no point screaming "Nooooooo!" anymore.
I'm looking forward to seeing the concert again with the superb Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the end of the year. In great news you can also include these film music concerts as a package in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 2019 season. I was apparently their very first online subscriber for 2019 so I have Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens to look forward to next year as well!
May the Force be with you.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Extracting strawberry DNA

Following the instructions in Double Helix Issue 24 2018 to extract DNA from strawberries using common kitchen items and chemicals, plus methylated spirits, while keeping an eye on their blog to ensure it doesn't crash under load!

Mixing salt, detergent and water
Mashing up the strawberry with the detergent mix
After adding the chilled meths the DNA separates at the top
Sticky DNA!

Monday, July 09, 2018

3 Days of Winter School Holidays

Just about finished the third day of the winter school holidays and already:

  • Made a heartbeat flashing birthday card using Chibi lights.
  • Did two hours of karate
  • Chilled out during medieval reenactments at Winterfest
  • Donuts and pies at Berry (plus a birthday party)
  • Finished the Multivariate Calculus in Machine Learning Course
  • Almost finished editing a technical document for B
  • Helped Alex program the MicroBit and built touch buttons as lift controls*
  • Took him for a hair cut
  • Made pesto
  • Did my work
  • Watched a little bit of Runaway on SBS and wondered if some people in the robotics group were like Gene Simmons character.

Not sure how to survive the whole holidays at this rate!

Over the same period last year I was with the family in Nagoya, Takayama and Unazuki Onsen in Japan after doing the Northernmost and Easternmost stations in Hokkaido. Poor Japan is suffering severe flooding again. Last year it was Kyushu, this time Southern Honshu and Shikoku. 

* More information later. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Mazda - Then and Now

Four years ago today we visited the Mazda Museum and factory in Hiroshima. Today, a new Mazda 6. A long way since the second hand Mazda 626 that did 275,000 kilometres.

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.


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


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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