Mon, 31 Oct 2016
Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore
By Haruki Murakami

Score : 3.0 / 5

I decided to pick up one of Haruki Murakami's books and expected something a little different. That turned out to be true in this modern day story containing so many fantastic elements. Not just a taste of Japanese culture (some) but an odd tale mixing a road trip, a philosophical discussion about life, music and metaphors and an alternate world of magic and myth. As well as people that can talk with cats.

There are two alternating stories which intersect at the end. One follows a fifteen year old runaway, with an odd curse and prophecy from his father; and the other has an old man, simple-minded after losing everything he knows in a childhood accident. The old man is Mr Nakata, unable to read or write but with the special ability of being able to communicate with cats. After a particularly bad day involving a bad man who looks like Johnnie Walker (of whisky fame), he ends up on a quest to fix an old problem. Actually, describing this "quest" and the reasons for it is not easy; one of the problems with the book is that I'm not really sure what a fair amount actually means. There's depth to it, and mythic or fantastical happenings, but much was beyond me. I enjoyed some of the "intellectual" interludes - discussing the meaning of metaphor in life, Truffaut's cinema or the Archduke Trio (YouTube) piece by Beethoven - but they were quite unreal in some ways. It was so full of other meanings that it's the sort of book that needs a followup explanatory text book perhaps. In fact, as wikipedia says :

Metaphysics is also a central theme of the novel as many of the character's dialogues and soliloquy are motivated by their inquiry about the nature of the world around them and their relation to it.

So, there you go. It sounds heavy, but isn't too bad.

Having said this, my mystification was balanced by the charm and oddness of the old man, Mr Nakata, and his companion Hoshino, a truck driver who drops everything to help get him across Japan and complete his mission. Nakata and Hoshino are funny and sympathetic characters ("Nakata isn't very bright"). Hoshino's not the brightest bulb either, but his slow realisation that his life has been pretty meaningless until now, and the way he starts to see the world differently, is one of the highlights of the novel.

The reason for a score of 3.0/5.0 is only that I found some of the boy's story a bit stilted, and there were odd sex scenes that seemed out of place

A book I quite enjoyed then and I'll definitely try another sometime.

Mon, 24 Oct 2016
Peach Bloom

Having watched and enjoyed the recent BBC program about Chinese Ceramics, China in Six Easy Pieces, I thought I would like to see the Percival David collection at the British Museum myself.

The gallery houses a very impressive set of ceramic pots, plates, cups and much else. They range in age widely, some going all the way back to 300 AD. They all seem very well preserved, which is amazing considering the age. I assume they had few, but careful owners.

What is most beautiful to me is often the simplest forms that have the most perfect symmetry and the clearest and most delicate finish. The vase on the right is one example but there are many others. As household objects, most would not look out of place today in the discerning kitchen or living room. Really timeless.

Right : Vase with "peach bloom" glaze, Jingdezhen,Jiangxi Province. 1681-88.

The innovative "peach bloom" glaze was difficult to achieve. Potters covered the vase with a clear glaze, followed by a layer of copper-rich pigment, possibly blown on, and added further layers of clear glaze on top. When fired in a reducing atmosphere, this sandwiched colour developed into a soft mottled red and pink with flecks of moss-green.

As the label goes on to say, Chinese connoisseurs called it "cowpea-red". I think it's good to stick with "peach bloom".

British Museum catalogue page.

Tue, 18 Oct 2016
Pot Number Two

I've painted a new version of the Will Kemp tutorial pot but using oil paints this time. My original was acrylic (per Kemp's original).

Below: Pot Number Two, 20x20cm, oil

This version is not quite as rough and ready as the original painting, and a bit more worked. I wanted something simple to test some new Alkyd Oil paints, faster drying types of oil paint. These are the sorts of paint the artist Peter Barker used at the Mall Galleries recently, diluting with white spirit only.

I didn't think that highly of the original painting, but over the last couple of years it has grown on me. Simple but "rustic", and very basic; but sometimes a piece if art is all the better for that.

Sun, 16 Oct 2016
Touchscreen Science

I recently visited the Science Museum, the first time in over 25 years!

It's on multiple levels, an IMAX screen and lots of big machines to look at. As well as the old steam engines (excellent engineering displays), it's quite up to date with sections on "big data" and the implications of the "sharing" culture. A lot of light and colour, plus neon, in some large cavernous spaces. A lot of space is needed to hang aeroplanes and rockets.

One thing I wondered as I looked around was how they ever managed before the introduction of the touchscreen: they are everywhere. It's pretty impressive being able to interact with the displays and there's a lot to take in, with a big emphasis on learning. In fact, the place really needs a whole day, at least.

Something that caught my eye was a very large (about two big freezers) metal box callled an Ampex VR1000A, a 1958 video recorder. A lot of people thought recording television was impossible: until someone actually managed to do it! According to the label, this required one and a half miles of tape to record 4 minutes of television.

Below: An Ampex VR1000A video recorder :

Sat, 15 Oct 2016
Purple and Green

It's been a while since I've done any painting but I've done one in acrylic for a change, wanting something that dried quickly. Also a change over oil. I'm fairly happy with it, although the usual caveats: I find it hard to take a photograph that represents the actual colours satisfactorily. A little too saturated I think.

Below: Purple and Green, Oct 2016, acrylic, 7"x5".

I bought some Winsor & Newton Griffin oil paints. These are alkyd based oil paints, so faster drying; perhaps a good compromise between standard oils and acrylics? I've already tested them, painting another version of the old pot, and am quite impressed. This new painting is a little less rough and ready: I'll post a picture I hope.

Wed, 12 Oct 2016
The Echo

The Echo
By James Smythe

Score : 3.5 / 5

A team of people is sent into space to investigate an "anomaly": a region of complete darkness, perhaps growing, and perhaps heading our way slowly. Twenty years previously, another spaceship sent on a similar mission failed to return and its status is unknown. Things do not go as planned and a quite shocking sequence of events await them in space, something even the best brains on the planet could not imagine.

I really enjoyed this novel, even though it was hard initially to get over the narration by one of the twin scientist brothers sent into space. He "won" the lottery; his brother stays on earth as mission control. Both are quite unlikeable: very clever but very "nerdy", probably autistic. However, the story takes off and it definitely keeps your attention.

The front cover blurb comparing this book to the film Gravity ("If you liked Gravity ...") is ridiculous but another blurb gets it just about right : Creepy and compulsive. This is definitely creppy and even horrific, an unsettling sequence of events that takes us into the Twilight Zone.

I do have one complaint here. Apparently, this book is book two in a quartet, but this fact was well hidden. It seems that the first book covers the original, lost mission. I don't think this matters in the end, The Echo seems to work standalone. But a bit annoying nonetheless.

Tue, 11 Oct 2016
Internet Toxic Waste

Following on from the DDOS Brian Krebs was hit with a week or so ago, he writes about certain Chinese "Internet of Things" companies :

I don’t normally think class-action lawsuits move the needle much, but in this case they seem justified because these companies are effectively dumping toxic waste onto the Internet. And make no mistake, these IoT things have quite a long half-life: A majority of them probably will remain in operation (i.e., connected to the Internet and insecure) for many years to come — unless and until their owners take them offline or manufacturers issue product recalls.

One of the many appalling things about these things is that many just cannot be secured at all. It's all smoke and mirrors : the web interface might let you change the default password, but this might not actually save it. Or there are other default passwords (for other routes into the system) that cannot be changed.

Some security experts are now coming round to the idea that the government might need to step in and mandates some fixes. The EU appears to be starting down this route now.

Sun, 09 Oct 2016
Numero Zero

Numero Zero
By Umberto Eco

Score : 2 / 5

Eco's last novel before he died this year is not one of his best. It has his love of meandering conspiracies and secret history, but is a short and slight book without much depth. It meanders itself to a disappointing conclusion.

Set in the 1980's, some of the book is very funny and a lot of it reads like satire on a certain type of news business. Italy has a Street of Shame just as grubby as ours. It also has a full complement of very shady characters and plots, something Eco spends many pages describing. Unfortunately, the funny bits and the local colour cannot save it.

Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing, not to waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.

I notice a blurb on the cover of the paperback : "A Triumph", Scotland on Sunday. Just like movie advertising and blurbs, completely untrustworthy statements! You cannot trust anything a publisher chooses to stick on a book as an enticement.

Thu, 06 Oct 2016
Watching Paint Dry

I was at the Mall Galleries on Saturday for the Royal Society of Marine Artists 2016 exhibition, so lots of boats, water, sea, beach and coast. All things that make amazing art works basically, and as usual, the show did not disappoint.

I noticed that the artist Peter Barker, who I'd noted during the day as a favourite, was doing a live oil painting demo on the Sunday, so went up to the gallery again to see this. I only stayed a couple of hours but it was well worth the trip again. A very personable, patient and helpful guy; a great opportunity to watch an artist at work in the flesh.

Below are some examples of his work. He's very good with light, light on water, sunny "glows" and, as I mentioned to him at the gallery, "mud".

Have a look at his web site.

The Mall Galleries web site has a good section on the show, and the Royal Society of Marine Artists site is also worth a look. So many great pictures.

Tue, 04 Oct 2016
The Children Act

The Children Act
By Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan seems to be a prolific author and one of the major writers in English. He's been nominated for a few Booker Prizes as well, and won it in 1998 with Amsterdam. With that, there's a certain assumption of a good read. This is the first of his books I've read: a short one but good.

The Children Act is about a high court judge, Fiona Mayes, who works in the family courts: so there is much divorce and child cruelty in her life. In this book, she's having a few marital problems herself when a case comes before her: a seventeen year old boy refusing a blood transfusion because of his religious faith. The book looks at the moral choices here and the limits of law, coercion and our individual rights. To me, the professional interactions in court were the best part of the novel, and the to and fro between Mayes and the boy in hospital were also riveting. Some surprising and beautiful musical references as well.

A good book, and I expect to read more from him in the future.

Sat, 01 Oct 2016
Hand, Eye and Heart

In The Guardian, David Hockney spoke about some of his favourite painters a few weeks ago, an extract from a book he has written with Martin Gayford.

Left: Rembrandt self-portrait. Displayed as part of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Facing the World.

Hockney talks about Giotto, Masaccio, Van Eyck and Vermeer and, at the end, brings up Rembrandt :

In a way, Vermeer and Rembrandt are opposites. But Rembrandt is the greater artist, I think, because he’s got more ingredients than Vermeer. Rembrandt put more in the face than anyone else ever has, before or since, because he saw more. And that was not a matter of using a camera. That was to do with his heart. The Chinese say you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye and the heart. I think that remark is very, very good. Two won’t do. A good eye and heart is not enough, neither is a good hand and eye. It applies to every drawing and painting Rembrandt ever made. His work is a great example of the hand, the eye – and the heart. There is incredible empathy in it.

Rembrandt's artistic output was many times greater than Vermeer of course, who is thought to have painted only about 34 pictures (source).