Monday, September 28, 2009

Hampton Court Palace

Despite having lived in London for 10 years, I hadn’t – until today – visited Hampton Court Palace.  We spent the afternoon wandering around the state apartments, kitchens, gardens and other numerous buildings and rooms.

Who knew that Hampton Court Palace was home to the world’s oldest known grape vine?

We also went into the maze.  Contrary to popular belief, Hampton Court Maze can be escaped using the method of “putting your right hand onto the wall and walking in such a way that it never leaves contact with the wall” but we decided not to try that method opting for the method of stopping at every fork and seeing which of the two options appears “less obviously heading towards the centre, and so more likely to be the correct route”.  Having said that, we got to the middle with no dead ends met on the way…

The journey out to Hampton Court was uneventful in terms of delays and cancellations (there were none of the latter, and only a minor version of the former).  The journey from Tower Hill to Hampton Court took the best part of two hours though – fine if you’re doing the Guardian crossword and on a day out, but how could you cope with doing it every day?

I’ve been lucky for the past few years – for over five years now, I’ve not had to take public transport to commute to work.  These days, I can get to the Symbian offices in 40 minutes of casual strolling from home.

I think it’s the lack of regular use of public transport which gives me such a un-jaded view of the quality of trains in the UK.  It’s rare that I take a train – overground or tube – and so it’s very rare indeed that I get hit by a cancellation or troublesome delay. 

Let’s presume that 90% of train journeys in the UK are trouble-free (that’s about right, from the latest statistics).  I take a train around once a month, and so I’m going to get hit with trouble in my journey once every ten months – so rare that I’m not going to notice it, really.  Whereas if you’re doing a journey every day, then you’re going to get hit once every two weeks.  No wonder regular commuters complain about the trains.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It’s the little things

Yesterday didn’t start brilliantly as days go, and so it was the kind of day when you really need something to cheer you up. You know how it is – a bar of chocolate or warm cup of tea isn’t going to cut it – you need something to warm the cockles of your heart.

Two things happened last night which really cheered me up.

We went to the recording of “Clive Anderson’s Chat Room” for Radio 2. All was light and jovial until the subject was mentioned of Elton John’s idea of adopting a Ukrainian orphan. Some of the panel raised concerns over whether a rock star travelling the world on tour, particular one in his sixties, is the best person to adopt a young child.

One of the panellists was strangely quiet on the subject – despite having written a column about exactly that subject only days before. That person was Amanda Platell, the homophobic, bigoted and borderline-racist excuse for a journalist who has sold her soul to write for the daily assault on human dignity which calls itself the “Daily Mail” (I feel dirty even typing those words – imagine how dirty one must feel actually taking money from them to write a column)

Anyway, sitting next to her was the rather less bigoted Mark Thomas, who proceeded to pull out off his bag an annotated set of print-outs of Platell’s column from the previous few months and ask her to justify some of the comments she had made. She was laid bare as the homophobic bigot she actually is.

Normally, I think that every human being has a right to avoid humiliation – but given some of the insidiously evil things she has written I think she deserved every minute of it and more. It’s just a shame that the best bits will probably be cut from the show before broadcast.

Well that was the first thing which cheered me up. The other thing was that a complete stranger offered me a rather nice caramel choccy thing on the bus on the way home. Wasn’t half as sweet as watching Mark Thomas a few hours earlier, though.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Well call me Susan.

I commented yesterday on Twitter, that if the Derren Brown lottery prediction was achieved by use of collective wishful thinking, then my name is Susan.

My name is not Susan, and no matter how convincing the pyscho-babble which surrounded the 24 people picking numbers, there is no way that they “spotted a pattern in the numbers” and selected the six numbers.  No way at all.

State of mind is important.  Positive thinking can affect many things – including sporting performance, professional performance and even your own physical strength.  But no amount of positive thinking can guess six lottery numbers before they are drawn.

So, here we remain – still in the dark about how the effect was achieved. Oh well.

Talking of things which remain hidden, we went to the Cabinet War Rooms today.  Despite living in London for so many years, it was the first time I’d been.  It is a fantastic museum, and contains so many places where real history took place, that I would recommend any visitor to London go and see it.  The map room, and some of the offices are set up exactly as they were during the war and it doesn’t take much imagination to put yourself back just over sixty years to the time when the British involvement in WWII was being directed from those very rooms.  Definitely worth the entrance fee!

I can’t mention WWII this week without a mention of Alan Turing, can I?  I’m sure everyone knows the tragic story of his suicide after what can only be described as a hideous persecution.

I did sign the petition on the Number 10 website to get the apology from the government – the only such petition I have ever signed.  The current government had no part in what happened to him, of course, and his treatment was merely one case of what happened to so many men not so many years ago.   Everyone else who contributed so much to the war effort was given a knighthood or a peerage and paraded through the streets with honour.  Yet because he was gay, his fate was to be chemically castrated and kill himself with a cyanide-laced apple.

Of course, it’s easy to say that such stories are in the past – but let’s remember that it wasn’t in the distant past that such things happened – it was well-within living memory for many people.  And it wasn’t so many years ago that gay people were barred from serving in the UK military, too.

So let’s not get too wrapped up in the fact that Alan Turing’s treatment was the product of a different time – let’s see this apology from the government as a long-overdue acknowledgement of a great man who – as the letter from Gordon Brown said – really did deserve so much better…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

6 out of 6 – well done Mr Brown

Last night, as I’m sure everyone knows, Derren Brown appeared live on Channel 4 and appeared to predict the lottery numbers before they were drawn.

I thought it was a great trick.  I’ve read a lot of rubbish online today in which people express their feeling of “having been cheated” because it was only a trick.  Of course it was.

He didn’t actually know all six lottery numbers before they were drawn, he just appeared to.  And appeared to quick convincingly, I think.

I went to bed thinking about it last night, and on the walk to work this morning I was thinking about it again.  I have worked out a few ways in which the effect could’ve been achieved – but of course I’ll tune in on Friday to find out how he actually did it.  That is presuming that he does actually tell us how he did it, rather than just telling us how he wants us to think he did it.

The front-runner on the internet today suggests that camera trickery was involved.  It’s certainly possible to use the technique suggested in order to achieve the effect, but I do hope that’s not how it’s done.

I’ve been an admired of illusionists for years.  I still recall, as a child, Paul Daniel’s “Camera Trick”.  Camera goes into wooden crate, live pictures shown out of the side of the box as it’s lifted into the air, big puff of smoke, camera gone.  I still don’t know exactly how it was achieved, but it’s still my favourite illusion. 

For Derren Brown to use a camera trick to achieve the lottery stunt would disappoint me.  The skill in being an illusionist is to master sleight of hand, misdirection and showmanship – not in employing a good cameraman.  To see how a magic trick is done can be almost as thrilling as seeing the trick when you are unaware.  If you don’t mind spoilers, then Google for Penn and Teller doing the “cups and balls” routine with see-through cups.  Of course, there is no mystery in the trick anymore, but the choreography of it is still beautiful to watch.

If, when I watch the follow-up on Friday, one of the methods I’ve imagined for the trick was used, then I shall be disappointed.  Whichever method was used, the execution of it was wonderful, but I really want to be astonished – I really want to be impressed by the ingenuity of the trick rather than be shown how video effects were applied to the live feed.

On the subject of Paul Daniels – I know it’s fashionable to mock him – but I refuse to.  A few years ago, we went to see him in Edinburgh performing “The Magic of Max Mellini” (spelling?).  It was stunning.  No pyrotechnics were used, no large wooden boxes were wheeled out, and Debbie was not cut in two.  The biggest trick of the night involved the production of a block of ice from a hat.  It was amazing.

And then, afterwards, we were down in the cafe below the venue having a drink, and there was Paul (and Debbie!) just playing with a pack of cards at a table.  The one thing I can recall is Paul Daniels just idly playing with the cards – a perfect one handed riffle shuffle whilst looking in completely the opposite direction is not easy to do.

Anyone can pop to a magic shop and pick up a pack of marked cards, or a magic box which makes a penny disappear.  But the true genius of an illusionist is to make something appear to happen which is not only impossible, but also something we have never seen before.

And I don’t know about you – but however it was achieved – I’ve never seen anyone appear to predict a national lottery on live TV before.  I shall be disappointed if the revealed method used was a rather mundane one – but I still applaud the trick as one of the stand-out illusions of modern times.

So much better than pretending to sit in a glass box for a month, anyway…