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Back on the Dragon

22 July, 2017 (20:57) | Holidays, snap! | By: Ian Burdon

Drum Tower, Xi’an

We’re thinking about another visit to China, probably in February 2018. This is a little unexpected as it wasn’t something that appealed to me just a few months ago, but I got sick last time I was there and wasn’t in the best frame of mind when I thought that.

One of the things I’ve written about previously is the pace at which China is developing and the sacrifice of historic identity that seems to be accompanying it. There are signs that they are realising that destruction of heritage is damaging and I welcome that; nevertheless I’m interested in finding the aspects of China that have been disappearing while they’re still there and I’m still able to go. One big city is pretty much interchangeable with any other big city.

I’m quite keen to go back to some slightly off-the-beaten-track places and appreciate them properly. We’re currently thinking about a looping route via Beijing, through Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, then back to Shanghai as the core of the itinerary, but, of course, that is likely to change as time passes.

The main limitations will be (a) travelling during Spring festival and (b) it will be winter, so no mountains.

After my experiment in the Hebrides when I took only film cameras with me (I’ll load some pics into the gallery here soon just as soon as I remember how), I plan to do the same again in China. We’re still a long way out from finalising plans, but my guess is I’ll take the Pentax 645N and a Contax SLR. I found with the 645N that I stuck to a 45mm lens pretty much all the time so I may just take one lens with me for it. Similarly with the Contax: just one, or at most 2 lenses (say a 45mm and a 135mm). I may take another SLR as a back up, or loaded with Black and White film, but I’m not sure. Preliminary indications are I’ll need to take film with me as I can’t guarantee time to get to the camera markets in Shanghai or Beijing to buy it there.

Not Fade Away

4 July, 2017 (14:32) | Steal Your Face | By: Ian Burdon

Steal Your Face

I should have known. The first indication was probably my post of 1 January 2016. I wrote there:

Something odd has been happening to me lately: something unexpected, troubling almost. After 34 years of indifference I have been listening to the Grateful Dead. I say specifically 34 years because it was in September 1981 that I went to see the Dead play at Edinburgh Playhouse and came away feeling distinctly meh.

I have always liked some of their songs, notably Ripple and Truckin’ as well as covers I’ve heard of Friend of the Devil. I also like American Beauty as an album. But overall I’ve always found them too ramshackle and approximate to pay them any mind.

But for some reason I’ve had the opening of Friend of the Devil running through my head as an earworm for a couple of days. To exorcise it, I opened up Wake of the Flood on Spotify, and found myself enjoying it, especially the Weather Report suite.

I still don’t care much for their extended cosmic jams, and I much prefer Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass stuff with Peter Rowan et al, but I’m obviously mellowing in my middle years.

A couple of days after that, in a further post, I wrote:

Further to my last: after some listening on Spotify, I’ve concluded that I like the Grateful Dead’s albums that are more song based (say from Workingman’s Dead through to Blues for Allah), but don’t really get the extended jams, which don’t do much for me. Mind you, extended jams by just about anyone don’t do much for me. There may be other Dead albums I’d like, but I haven’t heard them yet.

Something has changed in the 18 months since then. Aside from listening to more of their albums, I’ve recently taken a deep dive into the Dead’s live archive and have been listening to them a lot. The proximate cause of this descent into madness was the Amazon documentary, but it’s nagged at me for a while that I ought to go further into how they made their name–as a live, improvising band.

So I did the obvious thing and searched for opinions on the best shows to listen to. This, I’ve discovered, is a rabbit warren of strongly held opinions, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Whatever, I came up with a list of 25 shows that seemed to be the ones most commonly mentioned (although someone will always crop up to contest the choices).

It will come as no surprise at all to any Deadheads reading this that heading the list was Barton Hall, Ithaca, 8 May 1977. I’ve also been listening to:

  • Buffalo, 9 May 1977
  • Boston, 2 April 1973
  • New Year 1982 (with Etta James and Tower of Power Horns)
  • Veneta, 27 Aug 1972, and
  • Winterland 9 June 1977

And… I’m a convert on the basis of just 6 of the 25 shows.  I’m not deaf to the faults, especially the approximate qualities of the live vocals, but nonetheless I’m beguiled.

Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead: Edinburgh, September 1981

I need to add that, apart from the music, there are other aspects of the band that interest me. Some of this is their creative process itself, which I think I can use in writing (particularly first drafts), but also I find the band members themselves interesting as characters.

I commented in my previous post that I thought there were several films that could be made about the band that focused on people other than Jerry Garcia, and I’m reinforced in that view from the listening. To give only two examples: Phil Lesh is an articulate man and as interesting a musician as Garcia, and his autobiography is a fascinating insight into where he was coming from musically; and I am intrigued by Mickey Hart’s early and continuing interest in what we now call ‘World Music’ and as a musicologist.

So yeah, I guess I’m a newby Deadhead, and this is my coming out post.


Impossibility is a kiss away from reality

30 June, 2017 (10:07) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

I’m just going to leave these here while I wander around with a silly grin on my face


Sense8 is back

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

27 June, 2017 (21:38) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

I’ve been catching up on TV since we got back from holiday.  Of course, that doesn’t amount to a lot for me since I don’t watch that much TV, and I’m still not reconciled to the cancellation of Sense8, but still…

Dr Who: Moffat and Capaldi’s final series has knocked it out of the park so far. It reminds me a lot of what early ’70s Who could have been with better production techniques. One episode to go.

American Gods: I haven’t shared the general hyperbolic enthusiasm for this, although I do like it. I find it has tried so very, very hard to be stylish and to be Event Television, however the exaggerated style has, I feel, overwhelmed what substance there is. It’s like, as Carly Simon wrote, it has one eye in the mirror as it watches itself gavotte. But, and this is a very substantial but, it got a whole lot better when Emily Browning, as Laura Moon, got her own episode (Ep. 4, Git Gone) and then again, playing another character, Essie McGowan, in episode 7 A Prayer For Mad Sweeney. Browning steals every scene she appears in. Reflecting on the first 8 episodes I realised I had no interest in Shadow Moon or Mr. Wednesday or the rest of the pantheon, but I am fully engaged with Laura Moon and the Leprechaun who are the most, and best, realised characters in the show. I’ll keep watching when it comes back because of them.

Twin Peaks: Until this week I would have given a mixed review of Twin Peaks. I’ve enjoyed it, but also found it hard to tell whether or not it was just an elaborate piss-take on the part of Mark Frost and David Lynch, insofar as it has been so self-parodic. However then came episode 8, one of the most remarkable hours of television I have ever seen. It never felt any need to condescend to the viewer with anything so cheap as an explanation for what was happening. The episode is modernist, absurd, surreal, creepy as hell, horrific and utterly compelling. It absolutely sets the bar for TV from now on, in just a single episode, in the way American Gods’ “look at me” stylishness does not. It is a strange trip.

But not as much of a Long Strange Trip as Amazon’s 4 hour documentary about the Grateful Dead. There are many things to say about this, and one is that, like the excellent Anthem To Beauty, it is not necessary to like the Dead’s music to enjoy the documentary, even at 4 hours. The running thread through the documentary is Jerry Garcia, and I understand why he was the focus. I tend to think that that there are other, just as interesting, documentaries to be made about the Dead focusing on the other musicians, and also the general impact of their music in America in particular (I’ve lost count of the number of bluegrass versions I’ve heard of Friend of the Devil).  Notwithstanding that, I enjoyed every minute of it.

Finally, I was going to close this post with a link to the Dead on YouTube, but I’ve just found out that Rosalie Sorrels died while we were away on holiday. This is the first thing I heard her sing.

Click, Whirrr…

13 June, 2017 (20:21) | snap! | By: Ian Burdon

I’m enjoying using my film cameras on holiday, though it hasn’t gone exactly as expected. My original idea was to use mostly 35mm, with medium format being used from time to time when a landscape required it.

In fact I have so completely fallen for the Pentax 645N that it has been my main camera for the whole holiday, almost exclusively with a 45mm lens and a graduated grey filter. I’ve used Kodak Ektar ISO100 film but will have to switch to my backup supply of Kodak Portra 400ASA soon. The other Pentax, the original 645, has been loaded with Rollei RPX400 Black and White film and has had more limited use.

My Canon AT1, also loaded with Ektar, has mainly been on standby for wildlife pics with a 500mm mirror lens, but photogenic wildlife has been notable by its absence so far.

Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho

10 June, 2017 (21:33) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

The election then.

I posted nothing about it before it happened and I don’t plan to post much now, except to say I found the outcome hilarious.

Now, voting was quite easy for me this time round; I live in an SNP/LibDem marginal so my choice was clear: LibDem. I don’t especially like the LibDems, but there was a greater imperative at work.

For most of my life I’ve voted Labour; any exceptions to that have always been tactical. But I’m not interested in voting Labour while Jeremy Corbin and his cabal of Wolfie Smith wannabes is in charge. A tip of the hat to him, he did a lot better than many, including me, expected. But he still lost to the most inept Tory leader since Ian Duncan Smith, despite the Tory campaign imploding spectacularly.

Last July I posted about Theresa May; I said I didn’t like her but she was the least worst of those available and so I had my fingers crossed. I thought she, or the Tories at least, would be in office until 2025 or so with a very substantial majority. That last looks questionable now, but with a potential second General Election this year it may yet happen. Given her manifest unsuitability for the job, I doubt Mrs. May can survive in office, and I doubt a minority government sustained by the confidence and supply support of the DUP is stable. On the other hand, with Article 50 triggered, the last thing the Tories need is another leadership election, especially given the paucity of obvious successors.

Mrs. May clings to office in large part because of the performance of the Tories in Scotland under Ruth Davidson (who is unhappy about that DUP link). Add that to Labour gaining seats in Scotland, and the dreams of the SNP are on a shoogly peg. At least in public, the SNP can not admit this is because the majority of the electorate do not want another indy. referendum since independence is the SNP’s sole purpose. Given their mediocre performance in government, their general fitness for office is now in doubt too.

Oddly, I find the absurdity of the situation grounds for optimism as well as laughter: the make up of the House of Commons is such that no party will succeed in pushing an ideological position because no part has the support to carry it through. Maybe, just maybe, that means a period during which compromise positions will necessarily carry the day; proving, perhaps, that Nemesis has a sense of humour.

I think I’m in Love

6 June, 2017 (09:53) | snap! | By: Ian Burdon

Quick update from Skye: I think I’m in love with my Pentax 645N. I haven’t seen the pics yet, of course, but everything about it feels great. I love the weight of it, the balance, the bright screen, the fact that it just works.

I liked the 645; the 645N is different league in terms of usability.


I Am We.

4 June, 2017 (23:30) | Sense8 | By: Ian Burdon

Sense8 season 2 poster

Sense8 Season 2

Last Friday, Netflix issued a statement quoting Cindy Holland, VP of original conent, that read:

After 23 episodes, 16 cities and 13 countries, the story of the Sense8 cluster is coming to an end. It is everything we and the fans dreamed it would be: bold, emotional, stunning, kick ass, and outright unforgettable. Never has there been a more truly global show with an equally diverse and international cast and crew, which is only mirrored by the connected community of deeply passionate fans all around the world. We thank Lana, Lilly, Joe and Grant for their vision, and the entire cast and crew for their craftsmanship and commitment.

I don’t know about you, but none of the things Ms Holland said seem to me to be obvious justifications for cancelling the show–rather the opposite (of course it may be that Ms Holland was simply handed the task of polishing the turd.)

J Michael Straczynski, co-creator of Sense8 with the Wachowski sisters, has been pretty terse on Twitter, but did make the following remarkable statement (screenshot):

Freema Agyeman summed up what seem to be the feelings of the whole of the cast (another screenshot)

This is a sad state of affairs from which Netflix emerges with neither credit nor credibility.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly, and there might be some of you, knows that I have gushed about Sense8 with embarassing frequency. It is the best TV show I have seen for a long, long time–since The Wire I think. [For the avoidance of doubt, yes I have been watching American Gods, which didn’t grab me until episode 4 when it suddenly got a whole lot better, and the reanimated Twin Peaks, which bemuses, entertains and infuriates.] Sense8 is the only thing I watch on Netflix.

What has been inspiring to me (and, if their social media comments are anything to go by, the cast) has been the response of the fans of Sense8 on social media and elsewhere, up to and including flooding Netflix phone and chat lines with complaints. I rather doubt this will provoke any change, although I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, but I do like that no one can be in any doubt about what Sense8 means to so many people worldwide.

I’ll probably write more about this when I’ve processed it a bit more.

And should anyone wonder why I am writing about ephemera such as a TV programme when so much else is happening in the world, it’s because art is a freedom to be cherished, the stuff of life, and life must go madly, defiantly on.


Back to the Future

1 June, 2017 (20:48) | Sense8, snap! | By: Ian Burdon

As I mentioned back in January, we’re going on holiday shortly, up to Skye and Harris, and I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t been on Skye for a long time and have never been to Harris. From Harris we’ll take in Lewis, of course, and also a day trip to North Uist.

I decided some time ago that I would take only film cameras with me. I’m taking my old Canon AT1 and two medium format cameras–a Pentax 645 and a Pentax 645N (eBay has been good to me). My only digital camera will be the one on my phone.

Holiday Cameras

A brace of Pentax and a Canon

So why film?

I’m not being wilfully ‘old school’ or ‘Luddite.’ I have 3 digital cameras I use, one of which, the Nikon D7000, has been my go-to tourist camera for a few years now. Nor do I think film is inherently better in some sense than digital; both have their pros and cons. But there are aspects of film that I like, and they are subjective.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about persistence of technology. Back in the nineties when I was looking at automated registration of title to land, I mused that:

One of the attractions of paper documents and records is that if properly cared for they can last for a long time and be available for consultation for future generations.   This is not obviously so with electronic archives: technological advancements have left inaccessible even documents committed to electronic storage very recently.

I’ve come to feel the same about photographs and photograph albums. I like the idea of a tactile thing that can be passed around, taken out on winter nights or by future generations long after digital pics have disappeared from view. I think memory as an artefact is worth preserving, to smile at, or perhaps recall the dead.

I know I could print digital pics, but it’s such a fankle that I don’t bother, and one day the hard drives they sit on will fail or go into landfill and the pics will vanish forever. That may be a good thing, maybe they are no more than ephemera, but I don’t think so. There is something about a photo album or a box of photos in the attic that excites and charms and evokes memory.

So I’m taking film and I’ll have them printed and I’ll put the good pics into an album marked up as Holidays 2017, and if you come round I’ll make you a cuppa and you can have a look.

And if you can’t make it round for a cuppa, don’t worry: I’ve had a gallery added to this site and I’ll start using it soon for new and archived digital photos.


Postscript: as I’ve been writing this, word has come through that Netflix has cancelled Sense8. This is dumber than a dumb thing in a world of dumb.

From the Heart

8 May, 2017 (23:39) | Sense8 | By: Ian Burdon

Sense8 season 2 poster

Sense8 Season 2

This is my second attempt at thoughts on Sense8 season 2. My first was written after I binge-watched the new season on 5 May; this is (re-)written after a second viewing of the complete season.

I make no attempt to avoid spoilers, so if you haven’t yet watched season 2, but plan to, go and make up your own mind first.

You can find my earlier posts via the Sense8 tag above or in the right hand column.

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, I put on my 3d-specs and went into the cinema with mental fingers crossed, a voice in my head saying Please, please don’t fuck this up. And they didn’t. So, knowing that, I could watch it again and soak in the detail.

It was the same with Sense8; I connected with season 1 so much (and increasingly after repeated watching) that I was nervous season 2 would go haywire. I’m delighted to dispel that immediately; season 2 is fantastic. I liked it on my first watch, I really liked it on my second watch.

We are straight into both the characters’ stories and the overall arc. The techno-babble hand waving about the underlying McGuffin move forward, without ever dominating.The characters are now more comfortable with the link they share and with visiting each other, and are beginning to let their significant non-sensate others know what’s going on.

And it looks gorgeous: it seems redundant to draw attention to it, but I appreciate that every scene is beautifully framed, properly lit and exposed, and dynamic. Likewise the soundscape. I watched on my laptop with headphones and it all slotted together beautifully.

Reflecting, one of the things I most like about season 1, and why I think the show hit such a sweet spot with me, was that the underlying metaphor was played out in the character interactions in a pure ‘show, don’t tell’ way. There was relatively little direct exposition and most of that came from Jonas who, we now know, is a less-than-reliable narrator. When you add in the McGuffin–homo sensorium, epigenetic factors triggering a latent pre-disposition, etc–what one is dealing with is definitely science fiction, but closer to literary SF in its treatment of the material, notwithstanding the (excellent) action sequences.

Also, and this is a relatively recent understanding that made me slap my forehead with my palm that it hadn’t crystalised for me before, at the core of the show is a set of very powerful love stories–Riley and Will, Nomi and Amanita (can’t wait to see when Nomi and Amanita’s parents meet at the wedding…), Lito, Hernando and Dani, and Kala and Wolfgang. What just crystalised for me is that the love is never put in peril. There is a tired, lazy trope, that introduces the peril into a drama by undermining the roots of love; in Sense8 the characters are tested, severely, but it is more often than not the bonds of love that sustain them through the trials.

So Sense8 season 2: fantastic, and about the only thing on TV that puts pressure behind these old eyes one second and a great big grin on my face the next.

Some random thoughts I jotted down on my second viewing. A couple are niggles, but not important ones.

  1. There isn’t a lot of sex in season 2. Despite received wisdom, there isn’t that much sex in Sense8 as a whole, it’s just that it’s memorable when it does happen. More often than not, Wolfie’s hook-ups excepted, the sex is relationship driven; it’s erotic and celebratory rather than pornographic and exploitative.
  2. Professor Kolovi talks in his lecture about Homo Sapiens wiping out neanderthal and denisovian man. AFAIK, the most recent genetic evidence is of extensive interbreeding.
  3. An organisation with BPO’s resources not tracking Riley’s dad when he leaves Iceland? Not entirely plausible.
  4. What’s so special about Sarah Patrell?
  5. “Dr Mathieson” and the Chicago Group: dodgy photoshop on the group pic.!
  6. Global interconnectedness of finance/money-laundering: season 1 theme ticking along and an echo of the sensate state.
  7. McGuffin: genetic disposition triggered by as yet unspecified epigenetic factors.
  8. “Hope is undiscovered disappointment”. That’s bleak.
  9. Neat tip of the hat to V for Vendetta and Jupiter Ascending.
  10. Use of 4-Non-Blondes links to a defining and iconic moment in S01E04 when the cluster first realises its potential. It’s reappearance here is no accident.
  11. Sylvester McCoy chugging blockers with Irn Bru! When I heard he’d been cast, I hoped Sylvester might dial back the brogue a bit, but he dialled it up to 11 and risked being a caricature in service of the plot rather than a rounded character. I thought it worked better the second time I watched it. However, while I accept the possibilities of stovies, mushy peas aren’t that common in Scotland being more of an English thing (alas). Deep-fried Mars Bars are a joke for tourists that’s gone too far 🙂
  12. Croome said everything began to go out of control after 9/11; Hoy says he’s been hiding for 30 years, ie since the mid-eighties.
  13. The ‘immigrant food’ conversation could as easily have been overheard on the Babylon 5 Zocolo.
  14. Croome’s death follows the cluster giving his name to Jonas.
  15. Ajay Kapoor’s business in Seoul–with the Baks?
  16. Visit on flight from Bhodi; who is she? what is being set up here for later seasons?
  17. Bug “pregnant pause-y”; this formulation (adjectival? adverbial?) could be lifted straight from Buffy-speak (You’re all bad-mood-y)
  18. Burt Lancaster, described by Hernando as ‘heteronormative’; er…
  19. Rajan’s call to ‘old client in America’; Who?
  20. “Lito, you’re crying snot.”
  21. Who is it who manifests to warn Puck? And why is he so startled to see her?
  22. Any sensate can give birth to a new cluster at any time. Hmmm.
  23. Jonas has no scar on his forehead at the end of the final episode; therefore the earlier scene of the start of his operation was a deliberate and elaborate fake designed specifically to mislead. What deeper game is Jonas playing by enabling Whispers? Yrsa aluded to this in S01
  24. What to do with Whispers and Jonas? Ethical dilemma. Other clusters will want to kill/rescue them.
  25. Kala’s night of mental passion with Wolfie apparently coincided with physical passion with Rajan; it would complicate matters were she to find herself pregnant with Rajan’s child.
  26. I didn’t think the appearance then disappearance of Dani’s parents and Joaquim was well handled; it seemed perfunctory.
  27. I know the show is an ensemble piece dealing with multiple story lines, and I enjoyed the Nairobi storyline, but I also think the excellent Kenyan cast have more depth to offer than they were given this season.
  28. I’m surprised Capheus didn’t follow up on the outdated pharmaceuticals dumped by Rajan.
  29. Kala’s analysis of the trading records where she discovers they’ve been falsified: Kala is a scientist and well capable of analysing complex data in her own right, but this does echo Sun’s analysis of Bak accounts early in season 1. It was unstated, but I wonder if there is an implied sensate interaction there. Sun is a lot more than just a bad-ass kick boxer.
  30. All SF depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. I’m prepared to go with the set up of this show so long as it follows the logic it has set up for itself. However a Matatu driver from Kibera obtaining a passport, and a UK Visa, which he would need, and getting through the UK Border Force at Heathrow all within 24 hours strains credulity too far 🙂

Two final things:

I noticed in season 1 that Riley’s birth as a sensate coincided with her trying DMT which seemed to accelerate her connection. I mentioned it at point 2 here. Buried in season 2 is the offhand line that ‘blockers’ inhibit entactogens and thus act as a ‘reverse DMT.’ It follows that if all the sensates everywhere, or even just the cluster, took a DMT trip at the same time, then weirdness would ensue. Goody 🙂

Secondly, this may be wishful thinking, but it seems to me that the final couple of episodes only really make sense if the writers assume, or know, the threads will be picked up in an as yet unannounced Season 3. If the fate of the show was uncertain, I’m sure this season would have had a much neater, more structured, ending than it did, rather like Babylon 5 season 4 before season 5 was confirmed..

A third binge-watch? Undoubtedly, but I’ll give it a bit of time before diving in again. Meantime, this is from the soundtrack: