All at sea

The sea has always held a certain fascination for me and it’s long been one of my dreams to try my hand at sailing.

I did have a quick go crewing a 2-man dinghy one afternoon last summer (or possibly the summer before – I lose track of time), which served to whet my appetite further.

Last night I got my second opportunity to sail – this time as part of the crew of a 30′ (or so) racing yacht called Mikki Finn.  We were racing up at Holyhead, where she is usually berthed, and we came fourth out of seven in the race.  Considering it was my first time ever sailing on a yacht, the third time for one of the other crew members and the first time out this year for the remaining two (as the boat has been ashore for repairs since the end of last season), that was not at all bad going.

My opportunity to sail Mikki Finn came because my friend Luke has been crewing her for several years now and was recently looking for someone to give him a hand with some of the aforementioned repairs.  I jumped at the chance and found myself a few weeks ago helping to refit the forestay, which led to an invite from the skipper, Mark, to join the crew.  Last week I went back to help again and the essential repairs were finished earlier this week, so she was able to go back in the water on Tuesday and be ready to race last night (there are still a few more repairs to do, but nothing to compromise her sea-worthiness).

Last night, I was mainly responsible for controlling one of the headsail sheets (i.e. the ropes used to control the sail at the front of the boat – the one we were using yesterday was a genoa, which you can look up for yourself if you’re so inclined), which is essentially the same job I had crewing on the dinghy, though in that case I was controlling both jib sheets at once.  A yacht, naturally, has much bigger sails and heavier rigging than a dinghy, so there are winches and things to help you and it becomes a multi-person job (at least if there are sufficient crew).  A handful of times I also had to run forward and skirt the genoa (i.e. bring the foot of it back inside the guardrail of the boat when it got caught up on the outside of it).

I’m looking forward to going sailing several more times in the coming weeks and increasing my knowledge and skill at nautical procedures.


Tipping Point

A few days ago (May the Fourth) was Star Wars Day, as I wrote about a couple of years ago.

Star Wars Day is an annual event. Today, however, sees a once-in-the-lifetime-of-the-universe event… the Star Wars Tipping Point.

This was defined (or at least brought to my attention) in an instalment of the wonderful XKCD webcomic back at the end of January (hopefully still available here) and is the point after which the release of The Phantom Menace (i.e. part one of the Star Wars saga and the first film in the prequel trilogy) is closer to the release of Return of the Jedi (part six and the final film of the original trilogy) than to the present day.

I haven’t actually verified the exact dates (which, I assume, are based on the screenings of the world premieres) but the years certainly seem to fit – RotJ came out in 1983 and tPM in 1999 (respectively 32 and 16 years ago).

Incidentally, Return of the Jedi was the second Star Wars film that I saw during its original run at the cinema and the first one I remember fairly clearly – I was too young to catch Star Wars itself (later retitled A New Hope), as I was only a year or so old when it came out, and I have vague memories of seeing The Empire Strikes Back in the cinema.  By the time of RoTJ I’d seen the first film several times on TV as it used to be a staple of British Christmas television.

Actually, after Return of the Jedi there was quite a long gap (until Judge Dredd came out, apparently in 1995) when I didn’t go to the cinema at all.  I then caught the rerelease of the entire (remastered) original trilogy when they where shown at the cinema in the year or two leading up to the Phantom Menace, and I saw the whole prequel trilogy at the cinema as they came out (mostly within a few days of the local premiere, I think).

When the new trilogy (episodes 7 – 9) come out over the next few years, I fully intend to watch them at the cinema too.  Episode 7 (The Force Awakens) is due out this December, though I may not get a chance to see it until early next year.  I’m not sure when episode 9 is due out, though I’d guess it should be around 2019.  I suppose the next big Star Wars Tipping Point will be when the time between releases of the first and last films (which will be roughly 42 years) is less than the time from the last one to the present moment (i.e. it will be sometime around 2061).

Carving a butterfly

Sometimes it’s quite fun to do something totally random on the spur of the moment.

For instance, this afternoon I made myself a new paper knife.

This came about because I’d been pruning the buddleja bushes in my garden, a task I’ve been meaning to do for several weeks.  Today has been a lovely sunny day and I didn’t have to go out or do anything much else, so it seemed like a very good opportunity.  Following advice I found on several websites after a quick Google search, I went for fairly heavy pruning.  This resulted in quite a lot of material cut off, including several fairly chunky bits.

It occurred to me that the bigger offcut pieces might work quite well for whittling, a hobby that I’ve been meaning to try for quite a while (I did a little bit when I was growing up, but nothing serious).

One piece in particular, with a beautifully curved and slightly gnarled end, struck me as having potential to make quite a nice paper knife, and it just so happened that I was in need of a new one of those for my office since someone seems to have walked off with my old one several months ago.

Since the weather was so fine and it seemed a shame to waste it by going back inside the house straight away, I decided to strike while the iron was hot and so I grabbed my penknife and set to work out in the garden.

Actually, the first step (which I did in the garage) was to cut the piece of wood down to roughly the desired length using a saw.  I then decided that for the blade section it would be much quicker to saw away quite a lot of the excess material rather than trying to carve it all the way.  I suspect this may contravene some people’s strict definition of whittling but I don’t really care.

I didn’t make a note of the time I started or finished but I think it probably took a bit less than an hour of whittling to get the knife more-or-less how I wanted it.  I then finished it off with a little bit of gentle sanding (which again may be against some people’s whittling rules but, since I wasn’t taking part in a competition or intending to sell my work as a hand-whittled product, seemed to be a good way of getting a nice smooth finish that will make the paper knife much more practical and pleasant to use).

Here’s what the finished result looks like:

Butterfly Knife #1

(You can click on the photo to see it bigger in my Flickr photostream, where you will also find several more pictures of the knife.)

I must confess that I’ve not actually tried opening any letters with this, since I’d already opened today’s post by the time I made it.  However, it fits quite comfortably in my hand and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t work perfectly well.  All told, I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out, especially for a first attempt.

The next challenge is to figure out what to make from the other buddleja offcuts that I saved.

By the way, in case you’re wondering about the title of this post (which, as seems to be fairly common for my titles, is perhaps slightly off-the-wall) I decided that since my new paper knife is made out of buddleja wood and buddleja is commonly referred to as the butterfly bush (on account of it being very popular with lepidoptera) I would call this my butterfly knife (although it’s nothing like the type of knife usually referred to by that name – for which see the article on Wikipedia if you’re interested).

Here, by way of conclusion, is a picture of a peacock butterfly on one of my buddleja bushes last summer:


Way more than 50…

I’ve never read the book 50 Shades of Grey, nor seen the recent film version, and have no particular intention of doing so.   Still, it seemed a good excuse to get a pop-culture reference into the title of this post, which is actually about photography.

For a long time I’ve had a particular fondness for black & white photography.  Partly this is, no doubt, a matter of nostalgia as I used to be a member of my university photographic society and made quite extensive use of their darkroom (which was equipped for b&w work only) for a year or so (almost 15 years ago, at the tail-end of my pre-digital days).

Largely, though, it’s because I love the look of well-executed monochrome images and the moods they can evoke.  Granted, a well-executed colour photo can also be a joy to behold and there are many subjects that require colour to work well, but often I find that the colour can be a distraction and that the monochrome image reveals details that you would otherwise miss.

Here’s a not particularly great example from my own photo collection.  The original image was shot in colour (about 6 years ago).  This is how I tend to work most of the time in digital photography, since it’s possible to remove the colour later but not to add it back in:


It’s a nice enough picture but not especially gripping or memorable (and even the “in-focus” bits are slightly out-of-focus, which becomes more obvious at larger sizes).   Admittedly the same is true of the desaturated version below,  but I think the removal of the colour in this case makes for a slightly stronger image, as the shapes and (in this case especially) the tones are more apparent:

Moth (B&W)

Had the moth been a bit more colourful or the foliage a bit more varied, there might have been just as much lost as gained in the shift from colour to b&w.  As it is, I think much is gained and little lost here.

Sometimes it’s much harder to decide between colour or monochrome versions of an image.  Here’s a photo I took on a trip to Catalonia last August:

Campanario de Reus

And here it is in b&w (and slightly cropped):

Campanario de Reus #2

In this case I love the blue of the sky and the subtle colours in the stonework that are apparent in the colour version, but I also love the effect when the colour is removed and the tones are allowed to come to the fore.  Of these two images I definitely prefer the second one, but that’s more due to the (IMHO) stronger composition with the square crop than to the presence or absence of colour.

I recently came across a lovely discussion of the benefits of monochrome photography, which is largely what inspired this mini-essay of mine.  Unfortunately, I didn’t make a careful note of where I found it but I think it was on one of the Weekly Imogen videos on YouTube, which are created by a London-based photographer called Mark and his regular model, Imogen, who also post regularly on Flickr under the name of unexpectedtales. Here’s a picture of Imogen (by Mark), which also doubles as a link to their Flickr photostream, which in turn contains a link to the YouTube series (not, unfortunately, to the video I was after):

See Imogen's top 10 favourite shots on Flickr

(Incidentally, this particular image is one of the top 10 favourite pictures of herself that Imogen selected for the linked video and is also one of my favourites of her; many of their photos are in colour but I think that a lot of the strength of this particular image comes from the fact that it isn’t.)

Anyway, to paraphrase Mark or whoever else was making the statement about monochrome photography, he said something along the lines of: “The joy of black and white photography is precisely that it isn’t just black and white but thousands of shades of grey in between… the monochrome image invites the viewer to engage with it in a way that colour images don’t, requiring your imagination to fill in the missing colours.” I’m fairly sure he also made the point about colours sometimes being a distraction that I mentioned earlier, which is a view I’ve held for a long time. Monochrome photography (perhaps paradoxically, given that it’s been around for much longer than colour photography, which tends to lack this particular advantage – or at least doesn’t have it so intrinsically built in) offers us a new way of seeing the familiar.

A tale of two barbers

If I were asked to name my favourite opera, I’d have a hard time picking one. However, there are some that would definitely make the shortlist, including Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville).

Apparently I’m not alone in assessing this to be a fine opera as it is one of the most popularly performed operas in the world (Operabase lists it at #8 in its list of the top 50 operas, by number of performances worldwide between the 2009/10 and the 2013/14 season).

As it happens, this was one of the first operas I explored when I started to get interested in the genre about a year ago, and was the first one for which I watched or listened to several different performances.

I also did a certain amount of background reading about Il Barbiere and, amongst other things, discovered that Rossini was not the first person to set this story, based on the play Le Barbier de Séville by Pierre Beaumarchais, as an opera.  The play appeared in 1775, as the first part of a trilogy, the second being Le Mariage de Figaro (the Marriage of Figaro) which was very quickly set as an opera – Le nozze di Figaro – by Mozart (also one of the world’s, and my own, favourite operas) and the third being La Mère coupable (The Guilty Mother), which as far as I know has been turned into at least a couple of operas but none of them particularly successful.

Rossini’s version of Il Barbiere (which came out in 1816, about 40 years after the original play) caused quite a stir because there was already an opera of the same name, and based on the same play though using a different libretto, by Giovanni Paisiello. This had appeared in 1782 (i.e. within 7 years of the play) and was still immensely popular by the time Rossini got there.  Although Paisiello is now a somewhat obscure composer he was, by all accounts, quite a pop star in his own time and it was considered rather impertinent of Rossini to try encroaching on his territory (Paisiello died a few months after Rossini’s opera appeared; I couldn’t find any reference to his own reaction to Rossini’s work but his fans apparently rioted).  In fact, to start with, Rossini’s version struggled to gain a foothold while Paisiello’s remained tremendously popular.  Gradually, though, the popularity of Rossini’s opera increased while that of Paisiello’s waned.

Naturally enough, on hearing about Paisiello’s Barbiere, I was keen to hear it for myself.  I recently managed to track down a very reasonably priced audio recording of it and I enjoyed listening to it.  While it doesn’t ascend to the heights of operatic genius that Rossini achieves several times in his version, it is more than competently put together (at least from a musical perspective – I didn’t pay too much attention to the libretto so I can’t judge it dramatically) and pleasant to listen to.  I’d certainly be keen to see it performed (either live or on DVD) if I get a chance, though I probably wouldn’t want to make space for another audio recording (or more than one video one) in my library.

There is a certain ironic justice in Paisiello’s Barbiere having been eclipsed by Rossini’s later version because he himself had previously attempted (I’m not sure how deliberately, or with how much success) to do much the same to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with La Serva Padrona.  This was a short comic opera that Pergolesi had written (c. 1733) as a pair of intermezzos to break up the acts of his long opera seria, Il prigionier superbo, and had become vastly popular (while Il prigionier fairly quickly faded into relative obscurity); it is seen by many as “the quintessential piece that bridges the gap from the Baroque to the Classical period” (to quote Wikipedia – it’s not clear whether that’s just within the scope of opera or of music more generally).  Paisiello wrote a version, using (I think) the same libretto as Pergolesi but a much more modern musical style, in about 1781 (i.e. shortly before his Barbiere).  I’ve listened to both Pergolesi’s and Paisiello’s versions of La Serva Padrona and enjoyed them both; stylistically there is a much greater gap between them than between Paisiello and Rossini (though even there the two are noticeably different – Paisiello’s Barbiere is perhaps unsurprisingly more reminiscent of his near-contemporary Mozart than of Rossini) so they are quite hard to compare.



Seeing red (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about having seen (or at least thinking I’d seen) a red squirrel.

Although I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d been correct in my identification, having only seen it fleetingly and more-or-less out of the corner of my eye, comments from a few other people who live in the area confirmed at least the possibility of it having been a red squirrel.

Today I saw another one and this time I saw it clearly enough to be sure.

I had a dentist’s appointment this afternoon in Menai Bridge, just after 3pm. As it happens, it was a bit snowy this morning so I walked into work instead of cycling. In order to get to the dentist on time, I went straight there after finishing work (having already arranged to take the afternoon off for it) and when I’d finished (actually a few minutes before the appointment was due, as I’d arrived a bit early and they had a gap) I called in at Waitrose to pick up a bottle of milk and a cup of coffee, then walked back through the woods as I usually do when I’ve been shopping there.

As I walked through the woods, enjoying the many birds that were relatively visible due to the absence of leaves on most of the trees (it being essentially a deciduous woodland), I spotted a squirrel climbing up the trunk of a tree a few yards in front of me. It was unmistakeably red, although not quite as much smaller than a typical grey squirrel as I’d expected.

The initial view was the clearest but only lasted for about 10 seconds before it had climbed the trunk and disappeared into the branches at the top. However, I waited patiently for a minute or two before catching sight of it again and then was able to watch it (intermittently) for several minutes.

For most of the time, the squirrel remained quite high in the trees, and in fairly deep shade, so it was only the first sight of it that enabled me to clearly identify it as a red.

As well as the excitement of seeing a red squirrel in the wild, I had a short conversation with a random stranger as a lady walking through the woods spotted me staring intently into the trees and wanted to know what I’d seen. Apparently she’s a fairly regular visitor to these woods and she said that she’s seen red squirrels here before, but not for several months.

I’ve been vaguely keeping a watch for red squirrels whenever I’ve walked in these particular woods over the last several years. Now that I know for definite that there’s at least one there, I hope I’ll get to see it (and perhaps more) again before too long.

Seeing red

It’s finally happened…

No, not that! (Whatever you thought it might be.)

I’ve seen a red squirrel in the wild,or at least, I’m fairly sure I have.

This morning I was cycling through the little town of Menai Bridge on my way to work, as I usually do on a weekday morning. As I was passing some trees on the road above the football pitch, I noticed a small foxy-red shape moving in one of the trees. I didn’t have time to stop for a closer look but the glance I was able to spare as I cycled past indicated that it was definitely squirrel-shaped, definitely red and probably a bit smaller than your average grey squirrel. Hence, I’m fairly certain it was a red squirrel.

The island of Anglesey is, I understand, one of the few places in Britain which has remained a natural habitat (or at least retained areas which are) for red squirrels while they died out elsewhere, although they have been reintroduced in several other places with varying degrees of success. Amongst other places which are supposed to be the home of the elusive red squirrels is the patch of woodland in Menai Bridge between Waitrose and the shore, down by church island. However, despite having walked many times in those woods, often with my eyes peeled for interesting wildlife and sometimes waiting quietly for fairly long times (if there’s nobody else around to disturb the peace), I’ve never succeeded in seeing one there.

The place I saw the squirrel was just over the road from there, although it is a fairly busy road and close to quite a few houses, so I was fairly surprised to see it where I did and not in the depths of the woods. Hopefully it won’t be the last time I see one.

Although this was my first red squirrel in the wild, it wasn’t the first time I’ve ever seen a live red squirrel. That, as far as I can recall, was at a wildlife reserve somewhere in Scotland back in about 1986. Ever since moving to North Wales around the turn of the millennium, I’ve been quite excited at the prospect of having them on my doorstep (since I think they are much nicer creatures than grey squirrels, though I don’t have anything particularly against those either and I do quite enjoy watching them run around in the trees). It’s even more exciting to have actually seen one with my own eyes.