Happy Unbirthday to Who

I was planning to write a post yesterday to mark the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who (as in, the anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode – as noted in my post this time last year).  In the end, however, I was so busy celebrating this auspicious event by reading and watching Doctor Who stories that I didn’t get round to writing anything. In the absence of a TARDIS of my own, I’ve had to settle for writing today instead.

As I mentioned a year ago yesterday, on that day I embarked on a project to re-read my entire collection of Doctor Who books, which currently includes the novelisations of almost the entire canon of TV Doctor Who stories from the classic series (with the exception of most of the “Trial of a Timelord” season and one or two of Sylvester MacCoy’s stories) as well as quite a few novels from the same era – I currently don’t have any “New Who” novels and don’t particularly plan to get any.  This project is ongoing and, due to all the other stuff I’ve been reading (or otherwise doing) as well, is progressing rather slowly.  I’ve just reached the end of the Jon Pertwee era and am ready to embark on the Tom Baker stories as soon as I’ve finished reading the novelisation of The Evil of the Daleks, which I eventually managed to get hold of sometime after reaching that point in the series chronology, at which time I only had a copy of the audiobook).

In addition to reading a fair chunk of this book, I watched a selection of Doctor Who episodes from my somewhat less extensive but still not too small DVD collection.  I started with a new series episode – The Doctor’s Daughter, from series 4, which is one of my favourites (and one I was discussing with some friends the other day; my absolute favourite from the new series is almost certainly Blink, from series 3, which I watched fairly recently).  After this, at roughly 5:15pm (which as I recall is about the time it was first broadcast) I watched An Unearthly Child, the very first episode of the classic series.   Later in the evening I watched The Five Doctors, which was originally broadcast to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Doctor Who (and which I remember watching when it was first shown, only a couple of years after I’d started watching the programme).  Since I’d watched that not too long ago, I took the opportunity to watch it this time with a commentary audio track recorded by several of the actors who played the Doctor’s companions (including one of my favourites – Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane).

To round out the celebrations I watched the 50th anniversary special episode, The Day of the Doctor, on BBC iPlayer.  I don’t have a TV license and therefore am not allowed to watch programmes as they are being broadcast live (even though I think it is technically possible to do so), so I waited until later in the evening to watch it.  I was very impressed with it, and particularly enjoyed watching David Tennant and Matt Smith on screen together, along with John Hurt playing the mysterious “missing” incarnation of the Doctor who was involved in the Time War and brought about its end through the destruction of both the daleks and the Time Lords (or so we thought – though I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers).  It was also nice to see a cameo by Tom Baker, who opted out of taking direct part in the Five Doctors (though they used some old footage of him to ensure that his Doctor appeared briefly in that story) and apparently regretted it ever since.  I gather there was also a brief cameo by Peter Capaldi, who is due to step into Matt Smith’s shoes as the Doctor in this year’s Christmas special, although he wasn’t clearly shown on screen.

It occurs to me that, while I wasn’t around for the start of Doctor Who, I have now been enjoying the series (ok, I’ll say it, I’ve been a fan) for over 30 years.  I wonder if both the Doctor and I will still be going strong when the centenary is reached in 2063.


The Piper’s Weird

The other day, I was talking to a friend about Chinese musical instruments and he told me about an interesting one called a hulusi, which is a kind of pipe with a couple of drones – a bit like a bagpipe without a bag.

This discussion reminded me of an idea I had several years ago to try and make a mini-bagpipe out of a rubber glove and a few tin whistles.  I decided fairly quickly, as I recall, that it probably wouldn’t work as the tin whistles (being fipple-flutes) would require a more directed airflow than it would be possible to provide by blowing the air into a bag (i.e. the rubber glove) and then letting it feed into the whistles (which would be sticking out of each finger).  However, it did occur to me that it might work to tape a couple of whistles together and tape over some or all of the fingerholes of one of them to provide a drone that could be played simultaneously with the other whistle by sticking both in your mouth at once.  I promptly forgot all about the idea until the discussion about the hulusi reminded me of it.

A couple of days ago, I spent a few minutes with a couple of the tin whistles from my fairly extensive collection (18 at last count) and a roll of insulating tape and came up with my shiny new instrument, which looks something like this:

Magpipe Mk I

Of course, the most important thing about a musical instrument is arguably not how it looks but how it sounds, so I’ve whipped up a quick recording that you can run past your ears if you choose to do so.   Here it is to download in MP3 format – it’s a tune called The Piper’s Weird (aka Macrimmon’s Farewell), which I discovered a long time ago in The Scottish Violinist, an anthology of tunes compiled, and largely written, by J. Scott Skinner.

Speaking of that tune, or rather its title, I’ve never been sure whether it’s a genitive construction (i.e. a weird [thing] belonging to the piper) or a description of the piper himself (i.e. a contraction of “the piper is weird”).  In any case, I think it’s a rather beautiful tune – although my rendition on my new pipes perhaps fails to do it justice.

I don’t know whether this new instrument will catch on, and I’m fairly sure I’m not the first person to put such an instrument together, but I think it could do with a name.  The first idea I came up with was to call it the Magpipe – a sort of munging together of my name and the word “bagpipe”, since it’s a bit like a bagpipe (in having a drone) but not quite (since it has no bag) and it was invented by me (though, as I say, probably not uniquely).  On the other hand, as it’s a strange wee beastie and the aforementioned tune was one of the first that I played on it, I’m thinking of calling it instead a Piper’s Weird (or just Weird for short).

Whatever you call it, I think there’s some mileage in the concept, although it’s certainly better suited to some tunes than others.  I’m thinking of trying to add a second drone, another tin whistle with the holes taped down to sound an A (the existing drone is a D, since both whistles are in D and the drone has all the holes taped down).  It would be possible to add or remove an extra bit of tape on the next hole (or find some removable plug for it) to enable that drone to be switched to a G instead.

One interesting feature of the drone on this instrument is that, since it’s controlled by the same airstream as the chanter (i.e. the non-drone whistle) it will either play the fundamental tone or overblow to the first overtone depending on how you direct the airstream (roughly speaking, how hard you blow).  I’ve noticed that the drone usually seems to jump to the higher octave somewhere round a G or an A on the chanter, although that seems somewhat variable.  It’s possible that with practice it might be possible to gain some control over where the octave jump happens, but the variable octave drone seems to be a fundamental characteristic of this new instrument.

Penguin Cafe: The Next Generation

Back in March, I wrote a bit about one of my favourite musical ensembles – the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

At the time, I mentioned or at least hinted that the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra folded after the death of their founder, Simon Jeffes, in 1997 and that many of the members have recently been performing together under the name of Anteater, while Simon’s son, Arthur Jeffes, has assembled another group of musicians (none of them original PCO members) performing very similar music under the name of Penguin Cafe.

As far as I know, Anteater (or rather “The Anteaters”) have only played live gigs so far and have not produced any commercially available recordings; they have subsequently renamed themselves as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth and continue to perform.   Apparently they continued playing together in private after Jeffes’ death and started performing publicly again in 2007.

Penguin Cafe, by contrast, released an album in 2010.  I got a copy of it yesterday and enjoyed my initial listen-through.  It is very similar in style to the original PCO repertoire but, like that band’s five or so albums, manages to stay sufficiently varied not to sound like just more of the same.  The album seems worthy to join the PCO albums on my shelf (except that I bought this one as an mp3 album rather than a CD, so it will have to be a virtual shelf) and I’m sure I’ll get much pleasure from repeated listenings.  

I’ll also be keeping an eye out to see if any more albums from either Penguin Cafe or The Orchestra That Fell To Earth come out, or if I get a chance to see either group perform live.

On The Fine Art of Compromise

This year I have celebrated (and blogged about) both Pi Day and Tau Day.

If you read slightly between the lines of my Tau Day post, you may have correctly got the impression that, in principle, I’m in favour of the idea of  τ, which is the  same as 2π (i.e. the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius), as the more fundamental constant (mainly because it gets rid of the factor 2 in quite a few formulas and therefore renders them a little bit more concise and beautiful) but, because I tend to be (or at least think of myself as) quite pragmatic (or maybe it’s because I’m a pessimist), I don’t see any great likelihood of τ replacing π in general usage anytime soon (and, looking on the bright side, at least π gives us the opportunity to make jokes about pumpkins).

With all that in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that I particularly enjoyed today’s installment of the xkcd comic.

Of course, pau isn’t a Greek letter.  According to my favourite fount-of-much-knowledge, however, it is an alternative name for bao (aka baozi), a type of Chinese steamed bun which, co-incidentally cropped up in an episode of Firefly (just to link this into yet another recent post on my blog).  Therefore, if we were to adopt the compromise solution of pau instead of pi or tau, we could celebrate by eating bao (and perhaps watching Firefly, or at least the episode “Our Mrs Reynolds”).  It’s an unfortunate linguistic coincidence that the word bao sounds very much like the Welsh word baw, meaning mud and often used as a euphemism for certain other similarly coloured but somewhat less pleasant substances, as in the phrase baw ci (“ci” being Welsh for “dog”).

There is apparently also an Indian bread, from Goa, called pau, and a Hawaiian feather skirt called a pāʻū.   These could also make an appearance in a celebration of Pau Day.

Old and new friends

I recently came across a cool quote along the lines of:

A new book is like a new friend.  An old book is like an old friend.

I’ve no idea who said it, and I’m not even sure where I found it (though I think it was in a book I was looking at), but I think it’s worth thinking about.  In honour of my former life as a mathematician, I’ll leave that as an excercise for the reader. 🙂

It’s not actually books that I particularly want to talk about today, although my main point applies just as much to narratives of all forms as to the specific TV series that I’m relating it to.

That TV series, which I happen to think is just about the best one ever (possibly even better than Doctor Who, although I’d say they are sufficiently different to defy a straight comparison, and both mighty fine), is Firefly.  It’s one of the works of Joss Whedon, probably best known as the guy who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and can be roughly summed up as a Western in Space (or a cross between the Western and Sci-Fi genres), although that label doesn’t really do it full justice.  It focuses on the lives of a group of 9 people who fly around between planets and moons (many of them recently terraformed and resembling frontier towns of the American West in the 19th century, with a curious admixture of more modern technology) in a Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity. If you want to know more about Firefly, you can check it out on Wikipedia (in the article linked a couple of sentences back, amongst others) although I’d recommend actually watching it (and the follow-up movie, Serenity – though I’d definitely try to see the series first) if you get a chance.

One thing I particularly like about the Firefly universe (or ‘verse, as they usually refer to it in-universe) is the blending of eastern and western cultures, one manifestation of which is the way that phrases of Chinese liberally pepper the mostly English speech of the characters that we meet (and, although neither language is named within the show, it is fairly clear that both are meant to represent themselves – presumably as they would be spoken in several centuries’ time by the descendents of those from earth-that-was who have settled in the far reaches of the galaxy (or possibly even an entirely different galaxy – the location and timeframe are not specified).  Since I’ve been having a go at learning a bit of Chinese this month, it gave me  a perfect excuse to dig out my Firefly DVDs and watch them again.

This is at least my third, and probably my fourth or fifth, watch-through of Firefly, and the first for at least a couple of years.  As with revisiting an old, familiar and well-loved book (to link tenuously with where I started) it does indeed feel very much like getting back in touch with an old friend.  And that has led to my musing, not for the first and almost certainly not for the last time, on the difference between encountering a story for the first time and re-encountering it on subsequent occasions.

Firefly is quite a good example of this difference because it has quite a few twists and surprises that jump out and catch you on the first viewing in a way that they never can again (assuming you’re not blessed with a sufficiently bad memory to entirely forget what happens by the next time you see it).  I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers but, for example, in the pilot episode (called “Serenity” and not to be confused with the later movie) the crew pick up several passengers; it soon becomes evident that one of them is a bad egg but there is plenty of misdirection thrown in so that, until the last possible moment, you don’t know which one it is. There’s also a section in the same episode in which one of the crew members is seriously wounded and it’s not clear whether or not they are going to pull through.  When you watch the episode for the second time, or even if you come to it for the first time after having seen later episodes (as actually was the case for those who watched the original TV broadcast since, for various reasons, the pilot wasn’t actually aired until near the end of the series), you know (or at least have a good idea of) the answers to those questions, since you know who’s going to be flying on Serenity for the rest of the series.

(Incidentally, there was only one series made because the network executives pulled the plug on it after that; given how popular it later became I suspect that a few of them must have come to regret that decision.)

While the genuine surprise of the first encounter can never be repeated (without some form of amnesia), things are not all bad from there on out as (certainly in the case of something as good as Firefly – both in terms of story and production values) there’s a lot of goodness to be had on repeated viewings.  For one  thing, you get to notice cunning foreshadowing of certain events and to appreciate details that previously eluded you.  One small example is in a scene that takes place in an early episode (“Safe”) in which a couple of the characters find themselves at a dance taking place in a field on one of the planets they visit.  There is a small band playing the music for the dance and it was only on my latest viewing I noticed that one of the instruments in the band was a balalaika!

Whereas some books, films, TV series or whatever are things that I start out only marginally impressed (or, in some cases, completely unimpressed) by and only gradually come to appreciate deeply, and others are ones which I enjoy encountering once but wouldn’t want to revisit (or, perhaps, I do revisit them and find the reality failing to live up to my memories), Firefly is a series which I fell in love with pretty much at first sight (and certainly by the time I was halfway through the series for the first time) and which I continue to enjoy and anticipate enjoying for a long time to come.

A little Chinese with me

This month I will mostly be learning Irish and Chinese.

That is, the relatively small proportion of my time which is spent on languages other than Welsh and English (both of which I use on a regular basis) will be mainly divided between these two languages.  I’ve looked at both languages several times in the past, and continued to find quite fascinating, but never got very far with either of them.

At the start of October, I decided to set myself a challenge of doing a bit of Irish every day for a month, largely with a view to getting a handle on singing in the language.  While I wasn’t quite as systematic in my approach as I set out to be, I did manage to give myself a bit of exposure to Irish every day throughout the month, whether it was working through lessons in one or more of the Irish textbooks I’ve acquired over the years, watching Irish language TV programmes online (on the TG4 website) or listening to lots of songs in Irish and attempting to sing a few of them.

In fact, the month has gone so well that I’ve decided to try to keep my Irish going for a bit longer on a more-or-less daily basis.  Rather than go for intensive study, I’m just trying to do a little bit at a time and let it gradually seep into my brain.  It’s a bit different from how I’ve tried to study languages in the past but may turn out to be an effective method.  Even if I never become fluent in speaking Irish, I’ve already managed to get a lot more enjoyment out of Irish songs than I had without understanding the language at all, so it certainly hasn’t been a wasted effort.

One thing I learned fairly recently is that the way (or at least, a way) to say “I speak [insert name of language]” in Irish is Tá [language] agam, which literally means “There is [language] with me”.  For example, I could truthfully say Tá Breatnais agus Béarla agam (I speak Welsh and English) and Tá beagán Gaeilge agam (I speak a little Irish).  Alternatively, I could say Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge (I am learning Irish).  Sadly, as yet, I can’t say very much else, but it’s getting there slowly.

Originally my plan, assuming the successful completion of my one-month Irish challenge, was to put that language on a back burner for a while and choose another language to concentrate on instead for November, then another one for December, etc.  As mentioned, I decided to keep going with Irish until I’ve got a slightly firmer grip on it but, never one to be content with doing just one thing for too long, I’ve decided to simultaneously make a start on the language I had selected for this month’s study, namely Chinese (specifically, Mandarin).

This has a reputation for being a fearsomely difficult language to learn, although I think the main difficulties are to be found in the tonal nature of the language and the writing system.  Grammatically, it seems to be relatively straightforward, although quite (excitingly) different from any other language I’ve studied.

The tone system is often taken to mean that the same word means different things depending on how you say it.  For example, quite famously, the word ma can mean either mother or horse (or a couple of other things), distinguished only by the tone (ma with a high level tone is “mother”; I can’t remember off-hand which tone is used for “horse”).  Actually, it’s better to think of them as completely separate words and this is how they would, apparently, be viewed by native Chinese speakers.  The tone of each word has to be learnt as part of the word itself, but really that should be no more problematic than learning the gender or inflection of words in other languages.  The fact that I have a fairly musical ear should help quite a bit too.

The Chinese writing system is, unquestionably, complex but it is also quite fascinating.  Fortunately there is a standardised romanisation system (pīnyīn) that means you don’t necessarily have to master the written language in order to get a good handle on spoken Chinese.  I am aiming to have a go at learning to read and write the characters as well as to understand and use the spoken language.

More so than most languages, I suspect Chinese is one that benefits hugely from having a teacher rather than trying to learn solely from books and other self-study materials.  Fortunately my friend Simon, who runs the Omniglot website as well as the Bangor Language Learners’ Conversation Group (formerly known as Bangor Polyglots), is a fluent Chinese speaker (having done it, along with Japanese, for his degree) and, since we are usually meeting at least twice a week at the moment, he will be able to give me a hand with the language.  He’s also lent me a couple of textbooks that I will be using in addition to my own resources for Chinese study this month.

I’m certainly not expecting to be fluent in Chinese or Irish by the start of December but I hope to have a better grasp of both languages by then than I do now (which shouldn’t be too hard).  I’ll then have to decide whether to stick to these two languages or move onto something else, either revisiting another language that I’ve looked at in the past or trying something completely new and different.  Perhaps I’ll see if I can get going a system whereby I have two main languages on the go each month, replacing one of them every month (i.e. I’d do Chinese and something else, perhaps Italian, in December then, say, Italian and Swahili in January and perhaps Swahili and a bit more Irish in February, etc.)?