16.12.14

Strongbow Cider

Strongbow is a strong, dry cider produced by HP Bulmer Ltd, a Hereford company renowned for their ciders, who also produce a range of other drinks. With an alcohol content of 5.3%, a half-litre can of Strongbow quickly knocks up 2.7 UK units, so the odd drink here and there can very swiftly suck up an entire week's worth of units in a very short space of time. The taste of apple is prominent, and the dryness of the cider is tempered somewhat by this crisp bite, and the addition of sugar and other sweeteners further helps to produce a cider which is refreshing, whilst not overly fruity. The sweetness lingers, however... not always a good thing.

Strongbow is named after the Norman knight Richard de Clare, later to become the Earl of Pembroke. Nicknamed 'strongbow' by his troops for his prowess with the longbow, an arrow slamming into a bar has long been a feature of the strongbow brand's advertising. Strongbow is a gold medal winner at the International Beer and Cider Competition, London, and stands recently stood at number eight in the top ten chart of UK best selling long alcoholic drinks. It accounts for a quarter of all cider sold in the UK, by far the best selling brand. Bulmer's are not keen to rest on their laurels, however, and relatively recently produced Super Strongbow, designed to compete with (or complement) t he high-alcohol white ciders such as Diamond White or White Lightning, both aimed at the less discerning end of the market. Differing greatly in flavour and, more importantly, in alcohol content, it is unlikely that Super Strongbow will ever threaten, let alone detract from, sales of Strongbow. Strongbow Ice and Light versions also exist, have existed and will exist, depending on the market at the time. Seriously - these brews are produced, marketed, re-marketed and ultimately re-moved with little to no warning, depending on the vagaries of the intended consumers.

As well as being the UK's most popular cider, Strongbow is also widely available in Australia, where Fosters also claim the title of most popular brand. Strongbow down under is a little different, however, having nothing to do with Bulmer's at all. The Australian version seems a tiny bit more exciting, somehow, containing 90% apple and 10% pear - a combination that leads to a 5.0% alcohol content. One can't help but imagine, though, that 10% pear juice might just make up for that 0.3% drop.

14.12.14

Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park was the top secret wartime base of Allied code-breakers, housing such luminaries as Alan Turing and Dilly Knox. Work at Bletchley focused on decryptingvarious coding systems, during the Second World War. These efforts, painstaking and work-intensive, were vital to the Allied victories at that time. Bletchley Park itself is situated near Milton Keynes, within a reasonable distance of London.

Bletchley Park: A Short History

In the summer of 1939, a small team of scholars arrived at Bletchley Park, travelling under the codename Captain Ridley's Shooting Party. Their aim was to crack the code used by the Germans to communicate. This code, the Enigma cypher, was seemingly unbreakable, yet it was vital to the Allied forces success that the code be broken. Other German codes, Ultra and Lorenz were also cracked by the Bletchley Park codebreakers, though Enigma remains the most famous.

Although the operation began with such a small group, before long the Bletchley Park mansion was crowded with teleprint machines and work surfaces, and an increasing number of personnel. By October further space was desperately needed, and Hut 1 was built, rapidly followed by further huts and even new brick buildings. All workers from Bletchley were housed in the local area, leaving the estate itself purely as a place of work, now known as Station X, where page after page of German codes were eventually, with constant hard work, deciphered.

A vital part of breaking these codes was the use of brute force calculation, performed by a vast array of circuit boards and spinning drums: Colossus, the worlds first computer, built specifically to crack the German codes. The procedures for deciphering messages was as follows:

Codebreaking:

Around the country, listening posts known as Y stations would receive and transcribe Encrypted Enigma messages in morse code. This work, painstaking and time-consuming, provided the raw material for Bletchley Park. It was particularly important to capture the first three blocks of each message, for it was in this section that the key to decoding each message was found.

These intercepted messages were sent, using a variety of methods, to Bletchley Park. Sometimes radio would be used; other methods included the teleprinter or even via dispatch rider. At peak times, up to 3000 messages would arrive each day - a rate of forty dispatch riders per hour.

Once these messages were deciphered they were translated into English, the resulting message analysed for significance and distributed to where it was needed. This message would be read and then destroyed to avoid allowing Axis forces to realise their code had been broken. Steps were also taken to ensure that no Allied action was taken which might give away the Allied Forces knowledge of the German information.

After The War:

It is undeniable that the work which took place at Bletchley Park shortened the war considerably, and, in doing so, saved countless lives. Although Bletchley Park is now in the charge of The Bletchley Park Trust, revered as a site of great historical importance, it is hard to believe the complexities faced by the trust to achieve this. Although over 10,000 people worked at Bletchley at the height of its work, by March 1946 the building was deserted, with all evidence of work removed.

Winston Churchill referred to the workers of Bletchley as 'the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled', such was the secrecy with which the work was carried out and then dismantled. Decades later, by 1991, Bletchley Park was facing demolition. The Bletchley Park Trust battled against hostile bids from property dealers and struggled with government bureaucracy to purchase Bletchley. Eventually, of course, the Trust succeeded, and Bletchley Park now houses a range of facilities for tourists and those who wish to see for themselves the place where these momentous wartime events took place.

www.bletchleypark.org.uk is available for further details.

11.12.14

Magnetic Tape

Magnetic tape is a long, thin ribbon of plastic, coated with a metal or metal oxide, which can be locally magnetised to store information. Generally used for three reasons, and while hurtling out of fashion for general consumer purposes, magnetic tape still has a finger-hold in key areas to which it's clinging with all its might. Audio, video or data - that's your basic choice for magnetic tape storage.1

Data-wise, we've all seen those films from the seventies, when computers came in sizes ranging from 'room' to 'tower block'; six-foot high cabinets with gigantic reels of tape spinning wildly back and forth. Or there's that tape-recorder you found in the attic one day with one empty reel and another one marked 'Donovan', jam-packed with Jennifer Juniper audio magic. And if you've ever owned an early 8-bit computer, say a ZX Spectrum, you'll be familiar with the beeeee-bip, beeeee-biddlebiddlebeep of Sir Clive's cheap data storage solution.

Audio

While the compact cassette is undoubtedly the most successful format for recording audio onto magnetic tape, such recording techniques were founded long before Philips ever thought of trademarking the name Compact Cassette. It's 1928. In Germany Fritz Pfleumer is working hard to modernise the 1898method of wire recording. A long spool of thin wire containing magnetic audio data, occasionally knotted and lightly welded together, gave way to magnetic tape - thinner, easier to handle and even simpler to splice together. By the 1950s quarter-inch wide tape had become popular, and plastic reels up to seven inches in diameter held the magnetic tape. Used in reel-to-reel devices, the magnetic tape would be fed from one reel, through the playback head and spooled back onto the second reel. Standard reels with quarter inch tape came in 8, 16 or 32 minute playing times, although different thicknesses of tape, and thus different lengths, allowed for other lengths, right up to a stunning sixty-four minutes with a double-sided seven inch reel, playing at seven and a half inches per second. Later innovations, like long play, double play and even triple play, extended tape sizes even further and reflected multiple improvements in the technology as a continued reduction in tape thickness allowed more and more tape to be placed on one reel, although often at the expense of robustness.

Convenience spurred further development, of course. The beginning of the end for threading reels of tape through machines and onto spools came in 1963 when Philips introduced their compact cassette design, a cartridge system which contained ready-spooled tape, safely stored away from sticky human fingers. The market, at this time, was dominated by the reel-to-reel system, and as there were other formats available, as with so many new technologies, Philips format faced an uphill struggle at first. Eventually, with devices like Sony's walkman and Philips' decision to licence the compact cassette design out for free, the system became something of a standard, replacing reel-to-reel and even vinyl. Over the years the magnetic tape used inside the compact cassettes evolved from basic ferric oxide, through chromium dioxide and the now-current mixture of ferric oxide and cobalt. Like reel-to-reel systems, cassettes come in a variety of lengths, with the quantity of magnetic tape contained within the plastic shell deciding the recording time available.

Digital methods of recording audio onto magnetic tape have also enjoyed their hey-day. Digital Compact Cassette was intended to replace analogue methods, though it was ultimately doomed to failure. DAT tape, on the other hand, still provides an acceptable alternative for storing audio data in a digital form on magnetic tape. Ultimately, however the use of magnetic tape to record audio continues to decline as other methods become cheaper, easier and more reliable. That's not to say reel-to-reel has vanished completely; it is still used for commercial recording, though digital heads have replaced the traditional analogue heads.

Video

Although early video recorders also used the reel-to-reel system, the version most people are familiar with is the VHS-system, which employed a cartridge system very similar to the audio compact cassette format. There were a few refinements, of course; the video cassette featured a flap to keep the magnetic tape free of greasy fingerprints, and the actual magnetic tape used was thicker. Video storage, as you'd imagine, involves an awful lot more information, delivered at a much higher rate. Helical scanning, which involves moving the tape reading head as well as the magnetic tape, was the key to this technology. It is not without its disadvantages, of course; anyone who's opened up a VCR has seen how the tape has to be drawn completely out of the cassette and threaded around various parts of the machine, leading to increased wear on the tape and, on occasion, that dreadful crumpling sound as metres of magnetic tape filled the VCR, utterly destroying your copy of The Italian Job. DVD, anyone?

Data

Magnetic tape has a rich history in the field of computing. Way back in 1951 the UNIVAC 1 used half-inch wide nickel-plated bronze tape to record 128 characters per inch on eight separate tracks, the tape speeding through the machine at a speed of 100 inches per second. Only seven of the tracks contained data, with the last being devoted to tracking, allowing UNIVAC to process about 7,200 characters per second.

Meanwhile, IBM seized upon the ferrous-oxide coated tape that had become popular for audio recordings. Thinner and more flexible, their technology soon became the industry standard. Still centering around a half-inch thickness, IBM's tape was wound onto removable reels up to ten and a half inches in diameter - approximately 30cm. The early tape drives were huge, free-standing behemoths, equipped with two reels and columns which 'buffered' long u-shaped loops of tape. The two drives would spin tape on and off the buffers, resulting in bursts of precise spinning. The movement was visually striking - one drive spinning, then the other, perhaps both at once in different directions - and the tape drives quickly became recognisable as 'the computer' in television programmes or films.

In the 1980s, compact audio cassettes were perfect for use with home computers, though access times and reliability were low. Other options making use of magnetic tape were developed, such as Sinclair's Microdrive system. Ultimately, however, such efforts were doomed to failure - two-dimensional magnetic storage offered faster access times, and ultimately drove formats like Microdrive into the ground. Meanwhile workstations moved onto digital audio tape. The size of the reels decreased accordingly, and, as in the field of audio, cartridges became common simply as a means to protect the tape as well as increasing convenience and ease of use. Most modern formats make use of compression, or may employ large memory buffers to avoid the delays necessary when accessing data on different regions of tape. Although the market share for tape storage products has steadily decreased, tape backup systems still offer cost-effective solutions.

8.12.14

Paper Lace

Paper Lace were a British five-part band, generally hailing from Nottingham, who formed in 1969 but didn't produce anything which troubled the top ten until 1974, following which they quietly sank into obscurity.

A little more detail? Well, originally Paper Lace formed in 1969 when Philip Wright and Cliff Fish, Chris Morris, Carlo Santanna (not Santana!) and Michael Vaughan got together in Nottingham to produce catchy pop tunes. The line-up changed quite a lot to start with, and commercial success didn't come quickly to Paper Lace; it was five years later that they finally achieved some recognition after appearing on the ITV show Opportunity Knocks, by which time the line-up had settled down somewhat. Mitch Murray and Peter Callender signed the band up, promising a killer song, and thus Paper Lace's fruitful period began. The song in question, Billy Don't Be A Hero, a gentle anti-war ballad, rocketed to number one in the UK Singles Chart, stayed there for three weeks, and truly deserved the hype.

A one hit wonder, then. Well, nearly. The Night Chicago Died followed Billy and slotted in at number three - not too bad, since it also charted well in the US. A third attempt, The Black-Eyed Boys managed a number eleven, just outside the top ten. And that was pretty much it; Paper Lace's five minutes of fame had all but ended, at least as far as top-ten hits were concerned: the Queen Mother was treated to a little Paper Lace at the Royal Variety Performance, and their UK smash hit soared into the U.S. Billboard Charts at a depressing number ninety-six. Particularly depressing, it must be said, since Bo Donaldson And The Heywoods beat them to the post with a US cover that hit number one.

By 1978 Paper Lace had been and gone, leaving Billy to look after things legacy-wise. Philip Wright and Cliff Fish carried on for a while with other musicians filling the gaps. 1997 saw Phil leave to form Sons And Lovers, who describe themselves as a 'sixties and seventies pop harmony function band'. Also, if you're lucky you might come across a brief performance of Philip Wright's Paper Lace, featuring one fifth of Paper Lace with the rest made up of session musicians.

5.12.14

Geodesic Domes

Domes: A General Introduction

There is nothing new about domes - their use in architecture is well documented and many examples abound. It was the Romans who first fully realised the architectural potential of the dome, along with the Byzantine builders of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Other, similar examples, include the Taj Mahalor the Dome Of The Rock in Jerusalem. There's good reason for this indulgence in domes, too: ignoring aesthetics for a moment, on a purely practical level the sphere is efficient. It encloses maximum volume with minimum surface; that's why bubbles are spherical. A dome-shaped building, therefore, has maximum volume within it, and a minimum surface area through which to lose heat or sustain damage. Domes, when it comes to building, are efficient.

Geodesic Domes

So what's special about geodesic domes? A geodesic is, basically, a curve which gives the shortest distance between two points in a curved space. In terms of a spherical surface, any curved line which follows the surface of the sphere forms part of a great circle - a circle which cuts the sphere exactly in half. Drawing many of these on the surface of a sphere, a set distance apart, splits the surface of the sphere into many triangles, all with curved sides.

By reproducing this network of triangles, the sphere is quickly constructed. Now, bearing in mind that efficiency is one of our main reasons for producing the dome, we're only interested in producing the top portion of the sphere. Similarly, we'll have none of this curving going on. For our purposes, straight edged triangles will be fine. Okay, so our dome won't be exactly spherical, it'll be more of an approximation to a sphere, but all's fair in the name of efficiency and ease of construction1. It quickly becomes obvious that a geodesic dome could be constructed quite simply from multiple identical parts, joined together to form a triangular structure. (Indeed, one is tempted to run amok with drinking straws and pipecleaners, just from thinking about it.)

Once constructed, the geodesic dome distributes loads evenly throughout its structure. Incredibly strong, they simply shrug off earthquakes unless their actual foundations are undermined or swallowed up. Hurricane damage is far less common - there has so far been no reported damage by hurricane to a properly-designed geodesic dome. Best of all, as the size of a geodesic dome increases they become stronger, lighter and cheaper per unit of volume - quite the opposite of conventional buildings.

Walter Bauersfeld and Buckminster Fuller

It is impossible to mention geodesic domes without dropping in Buckminster Fuller, famed for his work popularising the structures. Similarly, though he is less associated with these architectural marvels, Walter Bauersfeld deserves more than a mention, as the world's first geodesic dome was designed by Bauersfeld in 1922. A lightweight framework of steel was constructed on the roof of the Carl Zeiss Optical Works in Jena, Germany and covered with ferro cement, all to house the first planetarium projector.

It was, however, Fuller who popularised the dome, as part of his work to improve human shelter worldwide through an application of technology to achieve efficiency and economic advantages. Astounding critics by constructing domes in as little as hours, Fuller's domes now shelter more volume than the work of any other architect, standing atop mountains, sheltering radar stations in the Arctic, and occupying the South Pole.

Nowadays, other notable examples of geodesic domes include the Fantasy Entertainment Complex on Kyosho Isle, Japan, the Tacoma Dome in the USA, and the Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University. In addition to leisure purposes, industry also makes use of geodesic domes at present, including the Union Tank Car Maintenance Facility, at Baton Rouge, contained within a large dome, and the Lehigh Portland Cement Storage Facility. In Mai Liao, Taiwan, however, not one but three geodesic domes help to store plastics at the Formosa Plastics Storage Facility. Bucky, who died in 1983, would have been proud...

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1: To illustrate this idea a little more simply, let's make it all flat. Pick a two dimensional shape, say a square. Four sides: doesn't look very much like a circle at all, really. Let's increase the number of sides, making it a pentagon. Still not terribly circle-like. But then a hexagon: six sides. Move up to seven sides, then eight. Notice how, if you have the patience, a twenty-sided shape is looking increasingly circular? How many sides must we reach before, to a casual observer, we might as well be using a pair of compasses instead of drawing all these little, tiny sides? The point being that if we can do this with a two dimensional shape, we can do it with three. The more triangles that cover the surface of our dome, the closer it is to a sphere. A dome with four triangular panels is no dome at all, but one with a few hundred is looking increasingly spherical. Plus it impresses the neighbours...

4.12.14

Beyond The Mind's Eye

"Beyond The Mind's Eye: A Computer Animation Odyssey"

Beyond The Mind's Eye was a computer generated art film - the sequel to The Mind's Eye and thus the second of six computer animated 'odysseys'. Essentially it's a pastiche of computer animated shorts, all set to original music, forming an artistic movie of about an hour's length. Jan Hammer composed and produced the music for Beyond The Mind's Eye, using the backdrop of the various sections to encompass themes of future technology, the theory of panspermia, dreams and the old stalwart: love.

Beyond The Mind's Eye was released in 1992, which means that the quality of the computer graphics has dated by an incredible degree. Mortal Kombat was popular in the arcades in 1992, while Super Mario Kart was making tracks on the Nintendo; neither Doom nor Myst had even been released. All of which gives some idea of the level of graphical sophistication the cutting edge of computer games represented. Films like The Lawnmower Man represented the peak of CGI effects, and in fact several clips from The Lawnmower Man end up in Beyond The Mind's Eye. Nevertheless, I remember strongly that at the time of its release, the low-polygon count of the computer-animated head which introduces the video was state-of-the-art. Swirling plasma-like textures and floating objects which are now clearly produced from one or two basic polygons were, at that time, jaw-droppingly astounding. Even the fact that I could clearly see the straight edges of the triangles used to form the spheres couldn't shift the feeling of wonder I had at the amazing quality of this computer-generated virtual world. I'm a little less easy to impress now, having been spoilt by The Lord Of The Rings, but rest assured: at the time, this stuff was great.

Jan Hammer's soundtrack is a strange cross between his more pop-styled works and his more jazz-influenced compositions, kind of like a cross between Escape From Television and Drive. The style of the music and the song titles are easy to match, in fact: tracks like Virtual Reality take on a more electronic sound, while Nothing But Love is all classically-influenced textures; Transformers, with its accompanying video that doesn't quite feature robots in disguise but is pretty close, has plenty of metallic harshness to it, but is as ultimately melodic as anything Hammer has produced. Then there's the title track, Seeds Of Life, with a strangely subdued house influence, that also pops up as a vocal version later on featuring Chris Thompson. (Chris has also sung with Mike Oldfield, Elton John, Brian May, Alan Parsons Project and, less prestigiously, on Comic Relief's 'The Stonk'. Ex-Manfredd Mann, apparently...)

Originally released on VHS, Beyond The Mind's Eye, along with a good few other parts of the series, have recently made it onto DVD. It was directed by Michael Boydstun and released by Miramar. The soundtrack, under the name Jan Hammer, has always been available, although the tracks have been re-ordered to Mr Hammer's preference. Helpfully, the liner notes give the correct sequence, should you wish to enjoy the music in the same order as it appears in the film. Along with Jan, Andy Topeka is credited for 'computers', while Brynan Sears and Linda Brynan Sears help Chris Thompson out with vocals.

"...it's all very cyber-psychedelic." - John Voorhees, All Movie Guide
Beyond The Mind's Eye:
Directed by: Michael Boydstun
Produced by: Steven Churchill
Original music by: Jan Hammer
Film editing by: Michael Boydstun
Run time: 45 minutes
"If Jan Hammer's BEYOND The Mind's Eye is any portent of what can be expected musically in 1993, then we are all in for a happy new year indeed." - Beth C. Lewis
Beyond The Mind's Eye: CD Tracklist:
1. Seeds
2. Too Far
3. Magic Theater
4. Sunset
5. Transformers
6. Nothing but Love
7. Virtual Reality
8. Pyramid
9. Brave New World
10. Windows
11. Midnight
12. Afternoon Adventure
13. Voyage Home
14. Beyond
15. Seeds of Life (Vocal Version)

29.11.13

Steve Reich - Music For Eighteen Musicians

You may have an idea in your head of what minimalist music is like. I had one, too. My friend and I would joke about 4′33″ and although we treated it as something of a joke, comparing stories of different performances, it would be nice to say we understood what the whole thing was about. We didn't. We assumed it was a musical joke, and it was only later that I realised that there was a purpose behind the composition, and while it may not have [harmony], [melody] or [rhythm], there was intent to produce meaning, and such intent alone is sufficient to produce a work of art, as long as you're in on the joke.

I'm drifting... let's get back to the popular perception of minimalism with Philip Glass. He's not unknown, and most mentions of Glass focus generally on the repetitive quality of his more-repetitive works. South Park featured a spookily-accurate rendition of Philip Glass at one point, making fun of Einstein On The Beach, with dense arpeggios and the sustained, pumping chords that Glass often uses. It was a pleasure, many years ago, to meet someone who was familiar with Philip Glass. 'Oh, yeah,' he said casually. 'We'd get stoned and each do a different bit. One of us would do the 'biddly-biddly' up and down parts, someone else would do the 'pah pah pah-pah-pah' bits and the other person would recite important sounding snippets over the top.' I wished to take part, in my heart of hearts, and not just for the chance to try some drugs...

I'm listening to Steve Reich as we speak, having reached his music through a tortuous series of steps involving Sufjan Stevens. A colleague was torturing some children with excessively repetitive background music as they read quietly, and my ears pricked up. 'What is it?' I asked, and the reply 'Sue Fjarn-Stephens' did nothing to illuminate me as to this new, obviously Finnish composer. A little research later, and several hundred previews of various songs on iTunes, and it turned out I didn't really like Sufjan Stevens at all; I'd just hit on the one song that was really evocative of Steve Reich and that was the true holy grail. I continued to seek...

Music For 18 Musicians is what I discovered. Repetitive beyond words, but endlessly changing. Organic, rhythmic and reminiscent of Musica Poetica by Carl Orff. Hints of Glass, and hints of Orff combine into something wonderful. Pianos phase, and metallophones chime, and human voices repeatedly vocalise.

Music For Eighteen Musicians was composed by Steve Reich between 1974 and 1976. It's as old as me. It's based around a cycle of eleven chords, and it's beautiful.