Kati, a friend from Estonia came to London for a few days, and spent two nights at our place.

We went to school together. In Estonia, at least back when I went to school, you stayed at the same school through years 1 to 9. Some schools continue with years 10 to 12 as well. So children spend a lot of time together with the same classmates.

There was a class reunion this August. It was 10 years since they all graduated from high school together, and 13 years since I last saw them. They’d obviously all been in touch occasionally, but for me that weekend was an interesting experience. I hadn’t been in touch with any my classmates since I moved to Sweden (after 9th grade), apart from my best friend at school, and a few people who I bumped into when I visited Tartu occasionally.

Most of them were still more or less as I remembered them. It seems that even at the age of 15, you are more or less what you’re going to be, you’re close to the finished product. Extrapolate the trends and it gives you a good idea of where they’ll end up as adults. The ones who were uninteresting back in school were still uninteresting today; the people who stood out in some way at the age of 15 are the same ones who have some colour and depth today. The whiny ones are still whiny; the fat one got fatter.

That reunion reawoke old acquaintances, and I’ve already met two of them again, when they happened to come to London for one reason or another – one of them this weekend.

I haven’t lived in Estonia for 13 years, and I don’t think I’d particularly like to move back there. When people ask, I say that I’m Estonian mostly out of habit; I don’t identify myself with Estonian people. Nevertheless, I’m discovering now that at some deep level I still feel more kinship with Estonians than with other people. I’ve always felt like an outsider, no matter where I’ve been or with which crowd. But there is a faint sense of belonging when I am in the company of my Estonian friends. Even if I haven’t seen them for 10 years, I am instinctively more open in conversations with them than with colleagues whom I’ve seen daily for the last 6 months. When I go to Estonia, I feel that I have a right to be there, whereas after four and a half years I still have a lingering feeling of being a visitor in London.

Maybe I have some roots, after all.

And the roots go through the stomach. When Kati asked if there was anything I’d like her to bring from Estonia, the only thing I wanted was food: kohupiim, which is sort of a cottage cheese / cream cheese hybrid. That’s the only Estonian food for which I have found nothing even remotely similar in either Sweden or England, so I’m always happy to get some. Kati knew better than that and also brought some Estonian bread, and happened to have some apples with her as well. Estonian apples are the only real apples; Estonian bread is the only real bread.

Stringraphy is a room-size harp, made of silk threads stretched across the room. The installation we saw and heard had 4 sets of about 15–20 strings each, reaching from one end of the stage to the other. Two cups interrupted each string and amplified the sounds, like a string telephone. Different locations for the cups gave each string a different pitch.

5 women walked and danced between the strings and made music by rubbing and plucking the strings. They managed to produce an amazing variety of sounds – like traditional string instruments (violin / viola / cello), both “bowed” and plucked; something like an accordeon; sounds of wind and birds; croaks and squeaks; eerie whines. The cups were far apart from each other so that sound was coming from many places, filling the room – even though we sat in the front row and had a very good view of the musicians, the sound often felt disembodied.

The programme had something for all tastes, ranging from Twinkle twinkle little star and Greensleeves to Japanese children’s songs and original works by Kazue Mizushima, who’s the leader of the ensemble. While the popular tunes were pleasant enough, and well performed, the original pieces were far more interesting. When the instrument was used to play Greensleeves, it was just a very odd-looking violin (or rather like 5 very odd-looking violins with only two strings each, because each player could only rub two strings at a time). In the pieces written specifically for Stringraphy, its strengths and peculiarities were used much better – they had many more interesting sounds and combinations: varying the pitch by pulling the string away from its flat/straight position; playing long chords by rubbing two strings at the same time, etc.

I would gladly have skipped the crowd-pleasers, but I guess a purely experimental concert wouldn’t get much of an audience. Kazue says on the group’s web site:

When they asked me to play a familiar tune, I refused at first, feeling that there was no point in playing conventional music on a newly created instrument. But every single person who interviewed me made the same request, until eventually I thought I should at least try it. […] I was keen for a broad range of people to hear my music, and when I asked for feedback after performances, most people said that the part they most enjoyed is when I played their favourite songs.

Due to the size of Stringraphy, the concert was a very physical performance. The strings were around 10 metres long, with the lowest one below knee height and the highest well above their heads, so the musicians had to move and stretch to reach the strings. The concept of high and low tones was also made very visible, as their hands and arms moved up and down between every note.

Unfortunately the audience wasn’t allowed to touch the instrument, as they had two more concerts to come. I was really itching to try it myself.

The group’s web site is small and simple. Kazue’s notes from a workshop held in London in 1999 was the most informative page I found, but there are also “trip reports” from previous concerts.

I just finished re-reading the Sandman series of comics / graphic novels, which I last read almost exactly 6 years ago.

Like all of Neil Gaimans books – Neverwhere, Good Omens, Stardust, Coraline, American Gods – it is something of a mixture of fairy tale, fantasy and modern myth. I won’t tell you the stories here, but the Sandman is about the Endless – concepts related to how we perceive the world, that are more fundamental than mere gods. Dream (the Sandman) is the one we see the most of, although we meet his siblings as well, especially Death and Delirium.

Eric is an avid reader of comics, so we’ve got a whole bunch. I’ve read some, and liked some – the Sandman series, Bone, V for Vendetta.

I’m not a huge fan of comics in general. They don’t pull me in the same way that a book or a movie can do. I believe that this is in large part due to the mixing of two modes: pictures and text. I sometimes get so engrossed in the story that my eyes skip the pictures and just follow the words, so then I have to stop, go back and look at the pictures separately. That breaks up the flow. I think the two go to different parts of the brain.

And quite often I just don’t think that the quality of the graphic side is high enough. The pictures may be sufficient to tell a story, but they don’t look good. I wouldn’t call them artwork, and I wouldn’t want to look at them on their own, without the story to support them. Many comic artists just draw in a “standard comic book style” – I couldn’t pick their work from among a dozen others. Others are unable to (or choose not to) draw figures and faces consistently – a character might have sharp cheekbones and a long nose in one frame, and then suddenly get cuddly round cheeks and an upturned nose in another. This annoys me a little bit whenever I see it. And characters are after all rather central to novels.

To put it differently, many comics seem to assume that the quality of text and pictures is additive. It isn’t – it’s closer to multiplicative. If one is half-good and the other is half-good then the total won’t be even half-good, it’ll be a quarter-good.

In fact, a graphic novel is harder to do well than a simple novel, or a simple series of pictures, because not only do both parts need to be good, they need to work together. When both the writer and the artist do get it right, graphic novels can be very good. They’re not a novel with illustrations, and they’re not annotated pictures. Both parts are essential to the whole, and together they make up something new.

The Sandman gets both parts right, almost all of the time. A graphic novel is not drawn by the same artist from beginning to end. Different artists draw different issues, and the graphic style of the series can therefore vary a lot over time. The Kindly Ones (vol 9) is completely in a league of its own, but A Game of You (vol 5), World’s End (vol 8) and The Wake (vol 10) are really good as well. When it comes to art, I have a slightly old-fashioned taste in that I like things to look beautiful. Not pretty, but beautiful. Music should have melody and rhythm, and not sound like noise; art should have beauty. The Kindly Ones is very beautiful – it has a very expressive style, beautiful colours, confident lines, and uses different styles very well to highlight different parts of the story.

Standing above and apart from the rest of the artwork are Dave McKean’s stunning and fantastical covers for each issue. Those are so good that I wouldn’t mind having my bedroom walls covered with large-size reproductions. In fact they are so good that the covers have been published as a separate book.

The Sandman is also very well written. Gaiman creates beautiful prose, and he can handle very different tones of voice equally well. He can be solemn, funny, tragic, demented, casual, indifferent, jaded… often several of these at the same time. At the same time he’s a great storyteller. Even his most fantastical stories feel true, in a sense, and while I’m reading them it seems perfectly plausible to accept that there is a world where Dream walks around as a moody young man dressed in black. The central story, that of Dream, is only part of what is going on – the comic book format leaves Gaiman a lot of space to wander around on his way towards the end, and there are a lot of sub-stories. There are stories about the power of dreams, and stories about what happens when dreams disappear, or when we spend too much time in dreams. And all this is told in dozens of different formats – horror stories, adventures, love stories, fables, stories about people telling stories… So there is a lot of breadth and variety.

There is a lot of sheer fantasy and inventiveness in the small things. The “minor” characters are as well-defined as the central ones. Everybody gets great dialogue. Delirium in particular is an endless source of wonderful suprises. She creates little frogs when she is bored, or perhaps turns herself into a cloud of fish, talks in swirly rainbow colours and says things like “I wish I could give you a present. Do you need a word that means red and green at the same time?”

These are, in fact, the things that make me love the Sandman: in both text and pictures, there’s imagination and variety, there’s humour and beauty, and the smallest parts are as carefully thought-out as the central themes.

It has been interesting to see how people react to the autumnal weather we’ve had for the past week – after ridiculous +15°C warmth during the second half of October and first half of November, we’re now down to frosty nights and chilly days.

The cycling crowd has shrunk significantly – the streets are emptier, and the railings I chain my bike to at work are almost empty. All the more space for me! Those who are left seem to be of two sorts: the hardy and the foolhardy. The hardy wear windproof jackets, thick gloves and hats. The foolhardy wear shorts (really) and fingerless gloves, and start shivering when they need to stop at a traffic light.

In fact the same can be seen among walkers as well. Every year, this time of the year brings out a special subspecies of Englishmen: the Martyr. It walks around with hunched shoulders, rubs its hands, looks miserable, and complains pleasedly about the “unbearably cold” weather – all the while continuing to wear no coat (men), no gloves or scarf or hat (both sexes) and itsy-bitsy little shoes that barely cover the toes (women).

I try to imagine why they would do this. Do they enjoy martyrdom so much? Do they find the effort of buying gloves so unpleasant? For a while I thought that perhaps the “frog in hot water” effect was playing a role: the weather gets just a little bit colder every day, and never drops suddenly enough for them to notice that it is winter. But this year even that theory has been disproved, since the weather turned cold literally overnight.

The Martyr has a cousin called the Calendar Girl, by the way, who also ignores the weather, but in the opposite sense. (I haven’t seen many men do this.) They dress according to what the calendar says – “if it’s October, it’s got to be autumn”. Never mind that it’s 15 degrees outside – she wears furry boots, or a thick woollen scarf, or a down jacket. Go figure.

For the past three weeks (or is it four?) my workday has started 7:20, instead of the previous 8:00–8:15. I’m not entirely happy with how it’s turning out. Out of long habit, I still leave the office about the same time as I used to, or maybe 15 minutes earlier. So I’m not getting home much earlier than I used to. Also out of habit, I’m still going to bed roughly the same time as I used to. Even though I’ve cut out everything non-essential from my morning routine, this still means that I’m getting 45 minutes less sleep every night. Not good.

I don’t like the hurried mornings. I don’t like the fact that I’m now cycling every single day, since walking would cost me an extra 30 minutes of sleep. I liked walking occasionally.

And I miss the bells of St. Pauls. In the past, I timed my mornings so that I often cycled past St. Pauls just as the bells were ringing 8 o’clock – 4 medium peals and then 8 beautiful deep ones. St Pauls has excellent bells, and I like their sound.

I guess I could try to catch the 6pm bells instead. That would give me an extra incentive to try and get out of the office before 6 at least occasionally.

Begin with the end in mind

Why is the most fundamental question. If you don’t know why, no other question will make sense.

Before I start any non-trivial task or project, I like to be clear about why I’m doing it. And if the project takes more than a few days, it’s worth revisiting that question now and again. If I’ve become stuck, reviewing the why often offers a way forward. If I feel reluctant to work on it, reminding myself of the why gives me either incentive to continue, or if the why is no longer relevant, a good reason to drop the project.

The “why” of this specific post, incidentally, is that it has been bouncing in the back of my brain for about a week now, and I want it out of there.

So, why do I write this blog? Three reasons.

Writing helps me think.

I like to think. I like to understand myself and the world around me. Someone once said to me, “Du är en sån som tänker hela tiden” – “You’re the kind of person who’s thinking all the time”. The tone wasn’t complimentary, but that comment has quite a bit of truth in it.

One of the problems with thinking is that the mind is like a little monkey, easily distracted: dangle a shiny object in front of it, and it abandons whatever it was doing, and plays with the shiny toy instead. Thinking without writing is hard, because there’s nothing to keep me on topic. Writing offers me an anchor – when the distraction disappears, I turn back to the screen and resume from where I was, instead of having to start all over.

Putting thoughts in writing also makes them clearer. The need to put things in words forces me to organise jumbled thoughts, clarify vague ones, and look up missing facts. Sometimes this exposes large gaps in my thoughts; other times it makes me think of new connections between what initially looked like separate ideas.

Finally, writing finalises thoughts. As long as thoughts exist only in my head, they remain “alive”. I am never quite “done” with them. Writing them down gives them a permanent place, which means that I no longer need to worry about forgetting them. And it’s easy to see when a thread of thought is complete, when it has been followed from a beginning to an end, and a conclusion has been reached.

This blog is a way to keep in touch with people.

Many events in life fall in that vague range where they’re interesting, but not that interesting. I wouldn’t send all my friends an e-mail to tell them about the fireworks I saw, or what I thought about the news about Sony. But I imagine that some of this might be interesting to some of you. A blog feels like a good compromise: not too much, not too little.

The blog is a letter to myself in the future.

Memories fade, and recede to the background. (Mine do, at least.) I’d like to keep some of them for longer, and to find them more easily. I’m sure that there are many good moments in my past that it would be nice to revisit occasionally, but there’s nothing to prompt me to remember them, so they stay in long-term storage.

This blog is like an album of holiday photos: some time in the future, I can browse through the posts and think “Oh yeah, we had that wonderful holiday in Africa!” and that would then bring back the rest of the memories. But instead of just remembering the big events, I’m hoping that the blog will help me keep some of the everyday things too. So that I can be reminded later about what it was like to live now, and what I was doing with my life.

The three reasons are somewhat contradictory, but I hope that I can get the balance right so that the blog does all three. I try to alternate between them so that none of the three dominates or gets neglected for a long time. We’ll see how it work out in the long run.

This afternoon I flushed my employee access pass down the toilet. Whoops.

It was an accident, honestly!
I was about to leave… I picked up the access pass from the ledge that I’d put it on, and it slipped from my fingers, bounced from the edge, and of course the same law of gravity that makes sandwiches land upside down, inevitably pulled it towards the toilet bowl, just as the whirl of water was starting to slow down.

I had a split second to think “This can’t be happening!” and then realising “I hope it isn’t too large and heavy – hope it flushes and doesn’t remain at the bottom, where someone will have to fish it out”. Luckily it disappeared.

I thought this sort of thing only happened in fiction.

One of the things I like about living in London is the frequency of fireworks displays, and their size and scale. During autumn / winter there are at least 4 good-sized shows, so they average roughly one per month. In September there’s the Thames festival, which, as far as I know, is just a general party for no particular reason – circus for the people. Then there’s Bonfire Night of course, when every borough with a modicum of self-esteem puts on their own show, so there are shows in all the major parks, and you can pick & choose. (Of course there are lots of unofficial fireworks as well, and people start trying out their bombs about two weeks earlier.) Just one week later there’s the Lord Mayor’s show, and after that there’s a 6-week wait until New Year’s Eve.

We missed Bonfire Night this year, since we spent all the evenings of last weekend in concerts. But yesterday the Lord Mayor’s show made up our fireworks deficit.

The Lord Mayor’s show starts as early as 5pm, probably because it’s a family-oriented event. This time of the year, it’s almost dark by 5pm, and the little light that’s there doesn’t distract at all. In fact it makes the fireworks a bit different from the usual, and if the sky is clear it looks very pretty, with sunset colours almost gone. We could see huge clouds of brown smoke billow from the barge that the fireworks are shot from, and drift in towards South Bank. (I’m glad we weren’t standing on that side of the river.)

Good show – well composed and had a nice rhythm. Not as many “big bangs” as some shows we’ve seen. There were quite a few “two-stage” bombs – instead of the usual “up and explode” they did “up and explode and change direction”, or “up and explode and explode again” – as well as double circles (that look like Saturn with its rings). Also lots of simple sparkling things – plain white twinkling starfalls and golden rains. Very nice. I am getting spoiled here, though – 15 minutes of fireworks actually felt a bit short!

My web host has been having some technical difficulties this weekend – if you’ve been trying to read the blog but couldn’t access it, I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but I can’t actually do anything about this.

News of the week: Sony’s DRM software uses rootkit techniques

DRM-protected CDs from Sony surreptitiously install software on users’ computers. The software is hidden using rootkit techniques normally associated with malware, isn’t mentioned by the EULA, and cannot be uninstalled safely by the average user. The software is also badly written, wasting resources, opening up the computer for other malware, and potentially corrupting the system if it’s removed by an uninformed user.

And as if that wasn’t enough to make a good story, Sony first resists public requests for an uninstaller, then makes available an uninstaller that is written as badly as the original program (if not worse), and then makes the users jump through various hoops to get it, including downloading and installing an ActiveX component of uncertain provenance…

It took a few days for the story to spread through all mainstream media (it’s a bit technical after all). And of course it took only a short moment before someone wrote a Trojan exploiting this.

Sony, blind and oblivious to all the uproar, says, “Most people, I think, don’t even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?” This is nothing, not malicious at all, and you shouldn’t bother your pretty little heads with all this grownup stuff.

And naturally Sony is now getting sued and boycotted by all and sundry.

The story is fabulous, better than fiction. I’ve really enjoyed following it. (It helps, of course, that the original articles at SysInternals blog make for a good read – thoroughly detailed, understandable, well written and well illustrated.)The whole situation is such a spectacular combination of evil, stupidity and incompetence. It is so absurd that it ceases to be annoying and becomes entertaining.

First, the strategically incorrect decision to build something like this must have been based on a grossly mistaken understanding of how their customers would react if they ever found out. Second, they misjudged the skills of their coders vs. the skills of spyware hunters. Third, they lied in the EULA. Fourth, they completely misread and mishandled the public reaction by first denying the problem, and then trying to avoid responsibility.

So, the business development people are incompetent, as are the people in charge of software project outsourcing, and their lawyers, and their PR department. Hmm… that’s about the whole firm… excepting HR and finance.

It’s difficult to imagine what more Sony could have done to make this worse. Perhaps they could have tracked users who use the software? They could have, actually, since the software phones home as well… Oh, the one thing they haven’t tried yet is to enforce the EULA and countersue users who remove the malware.

What does one learn from this?
That when it comes to software, you can’t trust anybody, and you can’t be too careful. A large well-known company is not necessarily more trustworthy than a small unknown one.

Today we saw and heard the 3rd and final of this weekend’s concerts of Islamic music (the previous two were Sheikh Habboush and Khaled). All three were part of a “Ramadan Nights” programme organised by the Barbican to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. East London’s Muslim population is sizeable, and these 3 nights offered something for everybody: “classical” Arabic music and modern groovy North African rai for the Arabian Muslims, and today Sufi music for the Pakistani Muslims (and there are a lot of them around where we live).

This night’s concert was a triple act. The first, Sain Zahoor, was a bizarre fellow… described as a “dervish minstrel”, he resembled a fairy-tale evil wizard: golden clothes, golden shoes with curled-up toes, bright red turban, and so many strings of garish tassels hanging off his string instrument that they swung like a blanket when he was dancing. The music was OK to good; the sound again far too high (although not as extreme as yesterday’s).

He was followed by two brothers, Goonga and Mithu Sain, playing large drums, one each. These two looked like Punjabi rock stars: tall and skinny like scarecrows, long hair, bright red shalwar kameez with fair amounts of glitter, and big bling-bling gold necklaces. Plus when they really got going, one of them actually started headbanging. The only thing missing from true rock star style would have been smashing his instrument when he was done.
The drumming itself was quite varied, ranging from intricate to fast and furious. They could get surprisingly different tones out of a single drum each, using two different-shaped drumsticks + their hands, and each end and edge of the drum had a distinct sound. Very focused – they didn’t say a word to the audience nor look our way – and therefore very engaging. (And completely unamplified! Yea!)

The last and main act was Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali music. The sound technician was again making every effort to make the music hard to enjoy – gradually turning up the volume as the evening progressed, cranking up the higher tones to piercing sharpness until they were starting to sound distorted even to my untrained ears; loud drums which everything else had to compete with, and the backing chorus turned up to a point where they became an indistinct din. Would have been intolerable without earplugs.

Despite this, the music was so good that all of that could be overlooked. The programme included several excellent songs that I recognised from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s CDs. Qawwali is always great, and live qawwali even more so. Melodious, with dramatic singing, swaying and throbbing rhythms, it builds from a slow start to an ecstatic finish. Even though I don’t understand a word of it – or perhaps because I don’t understand a word of it – it swallows me completely, given enough time, and I ignore everything else around me. A great finale for the weekend.

From reading my recent posts in the Music category, one could get the impression that Asian music is all we listen to. Actually I listen to gipsy music, klezmer and tango too. No, seriously, while we do listen to a lot of so-called “world music”, we go to other sorts of concerts as well. It’s just that there has been a concentration of Asian music recently. We did hear Thea Gilmore last week, but her concert was disappointing (due to the venue and sound quality) but in such an uninteresting way that it wasn’t even worth writing about.