Friday, 30 September 2011

owt fresh?

Home, home again.
I like to be here when I can.

Pink Floyd, Breathe.
I arrived back in Hong Kong yesterday after one of the most tedious journeys from the UK that I’ve ever experienced. Because of typhoon activity in Hong Kong, I had to endure an enforced six-hour delay in Doha, resulting in my MP3 player running out of power several hours before the end of the journey. Of course, I could have charged it up again in Doha, except that all my power cables were in my checked-in luggage.

Anyway, I’m back, and as usual Paula tested my powers of observation by asking me what had changed while I’d been away. Things are always changing in Hong Kong, and something is certain to have been either added to or removed from the landscape during an absence of four months. The title of this post, Cumbrian dialect for ‘Anything new?’, is a query that was asked by my father, more in hope than expectation, every time I saw him. It seems appropriate here.

With reference to Hong Kong Country, the cultivated area in the third picture has been fenced off and abandoned, as have most of the plots where vegetables were being grown six months ago. Uncle Four (Turf Wars) and his lackeys have clearly been busy. Even more strangely, the house that was once the home of Lee Ming Sang (the fifth picture in Hong Kong Country) has completely vanished.

However, easily the most depressing change that has occurred during my absence has been the appearance of street lighting along the riverside. At first glance, this seems to tick all the appropriate environmental boxes—each light is powered by its own photovoltaic cell, and illumination is provided by LEDs—but what is not obvious from the photograph is that this lighting is unnecessary.

The curious aspect of this affair is that the track in the picture is, in theory, not open to members of the public. As the sign in the foreground points out:
Drainage Maintenance Access
No Entry
Despite this prohibition, the track is very popular with cyclists, joggers and even strollers, and is an excellent example of different government departments not knowing what other departments are doing. The track was built originally by the Drainage Services Department, but a couple of years ago the Home Affairs Department decided to build covered seating areas every mile or so, presumably without being aware that the hundreds of locals who used the track every day were trespassing.

And there is so much ambient light along this track at night that a hand torch is not required, although this doesn’t deter some people from using one. And these new lights are only ten metres apart, so ‘unsightly’ is an understatement. I would like to know which idiot came up with this idea, which must have been extremely expensive to implement and which provides no obvious benefits.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

the writing on the wall

And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
Daniel 5:25 (Authorized Version).
Writing on walls and other public surfaces has a long history, and a part of that history is commemorated in the well-known phrase that I’ve used as the title of this post. Belshazzar’s feast is probably the only recorded example of graffiti by supernatural agent, so it is disappointing to note that the account credited to Daniel was probably written several hundred years after the event and is thus an unreliable source.

However, Belshazzar’s feast may have been intended as an allegory of the conflict between the sacred and the profane, the intended message being that God will punish profanity:
3 Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them.
4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.

Daniel 5 (Authorized Version).
This mirrors a similar polarization of opinions about modern graffiti, which are seen as either art or vandalism, with few people taking a more nuanced view. It is true that most graffiti have no aesthetic worth and are unsightly, but occasionally something is written that resonates with its readers.

In the 1950s, few mainline railway carriages had an open-plan design. Most had a corridor along one side, with a series of compartments separated from the corridor by sliding doors. In each compartment, above the window, there was a recessed chain that ran the length of the carriage. This was the ‘communication cord’ and was there for use in an emergency. Pulling the chain would result in the automatic application of the train’s air brakes, so below the chain was printed the following warning: ‘Penalty for improper use £5’.

One day, I entered an empty compartment and sat down. I quickly noticed that an anonymous wag had written an amusing piece of doggerel directly above the communication cord. I didn’t write it down, but even now, more than fifty years later, I can still remember it:
If five pounds you can afford
Try your strength and pull this cord.
If five pounds you do not own
Leave the fucking thing alone.

I’ve often wondered whether the author wrote this verse in any other carriages, and whether anyone else who saw it still remembers it. Perhaps not.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

don't talk back

When I was a student in Manchester in the mid-1960s, I spent quite a lot of time combing second-hand shops on the lookout for old 45s. This period coincided with the so-called ‘beat boom’ in the UK, when many bands were issuing cover versions of old rhythm and blues songs. I was looking for the original versions, but I also came across many songs and many artists of whom I’d never heard. In these circumstances, I would usually buy the record in question if it met one of two criteria.

The first criterion was the record label. Anything on Decca’s London-American or EMI’s Stateside labels was snapped up immediately, largely because so much of the output of small and obscure American labels was released in the UK on one of these two. Not everything was obscure though: the output of Atlantic Records appeared in the UK on London-American before being given its own label, while both Tamla and Motown records were released on Stateside before EMI decided to follow Decca’s lead and create a label specifically for records from this studio.

The second criterion was the composer(s). In 1963/64, Poison Ivy was covered by several British bands, and when I finally got my hands on the original version, by the Coasters, I discovered that it had been written by two people whose names I’d not previously encountered, although I’d already heard many of their songs without being aware of the composers’ names. I soon learned that any song with the composing credit ‘Leiber/Stoller’ was well worth buying.

I found myself reminiscing about my student days last month when I heard about the death of lyricist Jerry Leiber, who, with composer Mike Stoller, had provided the soundtrack to much of the 1950s.

Leiber’s death was widely reported, but the obituaries tended to focus on three of the duo’s many songs: Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, and Ben E. King’s Stand by Me. All three are excellent songs, but the pair's most important work was with black vocal group the Coasters. However, the original version of Hound Dog, by Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, was their first major hit, and the song provides an interesting insight into the racial tensions that existed in the music scene in fifties America.

Hound Dog was a classic blues in its original form, and it followed a longstanding blues tradition of incorporating some sexual imagery and innuendo into the lyric. However, in Presley’s version the words were altered (not by Leiber) to avoid offending a predominantly white audience. A comparison is striking:
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,
Been snoopin’ round my door.
You can wag your tail,
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more.

Big Mama Thornton version.
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,
Cryin’ all the time.
You ain’t never caught a rabbit,
And you ain’t no friend of mine.

Elvis Presley version.
Although Leiber and Stoller later wrote other songs specifically for Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole being the best-known examples, it is their work with black artists on which their reputation stands. In addition to working with Big Mama Thornton, in the early 1950s they also wrote songs for Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon and Little Willie Littlefield. However, the collaboration that set the trajectory for their career throughout the remainder of the decade was with Los Angeles doo-wop group the Robins, whose Riot in Cell Block #9, with its repeating chorus of ‘There’s a riot goin’ on’, was a major R&B hit in 1954.

Following the success of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the Robins’ fifth record, Leiber and Stoller were offered a production contract with Atlantic Records in New York, but two of the Robins’ four vocalists refused a move to Atlantic. However, in 1957, the rest of the group did move to New York, where they recruited two new singers and renamed themselves the Coasters. Beginning with Searchin’/Young Blood, Leiber and Stoller wrote and produced a string of powerful songs for the Coasters that only came to an end in 1961. Changing audience tastes probably brought this end about.

It is these Coasters songs that give Leiber a fair claim to be known as the poet of rock ’n’ roll, the only other serious contender for this title being Chuck Berry; an analysis of their styles throws up some intriguing contrasts. For example, while Leiber and Stoller were Jewish and championed black music, Chuck Berry, who was black himself, articulated the anxieties and aspirations of white teenagers:
Sweet Little Sixteen,
She’s just got to have
About half a million
Framed autographs.
Her wallet’s filled with pictures,
She gets ’em one by one.
She gets so excited
Watch her, look at her run.
School has always been a major source of anxiety for many teenagers, and Leiber and Berry addressed this in different ways. The eponymous hero of Leiber’s Charlie Brown is clearly a rebel, smoking in the auditorium, playing craps in the boys’ gym and writing graffiti on the walls of the school. He is ‘cool’:
Who walks in the classroom cool and slow?
Who calls the English teacher Daddy-o?
Berry, on the other hand, saw school as something to be endured:
Back in the classroom, open your books,
Gee but the teacher, don’t know how mean she looks.
Berry often wrote about the music; examples include Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven. In School Day, from which the last extract is taken, he suggests that the ‘antidote’ to school is the local juke joint, where his listeners can ‘hear something that’s really hot’. The last verse neatly sums up his attitude:
Hail, hail, rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old.
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold.
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin’ is there, body and soul.
There is nothing like this in any lyric by Jerry Leiber. Perhaps the Leiber/Stoller song by the Coasters that best exemplifies his style and choice of subject matter is Yakety Yak, a series of admonitions and warnings by an exasperated mother to her delinquent son. The first verse does contain a passing reference to the music, but it is the final verse that encapsulates the ‘message’:
Take out the papers and the trash,
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash.
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor,
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more.
Yakety yak (don’t talk back).

Don’t you give me no dirty looks,
Your father’s hip, he knows what cooks.
Just tell your hoodlum friend outside,
You ain’t got time to take a ride.
Yakety yak (don’t talk back).
Although it is not explicitly indicated in the lyric, there can be little doubt that Leiber’s sympathies lie with the target of this tirade, because the phrase ‘Yakety yak’ is clearly uttered by the son. And teenagers listening to Yakety Yak would have known all about what it was like to constantly be told what to do and what not to do by annoying parents when all they really wanted to do was rock and roll (in the original as well as the contemporary meaning of the phrase).

The phrase in parentheses is sung by the group’s bass singer, giving this track the superficial appearance of a novelty song, but bass interjections like this were a Coasters trademark and were used in most of their songs, which are probably best described as a sophisticated hybrid of rhythm and blues and pop music, with a driving rhythm and a distinctive stuttering tenor saxophone solo by King Curtis.

Leiber and Stoller wrote songs for other black vocal groups, notably the Drifters, for whom they penned There Goes My Baby, Save the Last Dance for Me and On Broadway. However, no one could accuse the Drifters of singing rock ’n’ roll. These three tracks are pop songs, complete with soaring string accompaniment, although the string arrangement on There Goes My Baby does incorporate a riff from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, possibly to counter accusations of blandness.

However, my favourite Leiber/Stoller song is one that was apparently offered to the Coasters, who turned it down. This seems very odd, given that Love Potion #9 sounds like a classic Coasters song. When, in my wanderings around Manchester, I came across the original version, by the Clovers, it met the second of the criteria outlined above and was instantly snapped up.

Love Potion #9 is a ‘story’ song, in which the singer admits that he is ‘a flop with chicks’:
I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth.
You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth.
She’s got a pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine,
Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.
This is one of the few Leiber/Stoller songs to include a middle eight, and this is worth quoting because it is an excellent example of Leiber’s verbal dexterity:
She bent down and turned around and gave me a wink.
She said “I’m gonna mix it up right here in the sink”.
It smelled like turpentine, it looked like Indian ink.
I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink.
In classic Coasters style, ‘I took a drink’ is sung by a solo bass voice. However, the backing is far more gentle than it would have been had the Coasters performed the song, and the saxophone solo is insipid: it is unlikely to have been performed by King Curtis.

Although Leiber and Stoller remained active throughout the 1960s, the zeitgeist had changed. It became standard practice for bands to write and perform their own material, although the Hollies’ first two singles, (Ain’t That) Just Like Me and Searchin’, were old Coasters songs, and the Paramounts, later to morph into Procul Harum, released Poison Ivy. The new blueprint for black vocal groups was that offered by Tamla-Motown, which developed a more commercial, factory-like approach to producing hit records, which were written by in-house composers and backed by in-house musicians.

Ironically, a record that I would categorize as ‘not typical Motown’—Do You Love Me? by the Contours—is probably the only one from this stable that would not have appeared out of place in the Coasters’ repertoire. It was covered by both Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and the Dave Clark Five in 1963 as British bands scoured the American R&B market for potential material. Apart from Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes, You Really Got a Hold on Me by the Miracles and Money by Barrett Strong (another untypical Motown release), covered by the Beatles on their second album, the songs issuing from this studio were not considered suitable material by a generation of bands who in 1963/64 were taking their inspiration from the music of the 1950s, of which the songs of Leiber and Stoller were an integral part.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

random thoughts

Here’s an interesting experiment that you might like to try: ask someone to choose a random number between one and six. Ask them again. And again, six times in all. This is not a scientifically verified statement, but it is very likely that your subject will select six different numbers. Now, it is possible for a random selection to give precisely this result, but it isn’t likely. There are 46,656 possible ways of choosing six numbers from a pool of six, only 720 of which make up a set of six different numbers.

Many years ago, I conducted a similar experiment to that outlined above with a friend. I would roll a single die, behind a screen, and note the result. He would guess the result and write it down. We did this 36 times. When we compared notes, it turned out that my friend had been correct 19 times. Nothing remarkable in that, you might think, but this result is considerably above chance expectations, which would be six correct answers out of 36. But the most interesting part of the result was a sequence in which my friend had written ‘one’ five times in a row. He was correct each time.

This highlights one of the characteristics of randomness: that there are likely to be clusters rather than a roughly even distribution. The next time you see a flock of sheep in a field, if there are no external distractions and the sheep have been grazing for some time, there will be a noticeable concentration of animals in some parts of the field, while other parts will be almost empty. If we assume that the quality of grazing is uniform across the field, the distribution will be random.

The random distribution of sheep in a field.

Now consider what is not random. Chaos theory is, philosophically, one of the most intriguing theories in modern science, and about ten years ago, when my full-time occupation was editing academic textbooks, it was ‘flavour of the month’ and everyone had something to say on the subject. Most of it was utter drivel, usually because the author simply didn’t understand the theory, but one example stands out as something worse: it was wrong. I was unable to persuade the author of An Introduction to Global Environmental Issues that his definition of chaos theory in the glossary was fundamentally incorrect, precisely because it included the word ‘randomness’:
chaos theory — theory explaining phenomena as being a consequence of inherent randomness in a system. There are mathematical models to simulate chaotic systems.
In the same glossary, chaos was defined as ‘unpredictable or random processes and their consequences’, which is also incorrect.

I had the melancholy satisfaction, later that same year, of watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on TV. These lectures, aimed at children, are given each year by a scientist who is a leader in their particular field. That year, they were delivered by a mathematician, who tackled the subject of chaos theory head on. He was emphatic that there is nothing random about chaos. It is merely predictably unpredictable. I wondered whether the errant author had been watching, and if so, whether he took on board what he was hearing.

In fact, chaos theory is best explained with reference to the following hypothetical scenario, which in its initial state is a typical example of a linear system. Imagine two bodies that interact through mutual gravitational attraction—a single planet orbiting a star, for example. In this system, any slight change in the velocity of the planet will lead to only a slight change in its orbit at any time in the future, even millions of years later. Such stability means that the position of the planet can be predicted millions of years into the future, the only constraints on the accuracy of prediction being the accuracy of the initial measurements.

However, such simple, linear systems are rare. They are merely approximations of nature or abstractions from it, but the hypothetical model can be made rather more realistic by the addition of a third body—a comet that is also orbiting the star. The comet will be influenced by the planet’s gravity, in the same way that comets in our own solar system are influenced by the planets, especially Jupiter.

We now have a nonlinear system: the planet will orbit the star for ever, but after a finite number of orbits the comet will inevitably approach the planet so closely that it will be thrown out of the system. This system is nonlinear because any tiny change in the comet’s calculated velocity results in changes in its predicted position that grow exponentially with time. Thus, if there is a minuscule mistake in measuring the velocity today, within a relatively short time, a few orbits, it will be impossible to predict even roughly the comet’s position or whether it will have been expelled from the system entirely.

To illustrate this situation, a computer simulation was devised some years ago to predict the number of orbits that such a comet would make before being expelled from the system. This model included only the Sun and Jupiter, and the accuracy with which the orbit of the comet was calculated was varied. If all velocities were calculated to a precision of one part in a million, the model predicted that the comet would stick around for 757 orbits. When the accuracy was improved to one part in ten million, the prediction was 38 orbits; one part in one hundred million, 235 orbits; and so on down to one part in ten thousand trillion, when the comet was predicted to disappear after 17 orbits. There was absolutely no tendency for the predictions to approach a single solution with increasing accuracy—increases in the accuracy of the initial measurements had no predictable effect.

Without absolute, infinite knowledge of the comet’s velocity and infinite precision in calculation, its orbit is simply unpredictable. Unexpectedly, this is not an effect of chance. At all points, the orbit is under the direct control of gravitation, and the noted unpredictability arises as a direct result of the instability of the three-body interaction. Instability and nonlinearity are thus defining characteristics of chaos.

In the real world, the most obvious manifestation of chaos is in forecasting future weather. Modern-day weather forecasts are derived from computer simulations, and it is now standard practice to run not one but hundreds of such simulations. In most of these, the results are broadly similar up to five days in advance, but beyond five days this similarity rapidly disappears, and a wide range of different results appear, hence the pointlessness of offering a weather forecast more than five days in advance.

If you’ve been unable to follow this explanation of chaos theory, then the ‘classic’ explanation—that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazonian jungle could cause a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean—is unlikely to be any more helpful. It’s true, of course, but unless it’s explained to you, the point of this analogy—that tiny changes in initial conditions can have massive long-term effects—will be lost, especially when you bear in mind that the opposite scenario, that of a butterfly failing to flap its wings because it has just been eaten by a passing iguana, can have equally devastating consequences.