Archive for January 15, 2014

Early Junction: Door of the Cosmos

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 15, 2014 by telescoper

One of the quirks of being in Japan is the 9 hour time difference between here and the UK, which means I’m just getting up when folk back home are going to bed; and one of the consequences is that BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction is on (via the internet) in the morning. It’s playing as a write this, in fact. Yesterday morning there was a track by Sun Ra, which reminded me that 2014 is the centenary of his birth. It prompted me to look back at an old post I’d written about him where I found the track included there had been deleted from Youtube. I therefore decided to post a new version, including a different track.

Sun Ra was one of the most extraordinary composers and bandleaders of the 20th Century,  was born Herman Poole Blount in Bimingham, Alabama, on 22nd May 1914. From the 1950s, until his death in 1993, he led various combinations of musicians in bands with various permutations of names involving the word Arkestra, such as the Blue Universe Arkestra and the Solar Myth Arkestra. He himself played keyboards, sometimes solo and sometimes with huge bands  of over 30 musicians; his music touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz, as well as soul and pop. He was also  one of the first musicians, in any genre, to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.

He never achieved mainstream commercial success, but was a prolific recording artist with a cult following, partly fuelled by his outrageous claims to have been born not on Earth but on Saturn and the fact that much of his music was to do with space travel. Quoted in Jazziz magazine

They really thought I was some kind of kook with all my talk about outer space and the planets. I’m still talking about it, but governments are spending billions of dollars to go to Venus, Mars, and other planets, so it’s no longer kooky to talk about space

Quite. In fact, Sun Ra developed a complex performing identity based on his music, “cosmic” philosophy, and poetry. He abandoned his birth name, took on the persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the sun), and often dressed in the style of an ancient Egyptian pharoah, as in the video clip. In other words, he was very odd.

Sun Ra’s music is eclectic, outrageous and sometimes downright mystifying, but it also has a marvellous coherence to it maintained as his style evolved over four decades and is consistently imbued with a powerful sense of the Jazz tradition.  Anyway, whatever I think, the music of Sun Ra has withstood its skeptics and detractors for generations and long may it continue to do so. The world needs more of his kind of eccentric.

Here’s a number called Door of the Cosmos. See what you think.


Home-thoughts from Abroad

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on January 15, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am, about half-way through my trip to Japan and more-or-less getting the hang of life here. I have to admit that when I was a bit apprehensive ahead of my arrival because various friends back home had warned me that everyday things, particularly food, would be quite difficult to get used to in such a different culture; one even advised me to put plenty of sachets of Cup-a-Soup in my luggage in case I couldn’t find anything edible. As it turns out I’ve taken to the food rather well. First night here we had a traditional meal with various forms of Sashimi, which I liked very much indeed. At the weekend I went to a different kind of traditional eating-place and ate a hearty and very filling lunch of roast pork. The staff and other diners at this second place were quite surprised to see a European person there; they were impeccably polite, but clearly found it hilarious to see a middle-aged man struggling so much with his chopsticks. It occurred to me that they probably thought that only a barbarian could be such a messy eater. The food, however, was delicious.

Being conspicuous is something I’ve had to get used to. Although Nagoya is quite a large city, it’s not really a prime tourist location and there are not many Europeans to be found. There are numerous shops and eating places on the Nagoya University campus in which the clientele is overwhelmingly local; I always feel that I stick out like a sore thumb when I walk in. I can’t read a word of Japanese either, which means I have to point at the menu and hope that there are no options because that would require a question to be asked and answered. Today at lunch in one of the University Dining Halls I didn’t know how to answer a question and ended up with a side order of chips by default. They probably assumed that’s what I wanted, but in fact I’d have been happy trying something a little more exotic.

People don’t seem to eat any kind of dessert here, at either lunch or dinner. There are several pleasant coffee bars that serve good quality coffee near us, and there’s also a Starbucks. Also, people never tip in restaurants: you pay at the door on the way out, rather than at the table.

Supermarkets are interesting too. Most products have only Japanese writing on them so guesswork is often involved in figuring out the ingredients. Only rarely is there any English writing. Sometimes there’s a picture, but it doesn’t always help. I bought a bag of crisps the other day but had no idea what flavour they would be. After eating them I still haven’t a clue. Tasty though.

A small convenience store near the department sells pastries and the like so that’s what I’m having for breakfast these days. There’s a small water boiler in my room so I can make tea or (instant) coffee there; green tea is provided in the room. I bought some allegedly English (“black”) tea in a supermarket the other day, but sadly it turned out to be revolting. Perhaps I’ll bring it home with me and give it to someone I don’t like.

Generally food is pretty cheap: you can get a substantial meal in a reasonable restaurant for less than the equivalent of £10; items in supermarkets where I’ve been able to make a comparison are about 2/3 of the price you would pay in Britain. Come to think of it that’s probably less to do with Japan being cheap and more to do with Britain being expensive.


Selfie, with Yukata

Among the items provided in my room is a Yukata, a simple cotton robe with wide sleeves worn with an obi (belt). I decided to try mine on and the result is shown on the left. Unfortunately I broke the symmetry incorrectly: one is supposed to wrap the left side over the right, whereas I did it right over left. The way I did it is apparently the way a body is dressed for burial. At least it looks right correct in the mirror.

Incidentally, the Japanese also drive on the right side of the road, ie the left.

The Yukata is extremely comfortable, and is often worn outdoors during the summer months or so I’m told. It’s too chilly in Nagoya at this time of year to go out wearing one, but it’s fine for indoors.
And before you ask, that’s not a telephone by the mirror but a hair-dryer…

During the days I’ve been busy getting on with work as well as talking a very great deal with some of the Doctoral and Masters students here at the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute about their work. I think they relished the chance to practice speaking English as much as to get my input into the science. Anyway, the topics are very wide-ranging: higher-order perturbations to the Boltzmann Equation, analysis of Hα galaxy surveys, weak lensing in modified gravity theories, primordial magnetic fields, luminous red galaxies in clusters, analysis of 21cm surveys, etc.


A strange thought struck me walking to the office this morning. To me Japan is a foreign culture and I can’t speak a word of the language but, despite all that, I find it much easier to imagine living here than, say, America (where I can at least speak a similar language to the locals).  I’m not sure that this makes sense in terms of an explanation, but Japan seems to be a country that probably makes a lot of sense once you come to terms with it. I’m not saying that I want to move here, just that I feel a lot less alien here than I expected, and a lot less alien than I do in places much closer to home.