Read the first instalment if you haven’t already.

The thot plickens! I have now visited a genuine purveyor of accordions: Hobgoblin Music in London – on Rathbone Place just between Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road. It’s a cracking little shop, rammed full of instrumental exotica. I struggled to pull my gaze away from the extensive selection of tasty banjos, but a helpful assistant saddled me up with a weighty accordion and off I went.

I didn’t go far though, managing only to randomly jab keys and buttons in a tuneless mêlée of fumbling fingers. I learnt some useful things:

  • The left hand is incapable of reaching even the limited 72 buttons on my test model, without resetting the hand position within the strap. That strap has to be quite tight to stop your hand sliding up to the top due to the effect of gravity on that end of the machine.

  • The tighter the hand strap, the less gravity is a problem but the less freedom you have to move, even though the only way you can move is upwards – due to that pesky gravity.

  • You can’t see that huge field of identical buttons under the fingers of your left hand, so all you’ve got to go on is feel. One of the buttons has a concave top to differentiate it from the others, and presumably everything else is relative. Einstein himself would struggle to find that one dimpled button in the first place, let alone suss out the others. Figure out those buttons and you’ve figured out the accordion I reckon.

  • If you don’t squeeze hard enough on the bellows, you don’t get any sound at all from the piano side. All the air rushes out of the bass reeds instead, given there are more of them open and they’re bigger. It stands to reason, but the more notes you play at once (including chord buttons, or using multiple reed banks) the more air you need to keep it all going.

  • The bellows trap your t-shirt when compressed. Remember to free yourself when unstrapping.

  • Even for £900 you just get a smallish, plasticky accordion, albeit a Czech one. You’ll pay about £350 for the Chinese equivalent, which seemed largely identical in most respects, but had almost no feedback from the buttons used to select treble reed banks.

I decided not to buy right there and then. I think I need to see a larger selection and maybe some second hand instruments to find what I’m after. Quality is important to me, but it’s going to be difficult to find that elusive feel of solid craftsmanship for the cash I have to splash. I’ll report back on the quest.

I’ve been looking to buy a piano accordion. Why? I just love the sound, they’re an intriguing and mysterious instrument to most people and I have a growing habit of buying interesting instruments then failing to learn to play them. Still, a lot of the fun is in the chase, and I’m maximising my enjoyment of this one!

To that end, I’ve been devouring information about piano accordions online, though I’m still yet to actually touch one! Hopefully I’ll manage that later this week with a visit to a London music shop, but for now, here’s my ultra-condensed guide to what I think I need to know about accordions in order to make an informed purchasing decision. We’ll see if I was actually right.

  • Piano accordions can have different numbers of piano keys (right-hand) and bass buttons (left-hand). The ‘full’ set is 41 piano keys and 120 bass buttons.

  • The bass buttons (in a 120 bass at least) are laid out in 6 rows, with top two rows being single note counter-bass and bass, the the remaining four playing chords rooted on their associated bass note. So the left hand can play individual notes and chords. This is known as a Stradella bass system.

  • A free bass system just has lots of individual notes, so you must form chords manually with multiple presses at once. This is considered by some to be a more purist approach and allows greater musical flexibility, especially for the classical scene.

  • Some ‘converter’ accordions can switch between Stradella and free bass. I’d like one of those (I want the moon on a stick) but I get the impression they’re not so common and probably not cheap.

  • Speaking of cheap, though you can get small accordions (e.g. with only as few as eight bass buttons) for less than £100, it looks like you need to spend £400 or more to get a 120 bass accordion from a cheap Chinese manufacturer. £1500 will buy a half-decent Italian model, but the options just get more expensive from there.

  • Accordions are heavy – think 8Kg or more. They come with shoulder straps as a rule.

  • There is more than one way to tune an accordion, giving quite different types of sound. Tuning is a job for an expert (requires tweaking metal reeds) and probably done every five years or more, so best buy one that’s tuned well to start with!

  • It doesn’t matter how hard you press the piano keys or buttons – volume is controlled by your pressure on the bellows. Apparently this can be hard for a pianist to get to grips with, being more akin to bowing a cello.

I repeat: this is just what I think is true – I stand to be corrected, and will post an update as the story unfolds.

I spotted this beer at a pound a bottle in Sainsbury’s so grabbed a couple as it sounded really different. It describes itself as being made with wheat and barley malts (rather than just barley as is normal), fermented with honey then conditioned for six months with spices – though it doesn’t say which spices!

Sharpsbeer

I thought it might be similar to a continental wheat beer – cloudy white with hints of spice – but it’s definitely its own style of beer. It’s a very rich amber and almost entirely clear. The flavour is quite deep, bitter and smoky with a slightly burnt malt flavour reminiscent of a stout. The spice just leaves a subtle, lingering flavour in the mouth.

At 6% ABV and with a real depth of colour and flavour it’s not a ‘light’ beer in any sense. It’s almost a winter warmer, but I hadn’t twigged that until I’d poured it to accompany the grand prix qualifying mid-afternoon. Still, I quite like it and it was well priced, even for a 330ml bottle, so cheers!

Kewbiglilies_2
Almost every weekend this summer a trip to Kew Gardens has been on the cards, and finally we made it happen. We managed to pick a great day for it too – even wearing sunscreen for only about the second time this year. Having heard so much about the wonders of Kew we were really looking forward to it, but could it possibly live up to our expectations?

Getting There

Round the M25 and in on the M4 was easy enough but the signage ran out just when we got close and we spent twenty minutes trying to find the official parking. The pay and display machines in the long, slender car park mischievously require £5 in change, which means a long walk to the main ticket booth and back to the car, then back to the booth to actually enter the gardens if you’re unlucky. Nice.

And We’re In!

Once in, I had to reset my expectations a bit. The gardens consist mostly of flat lawns with trees and bushes and buildings scattered about. Not to mention so much goose poo that it was a struggle to sit down and eat our sandwiches. Ultimately it’s more of a park than a garden. I’d expected clever planting to supply riots of colourful flowers even at the tail end of a bad summer but the palette is mostly green and brown throughout . I’d also expected meticulous and dense themed gardens like those at Butchart, which overwhelm the senses with their majesty and detail, each turn revealing endless new delights. But all I found was a couple of rather weak attempts at Alpine and Japanese gardens. I think Kew is hampered by its topology – being on the banks of the Thames it’s pretty much entirely flat and there’s little artificial landscaping to make it more interesting.

Kewpagoda

Glass Houses

It’s just a whole different type of gardens to those that burst with exaggerated splendour from every angle. The best of the plants are kept indoors, under the panes of the still impressively huge old glasshouses. That said, they could do with a lick of paint – there’s a whiff of fading grandeur about them and it’d be a shame to see them gradually crumble away for lack of funds or effort. The hot and sweaty palm house and its temperate brother were nice, but lacking a certain something. I’ve certainly seen better, or maybe I’ve been spoiled elsewhere. The modern Princess Diana building is huge and has some quality sections (who doesn’t like a massive cactus) but you’ll have to put the effort in to see it all as the path endlessly diverges and there are several ways in and out. I’d much prefer a single path that leads me neatly through everything there is to see, but then I’m a simple sort. It was more than a little surprising to see a large iguana basking at the edge of the water-lily pond, apparently free to come and go as it pleased with no staff anywhere to be seen. Strange.

And Now, Your Main Feature…

I understand that the ten storey pagoda used to be a major feature and it looks striking from a distance, but up close it’s really very plain and peeling badly. The new hotness at Kew is the treetop walkway and its small underground atrium, or the “Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop walkway” to use the proper and more than slightly over the top names. This is the new roller coaster in the theme park that is Kew Gardens, but the only sweat I broke was climbing the stairs. There is a lift, but it’s exclusively for the disabled. Except it was broken so they were sat at the bottom not knowing what they were missing. Lucky them.

I’ve never known something so expensive and so hyped to be so disappointingly dull. [Insert your own gag about the Millennium Dome here, but I never went.] The implementation is clinical but boring – all bare concrete and rusting, sorry ‘weathered’ steel. You climb the stairs, you walk the loop, looking at some sweet chestnut branches relatively close up and you come back down again. The only information up there is presented via small sculptural metal plaques that convey only about ten words each. Perhaps they didn’t want people to stop for long, so they can shepherd everyone through at speed and keep throughput up.

The only point of interest I remember from being up there was that it wobbled more than it looked like it should and the thin flooring flexed worryingly underfoot. In fact I’d stay a good distance away from any 40 stone leviathans that you might encounter up there (might being the operative word – it’s a long way up the staircase) lest the whole thing give way. I’m sure it’s structurally sound really, but if the majority of my interest is occupied by the feeling of uncertainty beneath my shoes then the whole expensive installation is a bit of a failure.

Kewiguana

In Summary

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve griped endlessly here but I had a great day out and I’m glad I went. It’s just that it wasn’t what I expected and many of the star attractions fell frustratingly short of where they could and should have been. The place is huge and we saw a vast number of different things – many of them quite good, but very few excellent. I’d recommend it, but I’d want to set your expectations first.

This unassuming museum has been nearby all my life, but I’ve only just visited for the first time on the most recent bank holiday Monday. It’s hidden away off a lane near the M25 just South of London Colney, but the brown signage should you get you there as long as you realise the final turn really is into a single track lane seemingly heading off to nowhere. In fact it takes you pretty much through the front gardens of a set of delightful country houses complete with a huge mill pond and then into the small car park for the museum around a tight corner.

Dehavmosquito

It’s rather hidden away and it doesn’t look like there’s much at first, beyond a few small and slightly dilapidated buildings. However we were there much longer than we expected – a couple of hours in fact – and were really impressed. The whole museum has an old world charm, partly because of the subject matter and partly because it’s clearly the pride and joy of a lot of volunteers who keep it running. There’s no slick commercialism here, but there’s something much better: a couple of old guys restoring 60 year old wooden warplanes amid thousands of artefacts in various states of disrepair, with some pretty decent labelling and narrative to explain it to you. The old guys will happily explain it to you directly if you engage them.

Dehavcockpit

I’ve flown as a passenger in plenty of planes, but only very modern ones. It was particularly interesting to climb into the various old passenger planes to see what a flying traveller used to experience. Answer: great big comfy seats, crystal decanters, but not enough room to stand up and a toilet behind a curtain. The cockpits are quite fascinating too – all wires and pipes and switches.

Overall – a great museum that really impressed. Watch out for opening times though, and figure out where you’re going before hand! Check out the De Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre website.

I loved this book. It’s a perfectly balanced mix of life story, comedy, irony and occasional sadness all held together with Simmo’s long love of cricket. You don’t need to be a cricket fanatic to enjoy the book, as that’s not what it’s really about – it’s just the unifying theme. That said it would be the perfect gift for the amateur cricketer in particular!

There are some truly laugh out loud moments and a couple of genuinely touching parts too. Overall the book is a warm and witty autobiography of a slightly awkward everyman that simply focuses on the diverse parts of his life that were cricket related, from infancy up to present day. His other book “What’s My Motivation” looks like it promises to do the same but from the point of view of his acting career. If it’s as delightful as this one then it should be a real treat, and I intend to pick it up soon!

Swansnoozing

I like this photo, taken by me just the other evening in a small local nature reserve. Click for bigger.

Photo is Copyright me 2008, so ask if you wish to use it.

I’ve been happily beavering away with the stock install of 1.8.6 on Mac OS X 10.5, but it seemed like everyone was moving on to Ruby 1.9 so I thought I’d make the leap. Was it a good idea? More on that later, but first here’s how I successfully installed it on my MacBook, based on instructions from http://hivelogic.com/articles/2007/02/ruby-rails-mongrel-mysql-osx. That page has a good detailed commentary of what’s going on, but didn’t actually work correctly for me, perhaps because of recent changes to the code in question. My version is short and sweet too, for those that either don’t care for the whys and wherefores, or find the command lines self-documenting enough.

Ruby 1.9 Install Instructions

Note: following these instructions will install new ruby and irb binaries in /usr/local/bin. The old system versions will still exist in /usr/bin/, but the new ones will take precedence by virtue of the PATH setup noted below.

  1. Ensure the following is at end of your ~/.bash_login:
    export PATH=”/usr/local/bin:/usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/mysql/bin:$PATH”

  2. Reload that modified file so your environment picks it up (or just open a new terminal):
    > source ~/.bash_login

  3. Download and install libreadline.dylib as follows:
    > curl -O ftp://ftp.gnu.org/gnu/readline/readline-5.1.tar.gz
    > tar xzvf readline-5.1.tar.gz
    > cd readline-5.1
    > ./configure –prefix=/usr/local
    > make CPPFLAGS=-DNEED_EXTERN_PC SHOBJ_LDFLAGS=-dynamiclib
    > sudo make install

  4. Download and install latest Ruby 1.9 (or instead of living on the bleeding edge, download a tar of a stable source tree from http://www.ruby-lang.org/en/downloads/ in place of the first step below):
    > svn co http://svn.ruby-lang.org/repos/ruby/trunk ruby_trunk
    > cd ruby_trunk
    > autoconf
    > ./configure –prefix=/usr/local –enable-pthread –with-readline-dir=/usr/local –enable-shared
    > make
    > sudo make install

That’s it! Now assuming your PATH is setup as above, ruby –version should report 1.9. If not, check that ‘which ruby’ reports /usr/local/bin/ruby.

So What Next?

What next indeed! I thought I’d try and run a simple ruby app of mine to see if it worked. It didn’t, but that’s because the new ruby install keeps its gems in a different location and its cupboard was bare. I set out to reinstall the gems I needed, but I ran into some problems. Some gems just won’t install, because they have C extensions that are incompatible with Ruby 1.9 so they fail to compile during gem install. Others installed fine but then failed at runtime due to Ruby compatibility issues. There’s a great page with the major porting tips at http://boga.wordpress.com/2008/04/15/ruby-19-porting-notes/ which helped me fix most of the Ruby issues. Here’s a breakdown of my struggles:

  • Ramaze worked great as it’s been 1.9 compatible for ages.
  • The mysql gem only installed successfully by downloading the 2.8pre4 code from http://tmtm.org/downloads/mysql/ruby/ and following the install instructions.
  • The tens of gems that constitute DataMapper (my current ORM of choice) struggled. I was able to make simple Ruby changes to fix many bits, but I ran into real issues getting the database adapter gems do_mysql and do_sqlite3 to install as their C extensions are incompatible.
  • I don’t think my own code ever really got to run, so I have no idea if it’s good or not. I suspect it’s fine or requires minimal Ruby mods.

So I ran out of time and gave up as I’ve never gotten into the C extension side of things before and didn’t fancy starting. Perhaps I’d be able to sort it out if I put the time and effort in.

Overall it’s shown me that Ruby 1.9 is only worth the effort if all the gems you require are already compatible. I kind of already knew that before I embarked on this mission, but hoped that I’d be pleasantly surprised, or be able to do the porting myself with minimal effort. I was a bit disappointed to find things lagging behind as I assumed the Ruby community were eager technologists always at the forefront of each new thing! Maybe people are too busy coding solutions to their real world problems to bother with 1.9 until it’s declared official (late 2008 at last mention). I also get the impression they’ve become jaded with the extremely long gestation period for this release. Maybe I’ll try 1.8.7. One step at a time.