Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ludovico Einaudi - A Rough Guide

"Ludovico Einaudi (born 23 November 1955) is an Italian pianist and
composer. After training at the Conservatorio Verdi in Milan and
under composer Luciano Berio in the early 1980s, Einaudi started
his career as a classical composer and soon began incorporating
other styles and genres, including pop, rock, world music, and
folk music."
"Einaudi composed the scores for a number of films and trailers,
including The Intouchables, I'm Still Here, Doctor Zhivago, and
Acquario in 1996, for which he won the Grolla d'oro for best
soundtrack. He has also released a number of solo albums of
piano and orchestra, notably I Giorni in 2001, Nightbook in 2009,
and In a Time Lapse in 2013." [Wikipedia]

I’ve hastily put this guide together as he is touring Australia right
now, playing in Adelaide on Tuesday. Here's his official website:

The links in the guide below are to movies on YouTube.  If the links
are blocked, try this Spotify playlist (if you have an account):

Now, the "rough guide". On a different day, I probably would have
selected different tracks. I've had to leave out collaborations and

1. Album: "Le onde" ("The waves") (1996)
Track 12: "Passaggio" ("Way")
Wonderful solo piano piece. Other highlights include the title track,
"Le onde", "Ombre" and "Questa notte".

2. Album: "Eden Roc" (1999)
Track 8: "Giorni dispari" ("Odd days")
Mostly just piano and haunting cello. Also check out the title track,
"Eden Roc", the contemplative "Nefeli", and the jazzy "Julia".

3. Album: "I giorni" ("The days") (2001)
Track 5: "Stella della mattina" ("Morning star") (Live version,
          Royal Albert Hall, with string section)
Track 9: "La nascita delle cose segrete" ("The birth of secrets")
Other standouts include the achingly beautiful tracks "I due fiumi"
and "I giorni".

4. Album: "Una mattina" ("A morning") (2004)
Track 2: "Ora" ("Now")
Track 12: "Nuvole bianche" ("White clouds")
Two other great tracks open and close the album:  "Una mattina" and
the 12 minute epic, "Ancora".

5. "Divenire" ("Becoming") (2007)
Track 2: "Divenire" (Live at Royal Albert Hall with string section)
Track 6: "Primavera" ("Spring")
Both these tracks build slowly and then accompanied by strings with
dramatic effect. There are many other great tracks on this album,
including the hypnotic "Fly" and "L'origine nascosta" ("Hidden
motives"). On this album Einaudi experimented with electronic keyboards.

6. "Nightbook" (2009)
Track 2: "Lady Labyrinth"
Track 4: "Indaco"
This album has a darker, haunting tone. Some tracks are backed by
percussion instruments, such as "Lady Labyrinth" and the great title
track "Nightbook”. Other highlights include "In principio", "Eros" and
"The Planets".

7. "In a Time Lapse" (2013)
Track 3: "Life"
Track 14: "Burning"
The latest release, including these two pieces of pure bliss. Other
standouts include "Time Lapse", "Walk", "Experience" and "Waterways".

There are many other videos on YouTube, including some great live

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, January 2014

Reviews of books read last month: a novel, three novellas, and a
non-fiction book.

1. "Angelmaker" by Nick Harkaway

Joe Spork, single and in his late thirties, barely makes a living
repairing mechanical devices from a bygone era. Most of the things
he fixes are harmless, but one day he unwittingly reassembles a
doomsday device for a client. The "Angelmaker", among other things,
distorts time and compels people to tell the truth. This triggers
panic among world leaders. It also plays into the hands of an evil
despot, Shem Shem Tsien (the Opium King), who seems to have cheated
death in his quest to "become God".

After learning that he may be responsible for the end of the world,
Spork teams up with a female octogenarian and former superspy to
thwart Tsien's plans. He enlists his late father's former colleagues,
both criminal and legitimate. Together they have to deal with shady
secret government agents and the Order of Ruskinites before they can
confront Tsien. Along the way, Spork finds the love of his life and
some inconvenient truths about his family: the double-life of his
paternal grandmother and the real motivation for his father's
criminal career.

This novel mostly succeeds in blending espionage, gangsters and
science fiction, with a dash of humour. My only major criticism is
that the ending of this swash-buckling thriller seemed a bit
contrived. Overall, I enjoyed this book, although not as much as
the author's first novel, "The Gone-Away World".

2. "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson

Having seeing several movies and TV shows based on this classic
Victorian novel, I never felt the need to read the original. As it
happens, Stevenson's novella is a bit different to how the story
has been portrayed on screen. In addition the dual nature of the
individual comprising the title characters, the novella considers
the events from two viewpoints. Firstly, there is the account by
Jekyll's friend and attorney, Utterson. The developing relationship
between the doctor and the objectionable Mr Hyde has troubled
Utterson. Why has the respected Jekyll given Hyde unfettered access
to his home and laboratory, even going so far as naming him as his
sole beneficiary? When Hyde is linked with assaults and a murder,
Utterson feels duty-bound to warn Jekyll to sever his ties with
Hyde. The doctor gets a chance to explain his side of the story in
the final chapter.

This story examines the internal struggles between good and evil in
all of us, using the emergence of pharmaceuticals to take the idea
to extremes.

3. "The Giver" by Lois Lowry

This story is set in a future where there is no war, no suffering
and no disease. All aspects of society and life are carefully planned.
Children gain additional privileges, responsibilities and toys, at
specified annual milestones. When they reach twelve years old, their
lives so far are assessed and their future roles in the Community are
assigned. For example, if a child shows skill and aptitude for
building things, he or she will be groomed as an engineer. Someone
who is good with younger children might be trained as a teacher. But
the Community is not the utopia it appears to be: people are
constantly medicated to avoid pain; feelings are suppressed and
unpleasant memories are erased to maintain emotional stability;
euphemisms are used to cover up euthanasia and death. Everyone
experiences a comfortable "sameness", sacrificing colour, music and

Jonas, the main character, has demonstrated some special skills, and
is assigned the important role of the "Receiver of Memory". He will
be trained by the "Giver", and become the sole repository of
emotional memories for the Community. Later, in times of crisis or
when difficult decisions need to be made, he may be called on to
provide advice by drawing from that memory. Once Jonas becomes aware
of what really is happening in the Community, he decides to rebel.

This novella is generally considered a young adult's book, but the
themes are challenging and universal enough for any reader. It
reminded me a bit of Brave New World, focussing on children growing
up in an apparent utopia. The author has written sequels which
further explore the themes in this book.

4. "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck

The opening lines set the scene: "Cannery Row in Monterey in
California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light,
a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered
and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped
pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of
corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and
little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."

Everybody loves Doc, a marine biologist who prepares exhibits for
various museums around the country. He's done lots of little things
to help his fellow inhabitants of Cannery Row: Lee Chong, a Chinese
immigrant, runs the local grocery; Dora Flood is owner/operator of
an establishment called the Bear Flag Restaurant, which is actually
the local whorehouse; Mack is a middle-aged layabout and leader of
"the boys", who try to do as little work as possible so they enjoy
the good things in life. Mack suggests they all throw a party at
Doc's place. But despite good intentions, things take a farcical
turn, when gatecrashers arrive, fights break out, and Doc's place
gets trashed. The people of Cannery Row decide to make amends by
preparing a surprise birthday for Doc, but will they learn from
their mistakes?

This was an enjoyable look at life, friendship and simple pleasures
in working class America in the 1930s.

5. "You Are Not So Smart" by David McRaney

Using research in psychology, cognition and neuroscience, the author
explains why we often make irrational decisions. The book contains
are 48 brief chapters, each examining one particular way we delude
ourselves. Examples include: Priming (our unconscious minds are
easily influenced by certain words and situations), Confirmation bias
(we tend to focus on things that confirm our beliefs rather than
consider evidence that challenges them), Hindsight bias (we look back
on things we've just learned and assume we knew or believed them all
along), Groupthink, Conformity, the Dunning-Kruger Effect (we're bad
at estimating our competency and the difficulty of a task), the
Bystander Effect, and Learned Helplessness. The author presents the
results of many pivotal studies and experiments that helped verify
our various cognitive biases and delusions.

If you're interested in this subject matter, I recommend you listen
to the author's podcast, named after the book:

Overall, this is a great introduction to cognitive and evolutionary
psychology, exposing the many foibles of our minds. We're not as
smart as we think we are. But that's ok, we're only human. I look
forward to reading the follow-up, "You Are Now Less Dumb".

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, December 2013

Reviews of books read last month: two novellas, a novel, and two
non-fiction books.

1. "Indian Nocturne" by Antonio Tabucchi

The narrator is an Italian nicknamed Roux (short for "rouxinol",
Portuguese for nightingale). His friend, Xavier, went missing in
India. Roux, determined to find out what happened to Xavier, travels
across India, retracing his friend's steps. He starts in Bombay
(Mumbai) on the west coast, crosses the country to Madras (Chennai)
on the east coast, then ends up back on the west coast in Goa. He
encounters a wide spectrum of Indians and their culture: poverty and
luxury, rural and metropolitan settings, and diverse religious
beliefs. He travels by taxi, boat, train and bus, meeting some
interesting locals and foreigners along the way.

A contemplative novella, which incorporates philosophy and literary

2. "Annabel Scheme" by Robin Sloan

This book is set in the near future in San Francisco. Annabel Scheme
is a private investigator, specialising in cyber and occult cases
(usually simultaneously). Search giant Grail (loosely modelled on the
advertising company we know as Google) has its HQ, called the Shard,
in a trendy part of town. The brief use of a network of quantum
computers generated a "quantum cloud" around the Shard, and the area
became known as Fog City. Strange things happened there: for example,
people could randomly pop in and out of existence. Annabel, with the
help of her virtual assistant Hu, start off investigating why a long-
dead singer's voice can be heard on what appear to be brand new
recordings. This case is solved quickly, but more weirdness lies
ahead when the Falafel King is murdered, then appears to live on in a
multiplayer online game set in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.

Lots of other interesting ideas are presented in this novella,
including augmented reality, a website called (think
eBay, except for selling organs to demons in return for favours), and
the ghost of a man, electrocuted in 1879, who lives in the the city's
electrical grid.

3. "Three Men in a Boat" by Jerome K. Jerome

Written in 1889, this novel is about of a group of hypochondriacs
who decide to go on a two-week boat ride and camping trip along the
Thames. The narrator's mischievous fox terrier, Montmorency (Monty)
goes with them on their comical adventure. But first they need to
agree what supplies to take with them, which leads to amusing
arguments. The book is part travelogue through historic Thames
sites, including the alleged site of the signing of the Magna Carta,
and various inns that Elizabeth I and other historical figures
apparently visited. When they eventually get on the boat, they get
themselves into some funny situations, compounded by their rather
delicate natures. Many digressions describe other events in their
past, and provide further insight into the lives of the three men
(and the dog).

I guess the style of humour is not everyone's cup of tea. But at
least it's a relatively short novel, and it does include some
interesting historical and cultural tidbits.

4. "Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception"
   by Claudia Hammond

This book looks at the psychology, neurology and physiology of time
perception. It includes results of scientific studies and anecdotes
from people who's perception of time have been altered, including a
journalist kept hostage for four months, a base-jumper who experienced
a life-threatening situation, and a man who voluntarily spent two
months in a dark ice cave. Factors affecting our perception of the
passing of time include: fear, depression, fever and boredom.
Different people have different internal concepts of time and how they
move through it. The book also considers why a watched kettle appears
to never boil, and why time seems to speed up when you get older. The
author proposes the "holiday paradox": time flies when your having an
enjoyable holiday, but novel experiences create memories that make the
holiday seem longer in retrospect.

A deeper review of the book:
The author's RSA talk:

5. "Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes" by Maria Konnikova

This book shows how the adventures of the fictional detective
Sherlock Homes can help us become clearer thinkers. The author
argues that Holmes' metaphor of the "brain attic" is borne out by
modern research in psychology and neuroscience. The book covers the
brain's two modes of thinking, System 1 and System 2, relabelling
them as System Watson and System Holmes respectively. System Watson
provides immediate and automatic responses, often triggered by the
fight-or-flight part of our brain. System Holmes involves more
considered analysis, is slower with a higher energy cost, but is
often more accurate. Distractions, including multitasking, affect
our thinking. Sherlock's use of mindfulness can improve our critical
thinking. Cognitive biases also distort our thinking. We can adopt
Sherlock's techniques of introducing some distance, keeping an open
mind and remaining objective can help overcome biases.

A deeper review of the book:
The author's RSA talk:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, November 2013

Reviews of books read last month. Three novels (two of them by
Australian authors), and a non-fiction book about information and

1. "The Rook: A Novel" by Daniel O'Malley

A woman wakes up in a London park on a rainy night, surrounded by
dead people wearing latex gloves. She's lost her memory, but soon
finds the first of many letters from her pre-amnesiac self. She is
Myfanwy Thomas, a high ranking official (a Rook) of the Checquy
Group, a paranormal secret service agency charged. She was warned
by a psychic that she would lose her memory, so she made
preparations. It turns out her memory was wiped because she was
close to exposing a traitor in the Checquy Group. Knowing this,
she could just leave the country, take up a new identity and stay
out of trouble. Instead, she decides to find out more about who
she was, resume her job and go after the traitor. She rediscovers
she has a frightening superpower (which explains the incident in
the park), but lots of other people in the country have special
abilities too. And to complicate things further, the Belgium-based
Grafters, long-time adversaries of the Checquy, have resumed their
centuries-old goal of invading the UK.

This is a very imaginative and amusing debut novel by a Canberra-
based public servant. The characters are complex and intriguing,
with a well-executed plot.

2. "They're a Weird Mob" by John O'Grady (as Nino Culotta)

Italian journalist Nino Culotta (not his real name) is sent on
assignment to Australia to report on how Italian migrants are
settling into their new lives. It's the 1950s, and he arrives in
Sydney, with the intention of travelling around the country for a
couple of years to write regular pieces for his newspaper back in
Milan. He gets of to a rocky start, quickly discovering that the
"proper" English he learnt back home is not that helpful, and
he'll have to learn the Aussie lingo if he wants to fit in. He
does write some articles, but he finds he likes Sydney so much
that he wants to settle there himself. He gets a job as a builder's
labourer, makes some new friends, and eventually gets married.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I agree it is a witty
portrayal of the brand of English spoken by Australians in the
1950s. But I didn't find the central character authentically
Italian. I also expected more insight into the migrant way of
life, but that wasn't the point of the novel. Perhaps what grated
the most was the author's insistence that the Australian way of
life was perfect, so "New Australians" should forget all their
old ways and just blend in. That reactionary attitude sounds
simplistic and short-sighted given the rich contributions from
the different waves of migrants over the past 60 years.

3. "Emmaus" by Alessandro Baricco

This is the story of a group of four teenage boys and their loss of
innocence. The narrator and his friends Bobby, Luca and the Saint
were brought up with very Catholic values. They were in the church
band, and spent their spare time helping out at a nearby hospital
for poor people. Things were going pretty well, they even had
girlfriends. Except the Saint, who wants to enter the priesthood.
But then they meet and become obsessed with Andre, a girl from a
wealthy non-believer family. She has a carefree attitude, sleeps
around and even tried to kill herself. Andre believes she and her
family are cursed. A strange relationship develops between her and
the boys. Unfortunately, things start going wrong for the boys,
bringing drugs, death and disgrace for some of them.

I enjoyed this short novel by an award-winning author and screen-
writer. The characters were relatable, as they dealt with issues
of faith, devotion and sin were tackled. I also found the contrasts
and interactions between believers and non-believers interesting.

4. "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood" by James Gleick

This books takes a sweeping look at the history of information. From
the humble beginnings of transmitting messages over distances using
drums through to the modern day, where Google and others constantly
collect and analyse our digital activities to find out what we want
before we know ourselves. Despite changes in technology, many of the
same issues recur, such as how to ensure accurate and efficient
transmission. The book reminds us that abbreviations like LOL and
emoticons had precursors in the days of the telegraph. Information
is not just encoded in our devices and communication methods.
Subatomic particles and genes are information carriers. Ideas (or
memes) also convey information, and some theorists believe they too
are subject to the survival of the fittest. The book also looks at
issues such as information overload.

Overall, a generally accessible and comprehensive book, from a
respected science and technology author.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, October 2013

Reviews of books read last month. Only two books completed this time,
though I'm part way through two more.

1. "The Pearl" by John Steinbeck

This novella is set in an impoverished Mexican fishing village during
the 1940s. Kino is a pearl diver, who lives with Juana and their baby
boy, Coyotito. Kino dreams of finding the largest pearl in the world,
which will save his family from poverty and his son will be able go
to school. When he does indeed find an enormous pearl, it brings out
the worst in the other villagers: envy, opportunism and eventually

An interesting and cautionary folk tale about how a realised dream
can quickly turn into a nightmare.

2. "Shift" by Hugh Howey

This is the second book in the post-apocalyptic Silo or Wool series.
It is set before the events in the first book, between 2049 and 2345.
It describes how a network of silos was secretly funded by US power-
brokers. One of the main characters is a newly-elected congressman
and former architect, who was recruited to design a silo. Initially,
he has no idea what is really going on. When the bombs fall, he is
ushered into Silo 1, and put into deep-freeze. Over the centuries,
he is awakened from cryo-sleep to work short "shifts" to advise at
critical times. Each time he learns a little more about the origins
and real purpose of the silos.

Reading this prequel, it becomes clear why the trilogy started in
the middle. If you're intrigued by the series, I'd strongly advise
reading "Wool" first to avoid spoilers. I hope to read the final
instalment soon.