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Archive of posts tagged with Travel

The first adventure of Clavilux

October 9, 2011


On September 1st, when we were finally able to sit back, relax and be entertained by wonderful playa friends who stumbled upon our lit-up piano and played Joplin, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Yann Tiersen, Mozart in return for beer and margaritas, it was all worthwhile. There were some truly brilliant moments of music and light in Illumination Village this year. But getting Clavilux to the desert was a bit of an adventure…

Just to backstep a little, here’s a short video of where I’d got to just before carefully packing the electronics and into a suitcase in late August:

Clavilux does jazz lights from Simon Pearson on Vimeo.

There she is, up and running with a string of 50 LED pixels for each octave. Pressing a note in that octave triggers lights to shoot down the string (the colour depends on the note). It took a lot of effort (as described previously) but she was good to go.

Never let it be said that Burning Man is a holiday, whether you’re lugging along an art project or not. I arrived in San Francisco on the Friday before BM started (I also missed, and then un-missed my flight, but that’s another story), managed to spend one day relaxing and hanging out with friends up in Napa wine tasting, and then went in to full-on prep mode.

Buying the piano had been pre-occupying my thoughts as the budget was pretty tight. Having scoured craigslist, I had imagined an arduous search, trundling our creaky van far and wide around the bay area. Then I discovered the nice people at Piedmont Pianos in Oakland. They stock some incredibly beautiful grands made by Steinway and Kawai which I naturally swooned over. Of course, with a low-three-figure budget we were swept past these and into the basement to see a veritable treasure trove of old pianos, piano-rolls and organs, all in various states of lovedness. Right in the corner there a 99-year-old Netzow upright, made in Milwaukee, who looked and sounded great. I knew she was the one pretty much instantly. Four poofs, a piano, and a dolly later, and we had her in the back of the van.

Checking the tuning

After some inevitably lengthier-than-expected stops at Home Depot, Motel 6 in Reno (where we washed out a fridge freezer in the car park…), Walmart and Whole Foods to stock up and have one last nutritious, freshly made meal, we drove the long, straight 120-mile stretch to Black Rock City as the sun set. We hoped to be in camp by about 9pm but the queues were so long we didn’t drive into the city until about 2am. We made a lot of friends on the way in, though, joined a couple of parties and were treated to remixed Radio 4 by DJ Raindog.

Forecast - hot & dusty

Setting the piano up the next day proved a little tricky. In what turned out to be the only dust storm I shut myself in the truck, took her apart and laid the sensors in the keybed. As the temperature increased, so the electronics became more and more janky to the point where I’d calibrate one octave, put the keys back in, test, move on to the next, go back to check the first and none of the sensors were responding any more. It was a truly frustrating, hot afternoon. I came back the next morning and about 75% of the piano worked, so I think the heat and dust combination was not good for the sensitive PNOScan light sensors (to be fair, it was probably operating out of its tolerance zone at about 39°C).


Wiring everything together took a couple of hours more and I was getting pretty tired – lord knows how the crews of Aurora, Tympani Lambada, Temple of Transition etc coped working for hours on end in the heat. But it worked, the lights illuminated and changed colour when people played, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The music began to flow, and that really made it. A few people gathered now and then for a rendition or two. It was a lovely thing.

Our beautiful 99-year-old Netzow piano

Our little piano bar in the mid-afternoon heat

After enduring a bumpy 400-mile ride in the back of our budget truck, and then daily temperature swings of 30C, our poor old piano was beginning to sound a little honky, but by coincidence we were camped close to a piano tuner Oscillator who had his equipment handy – she was tuned every day we were in Black Rock City.

B'anna plays Clavilux (photo by Matthew Smith)

My beautiful second piano now has a year of sitting in a lock-up in Reno getting gradually more out of tune, ready to hopefully come out to play again some time soon…

I learned loads during this little summer project. How to solder properly, build circuits, quickly run and debug arduino projects, how to hook multiple arduinos together, how to drive long strings of LEDs, how to process MIDI quickly. If I were to start all over again I’d keep things a little simpler (I spent loads of time on the knobs to change the colour of the LEDs, but in the end I decided not to use them in the desert as they got in the way of the music), bear in mind that less assembly required in the desert the better, and also that the conditions there are pretty brutal for home-made electronics. For example the next thing for this project is to try and use pressure sensors instead of light sensors for more reliable sensing. I’d also document more and make more video along the way.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that making things is bloody loads of fun, and putting smiles on other peoples’ faces is infinitely rewarding. I got chatting with a lovely deaf girl Eli who swung by in the afternoon, and her eyes lit up when I explained how the piano worked. It’s a new way of directly interacting with music that isn’t solely about vibration.

A friend sent an email after we’d returned from the desert which made my day:

Didn’t get to see you guys again but just wanted to say thank you for a magical moment I had care of your lovely piano on the night of the burning man. I was doing one last bomb around the playa on a borrowed bike and swung by to see if you folks were around. Sadly you weren’t but 2 people were sitting at the piano playing – one was a young woman with a lovely voice. I just sat on my bike listening to the wonderfully clinky clanky piano and her soft but beautiful singing with the backdrop of lights and fire and sounds and smells of the playa. Still with me now.

Thanks very much to all the people who gave advice and helped me along the way, Jack Butler from midi9, Ross from Piedmont Pianos in Oakland (I wish I could stop by for a recital!), Jake, Matt and James for doing a lot of heavy lifting and dolly maneuvres (cue the Four Poofs and a Piano jokes), Denise for helping me think about how to display it (although in the end the piano we found was so beautiful she remained pretty bare), Ben and Andy for their noob electronics help and parts.

Lastly a little video of a girl named Rachel who came along and played a little improv for us whilst we were packing down our camp (thanks Tom for this).

Onwards and upwards! If you want a little demo I’m going to set it all back up on the piano at my house :) Bring wine and I will let you have a play :)

Victoria line closures in iCal format

September 21, 2008


I recently moved to Finsbury Park, and luckily the weekends have been nice enough to afford drinking tea outside on our teeny teeny little roof terrace thingy. Tea good.

Victoria line being off is a slight nuisance though, and it causes all kinds of woe when people want brave the tube and come round to share in said tea.

Because I’ve yet to find one, I’ve created an iCal of the closures up to November on the Victoria line only, compiled from the not overly parseable pdf of planned track closures on their site.

The next things I will do with this are:

  • Add evening closures
  • Write to tfl and ask them nicely to provide their own iCal version of the skanky pdf document of closures on
  • Update the calendar to include closures to March 2009 done
  • Add the others lines’ closures (whilst waiting for tfl to do their own thing)

Download the Victoria line closures calendar (iCal) now

Update March 1st, 2009: the calendar now includes all closures through to November 2009.

Belated thoughts on my second trip to Glastonbury

July 1, 2007

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What’s brown and sticky? A stick. Oh, and also British music festivals in the summer. Aah Glastonbury and the British weather. You can’t beat it.

The wishing tree

So some aspects of this year’s festival were no better than my last experience: planning and successfully executing toilet trips was a thankless task; the food ranged from the sublime to the revolting (never again shall I have a yorkshire pudding at a festival – it’ll be made of discarded flip-flop); the crowd was fairly homogenous despite the “multi-cultural” vibe; good music was plentiful yet people still insisted on playing Zombie Nation at 4am on ghetto blasters; and the mud – which oddly was at its worst and welly-stealingly gloopy when the rain stopped which made me secretly glad of extra rain.

But there was so much good stuff – art for art’s sake, impromptu jam sessions, random acts of generosity, a sense of suspended reality, random encounters with long-lost friends.

Opposite the Other stage before Arcade Fire

And then there’s the music – the sweet music! We tried to avoid the main stages a bit so as not to miss the dodgem diner, the space bar, the rabbit hole and all manner of weird and wonderful tiny things. We saw and heard, in rough order, and with fairly meaningless marks out of 10: Rod Thomas (7), Lana (4), Modest Mouse (4), !!!, Bloc Party (6), Rufus Wainwright (9), Arcade Fire (9), Bjork (8), Andi Neate, Guillemots (4), CSS (7), New Pornographers (8), Calvin Harris (6), The Maccabees, Patrick Wolf (10), Rodrigo y Gabriela (4), David Saw (6), Andy Parsons (9), Bill Bailey (8), Dame Shirley Bassey (10), Manic Street Preachers (6), The Go! Team (9), Radio Luxembourg (9), Gruff Rhys (9).

Two other things I should mention: firstly the guy in the next tent who snored ferociously in a slightly tuneful way (other tenty neighbours referred to him as Dinasour Man), and secondly Giles’ storming impression of the Bassey in a pink blanket when we were in the never-ending queue to leave the site in sideways sheets of rain. Priceless.

John Peel tent

A small question about the law

June 28, 2007


When I were a lad, before TFT monitors and widespread broadband, I was a till boy for a well known and avoided high-street retailer. It was a happy time. I wore a stylish red badge and winsome pastel green tie to work. The smokers’ staffroom was nicotine yellow. Occasionally I cleaned shelves. I wrote a diatribe on cash desk etiquette. Happy days.

One thing I learned (aside from how to block out the sound of Billy Big Mouth Bass) was that if you accidentally advertise a product at a lower price than is the case, you must honour the lower price. This keeps customers happy.

So I’m in a situation: I reserved a hotel room and received written confirmation of the price (from the hotel receptionist). Four days later I received a further letter from the head receptionist (as though to underline the gravity of the matter) stating that the room will be 25% more expensive for the duration of my stay, and that they’re sorry for the inconvenience.

Are they allowed to do this? My sad sinking feeling is yes, but you’d’ve thought their company policy would be a bit cleverer than that…

Ephemera from the North

May 29, 2007


Having spent a couple of days visiting Sheffield and Wrexham, I have returned with:

  • A beef and mustard sandwich
  • A Sega Mega Drive in original box with one controller and Sonic The Hedgehog
  • A 61-key Yamaha keyboard
  • A midi hifi system from the shallow depths of 1999 with two(!) tape decks, minidisc *and* three CD changer
  • A new set of Fall Out Boy lyrics: #this ain’t a scene, it’s a goddamn arms race part-time ostrich
  • A new-found appreciation for running in hilly areas
  • A mental map of Glossop Tesco
  • Some pictures of me wrestling a cat:

I is in ur lounge... pwning ur trousers... I has lick ur face!!!1All of the above are up for grabs. Drop me a line if you’re interested!

Update: sandwich has gone. Yum.

Belated thoughts on my first trip to California

April 23, 2007


Some notes on my trip to California:

Stranger than Sherrybaby
So I was watching Stranger Than Fiction on the trip to LAX, and getting quite engrossed in the lightweight story about Harold Crick (played by the affable Will Ferrell) and his love interest Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) when all of a sudden, Ana – a Harvard dropout who has opened a cake shop – turns out also to be a single mother with a bit of a drug problem. Deep! Mysteriously, she has also become the film’s main protagonist. Will Ferrell and his comic relief are nowhere to be seen. I start to feel a bit uncomfortable. Ana’s situation gets worse when she is forced to go into rehab. 20 minutes pass before I realise that the generously-sized german man next to me leaned on the remote, flipping me from Stranger Than Fiction to Sherrybaby without me noticing. Note to British Airways – don’t put two Maggie Gyllenhaal movies on adjacent channels please (I know that wide-enough seats is rather too much to ask)

Weatlh gradients
So in London you can be walking down one street where the houses are worth millions, turn the corner and end up in some of the roughest areas of the city. The same is definitely true in California – San Diego and LA are both cities where haves and have-nots live on completely different planes. However, nowhere has the difference between wealth and poverty been so raw as in this picture of myself sitting next to the brilliant Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of

Simon and Jeff at ETech 07, originally uploaded by plasticbag.

… is what I spent a large proportion of last week saying whilst playing Werewolf. I blame the Sonic Body Pong pioneer, Tikva Morowati (who incidentally has the most infectious laugh known to man)

“That’s out of hand”
Apparently this means “that’s rather silly and slightly unbelievable”

… this means “very good indeed, old chap”

Normally I consider myself to be reasonably technically au-fait, but this conference blew me away. From the lovely Marc Escobosa who showed me how to use my MacBook like less of a n00b, to Scott Berkun the project management guru, to Danah Boyd whose insight into social networks is incredible – all these people and more made me realise just how much good stuff is out there and how much I need to catch up.

In terms of scenery, this train journey is pretty awesome, travelling through some pretty bleak parts of LA before hugging the coast with largely uninterrupted views of the Pacific. Beautiful stuff. I stopped off on the way back from San Diego to LA at the imaginatively named Oceanside – which is right next to the ocean. The locals sneered at me (pasty and carrying a laptop and a scraggy backpack) and I couldn’t shake my booty with the beach bums and bumettes (is that a word?) but fun was had nonetheless.

My first-ever glimpse of the Pacific ocean, originally uploaded by minor9th.

Hi, my name’s Stereo Mic
Drinking several Surfers on Acid in Rick’s bar on Main St in Santa Monica messed with my head rather a lot. I lay the blame squarely on Kerry, who also surreptitiously got me into watching Top Design, playing Wario on the Wii and cycling along the beach. None of which was half bad at all. Yay Kerry.

Getty outta town
The Getty Center is a billion-dollar beauty, impossibly located a million miles away from sidewalks on a hill overlooking Bel Air (I walked through a very American Dream neighbourhood to get to it). The tour guides are called docents, which means they are more knowledgeable but also more cynical, which was fun.

Santa Monica pier is a busy place at night
Unlike its portrayal by 24 – in Season 5 there’s a bit of a chase on the deserted pier in the 9-10pm hour. I can report that it’s a misleading episode! Loads of people around. All on the ferris wheel, too.

Pacific wheel on Santa Monica pier, originally uploaded by minor9th.

Hollywood history museum
… was slightly disappointing. Sorry guys – but despite being located in the old Max Factor building, and having a hell of a lot of Cool Stuff From Films (including ruby slippers and Brokeback Mountain shirts) I was a bit weirded out. The little old lady at the front desk was way too excitable, too.

I want that one
I’ll forever be baffled by the people who, at baggage reclaim, wander up to the most conspicuous bag on the carousel (you know, the red one with the pink polka dots and pictures of sausages stuck on it), paw the sides, grasp the handle, check the label tag, and then decide it’s not theirs after all. I refrained from collecting photographic evidence as I thought some burly anti-terror policemen would come and bop me on the nose.

So I totally fell in love with the Californian lifestyle. If I could
do something about my ineptitude with motor vehicles and the extreme whiteness of my skin which makes it reflect all sunlight, perhaps I’d have a chance of living there. In the meantime I’ll hang on to fond memories and bask in London’s freakishly beautiful springtime.

Do forget your toothbrush

April 8, 2007

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Americans replace their toothbrushes on average only 1.9 times per year. Grim. But how often do they go out of town, even for a day or two? Forgetting your toothbrush and having being forced to buy a new one might end up solving all sorts of problems to do with plaque nasties.

Just a post-travel, pre-Easter-chocolate-fest thought…

Things to see and do in California

March 12, 2007


In a little under two weeks, I’ll be flying the furthest I’ve ever flown in my life: to San Diego and Los Angeles, spending roughly a week or so in each. First I’ll be attending ETech , attempting to expand my mind with some wholesome thought food, and then I’ll be taking over a sofa at Kerry’s place in LA, being a terribly awkward and pale tourist.

Once again, I issue a call for people to suggest cool things to do – I’m not well travelled in the States, and at the moment the only pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned have come from a 1998 Rough Guide which I picked up for 50p at Notting Hill Exchange. It was a bargain, but I don’t want my life to depend on it…

All change, please

November 13, 2006


This morning, a four-mile journey to work took me an hour and a half. As previously documented, I could have completed the journey a third quicker on foot. So here’s a useful tip for anyone living in London who’s had similarly miserable experience – lousy journeys can be claimed for online using tfl’s customer refunds system. It’s not particularly friendly, clever or easy to find, but at least it exists.

(Journeys such as these have been made more bearable with a gripping novel or two…)


September 15, 2006

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Feet dangling in the sunset

Following a week under blazing mediterranean sun I have acquired no less than 6 brand spanking new freckles in a sea of red (and soon to be peely) skin. I’ve a marginally rested head full of mental images of clear seas and silliness – some of which I captured for perusal on the ever-mighty flickr. Hoorah for hols.

Unrelated grimness: does anyone know what happened to that guy who said he was going to cut off his feet live on a paid-for webcast? Did he ever actually do it?


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