Sunday, January 15, 2023

Mendelssohn & Monet

I was listening to a favorite symphony this morning, Mendelssohn’s Fourth, the Italian Symphony. The first movement is as sunny as I’ve ever known it to be in Italy, even in Tuscany. I started wondering about all the little details that make it sound that way, and I decided to have a look.

Recently I have rediscovered a free music notation software called MuseScore. Version 4 was released late last year, a major upgrade in many ways, especially the orchestral sounds that are bundled with it. It can render audio from a score with astounding realism, though there are occasional glitches and instruments that don’t sound so perfect. Of course it will improve -- and it’s already amazing. The quality of the “engraving” (the way music is presented on the page) has also greatly improved, sometimes to the point of beautiful (see example taken from a PDF below). And did I mention it’s free?

I wondered if any of the many users on might have entered and shared the score for the Italian Symphony. Someone did, at least for the mostly sunny first movement, and they did an excellent job. I downloaded it to my PC and listened with headphones as the score scrolled in time with the music. Still beautiful and even more amazing to watch as the notes and dynamic markings turn into music.

I listened again, this time selecting individual instruments or combinations to see how the pizzicato on the celli played against the fast tremolo on the second violin and viola, and how high melodic fragments in the woodwinds brightened the sound with splashes of color.

Hearing the parts in isolation, it was clear where Mendelssohn had left holes to be filled by other instruments. And how he had used the dynamics from p (soft) to fff (very loud) to vary the texture and and create contrast.

Texture, splashes of color, contrast -- these sound like visual references, and for some reason I thought of Monet’s Water Lilies series. I’ve been lucky to see a number of those amazing works in the US and in Europe over the years, most recently at the Kunsthaus Museum in Zurich in 2016. A room there displays three of the gigantic paintings.

I’m not a painter, but whenever I see any great painting, I will get close and marvel at how very small or even tiny applications of paint have combined to create the overall look of the painting, in whatever level of detail the artist chose to depict.

Artists clearly must learn to keep “the big picture” in mind as they work on the small details, but in the case of the Water Lilies, the big picture is really big. The Water Lilies I saw in Zurich are 6 meters in width and 2 meters tall. I visited Monet’s home in Giverny many years ago, and I have seen photos of the artist working on these gigantic canvases in his large studio, so I have some sense of the environment in which he worked. Clearly, he could only see a small part of the canvas as he worked on it. This “artistic scaling” of thousands of brushstrokes into a huge, coherent, and beautiful painting still seems like magic to me.

I feel much the same about the way Mendelssohn and other composers can conceptualize a large, complex piece like a symphony and then construct it from thousands of notes and other musical elements. Until recently, this could only be done by writing the score on paper and having musicians play it. A piano might serve as an aid in trying out harmonies and rhythms, but the only way to “hear” the interactions of multiple instruments would be to “play it” in your head from the written score. This is a skill that experienced musicians may develop, but not me, unfortunately. Luckily for my composing efforts, there are now tools like orchestral sample libraries, recording software like Studio One, and of course notation programs like MuseScore 4 that will allow me to hear a score at any point in its development without needing this skill.

It’s always fun to find connections among my various interests, and to be reminded of a wonderful place like Zurich. Hard to believe that was almost seven years ago. I’d love to go back. I’m also happy that MuseScore 4 has come along to help me explore some of favorite music in more detail, and to even create some of my own.

Saturday, July 09, 2022

England Aviation Vacation, Part 2

After I got back to North Weald Airfield from my “Castles & Coasts” flight down to Dover, my taxi friend Ali drove me back to Epping Station and I caught a train for Cambridge, stopping for the night at Duxford, the site of another Imperial War Museum at Duxford Airfield, the biggest air museum in Europe.

My Tiger Moth lesson flight was set for 3 PM, but I entered the IWM at 11 AM on a beautiful, clear morning so I could explore the hangars and ramps brimming with historic airplanes.  In the Air & Space hangar I found many favorite jets including the Vulcan bomber, the swing-wing Panavia Tornado, and the Concorde, which I walked through.

In and around the other hangars I found Spitfires, Hurricanes, a PBY Catalina, and a WWII twin-engine RAF Mosquito made mostly of wood, among many others! I walked into a hangar where workers were rearranging aircraft for the upcoming airshow. I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but I spotted an RAF Eurofighter Typhoon before they kicked me out.

In addition to all the amazing ground exhibits, several of the flight performers for the weekend Duxford Airshow were rehearsing their acts low over the runways. Practically a private airshow!

There was a great Battle of Britain exhibit with Spits and Hurri’s and a crashed Messerschmitt Bf-109 in addition to a recreation of the control rooms where they directed those epic aerial battles in 1940 using telephone and radar reports, with a big map table where they pushed around markers to track friendly and enemy aircraft positions.

I loved the American hangar where dozens of huge airplanes were parked and hung from the ceiling, starting with the big iron – B-52, B-29, B-24, and B-17 as well as all the major fighters from P-51 to F-15 and even the Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird.  

Before my Tiger Moth lesson, I had also signed up for a 15 minute flight around the airfield in the Dragon Rapide, a small passenger biplane from the late 1930’s. This was great because I got to take some good aerial shots of Duxford which wasn’t possible in the Tiger Moth (no personal cameras). It was also very cool to taxi out next to a Hurricane fighter!

Finally it was time for the 40 minute Tiger Moth lesson I had booked months before. I had to empty my pockets for the open cockpit flight (and to remove any competition for the in flight video they would later sell me). I donned a leather helmet, headset, and goggles as well as a fleece-lined leather jacket. I was strapped into the front seat, and after a radio check, we took off on the grass and headed southwest.

Clear of the airport area, the pilot soon gave me the controls for the cruise and a few turns. The stick forces were amazingly light (the pilot was likely trimming for me), so “fly with two fingers” worked quite well. Instruments were minimal, and the forward view was obscured by the nose, so I used the left and right lower corners of the windscreen as reference points to keep the wings level with the horizon. Visibility was otherwise excellent, and I enjoyed the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside from 1500-2000 feet. We flew over several towns including Royston, as well as the radio telescopes of the Millard Radio Astronomy Observatory, just 5 miles SW of central Cambridge.

After landing, exhausted from hours of walking around huge Duxford Airfield, I took a taxi into Cambridge and checked myself into my apartment hotel for the remainder of my stay. It was a great little flat although I wished I picked one a little closer to central Cambridge. I spent Friday morning exploring the excellent  Fitzwilliam Museum, although I mainly visited the art galleries, including a special David Hockney exhibit.

I didn’t have time for the many galleries of Egyptian, Greek, and other antiquities because I was keen to get to the pub for lunch and a pint of DNA. Specifically, a pint of DNA Ale at the Eagle Pub, famous as the place where James Watson and Francis Crick (above left) popped by from their nearby lab in February 1953 to announce that they had discovered “the secret of life,” otherwise known as the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. They were regulars so they shared the news at the pub prior to actual publication.

After lunch I signed up for a “guided punt” on the Cam River. This classic Cambridge experience takes you for a couple of hours up and down the Cam, gliding serenely along the “backs of the colleges” of Cambridge. The weather remained perfect, and our punter guide was quite informative and funny as he related history and gossip from ancient up to modern times.

By Friday evening, walking had become very hard, and I soon found the reason – two enormous blisters on my big toes. Although I did my best to treat them, it was clear that another 5–8-mile day at the airshow the next day was not going to be feasible. I texted my regrets to the friend I’d planned to meet there and spent Saturday relaxing and looking at pictures. It was cloudy and raining, but fortunately I had a kitchen and had bought some food and beer, so survival was not at stake.

By Sunday and Monday my first aid and foot padding strategies allowed me to venture out with the help of buses and taxis to minimize my steps. I went out to eat and explored two small but historic museums. The Sedgwick Museum is one of the oldest in Cambridge with a focus on paleontology and geology. The museum also had an excellent exhibit on the life and scientific accomplishments of Charles Darwin. Always a Darwin fan, I really enjoyed this exhibit and all of the fossils and displays at the Sedgwick.

Finally, I spent an enjoyable couple of hours at the nearby Whipple Science History Museum which was dominated by my old specialty, optics. There were hundreds of telescopes and microscopes from various periods, as well as a fascinating collection of globes.  

I recently read a brief biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen. In it, the author describes the various reasons that it took over 20 years from the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836) to the publication of The Origin of Species (1859). A big chunk of that time was devoted to detailed studies of barnacles. Why? At the time, little was known about barnacles, and Darwin thought he might spend a year or so identifying and organizing barnacle species. This might aid his understanding of variation in characteristics between closely related species, as well as contribute to zoology. It turned out to be more complex than he imagined, taking eight years and four books to complete to his satisfaction. Barnacles are small so a microscope was his constant companion, and that very microscope is on display in the History of Science Museum (above).

My flight for Boston was Tuesday evening, June 21, and I planned to take a National Express bus from Cambridge directly to Heathrow. But I had forgotten about a planned rail strike that day, and when I went to book my ride, the only available seats were on the 5 AM bus, since rail travelers were using every available option to get to London. Oh well, I can kill ten hours at an airport. 

But there was a further adventure in store when the bus failed to show. So I shared a two-hour taxi ride with three other Heathrow-bound travelers who were congenial and funny. It was a wonderful vacation, right down to the last near-disaster.

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

England Aviation Vacation, Part 1

For the last two years, virtually all my travel has been… virtual. I’ve spent countless hours exploring the world in Microsoft Flight Simulator, either on my own or in online group flights with friends from California, Australia, Finland, and other places, each of us firmly anchored in his or her office or living room. While this has been great fun, it doesn’t quite match the thrill of real flying, even with the help of an excellent VR headset. But one of these days… 

On June 9 I departed from this pattern and departed from Boston on a real United flight to London Heathrow. I spent nearly two weeks in England, first in London and then in Cambridge, exploring a few of my favorite simulator haunts for real. I stayed in London proper and used buses and trains to get around the city and out to the suburb of Epping for two amazing Cessna 172 cross country flights from North Weald Airfield. The photo below is the "M" bus stop from my Bermondsey flat kitchen window. My daily starting point was luckily close at hand. 

I then moved to Duxford, just south of Cambridge, where I spent a day exploring the enormous Imperial War Museum at Duxford Airfield and flying in two historic biplanes, a Tiger Moth trainer and a Dragon Rapide, a small passenger plane active in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I spent the remainder of the second week in a lovely flat in Cambridge, exploring the historic city on the ground. 

I’ve been to London many times over the years, usually on business, once on vacation with my wife, who decided this time that COVID wasn’t quite “post” enough for her to feel comfortable traveling. But she encouraged me to go and scratch my aviation itch, so I started planning back in March. In addition to the flying, there were a few museums I wanted to visit. And parks. And pubs. 

The first museum I explored was the HMS Belfast, a WWII-era Royal Navy cruiser now anchored in the Thames close to Tower Bridge and my temporary neighborhood. I’ve always been fascinated by ships and their history and the Belfast was great for that. The Tower Bridge and the London skyline looked stunning from the upper decks of the Belfast. 

Later that Saturday I took a bus to Trafalgar Square to attend a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the surprisingly small church of Saint Martin in the Fields. I’m not religious, but the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Orchestra and Choir gave a heavenly performance of Mozart’s final masterpiece. 

Next up was a Sunday afternoon Cessna 172 flight from historic North Weald Airfield to the even more historic Duxford Airfield, just south of Cambridge. The plan was to land at Duxford, but my instructor couldn’t get approval for the landing, perhaps due to preparations for the big air show the following weekend. So we just circled the Duxford/Cambridge area before heading back towards London. It was a bit hazy and we couldn’t see much in detail, but I got to do all the flying on the 1.2 hour flight other than the landing and radio calls. 

Of course, there’s more to history than airplanes and war, but my next stop was the main Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London. There were a few cool airplanes on display, as well as many artifacts and explanatory exhibits, with a major focus on WWI and WWII. I’ve read a lot of history, but I was reminded of and saddened by how much the descriptions of Hitler’s brutal actions in the 30’s and 40’s coincide with the recent actions of Putin in Ukraine. 

In Flight Simulator, you are free to ignore airspace and safety restrictions, so I have often (virtually) flown low along the Thames and around the historic buildings and high rises of central London. This is not possible IRL, so I decided to ride the London Eye and take a River Thames tour to get as close as possible to my sim viewpoints. The Eye views were wonderful, though I wished I could see around the river bend to Tower Bridge. The boat took care of that nicely as we passed under the bridge. 

On Wednesday, June 15, I went back to North Weald for my 2+ hour “Castles & Coast” C172 flight down to Dover. For this one, I was in the right seat since the tour route was planned for right-hand turns around the points of interest. 

We flew down to the Thames, circling historic Tilbury Fort, then followed the coast to the east and southeast to the fabled Cliffs of Dover and Dover Castle. As my instructor John and I flew low over the lush countryside of Kent, we circled lovely Leeds Castle and flew close enough to Canterbury for some nice views of its famous cathedral. I kept thinking of "Cambry" in the post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker I read many years ago. That strange and wondrous book takes place in the area. 

I let John do most of the flying so I could focus on the sights and take pictures. Back at North Weald, I took a taxi and caught a Cambridge train, stopping for the night at Duxford, the site of another IWM at Duxford Airfield, the biggest air museum in Europe (that's North Weald in the photo below). 

Up next: Duxford flights and a pint of DNA with Watson & Crick...

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Earth Simulator (with Airplanes)

I've resuscitated this blog to write occasionally on my continuing infatuation with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. If you've read any of my earlier posts, you will know that I am a lifelong "airplane nut" and that MSFS does a very good job of simulating the experience of flying an airplane, as well as any simulator I have tried that doesn't move. It's actually better in most ways than the few I've tried that did toss me around in a small capsule with a screen in front (I have not yet tried a full motion simulator with VR, which could be great or sickening or possibly both). 

Even after hundreds of hours in the simulator, I am still finding new and wondrous things in the experience, and especially in the beautiful visual world as modeled within the simulator. As I have noted elsewhere, it is the combination of cloud computing, fast internet connections, fast computers, and advanced graphics processing that makes it all possible. Modeling the entire planet requires petabytes of data that can be selected and streamed "on demand" to your PC or XBox. There it is combined with flight modeling, weather modeling, sound modeling, and more to create the 25-60 high-res images per second needed to fool you into believing that you are in control of an airplane moving at extreme speed. One for each eye if you are in VR. 

I sometimes like to fly amphibious planes so I can land in water or on a runway. If I'm using Live Weather or if I decide to crank up some wind at ground level, water operations can be challenging. 

I devoted an earlier post to my amazement at the way light and weather are modeled in the sim, but sometimes I find new surprises. as when I was flying a silver PT-17 Stearman biplane near the Phare de Gatteville on the north coast of France, just after sunset. As I circled low around the lighthouse, the rotating beacon illuminated my wing, and the reflection was blinding! 

Even as I have started to take some real-life refresher lessons in a Cessna 172, I continue to be fascinated by what is really more of a dynamic "Earth simulator" than a "mere" flight simulator. 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Mind the Power Lines!

Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) continues to provide a range of enjoyable distractions as I explore various corners of the world, usually in VR and often with online friends who share the virtual skies with me while sitting in Australia or Finland or wherever they may be. Recently I did some flying in Wales with my friend "MiGMan." We tried out a new "low and slow" airplane on his flight plan from Cardiff (EGFF) and then went back to our usual Italian jet trainers, this time with a new custom paint job. He has posted excerpt videos from our flights here, here, and here

The Edgley Optica is a slow, rather bug-like airplane with great visibility through its bubble canopy. Quite nice to fly in VR. In lieu of a copilot, it offers animated pets, a dog and a cat. Fortunately these can be turned off with a switch. The image above is a screenshot from one eye of my VR headset. The per-eye field of view is pretty small, but since the left and right eye images are offset and overlapped to produce a 3D stereo view, and since the view continuously updates as I turn my head, the headset gives a convincing illusion of a 360-degree world around me with no sensation of "tunnel vision."

Although VR is great while flying, it doesn't produce the best screen shots and videos, so I often use my wide screen when I want to take pictures. I'm experimenting with offset "GoPro camera" views like the one above, flying low over the Welsh countryside while avoiding terrain, radio towers, and power lines like those shown here. 

Here's another "GoPro" shot from the tail of the aircraft while in a loop over Cardiff. 

Formation flying in multiplayer is an interesting 3D motion problem. While 250 knots is slow for a military jet, you can get separated pretty fast at 4+ miles per minute. So you really need to pay attention to your throttle, trim, and position, making frequent small corrections to stay in sync with the other aircraft. This is a VR frame that was cropped. Fortunately the resolution is high enough to allow this, roughly 3100 pixels square for the HP Reverb G2 headset I use. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator lets you use location-based "Live Weather," or you can choose any weather and time of day you like (you can also choose the date which gives you the proper sun position for seasonal lighting changes). For multiplayer flights, we usually choose decent weather with few clouds and mild winds. But if you're up for an IFR challenge, you can fly in a thunderstorm if you like. We took a look here and went back to mostly blue skies. 

Microsoft continues to update MSFS with new content every couple of months. Just last week they released a big "Iberia" update with new and enhanced scenery for Spain and Portugal. Looks good, but I've been more focused on the UK because of a "special project" coming up in June. I'll write more about this in the coming weeks.