Friday, December 30, 2005

Joseph Finder - Company Man

I don't think that I've mentioned it before, but my job is CIO (Chief Information Officer) or super-IT manager at one of Israel's leading office furniture manufacturers. In this capacity I was approached by a lady in the summer asking me to translate some technical terms about furniture from English into Hebrew. I didn't think very much about this, but during an exchange of emails (which I remember because at the time I was in San Francisco, accessing my work email), the lady asked whether she could thank me in print for my co-operation. I reluctantly agreed, out of modesty.

As we were in America on holiday, I completely forgot about this until a few weeks ago, when a lady from another furniture company in Israel whom I know phoned me and said that she had seen my name in the translator's credits of a newly published book in Hebrew. I asked her to send me a fax of the page and discovered that I had participated - albeit tangentially - in the translation of Joseph Finder's "Company Man" into Hebrew.

Last night my family were celebrating my wife's birthday in one of Tel Aviv's shopping mall. Wandering into a book shop, I decided to see the credit for myself; the book was found, but my son found it hard to believe that I had helped. As I was feeling somewhat in dept to the saleshand who had found the book, I asked for the original English copy which was quickly located, after which I bought it.

Today I read the book. It has several things which attract me: it's about a company man (actually CEO) of a furniture manufacturing company in America, which creates parallels with my own job (even though the company described is about 50 times bigger than mine). It's also a murder story, and these days most of the fiction which I buy is murder stories (check out Ian Rankin's John Rebus or Peter Robinson's Alan Banks). It's also a long book - just over 550 pages in my edition - which means that it kept me occupied for several hours.

- Warning: spoilers ahead -
It's unusual from most of the crime books that I read in that more space was devoted to the crime's perpetrator than was to the crime's solver (ie the police detective), and even then a fair amount of the pages devoted to the detective was about her home life and not the detective process. Many times, especially during the middle of the book, I found myself wondering what the book was really about, and what the author was trying to tell me.

Of course, everything came together in the end, both the criminal and the business themes, along with surprise resolutions to everything. But that's fiction.

Whilst I think that at least one hundred pages could easily be trimmed without losing anything (do we really need to read about the CEO's son's problems at school or the detective's domestic problems?), the seemingly extraneous material allows the reader to see the characters as much more life-like and three dimensional, as opposed to characters that the book's structure requires. Did it make me care anymore about the characters?

Well, murder stories are normally written from the point of view of the detective, so it's refreshing when the author throws in material from a different angle. Rankin doesn't do this very much (although his last few books feature several cases being run simultaneously by at least two detectives, so there is always variety) whereas Robinson tends to be more varied.

But "Company Man" has two protagonists: Nick Conover, the CEO, who is engaged with problems at work as well as a murder, and Detective Audrey Rhimes, who is trying to do her job whilst being distracted by unhelpful colleagues and a wayward husband. Both are trying to outwit each other, and both are being back-stabbed at work. The extra pages try to show that both these characters are very professional whilst at work, and try (not too successfully) to show that they are human beings outside of work.

I think that the book would have been a tauter thriller had it lost this extraneous material, but it's still worth reading, even if I didn't learn much about the furniture business.....

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Brief and The Book

I know that I haven't posted here as often as I would have liked recently. There are quite a few contributing causes: what seems to be like a perpetual headache, plenty of pressure of work and a genuine lack of interesting things to write about (or maybe the headaches and the pressure are preventing me from seeing the interesting things). My favourite tv channel started its winter season with a selection of American series, and unfortunately the Americans don't produce tv shows which interest me.

Standing far ahead of these imported series is "The West Wing", which we are seeing from the sixth series onwards. It took a bit of time to assimilate the series, not only because I don't know the characters and how they stand between one and other, but also because of the rapid fire dialogue which is on a high level. The first programme which I saw was not the opening show of the series, but rather one in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders are invited to Camp David in order to sort out an agreement. Obviously this episode struck very close to home. Since then, the episodes have been more about internal affairs of the White House, which I believe is the raison d'etre of the series.

But to me, the best programme of the week - and one which is shown only once a week (most of the others have at least two repeats) - is a very low profile British television show called 'The Brief'. Obviously, being British, this show starts off with a several point advantage, but I think that it really earns one's respect. 'The Brief' is about an excellent but wayward barrister; most of the episodes are concerned with the trials in which QC Henry Farmer defends, but there is also a certain amount of time devoted to his life outside of the courtroom, and there is also some time devoted to what happens in chambers. One gets the feeling that the programme could be 50% longer and still interesting, as there are many aspects of the background story which only get partially touched.

A courtroom drama is always interesting, especially in the way that the author plays with the audience's expectations. This week's episode was about an autistic young man who is accused of killing his mother. He maintains that he didn't kill her, and autistic people never lie. During QC Farmer's examinations and cross-examinations, one is led to believe that person X committed the crime, and then it seems that person Y did it. In the end, it was indeed the autistic young man, but it wasn't murder, and was barely manslaughter.

Aside from the courtroom time, the glimpses into Farmer's personal and professional lives are also very interesting. As few people really know what goes on 'in chambers' (and I base my knowledge on playwright cum barrister John Mortimore's autobiographies), I think that this part of the story could easily be expanded whilst still mainting the audience's interest.

The first series of 'The Brief' was indeed brief and consisted of only four episodes. The programme which I saw last night was the second programme of the second series and I hope that more episodes were made.

It's quintessential British drama: no violence (maybe implied, after all we are normally dealing with murder), no sex (only implied flirtation), no bad language - just an excellent script and very good performances. The same could be said about 'The White House'.

One American series which I've tried watching is 'Weeds', which is about an American woman in the suburbs of Southern California who is suddenly widowed and has to start working in order to provide for her family. She does this by becoming the neighbourhood's pusher. Had she not considered selling her huge house and firing her live-in maid? Each episode is a bit too short, there's plenty of gratuitous bad language and a certain amount of female body parts, but basically what the programme lacks - in my humble opinion, of course - is direction. What is it really about? It doesn't seem very focused.

The only other major event in my life recently is the arrival of The Book (this shows you what sort of life I'm leading at the moment if this can be considered to be a major event). The Book (capital letters please) is the story of obscure British group from the seventies, Van der Graaf Generator. It's a very large, heavy and detailed book about a group whose name was probably only vaguely known to the masses in the seventies and totally unknown now, even though the group seems to have been an influence of all kinds of modern day musicians.

I first heard VdGG in early 1971, and whilst it wasn't quite love at first listen, there was serious appreciation which quickly lead to total involvement. Although VdGG were - for me - primarily about Peter Hammill's fantastic songs, they were also about Hugh Banton's incredible organ playing, David Jackson's saxophones and inevitably to a lesser extent, Guy Evans' drumming. The Book throws light on what happened behind the scenes, information which was never available at the time, and makes for a rewarding read.

True, I would have appreciated more material on the origin of the songs and how Hammill was even able to write them, considering the huge number of gigs which they played. Banton remarks on this at one point, but it's never followed up. I think that this might be because Hammill didn't want to get involved with the book, as opposed to the others. Also I have to admit that I am more interested in the music than most people, but then VdGG were about the music, not about the lifestyle or its players. They were certainly unfashionable, and almost everyone who listened was either there for the music, the lyrics or both.

Read more about it here.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Hello again (Kate Bush)

I see that it's been nearly a month since I was last here. That's mainly because nothing interesting has been happening to me in that time, or rather nothing which I would consider posting here has happened. I've been very busy at work and so in the evenings I'm too tired/fed-up/frustrated to write about anything.

What is interesting is the release of Kate Bush's new double cd "Aerial", which no doubt people have read about elsewhere. I was an early adopter of Kate, thrilling to the sound of "Wuthering Heights" as it issued from the radio when I was living in London in January 1978. As soon as the album containing WH was announced, I rushed down to the local record shop (situated just opposite Finchley Road underground station) and was amazed whilst I listened to the first side of "The Kick Inside" on headphones.

A year and a bit later came "Lionheart", which in some ways is better and some ways not so good as TKI, and then came "Never for ever", which as far as I am concerned was Kate's masterpiece. True, I could have done without the raucous "Violin", but the depth and variety of the other tracks took my breath away. I remember thinking at the time that the album opened up several directions and that it would be interesting to see which one Kate took.

In my opinion, "The dreaming" was a move in the wrong direction. I found that album extremely hard to listen to, which might have been an artifact of the poor Israeli vinyl pressing. Now that I have it on cd, I still don't listen to this album. "The hounds of love" was a step in the right direction, but it was becoming clear to me that I preferred Kate's more commercial material (ie "Running up the hill" and "Cloudbursting") to her more experimental/artistic songs. I even bought the record which came next ("The sensual world") but rarely listened to it; since 1991 I've only been listening to cds and I haven't replaced TSW, so it seems that I will never listen to it again.

I was intrigued by the announcement of Kate's return to the recording studio and awaited the arrival of the discs with some - but not overbearing - curiosity. And now that I have the double album and played it constantly for a week, I can come to the conclusion that I don't share the same artistic vision as Kate does. I can listen to the music and marvel at the production, but the songs don't interest me, a failing which can be traced all the way back to the very first album. To be honest, the soundworld which Kate is making hasn't changed very much since THOL, even though the technology has changed tremendously. Once she was a pioneer, now she sounds tame.

"Aerial" joins the other Kate Bush discs which reside on the back burner.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Time Traveler's Wife

If anyone's been wondering, I haven't been away and I haven't been ill. Simply, I've been suffering from some kind of malaise which removes from me any interest in doing anything, including writing about my life. Apart from that, this has been the holiday season in Israel; we work for a day and a half, and then it's a festival (day and a half at home). We then work for another two days and then it's shabbat. This has been going on for the past three weeks and will cease this Saturday, after which things get back to normal. I should also start feeling normal by then.

I've read The Time Traveler's Wife twice over this period; this is a book which I saw mentioned on Amazon whose blurb intrigued me enough to order it. I very much like this book, not only for its story but also for its prose style, which makes it a joy to read. Today was a very peaceful day, and reading the book increased my sense of peace.

I suppose that TTTW is very tame compared to some science fiction; one of my favourite SF authors is Robert Silverberg, and he has written several stories and books which are similar to TTTW. Silverberg has a good prose style, so reading him is always a pleasure. So what makes TTTW a mainstream novel and not SF? I think that it's due to the lack of plot. Not very much happens in this book. I mean, obviously things do happen as the book tells the story of the wife over about twenty five years, but there's no problem which the hero must resolve. In this sense, TTTW is similar to Silverberg's "Dying Inside", which has a similar non-linear structure, telling the story of David Selig who can read people's minds. Silverberg wasn't too sure whether DI should be categorised as SF; it's almost a mainstream story with SF overtones (for no one in the real world can read minds), and so TTTW is also a mainstream story with SF overtones.

It's not a dramatic book and it's not an intellectual puzzle (like the detective stories that I often read) and it's not escapism; it's simply a well-written and interesting novel which keeps one's attention to the very end.

On the music front, I've been on the usual eclectic round. One evening, apropos of nothing, I put "What we did on our holidays" by Fairport Convention on the stereo. This album dates from 1968, when the musicians were aged 18-24, and it was only their second recording. Apart from the brash "Mr Lacey", this is still a record to which I can listen with great enjoyment, especially the less obvious tracks such as "Book song" and "She moved through the fair". Whilst I play this album's successor, "Unhalfbricking", fairly regularly since I bought it with WWDOOH in 1970, there aren't any of Fairport's myriad albums which I play at all these days. There are many memories locked up in those recordings, and maybe I'm not always interested in reviving them (even though most of them date from my schooldays, which were far from unpleasant).

Iain Cameron wrote a very perceptive remark in his diary about a week ago:
EBTG [Everything But The Girl] - Walking Wounded - a techno extension of Amplified Heart - inevitable given the success of Missing. They seem to sit alongside Lamb as people who take the grammar of drumnbass and techno and use it within song forms. Is this a step on from what Suzanne Vega does around 1990 when she begins to bring electro elements into her songs?

Maybe that's what I've been trying to do: to take the grammar of techno and use it within song forms. The only EBTG which I could find was a disc of remixes which I downloaded. I didn't like it very much: far too much techno and four to the bar bass drums married to weak songs. The only tracks of theirs which I'm keeping for the time being are 'Missing', which was all right although not too much to my liking, and 'Mirrorball', which is better (this I downloaded from EBTG's site).

Continuing in this direction, I remembered a few songs by Natalie Imbruglia which also displayed an interesting mix between pop song and electronica, but when I listened closely, it was more like 95% pop song and 5% electronica as opposed to the 50:50 split which I thought I might find. Depeche Mode have a nice single ("Precious") being shown frequently on VH1, but I find them about 85% electronica and 15% song which again isn't good for my purposes. I find their songs incredibly weak whereas Natalie's are very strong (but not in a style which I like).

Amazon seem to think that I will like Goldfrapp although I'm not sure why. The description of their songs sounds tempting, but the songs themselves - or at least the 30 seconds which Amazon allows - don't intrigue me. I'll try and find more complete versions and then decide.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The six rings

A few inaccuracies crept into my previous posting about the Bar Mitzva year, so I thought it best to correct them now.

Mitzva is more properly translated as "a deed which has been commanded", and Jewish law has (if I remember correctly) 613 'rules for living' or mitzvot (for example, all the rules of kosher food, saying prayers, etc). Bar is the Arama'ic word for 'son', and as I wrote earlier, the age of bar mitzva is the age when the rules of Judaism become incumbent upon the son.

Many years ago, a tradition began on my kibbutz to turn the religious bar mitzva ceremony into something more suitable for the young secular kibbutznik. In time, this tradition spread to other kibbutzim and even to towns. It's called (in rough translation) "The six rings".

Imagine six concentric circles. The innermost circle is labeled "myself"; after all, "I" am at the centre of things. The next circle is labeled 'my family'; this is the level nearest to myself which isn't myself. The next circle is labeled 'my society' or 'my class'; the next is 'my community'. Going further away, we have 'my country' and to end things up, we have 'my people'. These are the six rings of belonging to each person.

Along with each ring, there are tasks to be performed; one task is a mitzva, meaning in this context that it is compulsory, and one task is chosen by the children themselves. Of course, each task is relevant to each ring. So, in the 'myself' ring, the compulsory task is a self-portrait, and yesterday evening the children chose 'personal project' as their non-compulsory task. The self portrait is not necessarily a picture; it can be a mask or a collage, in which each child tells about himself. The 'personal project' is similar to a programme featured on British television years ago: "Jim'll fix it". For example, my son is enamoured with the Maccabi Haifa football club, so for him the task could be to go to Haifa and meet with the players.

The compulsory family task is to produce a family tree; this gets easier the more children there are in each family, as the work has already been done. I don't recall now all of the tasks which were chosen; if anyone really wants to know, then they can contact me.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Bar Mitzva

I imagine that most people reading this blog will know that Jewish boys aged thirteen have a bar mitzva, but they will probably know no more than that, including what 'bar mitzva' actually means. "Mitzva" is a good deed and "bar" in this context means "someone who has" or "someone who does". So whilst it can mean "someone who does good deeds", what it really means is that the young Jewish male has now reached an age where all the mitzvot - all the deeds designated in the Jewish faith - are now incumbent upon him. In other words, the young male has now become an adult.

In traditional Jewish communities, the bar mitzva celebration boils down to the celebrant reading from the Torah (bible) during a Saturday morning service; as the Torah reading is normally sung, this can be a nerve wracking experience from a young lad whose voice is changing on a daily basis. We live on a kibbutz, which is not a traditional Jewish community, so our take on the bar mitzva ceremony is somewhat different.

One of the major tenets of the kibbutz ideology is the focus on the group and not on the individual, a focus which I am very sad to say has been dissipating over the last thirty years, and especially in the past few years. Thus there is no 'bar mitzva' ceremony per se, but rather the entire class of thirteen year olds participate in a year long programme in which they learn about themselves, their families, their community, their country and their world (the five rings), as well as performing tasks for the community (it used to be thirteen, but the number has dwindled to about eight).

We kicked off the bar mitzva year last night for the fifteen children in my son's class with a short ceremony in the hills (where each child signs his name on a declaration of intent and receives his group's tee-shirt) and a bonfire. Until a few weeks ago, the group didn't have a name, but in a preparatory meeting which they had, the name "Ofer" (gazelle) was chosen. Surprisingly I found it hard to find pictures of gazelles on the Internet for their tee-shirt design, and in the end I was forced to use a picture of Faline from "Bambi".

As both my wife and I come from religious backgrounds (hers much more than mine), we will be having a traditional bar mitzva ceremony for our son in a few weeks. But as her family won't travel on a Saturday, we're having the ceremony in the middle of the week, which will make it much easier for Nir, our son, as he will only have a small portion to read from the Torah. It's up to each family with a son to decide whether they want to have such a ceremony, and not all do so.

On Tuesday night, we're having the 'five rings evening' in which the whole concept will be explained to the children. Also that evening they will chose which tasks they wish to perform; in previous years these have included useful things such as learning first aid and helping old people, along with educational items such as visiting the Diaspora and Holocaust museums, and walking from the kibbutz to Jerusalem. Then there is the show which the kids put on at the end of the year and marks the formal end to one of the most important years of their life.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Sudoku

Sudoku seems to be the latest craze. I first came across it when we flew to the States at the end of July; the stewardesses handed out a book of puzzles to everyone and most people knew what to do with it. I successfully ignored this craze until a few days ago when my wife came home with a book and started trying to complete the puzzles.

Being the sort of person that I am, I knew that I wasn't interested in solving one specific puzzle; no, I would prefer to develop an algorithm and then write a computer program to solve the puzzles. It was clear that the algorithm needed to do backtracking; such algorithms are much clearer in the Prolog language than any other. I started working on a program, but then thought that I ought to see what's on the net; instead of inventing the wheel, I can use other people's solutions.

Googling for 'sudoku prolog' brought up this link, and 'sudoku delphi' gave me this article; unfortunately the code was for Delphi.Net and what appears to be a console application, but it wasn't difficult to turn it into a Delphi 7 app which uses a string grid to display the Sudoku puzzle. I tried this app with the first puzzle in my wife's book, and almost instantaneously appeared the solution on the screen (and my computer's cpu runs at 866 MHz, so it's hardly the fastest in existence). I checked in the book, and yes, it was the same solution. Then I tried the program with one of the advanced puzzles; the difference between simple and advanced is the amount of numbers already present in the puzzle, with the simpler puzzles having more numbers. Again, the program solved the puzzle in an instant, but the solution presented was not the same as the one in the book, even though it appeared to be valid.

There's no reason why there can't be more than one solution to a puzzle, especially if there are more degrees of freedom (ie fewer numbers at the beginning). I imagine that someone somewhere has written a doctorate on the subject, so I'm not even going to guess. I can't really see the point of sudoku.

As usual, the wiki contains plenty to read on the subject.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Getting a musical education (2)

Just over a week ago I wrote about being asked to give a fellow worker a musical education. As I wrote, I lent D. a Nightnoise sampler, in the hope that this would make clearer what kind of music she wanted to hear. If that was the goal, then I certainly succeeded, as she returned the disc to me the following day, saying that she wanted something more upbeat with vocals. As Nightnoise tend to play slowish instrumentals, I definitely made a good choice!

So back to the drawing board. What do I have which is upbeat with vocals? That's not particularly the kind of music which I like or buy. At first I was thinking of Crosby, Stills and Nash (the eponymous first album), but that sounds a bit wimpy these days. But stretching my mind a bit further led me to ... The Band, specifically the second (and also eponymous) album. Definitely upbeat, plenty of vocals and one of the best albums in history.

I brought this in to work the next day, but warned D. that she might find it slightly weird listening to at first; even today, The Band still sound somewhat out of place. But by the time the album's over, their sound seems perfectly correct, especially with "Unfaithful servant" and "King Harvest" closing the album (yes, I know that "Jawbone" comes between the two, but that track has less impact than the other two). Just listening to Richard Manuel singing about his factory closing down is enough to bring out the goosepimples, even thirty years from first hearing the song (and I was a late adapter to The Band; for some reason, I never heard them until 1976).

To my surprise, D. told me the next day that she really liked the album. The fact that she's had it for a week with no sign of its return speaks volumes. After the second album, the logical place to continue is "Music From Big Pink", but I'm not sure where to go after that. Their later albums were patchy with some great songs along with some poor ones.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Something special - Delphi rules!

I've been very busy the past few days which accounts for my absence from this blog.

Over the weekend, I was working on a new arrangement of Randy Newman's "Something special", a rather nondescript song of his from the "Land of Dreams" album. Several years ago I recorded a disc of Newman's songs, ostensibly in preparation for another Little Criminal's disc. Of those that I recorded, I thought that SS came out the best, but it was overlooked in favour of "Jolly Coppers" ("I prefer your version to mine" - Randy Newman, bless him). SS came out very shadowy and echoey, and suggested to me a new way of arranging and singing, which I tried to achieve on following recordings.

With the possibility (albeit slight) of a new Little Criminals record in the air, I thought it was time to revisit the arrangement and transform it into Reason. Whilst doing so, I learnt some new Reason tricks, which may well be old hat to seasoned Reasoners, so I won't list them here. I also tried some tricks on the vocal tracks, such as taking a track, reversing it, adding reverb then reversing it again, making the vocal sound correct but with prereverb. This sounded extremely weird, so I decided against using it on this song, although maybe a lighter touch on the reverb might have been called for.

Listening to the track with fresh ears, I notice that the major effect cuts out two bars late, which means that I'll have to correct and remix the track. Try doing that with non sequenced music.

At work, a new program presented itself to be written: basically task management. Of course, there are programs such as MS-Project which handle what we need, but they include so many things which we don't need that our modest needs will be buried under a wealth of detail. I downloaded some shareware programs which dealt more with task synchronisation as opposed to project management; whilst these certainly could do what we need, they all had problems. So I "signed up" to write our own in-house program for task management. An advantage to writing my own program is that I will be fully aware of the program's logic, which will almost certainly not be the case with an off the shelf program.

I write in Delphi, at which some people may sneer, but allows me to get a fully fledged database program running in a few hours and teaching the program new tricks takes only a few minutes. The difference about the writing of this program and most of the my others is that I don't have a clear idea of what the program is to achieve; I have an outline, but most of the work is done by trial and error. I've never done any task management, so I'm not very aware of the subject's nuances. As it's also been a busy period at work, I've been doing most of the programming at home in the evenings, which is the main reason why I haven't updated this blog.

This program also does completely different things to my other programs: it can display data in Gantt charts. This of course is the raison d'etre of the program, and working in Delphi makes it very easy when there's a ready-to-go Gantt component to drop into the program. I think that I have another hour or so coding to do and then I have a program which I can demonstrate confidently. At the moment it uses the BDE which is far from ideal, but allows me to develop at home. When the program goes into production, I'll convert it to use mySQL.

A few years ago when I had some time on my hands, I decided to learn about Linux, so I took a spare PC which I had at work and loaded it with RedHat 7.2 - now considered an ancient version. After playing with the system, I saw that it was too slow to run Gnome or KDE, so I considered what tasks I could find for it as a server. It was easy to install mySQL on it, and once I learnt how to connect to this DB from Delphi, I was up and going. My main project with this db server is one which holds presales data; previously, the users (eight or so) had been accessing a shared BDE database on their LAN, and access was slow (and totally unusable over the WAN). After converting it to use mySQL, the speed increased amazingly, even though the 'server' is a humble PC and is now being accessed over a WAN (most of the uses are 50km from me). Such is the power of a dedicated DB server over the BDE!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Fortysomething

A few years ago whilst in London, I popped into a bookshop to find something which would help me pass an afternoon whilst my wife was shopping on Oxford Street. The book which I found, "Fortysomething" by Nigel Williams, looked promising enough, but once I started reading it, I realised that it didn't live up to its promise. After a few more readthroughs, maybe in the hope that there was something that I had missed the first time around, I gave the book away.

About a year ago, I turned on the television one Saturday to my favourite channel (Yes+, not that this name would mean much to anybody), and saw that they were broadcasting some drama with an actress that I like, Anna Chancellor. I noticed that she was playing a character called 'Estelle', and the other characters' names seemed familiar too. Then it clicked: I was watching a dramatisation of 'Fortysomething' in which the characters' names had remained, but none of the plot!

I wrote in an earlier column how television productions based on books can only hope to equal the original book and normally fall far short of this target. This (40+) was a rare example of an adaptation far outstripping the original, although that was achieved by jettisoning the original story and basically inventing a new one.

So does this count? Well, yes. The adaptation of "The Rotters' Club" invented new scenes, which whilst perverting the original story, at least made sense, so I would have to allow the invention of new scenes for 40+, even if about 90% of the 'adaptation' was new.

When I flew to America at the end of July, one of the films shown on the plane was a new adaptation of Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch". The book was autobiographical non-fiction and talked about his overwhelming passion for the Arsenal football team, in a typical self-deprecating British way. Turning this book into a film starring Colin Firth was a well-executed exercise when it was done a few years ago, and whilst it didn't retain all the charm of the book, it could stand on its own. This new version, however, was set in America, and whilst it kept the basic question asked in the original, "how does a sports-mad man cope with love and family", there was basically no other connection whatsoever with the original. The male star, Jimmy Fallon, was familiar to me from 'Saturday Night Live', but didn't make much of an impression on me as an actor. Drew Barrymore was as sweet as ever, but it has to be said that the film didn't keep my attention, even when being shown in an aeroplane with nothing else to do.

I'll let you know if I come across any other examples of a tv or film adaptation improving on the original.

Friday, September 23, 2005

James Taylor and the Wikis

The Wikipedia can be a fine place to spend a few hours if one is blessed with curiosity. The other day I was researching material about headaches, trying to discover if I suffer from migraines or cluster headaches (the past week has been like one long headache, so one can imagine why I was interested in the subject); from there I read about various medications and thence onto analgesics and thence to opiates and thence to a list of musicians who have been heroin addicts. Whilst I was aware of most of the names that I recognised were addicts, there were a few that surprised me.

The fact that James Taylor was a heroin addict was not a surprise to me; I've known this for years. In fact, I had been coming to the conclusion that his "Fire and Rain" (which I mentioned a few weeks ago) was as much about his addiction as it was about anything else. I read JT's wiki page and then the page about "F&R", which gives a great deal of background information about the song. There is also a link to the urban legend which has arisen regarding this song, most of which is reasonable (but wrong) extrapolation from the lyrics, which tend to the obtuse.

When I wrote in my earlier blog about "F&R" and don't even get me started on the lyrics, I was referring to the fact that the song starts with a series of non-sequiturs:

Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this mornin', and I wrote down this song
I just can't remember who to send it to.

Although the first line is all right on its own, who are the "they"? As I was taught a long, long time ago, never use a pronoun without mentioning who it refers to. The second line seems like a complete non sequitur - who is Suzanne? What plans? Are the "they" the same "they" as in the first line? Then what is the connection between the third line and those that have come before it? The third and fourth lines make sense together, but I dislike self-referential material (eg "woke up this morning and wrote this song").

The second and third verses (which I won't quote here) seem to refer to Taylor's addiction, and the final verse seems to have nothing to do with anything else, including what turns out to be an oblique reference to a group ("Flying Machines") in which Taylor had played previously to writing the song.

When "F&R" came out in 1970, it was considered to be anthemic, although I wonder now how many people listened to the words. I know I certainly didn't. The chorus must have had a strong soothing effect on everyone. I went to see James Taylor when he came to Britain in May or June 1971, supported by Carole King and their mutual band. The only thing which I remember about the concert was that every song was finished by each member of the band jumping into the air whilst playing the final chord. It sounds really stupid writing this - and it looked pretty stupid at the time, too. I think that the concert cured me of any interest that I might have had in James Taylor at the time, and from there he only went from bad to worse.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Getting a musical education/Serotonin

A fellow worker, young and pretty, asked me the other day to recommend to her some good music. She's thinking of getting into jazz, although I don't know on what basis she made that statement. I told her that the only jazz disc that I have is the one that everybody has, namely Miles Davis' "Kind of blue".

Later on the evening, I was thinking about her question and realised that this was one of my dreams come true - the chance to 'educate' someone musically. So I started going over my eclectic collection in my head, trying to think of something which would be a good starting point. KOB would be good, but I couldn't find it. Most of my other discs are pretty strong stuff which need some form of introduction and I wouldn't like to start her off with something which takes a while to absorb.

So after much head scratching and internal debate, I settled on a retrospective disc by the Irish American group (sadly no longer existing) called Nightnoise. I've never been able to define their music to my satisfaction. They're part Celtic, part abstract, part new age and always interesting.

On another topic, I've put in a bit more listening time on Andrew Keeling's disc. I think that the only way that I'll be able to give it the attention it deserves is to rip the disc to mp3 and then transfer it to my little mp3 player; I listen to this when I go speed walking. My doctor would like me to walk three times a week for at least half an hour, but lately I've only been managing once a week. I should point out that these walks are not strolls - I average a speed of 6 km/hr which is certainly fast enough. It may not burn off many calories but certainly gets the metabolism going.

I read the other day that such exercise increases the amount of serotonin in the brain. According to Wikipedia, serotonin (a neurotransmitter) "is believed to play an important part of the biochemistry of depression, migraine, bipolar disorder and anxiety. It is also believed to be influential on sexuality and appetite". Drugs such as Prozac work by decreasing the amount of bound serotonin thus increasing the amount of 'free' serotonin. Without getting too technical, one can say that unbound serotonin is equivalent to happiness. Unfortunately, "Serotonin taken orally does not pass into the serotonergic pathways of the central nervous system, due to the blood-brain barrier preventing serotonin in the blood stream from affecting serotonin levels in the brain" (wiki again). So it's important to walk and increase one's serotonin level naturally!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Little Criminals

I'm a Little Criminal. No, this does not mean that I'm a shoplifter, but rather that I'm a member of the online Randy Newman fan club. I am told that we have just reached one thousand in number, but as is common with such online lists, 90% of that number are lurkers and have probably never posted. Whilst the list is very active, most of the postings are completely off-topic, so if such things are not to your liking, don't investigate further.

One thing which is special about the Randylist is that we have created three cds (one single and two doubles). The first was called "Mama told me not to sing" and the second "Maybe we're singing it wrong". Both of these contained versions of Randy's songs by listmembers, and both contained contributions from me. The third and brand new double cd is called "Crime doesn't pay", which is available here; unlike its predecessors, this one features listmembers performing their own material, and two of my songs are included. Unfortunately, these discs take a very long time to put together (around two years), so my contributions are now three and a half years old and sound like it.

Being a member of such a list is great if you go on holiday; my family were recently in the United States, and there we had the pleasure of meeting some listmembers in the flesh. It always amazes me that people who are shy in public and would never dream of talking to strangers (I am a good example of such a person) suddenly become voluble and talk as if to long lost friends. Of course, there are well defined topics of discussion (in this case, Randy Newman and music), but it's surprising what else comes up.

I went to an earlier list meeting in February 2004 when Randy did a short European tour. Whilst I could have chosen any of the European capitals in which he appeared. it became clear that his London concert would be the focal point for all the British LCs, as well as a few American interlopers. Someone booked a restaurant, I had t-shirts made commemorating the event and 20 of us had the time of our lives. Being well-connected also meant that we had the pleasure of going backstage and meeting Randy after the concert. That is an event which I won't forget for a long time.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Migraine

Yesterday and today

Monday, September 12, 2005

Andrew Keeling

I stumbled onto Andrew's diary about three and a half years ago when I was looking for material about King Crimson. Andrew, an accomplished composer and music teacher, had written detailed analyses about the 'In The Court Of The Crimson King' album, as well as about other pieces by KC, and it was very interesting for me to read a musicologist's views on them.

Once I had got past KC, I read that Andrew had also written extensively about Nick Drake, which led me to re-examine N's music (I supposedly saw ND in 1970, supporting Fotheringay. His name appears in the diary which I kept, but I have no memory of him. I don't remember Fotheringay either), and from there I discovered Robin Frederick, but that's a story for another time.

In his diary, AK writes about music which he has heard, walks which he has taken (he seems to be an avid weekend walker), vignettes from his teaching world and hints about his own music. He frequently writes about ideas which come to him in dreams and reasonably quickly become turned into music which is performed here or there by some musician.

The difference between reading AK on KC and AK on AK is that I've heard King Crimson's music whereas I've never heard anything by Andrew. This allows the King Crimson material to resonate within me whereas the AK material falls on stony ears. Well, that was the situation until today when an almost unmarked disk of Andrew's material came into my sticky hands.

I should point out here that although I spent four years reviewing folk music for an online magazine (where the disks are sent for free), I stopped doing so a few years ago, and so if I ever write these days that I have obtained a disk, it means that I've paid for it with my own money. No free review copies anymore.

Obviously it's too early to be writing about AK's music, especially as my ears are not tuned to the instruments used (string quartet, lutes, viols and gothic voices). Whilst one might argue that a viol is just a synthesizer with a different type of patch, the truth is that this is real, contemporary music played by real, contemporary musicians, and appreciating it is going to take some time. From the little which I've heard, it's not going to be easy.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Comments

This blog has been running for only a week, but already has managed to attract several comments. As most of these seem to be of the spam variety, I am activating what is called 'word verification for comments'. You'll know it when you see it. This should cut down on the spam, leaving only genuine comments - or at least only those which have been left deliberately by a person and not by some form of webbot.

I've also learnt how to set the 'posted at' clock so that it gives me the correct time for where I am. RTFM, I suppose.

Song uploads

I'm in the middle of moving my song uploads from www.unsignedbandweb.com to www.soundclick.com. Whilst the uploading process is much simpler at unsignedband, it's not working too well, and the size of the uploaded files is limited (well, it is if one doesn't want to pay for the storage). Soundclick's uploading process seems incredibly complicated, but there's no limit to how much material can be placed there, so I'm going to try and upload both ambient, instrumental material as well as new songs.

Here's the link to the site.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Even more about The Rotters Club: book vs tv

I've just found the BBC site devoted to the adaptation of the novel. It's interesting to read author Jonathan Coe's comments about the series, and also about the sequel -

In any case most of The Closed Circle was planned at the same time as The Rotters' Club, in the late 1990s. It was always my intention that the two books should go together - they're inseparable, in fact, because after you've finished The Closed Circle, you realise that several things about the story in The Rotters' Club were not as you believed them to be. The second book re-writes the first one, if you like.

This was a bit tough on Dick and Ian, because they were slightly in the dark about some of the plot developments in The Closed Circle, which I wanted to keep close to my chest. But in the end, of course, I had to let them in on the secrets.


But there's no comment by Coe on the fact that almost the entire third part of the tv show contained scenes invented by 'Dick and Ian', which in some cases totally perverted the story as presented in the book.

I've seen many dramatisations of books which I've read; normally I have read the books before I see the film, but there have been a few the other way round. And normally the book is much better than the film, for obvious reasons, although there are times when it's neck and neck. Apart from the obvious differences (a book generally will have richer language), books tend to be more open about interpretation whereas films tend to be much more obvious in their intention.

There was a lovely dramatisation done by the BBC a few years ago called 'Happy Birthday, Shakespeare'. One big advantage going for the screen version was that one of the protagonists was a bus driver for a tourist firm, so of course the locations were excellent. That was a fairly close adaptation of the book by Mark Wallington, although there was one big difference at a critical point (where Will holds up the tourist coach dressed as Robin Hood). The review at imdb correctly asks why that scene even exists; one has to read the book to get the answer (Will needs money in order to improve his family's life).

Of course there are compromises over length and scope of books, which are perfectly understandable. Whilst John Le Carre might set an opening scene of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' in Hong Kong, the budget will only stretch to filming in Portugal (which might have been the Pinewood back lot for all I know).

Then there are the films which make understandable what is to modern palates turgid prose (think Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy et al.). I doff my hat to those scriptwriters.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

More Hatfield, Jonathan Coe and Ben Trotter

In December 2004, I received an email from Burning Shed records, saying that there was a new release from Hatfield and the North on the way. I misunderstood the email to say that the cd would contain new material, whereas in fact it contained live recordings of material which appeared mainly on their first eponymous album. Nevertheless, I ordered the disc (paying extra money to have it signed by the band members, sad person that I am), and to my surprise this came with a booklet authored by Jonathan Coe, who wrote the 'Rotters Club' novel mentioned in my previous post. So Coe is as sick as I am.

Unfortunately there isn't much live Hatfield material around, so this disc ("Hatwise Choice") is worth obtaining if you're interested in them. There isn't much live National Health material either, but I have two performances of theirs, courtesy of DimeADozen. It's fascinating listening to this material as frequently it was performed by a different line-up to the one that recorded the pieces, with different instruments available. Thus 'Tenemos Roads', Dave Stewart's epic tale of Mars, has a guitar playing what is the vocal line on the record. These pieces were never set in stone: there are sections added and sections removed, making these live recordings an interesting commentary on the more familiar studio versions.

Now back to Coe and his books. There's a lovely bit in the first book, a speech called "Goodbye to all that". I found myself quoting it to a friend some months ago -

He held the sparkler up in front of my face and said, "Wait, wait".
I was already waiting. What else was there to do?
"Here you are", he said. "Look. What's this?"
At that precise moment, his sparkler fizzled out. I didn't say anything, so he supplied the answer himself. "The death of the socialist dream", he said....

I saw exactly the same thing as I'd seen in Stubbs' eyes the day before. The same triumphalism, the same excitement, not because something new was being created but because something was being destroyed. I thought about Philip and his stupid rock symphony and I swear my eyes pricked with tears. This ludicrous attempt to squeeze the history of countless millenia into half an hour's worth of crappy riffs and chord changes suddenly seemed no more quixotic than all the things my dad and his colleagues had been working towards for so long. A national health service, free to everyone who needed it. Redistribution of wealth through taxation. Equality of opportunity. Beautiful ideas, Dad, noble aspirations, just as there was the kernel of something beautiful in Philip's musical hodge-podge. But it was never going to happen. If there had ever been a time when it might have happened, that time was slipping away. The moment had passed. Goodbye to all that.

A real shame in my opinion that the moment had passed. Who said that changes are good?

A passage which caught my eye in the second book refers to Ben's music:

The music was complex and repetitive, owing something to systems music, but with more chord changes. There was no melodic line: fragments of melody peeped out occasionally, on guitar or sampled strings or woodwinds, before submerging themselves again, absorbed into the densely contrapuntal texture. These underdeveloped tunes were modal, like extracts from half-remembered folk songs. Harmonically, there was an emphasis on minor sevenths and ninths, giving the piece a melancholy undertow; but at the same time , an underlying pattern of ascending chords suggested optimism, a hopeful eye fixed on to the distant future.

This reads something like how I would like my new instrumental music to be described. It's not repetitive and owes nothing to systems music, but the rest seems fairly apt and appropriate. In honour of Ben Trotter, I wrote a new piece called "Ben's theme", which hopefully will be available at Unsigned Bands (see the link on the side) - at the moment I'm having trouble uploading material.

The starting point for this piece was strangely enough the end of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain". I was listening to it the other night along with a few other of his pieces and was wondering how on earth we thought he was the bees' knees in 1971. Anyway, F&R has a coda which basically is a guitar playing a C chord on one channel whilst a piano is playing a Bb major seventh chord on the other channel. These chords give a feeling of potential upset, that something is going to happen shortly. Normally the resolution would be to carry on the song in the key of C, but in this case, the song simply fades away unresolved. Incidentally, the words, especially the first verse, are terrible, but don't get me started on that. I listen mainly to the music.

This polychord gave me the idea for "Ben's theme", starting with a bass pedal point playing C, whilst the chords alternate initially between Bb major seventh and A minor seventh, before developing into something more interesting.

Playing the six ambient pieces which I have created over the past few months, I notice that many of them have sustained bass pedal points. Is this going to be a characteristic of my music?

The Rotters Club

In January 1975, I began reviewing records for my university's fortnightly paper. I vaguely remember writing to record companies and asking them to send me 'product'; I don't know how many didn't bother to answer, but I do know that Virgin and Charisma seemed only too pleased to have their records reviewed in a student newspaper.

One of the first records which I received was by a hitherto unknown to me group with the curious name of 'Hatfield and the North'. This moniker was bestowed upon them by singer Mike Patto in tribute to the road signs which gigging groups would see when leaving London heading northwards. The signs are still there, but I don't know how much effect this free advertising had on the career of the group. Anyway, I digress. The name of the record was 'The Rotters Club', which derived from one line of the opening song "Share it", although quite who or what the Rotters Club was never made clear.

The music was definitely an eye-opener (shouldn't that be 'ear-opener') for me, and I quickly grew to love it. It transpired that the bass player in this group was Richard Sinclair who had previously played with Caravan, whose 'Land of grey and pink' album I had liked from a few years before. Unfortunately Hatfield and the North didn't last that long before breaking up and reappearing as National Health, who also broke up in 1979. I still play their records with some frequency.

A few years ago, it came to my attention that there was a novel by this name, written by Jonathan Coe. The book's blurb said that it was about four teenagers growing up in Birmingham during the latter half of the 70s, which piqued my interest, although I couldn't immediately see why the book was so titled, although after buying the book and reading it, the connection became clear. One of the four teenagers is called Ben Trotter and he has a sister called Lois. Depraved minds altered their names so that they became Bent Rotter and Lowest Rotter, hence the Rotters Club. And yes, Ben goes to a concert with Lois' boyfriend in order to see Hatfield and the North.

I very much like the book because it reminds me very strongly of my schooldays. I went to a school very similar to the one described in the book, and the general milieu of school-life as described was like mine, although I finished my schooldays five years before Ben Trotter did. Whilst there are a couple of passages which don't seem to have much connection with the rest of the book (and isn't teenage life like that, with episodes which don't appear to connect?), I find that the book improves with reading.

My copy of the book (not the latest imprint) states at the back that a followup novel, "The Closed Circle" is intended, which will take place from 1999-2003. In the mean time, this sequel has been published and I bought it in July. I read it then and wasn't too impressed; I read it again over the past few days and enjoyed it more, even though it's not as good as the first book. What is interesting is the alternate explanations that Coe provides for some of the stranger events in the first book. It also occurred to me this morning that the passages in the first book which don't seem to have much relevance were inserted in order to act as hooks for the second book. Now, having read the second book, these items suddenly take on more meaning.

I'm not very good on meta-reading, ie thinking about what lies in the background of the book and making conclusions from what is not included in the book, so maybe I'm just stating what may be obvious to other people.

"The Rotters Club" was dramatised, and I've just seen the three episodes broadcast on one of our local satellite channels. Of course, quite a few changes have occurred; all parts were diminished and many parts were cut out entirely (including those parts which act as hooks). I don't mind that very much, but what I found very disconcerting was the introduction of completely new material, mainly in the third part. I wonder what impression the dramatisation would give to someone who hasn't read the book. Hatfield don't appear on screen, although I did see stage monitors with their name stencilled upon them; Ben also gives his sister a copy of the album which is seen quite clearly. Maybe that will rack up some sales for the group.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

More introductions: music and me

Music has always been a large part of my life.

I remember when the Beatles became famous (say autumn 1963); my friends and I stood in the school playground and formed musical groups on the spot. Little did it matter that none of us could play a musical instrument.... A few years later I had some tuition with the recorder and violin, but didn't really get on with them. Maybe a year later there was a year of piano lessons.

It wasn't until I was 12 (which means 1968) did I find an instrument with which I felt comfortable: the folk guitar. I learnt mainly by listening and trying out things; although I bought sheet music and Bert Weedon's 1001 chord shapes for guitar, I never had a teacher. A few years later, I thought that I was quite proficient, and began writing songs.

Although there were brief periods when I was in a "band" (most noticeably a period 1975-1977), normally there weren't any other musicians around in my environment, and so I had to develop as a solo musician. At first, this was ok as I was still very "singer-songwriter" influenced, but later on being solo became a problem, as I was no longer capable of playing the music that I was hearing in my head. As a result, I near enough gave up playing in the early 80s.

Even though I wasn't playing very much, I was certainly listening to music, and in the early 90s I joined the email pioneers in Israel when I became the proud owner of a dialup mail account. One of the first things which I did with this account was to join the original Richard Thompson mailing list and so receive daily postings from people around the world. I was surprised how well known Richard had become since I had last seen him in 1977....

Anyway, the people on this mailing list decided to produce a cassette of their performances of RT songs. Naturally, I had to join in, but I decided that I wasn't going to do a guitar based performance as almost everyone else; no, I was going to make a MIDI track. Now I know that many people are dead against MIDI, but for me, it was the ideal opportunity to realise all the musical ideas that I had in my head. All I had to do was decant them into a sequencer, and the computer would do the rest. I had an acquaintance (still do) who had a MIDI setup with keyboard and sound modules, so I went to his house, and within a few hours produced a version of 'Has he got a friend?' from Richard and Linda's "Bright Lights" album.

For the next few weeks, I listened to it, alternately appalled at the sound and excited at the possibilities. When I calmed down, I sequenced another RT song and then another ... and then I was off! It wasn't long before I was sequencing my own songs and then recording them to cassette with live vocals.

Of course, over the years, my equipment and techniques have improved greatly. Now I'm using a wonderful program called Reason, although I'm sure that I'm not using it in the way that it was intended. One of the good things about the program is that there are many ways of working with it, so whilst I might have an unusual approach, I am getting results.

After a sixteen year long hiatus, I started writing songs again at the end of 1998, and I've kept at it ever since. But whereas once I used to write by thrashing around on the guitar, these days the songs come via wandering hands on the keyboard. I find that this makes a change in the resulting song, although some of my friends find it difficult when listening to my discs to distinguish between what was written then to what was written now.

I must admit that over the years it's become harder and harder to write lyrics, so these days I'm concentrating on creating instrumental tracks only. You can find some of them at this site.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Introduction

I've been reading blogs for several years (at a later stage I'll list or refer to those online diaries which I browse daily) but until now have never considered having my own blog. Finally the day has come.

So if you're here - welcome!

A few words about myself: I'm male, I was born in 1956, I'm married with two children, and I live in Israel, although I spent the first 22 years of my life in Britain. The only thing which is important to this blog is that I was born in 1956; the other facts are just to give a bit of substance behind the mask.

What is this blog going to be about? Mainly music (that's why my year of birth is important as it colours my attitudes to music), but also computer programming, books and films. Certainly no politics.

Is it going to be interesting? I certainly hope so - as long as you're interested in the same things as I am.

I can't imagine that this diary is going to be updated daily, but certainly it will be updated every week. If there are going to be interruptions, I will try and say so in advance (there's nothing like the sinking feeling of going to a favourite diary which once was updated daily and then suddenly there are no updates whatsoever).

Until the next time ....