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.