Thursday, April 27, 2006

Enjoy your metropause

I stumbled upon a website called 'I love reading' a few weeks ago, which as one might imagine is a site devoted to books. What is good about this site from my point of view is that one is able to read the first chapter of most of the books, which allows one to form a good opinion of the book's qualities and the writer's style. Amazon has something similar, but for only a small selection of books; also ILR allows the chapter to be downloaded as a pdf file, whereas Amazon displays a non-printable first ten pages on the screen (and those ten pages often include a title page and a contents page, so it's not even ten pages).

I went through the different genres and read a few opening chapters of books whose description had caught my fancy. It's just as well I read those chapters, as most of them solidly dissuaded me from even thinking about purchasing the books. But in the biography/autobiography section, I stumbled upon a minor gem - "Tales of the country", by Brian Viner. This is the story of a family that undergoes the metropause, which can be defined as the midlife urge to leave the city, to swap a tiny garden for several acres and to exchange the sound of hooting traffic for tha of hooting owls. If I hadn't done this myself nearly thirty years ago, I would be tempted to do so now.

After reading the opening chapter (which as usual gives a slightly misleading hint as to the tone of the book), I resolved on the spot to order the book. The recommended retail is seven pounds 99, but lovereading were prepared to sell it for five pounds 99. Out of curiosity, I checked the book at British Amazon, where it was selling for only three pounds 99. As ordering one item is normally not cost effective regarding the packaging, I decided to get an item residing on my wish list - the dvd of the second season of "William and Mary".

The book arrived on Sunday, after a few days after my order. Reading the first chapter again was revelatory as I discovered that the online version was slightly edited from the real thing: not enough to make a real difference, but disconcerting none the less. I read the book all the way through (as I always try to do with new books) during the course of one evening.

The book is throughly entertaining, as one might expect from a newspaper columnist (Viner writes for The Independent as well as freelancing), but on finishing the book I was left with a slight taste of disappointment in my mouth. To be sure, the book did tell about the Crouch End family moving to deepest Herefordshire and how they passed their first year, but a large amount of the material was anecdotes which came from the mouths of the odd collection of characters that the Viners met in their new abode. An uncharitable person might consider this to be padding.

Viner comes off as a lower quality Bill Bryson, which is a shame as he could have written a lot more from his own (or from his family's) perspective instead of always settling for the bon mot. The name of Viner's column is indeed "Tales from the country" (although it only became this after he moved), and he paraphrases some of the items which appeared in the columns along with their responses. Although a collection of the columns might be considered simple recycling, printing a few ad verbatim might have produced more original material which could have replaced the borrowed anecdotes - unless of course the columns themselves contain the same stories.

Minor carp aside, I can definitely recommend this book to anyone who has heard the siren call of the metropause as well as anyone who enjoys Bill Bryson or countryside anecdotes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Creaking bones and aching muscles (Slouching towards Jerusalem, part 2)

Our kibbutz is situated just before the Judean Hills begin, whereas Jerusalem is situated on several hills (and naturally is surrounded by valleys). Thus not only did we walk 28 kilometres on the ground, we also rose 600 metres in altitude - and those 600 metres were much harder than the 28 kilometres!

The route started actually a few kilometres from the kibbutz, opposite Moshav Eshta'ol, and the first (and very easy) kilometre was to the Holocaust Martyrs' Forest. Before the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem was established in the 1960s, this forest had been the official Holocaust memorial site. All along the path there were plaques saying that this grove had been planted by the X family in memory of Y who died in the Holocaust, and this grove had been planted by the A family in memory of B. We held a short memorial ceremony at the small parade ground, thus anticipating the official Holocaust Memorial Day (which is today) by a few days.

From there, we walked through the forest to a spot near Moshav Kisalon, all the time gaining in altitude. Here we were given a talk by one of our kibbutz founders (and a grandmother of one of the children) about her experiences in the Jerusalem corridor, prior to and after the Declaration of Independence in May 1948.

We then spent about another four hours walking (and having frequent breaks, including lunch) before arriving at a spring and pool called Ein Limon ("the lemon pool"), which is the Hebraicized version of the original Arabic name. The children had time to freeze themselves in the small pool which is fed by the spring, before we were introduced to the youth leader of the neighbouring Arab village of Ein Rafa. He told us about the village, its history and its small population. It transpires that one of the remaining tasks for the children is a series of meetings with the children of Ein Rafa. I imagine that there will be two meetings: their children will come to the kibbutz for an afternoon and ours will go there for an afternoon. Although our children learn Arabic at school, they only started this year, so they won't be able to say very much to the other group.

The weather had been good all morning: cool with a breeze. After lunch, it heated up and the first hour after lunch was slightly unpleasant. But after Ein Limon, the temperature dropped again which was just as well as the next leg of the walk, albeit only slightly more than one kilometre in length, was also the hardest as we ascended a couple of hundred metres!

This stretch brought us to a grove in the foothills of Kibbutz Tzuba. Here the advance party had already prepared dough, and once everybody had recovered from the walk, the children started baking pita bread over a fire. Later on, all the parents (those who hadn't walked with the children) arrived, bring a magnificent dinner, and much fun was had around the campsite. I, unfortunately, found it very difficult to join the gaiety as I had a severe case of dyspepsia, probably caused by forgetting to take my daily anti-stomach acid pill in the morning, and exacerbated by the immense physical effort needed for the last kilometre. It was also extremely cold and I had neglected to bring any long clothing for the evening.

Quite a few parents camped out with the children that night, but I had previously announced that there was a limit to my masochism, and I slept in my own bed that night. But I was up again the next morning at 6am to be taken to the campsite along with a few other parents who had done the wise thing.

After breaking camp, we walked in the direction of Hadassa hospital, stopping to eat breakfast at another natural spring, Ein Sataf ("Ein" means 'spring' or 'well' in Hebrew), where we were given a talk by a representative from the national nature reserve company ("Keren Kayemet"). As there was clear, flowing water, there had been an extensive Roman villa in the area as well as a small village, although in later years the village had been dispersed. In the 1980s, the Keren Kayemet had started rebuilding the area, and now it is a fine document of how people once lived: stone buildings and agriculture fed water by hand-manned canals.

Ein Sataf is high in the hills, overlooking Hadassa hospital which is on another hill. So of course we had to go down before we could go up again. The first part of the trail from Ein Sataf to a roundabout near Hadassa was very pretty, but we had to walk in single file which spread the party out over quite a distance. Once we had descended to the valley floor, the path was very wide - and the sun was also making itself felt.

From the roundabout, we didn't turn right to Hadassa (which would have been out of our way); instead we carried on straight ahead and climbed a small hill in order to get to the Arab village of Ein Kerem, which is on the outskirts of Jerusalem. This village has been gentrified over the past thirty years and is quite a desired residence. Most Saturdays - and we were there on a Saturday - it is full of Israelis taking a spot of nature and eating a meal in one of the many outdoor restaurants in Ein Kerem. We marched through the village and stopped at a picnic site on the far side (the side closest to Jerusalem), where we too had our lunch, freshly bought from the restaurants of Abu Ghosh, an Arab town to the west of Jerusalem well known for its humus and felafel.

After partaking and resting, there remained just the small task of ascending to Mount Herzl, which is the Israeli equivalent of Arlington Military Cemetery: all the (dead) Israeli presidents are buried there, along with other luminaries such as Herzl himself as well as Yitzhak and Leah Rabin. This stretch seemed to be never-ending: it was probably about two and a half kilometres long, but again we ascended some five hundred metres at the same time. The sun was also making itself felt, making this stretch very hard (but not as hard as the previous day).

Eventually we arrived at a memorial site for Raoul Vallenberg, which is just behind the military cemetery. Here we were greeted once again by all the non-combatant parents along with siblings. After we had got our breath back, we had a short ceremony presided over by one parent acting as King David: all wayfarers who arrive in Jerusalem by foot are traditionally feted with challa bread and salt.

From there we walked another four hundred metres or so (will this walking never stop, I ask myself) to the cemetery and thence to Yitzchak Rabin's grave where we held yet another ceremony. After some readings and songs (the heat had caused my guitar to go completely out of tune), a representative of the Jerusalem City Council gave us a speech and presented each of the children with a certificate, commemorating the event.

From then it was home, drink, food, shower and bed. A once in a lifetime experience (although some parents have done it more than once). I'm pleased that I took part and I'm pleased that I won't have to do it again!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

First aid

On Thursday afternoon, just after 2pm, two people came into my office. "Come quickly", they said. "We need first aid". As I did a three week first aid course in the army (25 years ago!) with occasional refresher courses, I seem to be the first call for any first aid needed in the factory. We walked briskly to the factory floor where I was shown a man, who for all intents and purposes seemed to be asleep.

I checked his pulse (which was maybe a bit high) and breathing (fairly obvious as he was making snoring noises), and that's about the limit that my first aid training could handle, except for the next part: call an ambulance!

After ten minutes, in which no ambulance appeared, someone called the clinic on the kibbutz, and after a few minutes our doctor (who was fortunately at the clinic) and two nurses appeared. First they administered oxygen and then the doctor began to check the patient: stethoscope, reflexes, etc. It was then that the diagnosis became apparent: a cerebral incident, or stroke.

After another ten minutes (which seemed like eternity), the ambulance arrived, and its crew took over from our clinic staff. Apart from inserting a cannula into the patient's arm and administering a dose of valium, they only measured his vital signs, and basically concurred with our doctor's diagnosis. A few people helped us transfer the patient to a gurney, and then he was into the ambulance and off to hospital.

I was informed on Friday morning that he had died during the night.

Everybody did what they could, but I get the feeling that there wasn't very much which could have been done. I was on the scene within a few minutes, and although I didn't realise it at the time (it's not often that I see someone in this condition), he was probably already gone and nothing could reverse what had already happened.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Printer ate my fours

I've just had a really weird experience: after working on an Excel spreadsheet, I sent it to a communal printer to be printed. The output looked very strange, and it took me a while to realise what had happened: every '4' in the spreadsheet had not been printed!

If I were someone who knew nothing about computers, I might assume that all the '4's contained in the printer had been used and that there were none left to print my document.

I send the document to another printer and this time it came out ok.

The question still has to be asked: what happens when another user sends a document to the four-less printer?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Strumming the guitar - stage one

Programming realistic guitar strumming into a MIDI file is very difficult. Played on a keyboard, such a chord might consist of three or four notes, all them starting simultaneously and with the same volume. Apart from the trivial fact that a guitar has six strings and so any chord produced will be musically different from the basic keyboard version, a strum cannot play each string simultaneously. The notes have to be staggered by a varying amount and will have differing volumes. There are upstrokes and downstrokes, meaning that the resulting arpeggio will have notes played in a different order. Also downstrokes (from top string down to bottom) tend to be quieter than upstrokes. This is why there are very few realistic sounding guitar parts in MIDI files which one can download from the Internet, and virtually no guitar parts whatsoever in any of my files.

Two and a half years ago, being aware of some of the above problems and thinking it about time that a guitarist have some guitar parts in his MIDI files, I started work on a program which would export a MIDI file containing notes purporting to come from a guitar strumming a series of chords. Apart from defining a mechanism allowing the user to enter chord shapes, I didn't do very much with the progam, and it's lain abandoned ever since.

I was reminded of it the other day after deciding to purchase a library of MIDI guitar strumming. Obviously, one gets what one pays for, and 15 pounds sterling didn't get me very much. On the other hand, there wasn't much of a choice: most of the programs and libraries which I saw were either for the Macintosh or as add-ons to sequencing programs that I don't own.

The library itself consists of several pairs of files, each file containing one strum pattern for several chord shapes (the second file in the pair consists of the same pattern for more exotic chords). I tried creating a sample song, in order to get an idea of what the files were like when I ran into a fairly major problem: a song is going to have a chord sequence, which means either copying the strum pattern for one chord and then editing it, or copying a bar from one chord followed by a bar from another chord. This might be practical (if rather tiresome) but for one problem: in order to make the strums sound realistic, they would often start before the beat. Copying and pasting would not only be tiresome but would also involve a fair amount of tedious editing, moving several notes backward in time.

It's a shame that the library creators didn't think of this: starting the first note of the strum on the first beat/tick of a bar. Although this wouldn't be very realistic, it would at least allow the user to create a proper chord sequence, which could then be moved back eight or twelve ticks and thus attempt the realism.

I was considering editing the library to achieve the above (and may still do) when I remembered the strum program which I had tried to write. In preparation for the MIDI export part, I had analysed several simple MIDI files as well as perusing the MIDI specification. I had even written a small program which exported a MIDI file containing a four note staggered chord; this was enough to show me that writing a strummer program was going to be much more difficult than I had originally imagined. When sequencing MIDI, one places the notes on the stave where one wants them, defining their length - just like writing music on manuscript paper.

But a MIDI file is not like that at all: it consists of events (such as note on and note off), where each event has a delta time - the number of ticks before the next event. This might be manageable when programming a monophonic instrument such as a flute, but is exceedingly difficult when trying to program a guitar, which could have six 'instruments' playing simultaneously, although each with its own start and stop time. To do this properly requires laying out all the events on a time line and then figuring out the delta time for each event, not a trivial exercise.

Then there are variable length quantities - a strange concept to a veteran Pascal programmer, used to values such as 127 and 129 requiring the same amount of storage. I suppose the idea was to minimise the amount of data flowing between different MIDI machines which were communicating at a rate barely capable of maintaining the latency required. One forgets that the MIDI format was initially developed to allow machines such as analogue synthesizers to communicate with other machines, such as tape recorders; it was not developed as a file format for programs to output music from a sound card on a computer. Anyway, the variable length quantities means that 127 can be stored in a single byte, whereas 129 has to be stored in two bytes (of which the first has to have its most significant byte turned on, even though it's not part of the value); total anathema to Pascal/Delphi requiring a very low level of programming to get right.

I analysed one bar of a strumming pattern for one chord: this had 46 separate "note on" events! After listing them on paper, I calculated their delta times and then hand encoded the data into a test program. I ran the program and looked at the resulting MIDI file. My sequencer barfed on it (as the Americans would say). I went to sleep and dreamt of MIDI files.

I woke up with the answer of my lips: my test programs had all had a length of less than 127 bytes, so I could get away with a length of one byte. The test program was longer and so needed two bytes for storage (but not in the same format as a delta time longer than 127 ticks!). Once I got that sorted out, along with a few other minor problems, the test program actually worked!

Until now, I had been looking at the internals of the MIDI file with that venerable tool left over from DOS - Debug. One of the major drawbacks of using this program was that I couldn't print a dump of the file being examined, essential for further study. So I wrote a hex dump program which sends its output to the printer. Yes, I did look on the internet for such a program, and although I found one which seemed suitable, it didn't print a chunk of the file - a strange bug. So what the hell - ten minutes work and I had a simple hex dump program.

Then came the fun of integrating my test program into the guitar strum program. The MIDI part was actually quite successful and barely needed changing. The major problems were in parsing the chord sequence (harder than I thought), getting the appropriate chord shape and then translating the chord shape (which would be fret numbers, ie 022100 for E Major) into MIDI note numbers. Eventually all these problems were solved.

So stage one has been done. It's easy to list now the things the program doesn't do.
  1. I need a mechanism for allowing alternate chord shapes for the same chord name (eg 020000 and 022030 for E minor), let alone using chords in higher positions
  2. What to do with chords which don't use all six strings? Diminished chords immediately come to mind, but there are plenty of others.
  3. The program 'knows' only one strum pattern. I'll have to 'teach' the program other patterns (which probably means laborious translations from MIDI data), as well as having to figure out a mechanism for choosing which pattern to use.
  4. Chords are on a strict one-per-bar basis. How can I do half bar chords? This might actually be left for editing within the MIDI sequencer.

One idea which I am considering is taking the actual MIDI output from the library and converting it into some canonical form of length one bar, where the notes are represented in some totally illegal to MIDI but easy to substitute form. When a bar of E is called for, the sequence is poured into temporary storage, with notes from the E chord being substituted for their place holders. If the next bar is A, the same process occurs, but of course different notes are placed in the note on/off events. This technique will enable me to avoid the laborious and error prone method of calculating the delta time for each event, which can be even more difficult if the strum pattern tends to the staccato (the one which I translated by hand had continous - legato - notes without pauses).

I now need a week for further cogitation on the subject.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Slouching towards Jerusalem (part one)

On Friday morning, my son's class will begin walking (or should that be slouching?) towards Jerusalem. The distance is about 30km, and the march will be spread over two days. I hope that the weather stays like it is now - cool with a breeze; this makes walking so much easier and enjoyable. I'll be walking along with them.

My daughter's class did the same route five years ago, so I know what it's like and how it starts. Unfortunately I pulled a thigh muscle towards the end of the first day and so had to retire hurt; I missed the grand entrance into Jerusalem on the Saturday afternoon. After pulling the thigh muscle I then developed an infected tooth which caused me a great deal of pain and resulted in root canal treatment, but that's another story. I just hope that history won't repeat itself.

The walk covers two of the class's tasks: the walk itself to Jerusalem (which culminates in a harrowing visit to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem) is one task, and the overnight stay - which will be sleeping outside around the campfire - will be the other.

I'll report on the trip next week.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Weird weather

We haven't quite got to the 'four seasons in a day' state, but the weather this year has been extremely weird.

Normally spring and autumn - the most comfortable seasons - are extremely short; each one lasts maybe one month with very changeable weather.

This year, the winter was fairly mild, and more importantly, fairly dry. As we are still a somewhat agriculture based economy, a dry winter wreaked havoc with the crops.

Spring officially started a few weeks ago with the equinox, although we had already felt the change about a week before that. Since then, however, the weather has gone wild. On Friday, the temperature was 36.5 degrees Celsius in the shade; extremely hot and unpleasant. Now, less than 48 hours later, it's only 15 degrees outside and raining heavily. A change of 20 degrees C in two days: no wonder I get flu so often from this changeable weather.

I'm not sure that this rain is even good for agricultural purposes as there aren't any crops in need of it at the moment. Of course, it won't go to waste and will save us having to water the garden for a week, but the timing could have been better (had it been a month earlier, for example).

I live in a peculiar local area regarding rain. If one drew a 3 km radius circle around my kibbutz, one would find that the annual rainfall within that circle is much lower than the rainfall just outside the circle. This fact was apparently known in ancient times, which is why the neighbouring town is called Bet Shemesh, the house of the sun. The sun won't allow the rain to fall. I don't mind this too much as I have an aversion to the rain, but as someone with agricultural connections, it's not too good. Fortunately, a fair number of our fields are outside the circle, so they enjoy a reasonable amount of rainfall.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Sitting shiv'a

Most of what I know about Christian burial rituals comes from the excellent tv series "William and Mary" whose three series have been broadcast here. The eponymous William is an undertaker, and whilst the series starts with the awkward problem of how an undertaker can get a date, it shortly moves on to showing a variety of funerals. The most striking thing for me was that the funeral can take place whenever the mourners so desire, and in one case the funeral is held at least a week after the death.

Such is not the Jewish tradition (and neither the Islamic, I believe). No, we bury the dead (no cremation) as soon as is possible. Sometimes a funeral will be delayed for a few days if a relative has to return home from overseas, but generally speaking a funeral is held either the same day of the death or the day after (Saturdays and holidays excluded, of course). After the funeral service, a family will sit shiv'a (seven) - for seven days (not including Saturday, again), the close family will sit at home, and receive all the well wishers. For the family, it's a chance to remember the dead and to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. For well wishers, it's a chance to pay one's respects properly (especially if one wasn't able to come to the funeral) and also a chance to pay tribute to the departed one (sorry for the euphemism).

The only catch with the above system is Saturdays and holidays. Whilst the shiv'a is only suspended on a Saturday and continues on the Sunday, a holiday brings the shiv'a to an early end, and should a funeral be held during the interim days of a holiday (and Judaism has two such seven day holidays), then no shiv'a is sat whatsoever. This is because a festival takes priority over mourning.

The reason for all the above will shortly become clear. Tomorrow night is the first night of Passover, and for seven days we will celebrate the festival of freedom. My mother died four years ago on the first day of Passover. Since then, the festival has been tainted for me. The timing this year is the same as it was then: Wednesday first night, Thursday national holiday, Friday short day, Saturday. We could have held the funeral on the following Sunday, but decided to have it at short notice on the Friday afternoon. As the funeral was held during the Passover holiday, there were no words said at the burial (save the words of the service itself), and we didn't officially sit shiv'a.

To make things worse, both my wife's family and some of my distant cousins have the 'Cohen' surname, and a Cohen is not supposed to enter a graveyard (unless to attend the funeral or memorial service of one's parents, siblings or children), so there weren't even any family members present at my mother's funeral.

One of the worst moments of my life was having to telephone people to tell them that my mother had died and to invite them to the funeral. But I had it comparatively easy compared to my brothers in law when my father in law died. As my mother died in hospital, all I had to do was give the death certificate to some official in the hospital; we have a graveyard in the kibbutz and someone arranged for the body to be brought from the hospital to the graveyard. My brothers in law had to deal with the release of the body, acquire a burial plot and arrange for transport, as well as nominally having to arrange a meal for the mourners after the service. All of this is exceeding strange at the best of times and bewildering at a time of mourning when all one wants to do is close one's eyes and wish it all to disappear. This is the job that William is so good at.

Yesterday I came home to find my wife talking on the telephone. It transpired that one of my few remaining aunts (she was married to a cousin of my mother, so she's not really my aunt) had died after a long illness. As her family is very religious, they were having the funeral the same day - ie yesterday - at 8pm (imagine William doing a funeral at that time!). And because tomorrow evening is the first night of Passover, they will be sitting shiv'a only today and maybe tomorrow morning. I imagine that I'll send the son a letter of condolence.

As my father said at the time, try not to die just before or during a festival. It makes things so much harder for the family.

Monday, April 10, 2006

What's been happening

I really don't like it when I read a blog entry which starts "It's been quite a while since I last posted here, but I've been too busy to have the time". One of the points about blogging is to write about what one is busy with. Well, I too have been busy over the past month, although busy with nothing which is interesting to read about. All work and no play doesn't make for interesting reading.

Also I was ill with tonsillitis which kept me in bed for a few days; when I ventured out into the world, it seems that I immediately caught a cold, so these two ailments kept me very weak for over a week.

At the moment it seems unlikely that I'll write any new songs in the near future, so I'm keeping my musical chops updated by working on songs written by other people. At a rate of one song per month, I should have a completed disc by autumn, although copyright restrictions mean that no one will ever get the chance to hear the songs.... Amongst the songs which I've already recorded are "My cherie amour" (Stevie Wonder), "I'll never fall in love again" (Bacharach / David), "Close watch" (John Cale) and a pair of Richard Thompson songs, "Withered and died", and "That's all, close the door, say amen".

Over the past week I've been working on an early Peter Hammill song (written in collaboration with David Jackson), "Out of my book". As I've been unable (and unwilling) to copy the exact rhythms of the original, I've had to produce my own version of the song, which one might say is the raison d'etre of cover versions. Changing the song's rhythm means also changing the vocal phrasing, which is often the hardest part of recording these covers. I recorded a fairly successful vocal (actually comprised of two takes patched together because I blew a line at the beginning of the third verse) on Saturday; after having listened to it many times, I've decided to punch in a correction at the end of the second verse where my phrasing was poor. Apart from that, the biggest change is substituting the harmony in the middle eight for the original tune. I think that the impetus for this came from rereading the VdGG book; Judge Smith makes a comment about Hammill substituting the harmony for the tune in one of their joint songs, and I thought that I would try this out myself.