Monday, December 24, 2007

Sleep, part four

Well, I have my CPAP machine. This consists of a pump and a small mask: the pump sends pressurised air through a tube, into the mask and down into my throat. The pressure has to be high enough to raise the soft tissues which settle on top of the trachea and prevent air entering the lungs.

After another brief consultation with the sleep doctor, I was ushered into another room with a man who I naively assumed was a technician, but was in fact a salesman for one type of CPAP machine. Obviously I don't have enough experience (make that no experience) to know which make of machine is suitable for me, nor which type. He fitted me out with an automatic model, which measures the air resistance coming from my lungs; after a week, they'll download the stored data and decide whether a fixed pressure machine is better (and establish what that pressure is) or whether the automatic model is better. I imagine it will be the latter. Not only is it more flexible, but it's also 25% more expensive. Fortunately I only have to bear between 25-35% of the cost; my health insurance will pay the rest.

Try to imagine what it's like going to bed with a pump chugging away by one's side, blowing air into a tight fitting nose mask pinching one's face. While this is imaginable, try imagining falling asleep with this! As the pump takes in air from the room (and the pump is near an open window), the air is somewhat cold. Basically, the first night was a disaster and I got almost no sleep, until about 2am when I decided to remove the apparatus and sleep "normally", apnea and all.

In the morning, I slunk round to the kibbutz clinic and asked whether the doctor (who was not there) could prescribe me some relaxants in order that I might fall asleep. In the mean time, the nurse gave me some OTC natural relaxant pills based on the herb valerian. The first night (Friday) that I took these pills, I did fall asleep reasonably quickly, only to awake a few hours later boiling with heat (I had left the electric blanket on and my wife had yet to come to bed). Somehow I managed to fall asleep again for another few hours, and then decided to remove the mask. The past few days have followed the same principle: take one or two valerian pills, sleep for four hours, wake up, struggle to sleep again for two hours and then remove the mask and get another two hours sleep.

Last night I was looking at various web sites which said "yes, it's frightening to wear the CPAP mask, and yes, it's difficult to sleep with it" - reassurances which I didn't hear in the sleep clinic. According to work done in Greece, there are definite benefits to be gained from using the CPAP for more than four hours a night, although of course more is better. At the moment I'm using it for four-five hours each night, and I must admit that it's getting slightly easier each night.

The internet articles suggested that there are some machines which are capable of heating the air before it enters the mask. Normally there would be no need for this here, except for during this cold month, and unfortunately that month is my introductory experience.

I do think that I'm less tired during the day, although the road to recovery is going to be slow. My back also hurts, which could be a combination of several factors, including the cold and possible bodily contortions which enable me to sleep "comfortably" with the mask.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sleep, part three

I got the results of my polysomnogram back the other day. From a scientific point of view, this is very interesting: there are several graphs each showing differing states on the timeline (sleep state, body state, oxygen saturation and snore volume). From this, I can see that there were times that I thought that I was awake when in fact I was asleep, although the sleep was of low quality.

I'm not too sure how much can be read into the fact that only 25% of my sleep was rem-sleep. I don't know what the usual fraction is, and also one has to bear in mind the unusual circumstances of the test. What is much more important is the number of breathing "events" - these were on average one a minute! Which means that I have severe sleep apnea: no surprise that I am always tired during the day, and often nod off for a few seconds if I'm not doing anything.

I have a return appointment with the sleep doctor on Thursday, during which he will no doubt recommend treatment with "CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, in which a controlled air compressor generates an airstream at a constant pressure".

One subject which I intend to bring up is the fact that I often suffer from headaches upon rising on a Saturday. This is particularly annoying as these can often ruin my one day off from work. I remember mentioning the subject to my family doctor, and naturally he asked what was different on a Friday. Now I that mention this, I recall that I blogged on this subject earlier this year. Anyway now I have a different hypothesis. It's obviously not due to caffeine withdrawal, as I don't drink caffeinated drinks (I had to give up drinking tea as it prevents iron absorption). No, I think that the cause of the headache is that I sleep two to three hours longer on Friday night, and in that time, the apnea causes less oxygen to be absorbed. The extra hours of sleep mean that the body has more hours of oxygen deprivation, and that's what is causing the Saturday headaches.

Migraines are a separate subject, and they generally start in the early afternoon. So even if my hypothesis is correct, it won't explain the migraines.

Uncle no longer

As of last night, I am an uncle no longer. Premmie lived for one week and died of complications.

I don't have any details and I'm not too sure that I want to know. Whilst in Victorian times, a lifespan of one week was not uncommon, it's unusual a century plus later. On the other hand, a 600 gram baby would have been left for dead immediately on birth, and it's doubtful whether the mother would have survived either.

To use a modern word, I am gutted - and I'm not even a blood relative. I hate to think what pain my brother in law and girlfriend must be suffering. It was I who advised them not to abort a few weeks earlier, and instead let nature take its course. Little did I know. As the girlfriend (soon to be wife, I hope) is approaching 40, her chances of a safe birth are decreasing daily, although she points out that their troubles began after the amniotic water test was performed.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Uncle

I have become an uncle for the first, and probably last time.

My wife's brother's girlfriend (WBG) gave birth to a baby boy early on Friday morning, Dec 7. The baby weighed only 600 grams and was born 3 months premature. Of course, at the moment he is in intensive care and will probably stay there for about a month, before moving into the regular premature babies ward.

The WBG announced that she was pregnant a few months ago, which got us wondering when their wedding was going to take place. As I understand it, this pregnancy was not planned, but as she is nearly 40 years old, one takes what one is given. A few weeks ago they called to say that WBG had been hospitalised as she had been leaking blood and amniotic fluid. As the pregnancy was not very far advanced (20-21 weeks), she was placed in an ordinary women's ward, and it was touch and go whether the pregnancy would be terminated. At that age, the foetus is not considered to be viable and so an abortion for medical reasons (in this case, mother's health) is definitely possible.

Our advice was to hang on and let nature take its course. One week went by, and she was sent home. Another few days found her back in another hospital, again a women's ward. The clock was slowly ticking by, and eventually the pregnancy advanced to the 24th week, at which time she was moved into the prenatal wards.

My wife was in such a ward for nearly two months, and our son was born two months premature, weighing 1.2 kg, so we do have some experience regarding these matters. Only this time, the pregnancy was about a month behind my wife's when she was hospitalised.

On Wednesday night, labour pains started, which continued through Thursday, and the birth itself was in the early hours of Friday morning. The foetus had been monitored all through the birth process and was ok, but after he was born, his heart stopped beating. He was quickly resuscitated and placed in an incubator.

I could have written about this on Friday morning, but I wasn't sure that he would survive the weekend. We were in the hospital last night and saw the relieved mother and father. Only parents are allowed into the premature babies ward, so of course we didn't see the baby (yet to be named), although we understand that he is doing as well as he can under the circumstances. A full "systems scan" will be done today to see exactly how well he is doing.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Sleep, part two

These are the pictures which I saw on the Internet of someone being sleep tested:





My apparatus was completely different.

I told my family doctor about the experience, and as I imagined, he was not aware of the fact that the test could be done at home.

I phoned the sleep clinic today to discover that they were able to extract enough data from the test, even though I felt that I barely slept at all. This means that I won't have to do the test again, although I have a feeling that the data which was extracted was not particularly representative.

The results are supposed to arrive after about ten days; I'm not going to hold my breath waiting.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Sleep

This column was supposed to be about spending a night in a sleep laboratory, something that I imagine most readers will not have experienced. Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat different from the dream.

I had an appointment for the sleep clinic in downtown Jerusalem. I arrived about an hour before my appointment, as I had expected traffic jams and there were none, so I saw the doctor well before the appointed time. Upon registration, I had to fill in two questionnaires about my sleeping habits (especially how they affected me during the day), and both showed that I have some form of sleep problem.

It seemed that the doctor didn't look at the questionnaires at all and neither at my referrals. He did not examine me, and only asked a few standard questions (do I feel sleepy during the day? Yes! Are you healthy? At the moment I have anaemia) before asking the surprising question "Do you want to spend a night here doing the sleep test or would you rather do it at home?".

As I (and apparently everyone else in my position) has remarked on the seeming impossibility of sleeping well in a sleep laboratory, I instantly opted to do the test at home. So I was shown to a technician who showed me the portable machine. Unlike the one which I saw on the Internet (I can't find the same picture again, as I'm writing this on a different machine) which had maybe eleven leads connected to the patient, my portable machine had only the following:
  1. a contact mike just below the throat which records snoring
  2. a position monitor, below the mike, which records in which position the patient is lying
  3. a detector on the third finger which measures oxygen saturation of the blood
  4. a big detector on the index finger which measures pulse, sleep status etc
  5. the brains, a small box, which was taped to the left forearm
I stayed up late (11:20pm) on Thursday, which in retrospect may not have been a good idea. I watched Maccabi basketball luckily eke out an away win, during which I had often felt tired, but not tense regarding the outcome. Once I had connected the machine, I lay in bed waiting to fall asleep. Normally this happens within 20 minutes, but this time I just laid and laid, conscious of the weight on my forearm and the pinching of my index finger, waiting for the kiss of sleep.

I looked at the clock and saw that it was about 01:30am. I imagine that I must have slept an hour but it didn't feel like that. I got up, went to the toilet then came back to bed ... laid there for another fruitless hour ... finally fell asleep until 05:00am. This time I realised that there was no point in trying to fall asleep again, so after about half an hour I removed all the detectors.

I have to return the machine on Sunday morning, upon which the technicians will remove the recording in order to diagnose my problems. There was another questionnaire to be completed after the test, which included such key questions as "how many hours do you think you slept?" and "how well did you sleep compared to normal? (much better, better, the same, worse, much worse). I ticked "much worse" and have a suspicion that I will have to do the test again, maybe this time in the clinic itself (I saw the "bedrooms" there), as I don't think that the amount of sleep which I achieved will be sufficient for diagnosis.

A better idea would have been to have worn the equipment for one night without turning it on so that I would have got used to the weight and feeling, and then operate it on a second night. I will suggest this.

As a result of my poor sleep, Friday was exceedingly difficult, being very tired. I had to do some detailed programming and found myself making small mistakes all the time so forced myself to stop.

And now for something completely different ...

I have written here that I help a clinical psychologist. It turns out that I misunderstood the meaning of the term; she is not a clinical psychologist but rather an occupational therapist, someone who helps people find the correct job, or helps communal settlements weed their applicants, choosing only the people whose profile matches the ones desired by the settlements. I try not to interfere with the application of the results obtained from the various tests in order to keep a certain amount of distance. Obviously I do see people's test results, but they don't mean anything to me; I only look at them in order to make sure that my programs do what they're supposed to do, and to suggest better ways of displaying the results.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

MIDI keyboard fun

I wrote earlier about my new computer, which comes furnished with onboard graphics chip, onboard network card and onboard sound board. The latter posed a problem for me as I wasn't sure where I could plug my MIDI keyboard in. On the old computer, the keyboard had a MIDI to GamePort cable, which plugged into the game port on the computer's sound card. No such socket on the new computer, but plenty of USB sockets.

So I ordered via Amazon a Midilink Midi to USB Cable (I tried to find an Israeli supplier but didn't succeed), which cost just under 16 pounds (not including postage). I waited and waited, but no cable arrived. Finally Amazon sent me a supplier feedback questionnaire to which I replied that I'm sure that the cable is fine, but that it hadn't yet arrived. They passed the letter on to the suppliers who contacted me; it seems that Amazon forgot to tell the suppliers that I live in Israel! The cable had indeed been sent and had returned to the suppliers, so they were aware of the fact that there was a problem with my address but probably didn't have my email address.

So again the cable was dispatched, this time to the correct address, and after a few days it arrived. One end of the cable has a USB plug; this naturally was plugged into the computer. The other end is consists of two cables with MIDI (DIN) plugs, one labelled "MIDI out" and the other "MIDI in". I connected the MIDI out plug to the MIDI out socket on the MIDI keyboard, played a few notes ... and nothing. I tried the MIDI in plug, but still no response.

Somewhat defeated, I wrote to the supplier asking for suggestions and decided to sleep on the matter. After considering the problem, I realised that I had expected Windows XP to detect the keyboard automagically (it had detected something on the USB port, but obviously that wasn't enough). In the old days, MIDI went through something called a MPU-401 port, but I could find no reference to such a beast with XP. After checking several articles on the Internet, I found one which talked about deleting MIDI ports via Regedit; I tried this and found that no MIDI ports had been defined, so obviously I had nothing to delete.

It also became clear that I had to install some kind of driver; the keyboard itself is an old one made by a company which no longer exists (Reveal, IIRC), so there was no chance of finding a driver from them. Fortunately I did find a site with generic MIDI drivers, and after downloading, I installed one at random. Still no communication between keyboard and computer with the MIDI out plug connected. Looking at it logically, the plug belongs to the computer, so from its point of view, data being sent from the keyboard should be MIDI in, whereas the keyboard sees it as MIDI out.

So I switched plugs, and lo and behold, there was communication between the two devices! I quickly checked several music programs (MIDI sequencer, Reason and another program), and yes, all of them could now understand the keyboard.

The only remaining problem is that I don't have a musical idea in my head at the moment, but judging by the past, there soon will be.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My body is falling apart

I haven't written anything here lately because I haven't felt well enough. After undergoing several blood tests and examinations, it turns out that I have:
  1. Anaemia
  2. Sleep apnea
  3. Knee bursitis
  4. A cracked root canal
The combination of anaemia and sleep apnea sufficed to make me very tired during the past few weeks, so it's not surprising that I haven't had any spare energy for activities such as blogging.

Fortunately, the gross affects of anaemia disappear after a few days of iron tablets, and a nasal spray has helped me sleep better. So now I'm feeling much better, even though I'm not totally cured.

The cracked root canal made itself known by displaying a growth on my gums. Fortunately I had a dental checkup scheduled shortly after this appeared, so it was immediately examined. My normal dentist wasn't too sure what is was, so she referred me to her colleague who specialises in root canal treatment and its after-affects. He was fairly sure that the growth was the result of one of the canals cracking, and referred me to a periodontist.

I've just returned from the periodontist who performed minor surgery on the gum and extracted the cracked canal. At the moment my cheek is still numb due to the local anaesthetic, but I can feel the numbness dissipating every minute. Unfortunately, as the anaesthetic goes, so the pain comes. I can only drink cold milk and eat yoghurt today (not too severe a restriction), but from tomorrow I can revert to my normal diet. Stitches out next week.

The bursitis manifests itself as pain around the right knee and difficulty in walking. Unfortunately my regular doctor was away when I realised that the pain wasn't going to go away on its own, and his replacement took two weeks not to diagnose it properly. My doctor gave a thorough examination, made the diagnosis and said that if the pain doesn't go away after another week (during which I was taking medication), he would inject steroids directly into the area. Last week he gave me the injection, and whilst the pain is greatly reduced, it is still there and still makes walking awkwards sometimes.

Isn't life grand? The only good thing about all these aches and pains is that none of them are very serious (although the anaemia would be if it weren't treated for a long time).

Monday, October 29, 2007

New computer

I bought a new computer the other day, HP D350 (or something similar). It's new to me, but not new to the world: apparently there are companies that lease top of the line computers for two or three years and then return them to the suppliers. These computers are then sold second hand at very good value for money prices - the computer cost $230, including a license for Windows XP. The processor is 3GHz and the disk 160GB, making it four and bit times faster and larger than my previous computer.

I bought my first computer in the late spring of 1986: 512 KB memory, dual 360KB floppy drives, 8088 processor, CGA graphics card. Oh, those were the days! Considering what was happening in the personal computer world at the time, Israel was a few years behind America, which means that it was a few generations behind. I shortly made two significant purchases to improve the computer: increasing its memory to 640KB and replacing the processor with a V20 chip which I bought via regular mail from America. At the time, I was the only person on the kibbutz with a personal computer at home, which just goes to show the mindset of the time.

There had been occasions when I had borrowed an Apple 2 from the local school in order to program examples for a book I write entitled "Introduction to Programming with Turtle Graphics", but the Apple seemed a bit esoteric.

Later I was to update that computer with a 186 board (probably the only one in the world) and then a 286, and then a 386.... I think that my new computer is about my tenth!

I transferred most of the files from the old computer via network cable over the weekend, and started re-installing programs. I religiously keep installation programs for stuff which I use, but my son doesn't. Half of his game programs don't seem to need Windows installation as they work with DOS extenders and similar, but he's not having too much success in running them, even though all the files have been copied.

The major problem at the moment is that my musical keyboard doesn't connect to the new computer as it has a built-in sound card with no game port. The keyboard has a MIDI/DIN connector on one end and a strange game port connector on the other. I have ordered (via Internet) a MIDI/USB cable which hopefully will solve the problem.

I've decided that my rendering of "Mist Covered Mountain" needs major correcting; as I have no keyboard, I have to write the corrections manually into the sequencer which is exceedingly painstaking. I worked this way for maybe a year when I first started working with MIDI and before I found a controller, and it makes life very difficult, especially when one is trying to sequence chords!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

When Sally met David (Friday night is sequencing night)

No, it's not a remake of "When Harry met Sally", but rather a new track in the Folktronix vein. This one combines two tunes with a fairly similar harmonic structure: an Israeli folktune about King David, roughly translated as "David with the beautiful eyes" and an English tune "Sally free and easy".

The Israeli tune is in a marvelous scale which goes A, A#, C#, D, E, F, G. The chords normally used in this scale are A, Gm and possibly Dm. One could say that it's actually the key of D minor (convert the A# to Bb and it is the D harmonic minor scale) but the centre here is definitely A. I was playing around with this tune a few weeks ago, thinking that I ought to introduce a little oriental music to the the British material, so this snippet (only eight bars) was floating around my head.

I have been considering "Sally" for some days; the chords of the first part are A and GMaj7 alternating. I used a very similar chord structure for a song several years ago, although that was set to a 12/8 time signature, and the thought had crossed my mind to use the same backing track. When I did try this quickly, the tune didn't flow well, so this idea was dropped.

Then a delicious thought waltzed in: why not play "Sally" in a sort of minor key, using the chords A and Gm - and then of course I realised that I could combine it with the David tune.

So, first we have two verses of the 'David' tune, a little break, the minor 'Sally' tune, another break and then the major 'Sally' tune. There aren't many repeats because the tune is set to a fairly slow pace (80 bpm), and all of the above lasts about four and a quarter minutes, which is definitely long enough.

The sequencing went extremely fast, as I near enough knew exactly what I wanted. Friday afternoon/night is a good time for this, as there is quiet all around, and I'm relaxed, not being bothered by anything else. One nice piece of serendipity was a little riff/arpeggio which I constructed. This is the sort of thing which whirls around the stereo spectrum and tries to add spice whilst being unobstrusive. An interesting thing which I have noted is that when using a digital delay of a few beats, the resulting arpeggio when heard from afar seems to have a different structure from what it really does. As a result of this, I am writing more interesting patterns which correspond to what I hear in the background.

After completing the MIDI file (and having dinner in-between), it was time to transfer to Reason. This can often be a drawn out task, as the sounds available are so much richer than those in the MIDI sequencer and often influence the original notes. This time, however, I was able to find a happy mixture fairly quickly, although the balance took some time to get right. As a garnish, I added a few drum loops, and now the whole thing comes over very bright.

It's interesting to note that I started the Folktronix project with slow, dreamy tunes mainly in triple time, and ended it with upbeat tracks in four with drum loops. "My Lagan Love" is still wandering around my head, searching for a good approach, and this is definitely a slow, dreamy one. According to the file which I downloaded, it moves between 3 and 5, although the test version which I sequenced according to how I hear the song was completely in 3. I haven't decided to use the melody which I hear or the "official" version.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Captain Coulston (even more Folktronix)

I want to devote this column to the genesis and execution of another Folktronix track, "Captain Coulston". I learnt this song from Steeleye Span; their version appeared on a sampler called "Clogs" which I bought in 1971. This track was taken from their 1971 album "Ten man mop", but I never had a copy of this and was not really aware that it was an album track.

Anyway, it's a simple, winding tune which I've played for years on the guitar and so thought that it was suitable for the treatment. One evening a few weeks ago, I laid down the tune in the MIDI sequencer and promptly forgot about it. The tune is only eight bars long and doesn't have much variation.

In the mean time, I completed a few other tracks, including the amazing and weird "Famous Flower of Serving Men". This tune was used as the riff for the second half of the Liege and Lief version of "Matty Groves", but is a song in its own right (and come to think of it, Martin Carthy's version is also on that "Clogs" sampler, not that I've heard it in years [Correction: this was on a different sampler, "Collectively and Individually", all tracks by Steeleye, as opposed to the Various Artists on "Clogs"]). I worked out the riff, which seems to be 19 beats long, which is an asymmetric number however one looks at it. I'm not sure how Fairport play it - something like 4, 2, 4, 3, 6 - but decided to add an extra beat at the end to round the tune up to 20 beats and so occupy four bars of 5/4 rhythm. The result was something like free-form jazz with virtually no harmonic movement at all, something unusual for me.

Anyway, after this extravaganza, I was looking for more tunes and remembered "Captain Coulston". The tune basically goes up and down the scale of A minor, and so with a little stretching of the harmony, the chords go (one per bar) Am G F Em Dm C Dm (half bar) Em (half bar) Am. Of course, I couldn't leave things like that and so changed the C to Cm (which sounded very weird) and replaced the closing Am with D7/9. The second time round, the final chord was replaced by Bm7, and then I tacked on a little reprise: first a time buying chord (BbMaj9) and then F, G and A major.

I decided to start the track with two instruments on opposing sides of the stereo playing the first two bars of the tune, one after the other, as a form of introduction. Once this was done, the tune logically had to be played by a third instrument, placed in the centre. Sequencing the tune was fairly straightforward, solos and all, and the little reprise tickled my fancy. As always, I listened to the arrangement a day later and decided that it was slightly unbalanced and so added a pair of verses with the tune emphasized, thus delaying the solos until a bit later. Another day later and I decided to replace all the Cm chords (which sounded too strange) with C or CMaj7.

When I was satisfied with the arrangement, I imported the MIDI file into Reason. I have discovered lately how to make instruments played via the NN-XT sampler sound more ethereal and have longer sustain; as a result, the track has slightly unusual sounding flute and french horn. The work in Reason went reasonably quickly and soon I was able to export a wav file for listening. This was Saturday's work.

During Sunday, I decided that the track was too "polite" and even too amateurish, especially the percussion. The whole thing needed beefing up and made more professional/extravagant/confident (I don't how to express this exactly). So:
  1. I changed the acoustic bass for a synthesized bass which has an 'edge'
  2. I changed the slightly weird sounding synth playing the main tune for something more ethereal (actually a pad setting, but it sounds ok). I played around with dynamically modulating the synth's sound but this didn't seem to make much difference and so I dropped it.
  3. I replaced most of the drums (which as usual were going through an NN-XT drum set) for three different Dr Rex drum loops, changing the loops at specific points during the song. But for a change, I decided to keep the percussion parts of the original drum work (which was very Phil Spector-ish); the tambourine adds depth (maybe width?) to the drum loops and makes the track come even more alive.
Now I have a much better track. I also noticed that the track sounds more alive when played via Winamp that it does when played via Goldwave. This seems to be due to eq settings on Winamp, which may mean that I should eq the finished master in order to get a better sound on cd. I'm going to check this out, because it's not something I've ever done before. Actually, the best place to do this would be in Reason but I haven't committed myself to anything yet.

So: four evenings of work on one tune have produced a good result.

All in all, I have about 37 minutes of music ready, which means at least one more tune has to be prepared. I am considering doing a very ambient version of "My Lagan Love", with little harmonic work, but the tune seems to be metrically odd. Sandy Denny did a beautiful acapella version of this on the "Sandy" album, where she set the tune to words written by Richard Farina ("Quiet joys of brotherhood"). I have noted that tunes have a fermentation period, during which nothing seems to happen, and then an implementation period, in which the tune gets finished quite quickly.

... Although not quickly enough - I was reading an article which describes how to arrange a piece of music, sequence it, realise it and master it all within 60 minutes! The steps are very similar to the ones which I take, but run at a pace which seems to allow no time for thought.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sandy Denny - Live at the BBC


I have to admit that I originally didn't intend to buy this box set. I probably have about 90% of the material (albeit some of it on cassette) and I have the videos from the 1971 "Ten on one" television broadcast. I am even one of the lucky 2,500 people who bought the original Strange Fruit "Live at the BBC" disc which was withdrawn the day before it was released (although all pre-orders were honoured, which is how I received my copy, from Trevor Lucas' second wife and keeper of the Sandy flame). Due to some strong proselyting on the Sandy Denny yahoo list, however, I was persuaded, and when I discovered (along with several other people) that Amazon UK had totally mis-priced this four disc set at only eleven pounds (I don't have to pay VAT), the purchase became a no-brainer.

Admittedly, Amazon discovered their mistake after my order had been accepted which apparently gave them the right to change the price (what counts is the list price when the goods are shipped), but without my interference they kept their word, and I became the happy recipient of a bargain.

The box set arrived yesterday, and my initial reaction was - Wow! Who needs the discs? I'd be willing to pay the price for the packaging alone. The set is packaged in a dvd sized case and contains a wonderful, full colour booklet designed as a book, showing several new pictures of Sandy (most of which, one has to admit, don't show her in a particularly flattering light) as well as quite a few which were previously published in Heylin's biography. Scattered amongst the pages are excerpts from Sandy's notebooks, including partial lyrics for a few songs (North Star Grassman, Stranger to Himself, The Sea), which would be very revealing if I were a graphologist. Her writing changes from a very strict schoolgirl hand to a very wavy and scattered imprint, although this doesn't seem to be consistent (the verse from 'Stranger to Himself', written in 1974/5, is neater than 'North Star Grassman' from 1970/1).

And the music.... Listening yesterday evening, I only got as far as "Late November" before having to turn my attention to other matters, but this song brings it all back. Sandy in the early 70s was a very strong influence on me and the music which I was beginning to create, and it's interesting to note how much those twisted songs on her first solo album influenced my harmonic evolution. I was privileged to be invited to the press launch of Heylin's biography at Cropredy 2000; the three videos had just been unearthed and were screened at this party. At the time I was standing next to Jerry Donahue; I told him how I had seen the original screening in 1971 (36 years ago, now, almost to the day) and how strongly it had affected me at the time. Of course, he didn't know who I was, but I like to think that he felt the excitement, wonder and appreciation that was emanating from me.

I was fortunate enough to be in my 'soak it all up' phase during Sandy's most productive years, 1970-3. After that, something went terribly wrong (although her audience were not to know for many years), and her lack of self-confidence near but destroyed her prodigious talent. I found myself telling my wife last night that although it was a shame that Sandy died so young, I don't know whether she would have been capable of making any more sublime music.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

More folktronik

I wrote last time about working on a folktronik version of "Lark in the morning". I worked on the tune the other day and completed it to my satisfaction. Of the first half (in 9/8), I kept about 80% of what I had originally done, only renewing the 'solos', verses 4 and 5. This latter verse sports a spectacular blue note, C over an F#m chord (ie a diminished fifth); it would sound even better if I did a little note bending, but that's not something with which I've had much experience. I also played around with the final chord in each verse: originally this would have been A major, but due to my warped sense of harmony, such an obvious resolution could not stand, so sometimes the tune ends on FMaj7 and sometimes on D7, leading to G7 (and as the note in the tune is A, this becomes a G9 chord).

The 4/4 section, however, had an almost complete rewrite. From one of my computer science books (probably "The Mythical Man-Month" by Frederick Brooks), I read the sage advice "write one's first system in order to throw it away". This doesn't happen much to me when I write programs, but it's certainly true about music. I kept only the tune with its new rhythmic basis and added a completely new accompaniment. After two verses of the tune, I thought it time for some variation, and as the chords were now approaching a semi-doo wop form, I looked for a suitable tune. I settled on a quote from 'Blue Moon', which sort of fits - it turns out that the changes in BM are twice as fast as they are in LITM. Once more around the tune, and then I found a new wrinkle for the coda - playing the final lick a few times, first ending on D7, then on F7 and finally on A7 - with a heavenly synth playing the opening phrase of the tune. The inspiration for this probably came from 'Adiemus' - the final notes of the final track are the opening theme from the opening track.

At the back of my mind, I had the idea to arrange Fairport's seminal "A sailor's life": a somewhat different kettle of fish to LITM or any of the skip jig material. I remembered that I had in fact sequenced this several years ago for a disc of Fairport covers. I dragged this out of the archive and listened; the music (both in its concepts and conceits) is fine, but the vocals are somewhat lacking. The only part of ASL which caught my attention was ironically the coda; I took this and played the tune over it. It sort of fitted, but wasn't very good. As Frederick Brooks says, write the first version in order to throw it away, so I wasn't too bothered.

At the same time ... I had downloaded a MIDI arrangement of a song by Canadian group Rush; I've never heard any of their material but I remember reading somewhere quoting the drummer to the effect that "7/8 is our favourite meter". I often download MIDI files just to see how someone implemented such and such a musical effect, in the same way that I look at computer source files. This tune had an interesting section of 7/8 and 5/8 bars leading into a 4/4 section with an odd chord (who knows, this might have been inspired in turn by King Crimson's "Red"). I borrowed this part, but it didn't work as an intro to ASL, although the odd chord at the beginning of the 4/4 part sounded promising.

Once I transposed it into approximately the correct key (I don't remember the exact notes, but it's not a classic triad, more like D6/7/9/no 3rd, so it could work in many keys) and slotted the tune in over it, the chord worked very well. Of course, I had to modify it to accompany the miniscule chord changes in the tune (D/C/D/C/D/G/D/C), but now it sounded even better. The beginning reminds me of "Walking on the moon" by The Police: a sort of out of time, crashing multichord.

Sequencing the tune became fairly straightforward, although a few of my ideas became discarded when the MIDI was imported into Reason. Here a certain amount of serendipity played its part and I was able to get a very 'hip' sounding file. The fact that the tune is in 4/4 helped no end as I could finally use a Dr Rex drum loop, which always adds to the seeming sophistication of the arrangement.

I'll probably upload the two new tunes in SoundClick in a few days, when it becomes apparent that the plays for the current tunes are decreasing.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Soundclick pages

At the end of last month, I thought that it was time that I created a new SoundClick page in order to separate different types of music which I create. If someone likes the 'folktronik' sound enough to check my music page, then that person won't be too happy to encounter all the singer/songwriter material stored there. I don't know whether the opposite is necessarily true.

After casting around for names, I decided on YMMV - an Internet acronym for 'Your Mileage May Vary', which is exactly the response that I have been receiving. SoundClick enables one to create several 'band' pages which can be administered via the same user, so creating the page was easy. I transferred over to the page 'all' the folktronik files which I had created: all of two! Unfortunately, the chart history didn't get transferred; as far as SoundClick was concerned, the instrumental called "Killarney Boys of Pleasure" by No'am Newman which had got to position 22 (or thereabouts) in the Irish traditional charts is a different recording to the instrumental called "Killarney Boys of Pleasure" by YMMV.

Once that administrative task had been done, I started looking around for new material. I had been toying around with the idea of arranging Steeleye Span's "When I was on horseback", but hadn't got very far past transcribing the tune. The 'trouble' with many of these instrumental tunes is that there is only a 'verse' tune with no contrasting section, and that there are many notes within a bar, whereas the spaced out electronic sound is better served by long notes.

The first piece which I successfully arranged was "Mist Covered Mountain"; my arrangement was based on the tune as played by Mark Knopfler in the film "Local Hero". I didn't reference the soundtrack but instead played the tune and chords as my mind remembered them. I know that in one place I slightly changed the notes in order to fit in with what I thought should be the harmony. This arrangement closes with what might be termed a 'petite reprise' in order to add some interest.

Next up was a piece which I had started sequencing years ago, called "Sheriff's ride", which I learnt from the Albion Country Band's "Battle of the field" record. As the tune is fairly limited, I could only repeat it a few times before getting bored, so I decided to follow it with "Princess Royal", the first and only Morris tune which I ever learnt to dance. SR is in a minor key and PR is a major, so the transition sounds pretty good. The original MIDI file had been titled "Heavy Morris" (in fact, I had to look up the Albion disc in order to discover what the tune was actually called), and in honour of this, I put a heavy drumbeat and throbbing bass into the arrangement. Instead of having the ending peter out, I used a fairly typical finale sequence F ->  G -> A.

After listening to these two tunes and my other dreamy stuff, I was aware that the folktronik arrangements were missing the mark: they tended to start with the tune, follow the tune throughout the piece and end with the tune. Apart from second, harmony voices, they were too closely based on the original tune.

So for my final (so far) published piece, "Flowers of the Forest", I thought that a change was in order. This one starts with my heavily altered chords of the verse played on a pad, before the tune enters (played on a synthesizer unconsciously imitating bagpipes). After going once round the tune, I then played improvisations on the chord sequence, ignoring the tune and its structure, before playing a closing verse or two.

One extra complication is that many of these traditional tunes are in 9/8 time, making them slip jigs. One probably hears the waltz time, but also each beat is broken down into triplets (although only two notes are actually played per beat, the first is twice as long as the second, specifically a crotchet followed by a quaver, as opposed to two notes each the same length in 'normal' rhythm). There aren't many drum patterns that I'm aware of which have this time signature, so I frequently omit the drums.

I'm working now on Steeleye's "Lark in the morning" (Please to see the king), as opposed to Fairport's "Lark in the morning" (Liege and Lief medley). This too is in 9/8 and has a very short melody. After playing it a few times along with different harmonies, the tune moves into 4/4 time and the tune is played again, although of course now its internal structure and accents have been changed. As things stand at the moment, the tune gets played maybe eight times over the course of only two minutes; the track is too short as it stands but I can't keep on repeating the tune, even though I have changed the rhythm.

So I'm at a dead end at the moment and don't know how to lengthen the track. I may tack on another tune to make a medley (I have been considering Fairport's tune of the same name, but they don't seem to fit together, even though the track is now in 4/4 and Fairport's version is 12/8) or do some weird restructuring to any combination of tune/harmony/rhythm.

Response in terms of page hits, listens and downloads has been very encouraging but there's been no written feedback. Someone did write (via private mail, the comment isn't on SoundClick) that my music was fantastic, electronic with soul, which goes to show that the music is finally reaching its audience.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Welcome back

I see it's been a month since I last blogged, my last message being that we're off on holiday to Santorini. In case anyone wondered, nothing happened to me there; we had a wonderful time. Unfortunately, a few days after coming home, I contracted the flu which left me physically weak for a few days and mentally weak for a few weeks. It's only been in the past week that I feel that "I" have returned.

Santorini is a great place, and a week is exactly the right length of time to spend there. The only bad bits about the holiday were getting there and back; the local airport is geared for European passengers, and those coming from outside the EU have to put up with long waits: one policeman checking the passports of 180 Israelis.

But enough griping! Santorini is small enough to be covered with a motorbike in a few days, yet large enough to find something new to do each day. We stayed in a small hotel near the beach in Perissa so we had the best of both worlds: both the laid back beach ambience of Perissa and the icing cake ambience and beauty of the caldera side of Santorini only 15 minutes away by bike. It might well be that those who stay in Fira or Oia never see the other side.

There was one day where we decided not to "do our own thing", but rather join an organised tour. There are many of these tours which take in the volcano islands, hot springs, lunch in Therassia and sunset in Oia. Unfortunately this day resembled an olympic triathlon and was the physically hardest and least enjoyable of all our days. A bus picked us up in Perissa, a few minutes walk from our hotel; by the time we reached the outskirts of Perissa, the bus was already overcrowded. This took us to the port at Athenios, where no one was there to meet us or explain anything. Somehow someone from our bus found the pirates' boat on which we were to sail.

The overcrowding of the bus was nothing compared to the sardine-like nature of the boat. It was almost impossible to find a place to sit and impossible to move around. It was also very hot. Eventually we set sail from Athenios, only to arrive at the small jetty at Fira; here even more people got on the boat. After another long wait, we set sail from Fira to the large volcanic island, and finally we were treated to a voice-over explanation from the tannoy, in Spanish, German and barely understandable English.

Little did we know when we arrived at Nea Kameni, the largest volcanic island, what was to await us. First of all, we had to pay 2E to even enter the island; my wife wisely decided to stay on the boat. Then we had to walk ... and walk ... and walk ... and walk .... Maybe a few kilometres over rocky terrain (very much like Iceland, no surprise there) and under a ferocious sun. Every time I thought that I was getting near the end, it turned out that there was more to walk. Eventually I decided that I had seen enough and turned back; as always, the walk back was easier. The most interesting thing which I learnt about the island (from the little brochure which my 2E bought me) was that the island grows every time there is an eruption, the last one (albeit minor) being in 1950.

Once everybody had returned to the boat - and how did they know that everyone had returned? - we sailed around the corner to the second island, Palia Kameni, where there are hot springs. One, two, three and people were jumping off the boat and swimming in the sea. After having changed into my swimming costume, I too took a deep breath and launched myself into the unknown. The sea was very cold and very salty, but the nearer I got to the island, the warmer the water became. I found it very tiring to swim against the waves and decided to conserve my strength for the swim back, so I never got to set foot on land. This was the second event in the triathlon, swimming in the sea.

Then we headed off to the island of Therassia which has a very small population, whose main job seems to be feeding the tourists who come to pay a visit. Apart from the food, there wasn't much else to do there. We arrived just before 3 pm and were told to be back on board at 3:40; my stomach isn't used to eating lunch at this hour. From Therassia we went across the bay to the small beach/port/jetty at Oia; the guides didn't really tell us anything about what was to happen. The only thing which I understood was that we could either stay in Oia and a bus would take us back to Perissa, or we could sail back to Fira and from there get to Oia (the 'how' was not explained). By default, we decided to stay in Oia, along with maybe a third of the people on the boat. What we weren't ready for was the fact that there are only two ways to get from where we to Oia: either walk up six hundred steps (Oia is about 1200 feet above sea level) ... or ride a donkey. Santorini is probably as famous for its donkeys as it is for its views. As there were so many of us and so few donkeys (maybe 12), we had to wait a long time in the sweltering sun.

Eventually our turn came and we rode donkeys up the narrow steps. The donkeys must have thought that they were in a race because they were always trying to overtake each other. Mine was doing quite well at this until one misguided attempt to pass on the outside caused me to crash into an electricity pole. It's true that the donkeys have to go up as quickly as possible in order to minimise the waiting time (which we appreciated), but they could have been better behaved.... To add insult to injury, the donkeys dropped us off before the final rise to Oia, and we had to climb maybe 50 steep stairs. By the time we got to the top, we were completely exhausted.

Fortunately there was a cafe waiting at the top where we could rest our weary bodies and laugh about the experience. We collected our breath, drank cold orange juice and washed up. We then strolled around Oia, which is exceedingly pretty, making sure to be at the northern tip before sunset. Everyone else in the village had the same idea, and the narrow alleys were packed with people. We found quite a good vantage point where we could watch the crowds and the sunset.

I don't know exactly what was supposed to happen, but I was very disappointed with the sunset - we get better ones here. True, the sun disappears behind a hill instead of into the Aegean sea, but it looks much better. This sunset sort of fizzled out, greeted by desultory clapping. We then wound our way along with everyone else back into the centre of Oia and found the bus station and bus which would take us back to Perissa.

By this time I was feeling exceedingly unwell, as a result of the late lunch and the unexpected physical activity. As I don't carry my stomach pills around with me, I had to wait until we got back to Perissa for relief.

I can only hope that other people have a better experience on this "See Santorini and die" tour because otherwise I can't understand why such tours continue to exist. Still, it was "fun" (as much fun as basic training in the army, where we were alternately crying and laughing), we saw sights which we hadn't seen, and it was "worth it for the experience", not that you'll get me on a donkey (in reality, a mule) again.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Holiday

There hasn't been much to write about lately.

Tomorrow my wife and I are going on holiday to Santorini for a week, so there will be something to write about when we come home. It looks like there is no easy Internet access, so there won't be any interim reports.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Cropredy festival

The second weekend of August is like the High Holidays of the folk-rock world, when its epicentre is Cropredy, normally a small and sleepy village a few miles north of Banbury, which is itself normally a small and sleepy town several miles north of Oxford. During this weekend, twenty thousand people descend on the village to celebrate Fairport Convention's Cropredy Festival.

This started way back in 1977 when Fairport played a benefit gig for the village Town Hall (two of the band were resident in the village), continued through the years when Fairport was only a dormant band (1979-1985) and has become triumphant in the many years following the reunion. This year the group are celebrating their 40th anniversary (first gig played in April 1967 in a bowling alley in Golders Green) and as such the festival takes on a special hue.

I've been to several Cropredies, but do not intend to go again. First of all, there's the geographical problems, then there's the fact that Fairport's current repertoire does not find favour in these quarters. But probably the most important factor is that I don't enjoy sitting in a field for two days, twelve hours at a time, being alternatively rained upon and then roasted, whilst listening to music which I don't particularly like. Presumably I'm getting more narrow minded as I grow older. If I were living within driving distance of Cropredy (say 50 miles), then probably I would have no reason not to attend, but that not the way things are.

Here's a piece which I wrote some years ago about the 30th anniversary festival in 1977. The band always hold two 'warm-up' gigs in Banbury a few days before the festival where they run through their material, sometimes with the special guests that will appear with them (but mainly not). To my mind, these warm-ups are better than the real thing: one can hear properly, one is seated properly and one has undisturbed sight lines. Once I considered going to Banbury in order to see the warm ups then leave before the festival, but somehow I convinced myself to give the festival one more try. Never again. Anyway, here we go back ten years ....

August 1997: I am in Banbury for the 30th anniversary Cropredy. I had a ticket for the first "warm up" concert, which took Fairport from "Angel Delight" through to the present day, but for some reason didn't have a ticket for the second night. Thinking back on it, I didn't know at the time who was going to be playing each night, and also I don't think that any tickets were available for the second evening.

Anyway, it's about 7:30 in the evening, I'm resting in my b&b and it's starting to rain. I think about the great time I had the evening before and remind myself that RT is playing tonight only a mile away from where I'm staying. But it's raining and I don't have a ticket. After a few minutes of indecision, I decide to wander down to The Mill. One can hear the music from outside, and I stroll around the building trying to figure out where the sound is coming from. Eventually I find an open door on the right hand side of The Mill facing some strange building (which I eventually realise is an indoor swimming pool), and go inside.


This is the stage door! I'm just out of sight behind the speaker stand, and watch what must have been one of the greatest concerts I've ever seen. In the interval, Richard takes some fresh air just outside the stage door, and I have my first halting conversation with him ("Have you ever wanted to come to Israel?", I ask. "No", he replies. "But I've got many friends there. In prison.") Imagine minute long pauses between each sentence in that Pinteresque dialog. I get Richard to sign the previous evening's ticket but refrain from telling him how wonderful he is.

During the second half, I'm joined by Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders at my vantage point and chat with them whilst they're being mesmerised by what's happening on stage. Right at the very end, it's "Si Tu Dois Partir" for an encore, and Maartin Allcock can't be found. I very seriously consider going on stage and playing the keyboards, which are at this time maybe only two steps away, but before I can make my Cropredy debut, Maart comes along and plays the song.

So I did miss a little of that extraordinary evening (but someone later kindly gave me an excellent reminder of it), but on the other hand obtained a better view than almost every one else present.

1988 was also a great festival as far as I am concerned. Although I didn't go to the warm ups, I did go to a free festival in Gravesend where Fairport were playing. I was privileged to meet with the chaps before the show, and even had a song dedicated to me (it was the day before my birthday). At the festival proper a fortnight later, I hang out with the band and had a wonderful time. Here's some commentary from the Fairport list ...

[Dvina]
This gig as far as I was concerned was great. As Chris Fribbins stated, the listing for the show there isn't a lot to say about the music except to say I`m now waiting for Croppers. The Wishfulness Waltz was dedicated to No'am (by Ric) as it is his birthday today. It was great to meet up with list members some of whom I had already met and those that I hadn't. Saying that, it was a shame to find out that another list member was there whom I didn't get to meet. Chris, did you see any of the rest of us or did we all manage to miss you?

It was great that David Hughes and his wife Karen managed to get there with their two children. His mother's loss was our gain. Hope to see you both again at Croppers.

[Tony Ecclestone]
Am I the first one back?
Great to meet No'am, Martin & Sally, CB, DH & family, Dvina & Mark (again), & Miranda on the phone!
Good gig.
Shame the bar closed at 7.00!

[David Hughes]
Went to Fairport gig, Gravesend, with family. The List persons there were as mentioned by Tony Ecclestone - they were all wearing Cup Man T-shirts. Before the gig, their presence was noted by Simon who referred to them as "The Cup People".

Friday, August 10, 2007

Nothing new under the sun

I see that nearly two weeks have passed since I last blogged. Nothing much has been happening in that time, or rather nothing extraordinary.

It was my birthday last week; we celebrated by having dinner and watching The Simpsons in a cinema complex just north of Tel Aviv. The film was funny but not overly so; it doesn't match up to Shrek, for example (I haven't yet seen the third installment).

Days have been spent working hard; yesterday was a day full of minor triumphs. By the time evening comes and I've taken the dog for a walk, I'm too tired to do anything.

Satellite TV here is showing the British Channel 4 programme "Skins". So far we've had two episodes. Much more female nudity (including full frontal) than I would have expected from such a programme. I found out from the Internet that it was filmed in my adopted home town, Bristol, but there are few background shots making it hard to recognise the environment. It's not like later episodes of "Teachers" which frequently had recognisable shots of the city.

We went to a fairly religious wedding one evening, an event which deserves an entry of its own. Maybe later today I'll write about it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

1972 - the year I've been leading up to

On this day 35 years ago (25 July 1972), I bought a copy of Richard Thompson's first solo album, "Henry the human fly", from a record shop on Kilburn High Street. I know this for a fact, because I wrote the date on the record sleeve, but that's not what's important. What is important is why was I on the Kilburn High Street at that time.

In the summer of 1972, I made my first visit to Israel, along with most of my peer group from Habonim. I had gone up to London a few days beforehand, and I spent those days helping out here and there. I spent I-Day minus 2 with my friend M. in Stanmore, passing a pleasant day together, but realising that our paths were divulging as she wasn't interested in what Israel represented. That summer was really the make or break year for most of our age group in the youth movement; after this summer, things would start getting serious, and we would change from the being led to becoming leaders (albeit junior) ourselves.

From her house, I went to a park in Willesden (if memory serves correctly) and met up with the group for a social evening. After getting reaquainted, we ran around the park and played all kinds of social games, of which we knew a large number. That evening we all slept in the Habonim main building in Finchley Road.

The next day we had a 'seminar', preparing us for what was to come in the next month (presumably I skipped out to Kilburn to buy the record during a break). Although 90% of the people attending had been attending Habonim camps for years and so had built a strong social fabric (there were several whom I had first met in 1967), there were also a few new people. One of them was a girl, G, with whom I fell in love at first sight.

The first few days in Israel were spent naturally in Jerusalem, at a seminar centre in the far south of the city, just off the Hebron road. After that, we went on a three day trip to the Negev, centred around Be'er Sheva, and that's where I connected with G. I have a memory of us sitting on railings around a basketball court (maybe a school?), speaking French to a Moroccan girl. G spoke very good French (her mother's tongue), and mine wasn't bad at the time, although in subsequent years I forgot all of it as I learnt Hebrew. C'est la vie.

After that, we returned to Jerusalem for a free weekend. I had nowhere to go, so I stayed at the seminar centre with a few others like me. On the Shabbat, we probably walked into the Old City. That's something which I would not do now. First of all, I haven't been in the Old City (or rather the market) since the first Intifada, which was in 1990. Secondly, it's quite a long walk (maybe three kilometres), and there's no way that I would walk that distance in the heat that we have now - say 35 degrees centigrade. Obviously the heat affected me less then. I was also younger.

On the Sunday, we all collected in the cafeteria. This was my 16th birthday, and I felt like I was holding court. After lunch, we travelled to Kibbutz Mevo Chama, which is on the Golan Heights, overlooking the Sea of Galilee: a magical view. In the evening, we had a short "get to meet the kibbutz and its people" as well as a birthday party for me. A wonderful evening.

We spent a week on the kibbutz, although now I don't remember very much about what we did. I know that on that first night I slept on a badly crumpled mattress, which caused me dizziness every time I turned. In the morning when they woke us for to go to work, I threw up, and so was excused work that day.

We were divided up into pairs in order to visit members of the kibbutz, who became our "kibbutz parents", a common concept of the time. By chance, G and I were together, and we visited a nice couple H&T, who had a young daughter. We had some pleasant afternoons together, talking about the kibbutz and Israel, as well as learning Steeleye Span's "The Blacksmith". I seem to recall that we spent one evening baby sitting. Although we weren't to know it at the time, H was to die within the coming year.

On the penultimate day of our stay, I arranged for us to go and see the Army entertainment troupe who were appearing not far away. In those far off days, these troupes were the best entertainment in Israel, and we saw the best of those troupes, in one of its best line ups. Not that we understood a word of what they said! But the songs were great.

I'm not too sure of our itinerary after that, but I recall that we spent a few days in Tiveria (Tiberias) and a week in a field school near a kibbutz called Ma'agan Michael. The one thing which I do remember clearly was that G broke up with me and I consoled myself by singing Peter Hammill's "Lost" (following are the words to the second part) ...
I wore my moods like different sets of clothes but the right one was never around and as you left I heard my body ring and my mind began to howl. It was far to late to contemplate the meaning of it all; You know that I need you, but somehow I don't think you see my love at all. At some point I lost you, I don't know quite how that was. The wonderland lay in a coat of white, chilling frost; I looked around and I found I was truly lost... without your hand in mine I am dead. Reality is unreal and games I've tried just aren't the same: without your smile there's nowhere to hide and deep inside I know I've never cried as I'm about to ... If I could just frame the words that would make your fire burn all this water now around me could be the love that should surround me. Looking out through the tears that blind me my heart bleeds that you may find me or at least that I can forget and be numb, but I can't stop, the words still come: I love you.
From Ma'agan Michael, we had a free weekend which I spent with some people my parents had met in Netanya. Whilst I was there, I managed to buy the 'soundtrack' album of the Army entertainment troupe's show, which was to occupy my attention for many years to come.

I returned from Netanya to Jerusalem in a taxi, squashed up with several other people. My hosts had given me a bag of guavas for the trip to share with my friends, but this is the most evil smelling of fruits, and so I ditched that bag as soon as I could after I arrived in Jerusalem.

The final few days were a bit of a blur; we seemed to spend most of them going to the Old City again, after I had made up with G. We bought fancy embroidered cotton shirts - mine was in a virulent shade of pink, for some reason. I think that the shirt lasted one wash and was then thrown out.

So that was my first visit to Israel which lasted a month, in which we saw a vast amount of the country as well as spending time in several cities and settlements. I was entranced, and on my return to Britain, I vowed that I would be returning as soon as possible.

Life is stranger than art

I went on a "flag flying" mission to two of the sites where our company has set up temporary production spaces. Whilst approaching the first, I noticed a group of women walking towards the small industrial area; I was about to ask aloud where they were walking to when I noticed the name of the closest building - "Shagmor Ltd".

Who could ask for more?

When I started telling this to one of our workers (before I mentioned the name of the building), he said that they were working in a brothel - although I don't know how serious he was. He found the name of the building entirely appropriate.

In the interests of decency, I should point out that "Shagmor" is probably a contraction of two names, "Avishag" (a biblical character) and "Mor" (which is an incense), and so has a completely different meaning in Hebrew than it does in English.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Favourite films

The thought struck me the other day that I ought to make a list of my favourite films; these are ones that I can watch over and over again, and still find new things to enjoy. My top 10 films ought to roll off the tip of my tongue, otherwise they can't be that good. Let's see what I come up with (in no real sense of order)....

  • "Play it again, Sam" - Woody Allen. In my school years, I very rarely went to the cinema nor watched films on TV, so the weekly film on the kibbutz where I spent the year 1973/4 was quite an eye opener. I have no recollection when I saw this film during that year, only the recognition of a fellow soul. After coming back from Israel and living in London, I used to scour "Time Out" every week to see where it was playing. I remember one time in Jan/Feb 1975 going with my girlfriend to see a double bill of 'Casablanca' and 'PIAS' at one of the London University colleges. The screening started at maybe 10pm and finished somewhere around 2am. As the idea of coming home by taxi never entered my mind, we walked all the way from Euston to Swiss Cottage.
  • "Annie Hall" - also Woody Allen. I have always considered this to be the 'son of PIAS'. It has the same main three actors, a similar plot, and similar visual devices. PIAS is probably funnier and is more personal to me, but AH is smoother and would appeal to more people. Considering Allen's dislike of California (as portrayed in this film and the fact that almost all of his films are set in New York), does anyone consider it strange that PIAS is set in San Francisco? [Update from IMDB: "Originally to be shot in Manhattan and Long Island but moved to San Francisco when New York film workers went on strike in the summer of 1971."]
  • "Still Crazy" - a wonderful mock-documentary that leaves the better known "Spinal Tap" in the starting blocks. Great music and great acting. This was the first time that I saw Bill Nighy in a film, but now I seem to see him in something different every week.
  • "The Big Chill". I wish that my college friends and I could meet up in a house for a weekend and talk about old times.
  • "Local hero". This film is probably better known for its soundtrack. A lovely little film set in a lovely little Scottish village.
  • "You've got mail" - Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Yes, the film is sometimes too sweet, and yes, it's an update of an update of an update, but I still love it. Maybe this film speaks more to someone who uses email to correspond with people all over the world than to someone who uses the telephone to speak with friends. Strange, though, isn't it how two people meet via the Internet and they live within a few blocks of each other; not only that, but they're also in the same business. Stretches coincidence a bit too far.
  • "Life as a house" - Kevin Kline again (The Big Chill), the most chameleon actor I've ever seen. This film probably isn't as well known as the others in my list, which is a shame. This is the latest addition to my favourites list so there isn't too much that I can write about it.
That's really about it. I suppose I could add an amalgam of Hugh Grant movies ("About a boy", "Notting Hill" and "Love actually") which I enjoy watching but are definitely lightweight. It's a shame that Nick Hornby's "High fidelity" was moved across the ocean to Chicago, because it was just as much a book about North London as it was about Rob (whatever his surname was).

A few weeks ago I decided to update from VHS and ordered AH and LH on DVD (sorry about the acronyms [a word which was only coined in the 20th century]), each just under 10 pounds sterling from British Amazon. Whilst browsing there the other day, I noticed that they are having yet another DVD blowout with prices under 5 pounds. Imagine my surprise when I snagged PIAS, LAAH and SC for about 4 pounds each. I already have TBC on DVD (bought whilst in Los Angeles two years ago), so all I have to do now is replace my almost worn out video copy of YGM and I'll be set for the next ten years until we change format again.

Friday, July 20, 2007

1971 was when the music came together

Some time in November or December 1970, I began to be very interested in a pair of albums that my then friend Tony S. had, which had been recorded by the sci-fi sounding Van der Graaf Generator. Not all of the tracks resounded within me, but I developed a strong liking for the second song on the first side of both albums - "Refugees" and "House with no door". Little did I know then what those songs would lead to....

In January 1971, I saw Yes (opening for the forgettable Iron Butterfly), playing music from their yet unreleased "Yes Album". This was a real eye-opener (ear opener, I suppose), and I was first in the queue to buy the record when it came out shortly later.

The other concert which I attended in January 1971 was Van der Graaf, an unforgettable night (so much so that I don't recall most of the songs that they played). By this time, I had developed a preference for sitting in the back row of the stalls in Bristol's Colston Hall. This was for several reasons: the seats were cheaper but had almost the same view as nearer seats, and one could stand up without blocking the view of anyone behind. The wall also gave support. So that evening, myself and a few friends were sitting in the back row of the Colston Hall; the music so involved us that soon we were standing, then rocking back and forth. I don't know exactly how it happened, but we also managed to detach some of the seats from the wall in our enthusiasm. A few years later, I was in correspondence with Peter Hammill, and I asked why they didn't come back to the CH. He explained that the hall manager (the uncle of drummer Guy Evans' then girlfriend) had banned the group after the damage that the fans had done. Oops. This incident is also detailed in "The Book".

Another view of my emerging musical tastes can be found in the following piece which I wrote a few years ago, when I used to write online reviews for The Greenman Review: '1971 found me as a dewy-eyed teenager sitting agog at the Bristol Troubadour. I had just discovered that my adopted home city had a strong "folk scene," and that good music was always to be found in that musky room in the Clifton district. Of the many musicians that I saw there, the strongest impression was made by a guitarist and singer called Dave Evans. It always seemed that he had several hands playing the guitar at the same time, and his performances used to hold me spellbound. One Sunday evening at a concert (at the appropriately named Newman Hall, actually not far from my house), Dave introduced an instrumental as "a number which I recorded this afternoon for a forthcoming album". I waited a few weeks, then went round to the local record company's headquarters and purchased my copy of The Words In Between. It would seem that the review is no longer online, although I do have a hard copy at home.

1971 also saw the re-emergence of King Crimson after two years of being a virtual group, existing in the studio. By 1991, such behaviour would have been normal, but not then. I was to see KC three times during 1971, the first time being in May, one of the first dates in their first British tour. The set from a gig a few days earlier at Plymouth has been preserved as the KC Collectors Club issue 14.

In July I went off to summer camp, this time with my regular peer group. We spent a few weeks in the Lake district, and as usual, the scenery took a backdrop to the more serious business of friendship. The theme of the camp was "Revolution", and we learnt about various revolutions which had occurred over the ages. The camp itself started with a kind of revolution, when we were thrown into bivouac tents and treated roughly by the staff; this was engineered by them to produce an outcry, from us, the children.

At the same time, a different kind of revolution was in the air: it was the time of the OZ obscenity trial, which I, at least, was following closely. At the end of the camp, a few friends and I created a 'satirical' magazine called ZO, which was an extremely pale and innocent version of OZ. At least I had been reading underground magazines, specifically IT (International Times, not Information Technology) which was on sale in Bristol, presumably for the university undergraduates (my school nestled next to the university) as well as Richard Neville's "Play Power".

In fact, I had been reading all kinds of weird for the time stuff, such as a book by Timothy Leary, one by George Melly (who died a few weeks ago). Around this time, I was also introduced to the works of Hermann Hesse who quickly became my favourite author; I was to read all of his books over the next few years, although now I find them very hard going.

At the camp, I met a girl M with whom I was very friendly, but not in a romantic sense. In the autumn of that year, I went to stay with her and her family for a few days; that visit was an introduction to all kinds of interesting things. I remember hearing The Doors sing about "Love Street", a song which for me has become inseparable from that visit and from the sunny weather. I found and bought Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool Aid Acid Test", which might have been the biggest eye-opener of all (maybe this was the source for the Hesse books). We went to Kenwood House and saw an art exhibition, after having dinner at an Italian restaurant. Later I invited her to stay with me for a few days in December; I had an interesting cultural programme planned, but her father nixed that idea.

A few weeks after the summer camp, came knocking at my door Simon from my first Habonim camp (not the one with laryngitis). He too had been at the Lake district camp where we had renewed our friendship, and now he was hitchhiking around Britain. It didn't take much persuading for me to join him - I probably envisioned a kind of youthful "On The Road". We went from Bristol to Birmingham to London to somewhere on the South Coast (Brighton? - I remember that there was a horse racetrack nearby) then back to London and thence to the finale of the trip - the Weeley Music Festival. My attendance there was terminated abruptly after a telephone conversation with my parents (who didn't know officially where I was, although they may have guessed) who informed me that my O-level results were not very good, and that I had an appointment at school with the Headmaster to discuss my academic future. I lost control for a while, as much as a result of this shock as well as my growing hunger and sleep loss. I went to the medical tent, had my first Valium (which put me in a very interesting place where I was aware of my problems but couldn't feel any emotion regarding them), found Simon and obtained my train ticket back to London.

Winter camp 1971 was with the "big boys"; I was the youngest attendee but it was an interesting experience. I formed a short-lived trio with M and J; I don't think we ever played in front of people although we did rehearse. I even have a picture of the three of us.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What I did at work today

Many people don't understand what I do at work, so today I thought that I would explain in simple language some of the things which I did today.

At work, we used to have a thermal printer which printed sticky labels; we would place these underneath the seats of the chairs that we produce, so that we (and the customer) would always know what kind of chair s/he had and when it was produced. The printer came with software which could print labels, but we didn't use this much. The main reason was that the software couldn't connect to our ERP program and thus was useless in printing labels directly from work orders. The second reason was that every few months, the program would deliberately mix letters up when printing, causing us to renew the license (free, but still a chore).

I wrote several programs to counter these shortcomings. The most important was one which connected directly to the ERP program (via a documented but difficult interface); the user would key in a work order number, the program would query the database and would then produce labels with the chair's part number, customer details, etc. The program was also equipped with a numerator: as we put one label underneath the seat and one on the plastic bag in which the chair was shipped, we needed to print two labels per chair, but count them identically. As I had full control of what was printed, this wasn't a problem. On the other hand, we also supply chairs in cartons; these have a special, generic label giving the part name along with a barcode; for these, we only needed to print one label. With a little bit of ingenuity, the program was able to handle both double and single quantities, printing the correct numbers on each label.

The generic barcodes were printed from a simple database program which I wrote. Instead of designing different labels, I realised that each label has exactly the same constituent parts: a title (eg Realto chair with adjustable armrests), a descriptor (Tahiti 200 blue upholstery) and its barcode. Once I had this, the design of the label was simple. The user would choose a chair from a database ordered by family (eg Realto) and then would key in how many labels to print. These programs have been working for about four or five years.

Unfortunately, we had a fire in the factory and the thermal printer was destroyed (and of course, the morning of the fire was when we had a new printer head installed at a cost of $500). A few days ago we obtained a new printer; it's not the same model and not from the same company. The reason why we chose this company is that they market a program which is supported by our new ERP program; the latter can output data from work orders to the former, which will then cause the labels to be printed.

Well, yes, in theory. In practice, it took the installer and myself a few hours to design a label and get all the relevant fields printed in the correct position. The most complicated part was the numerator, and even then we didn't get it right. I had told the ERP company that we needed two labels per chair, so the procedure which outputs the data doubled the amount. Correct, but the label program numerator interpreted this as is, which is wrong.

If the order was for five chairs, then there should be two labels numbered 1/5, two labeled 2/5, two labeled 3/5, etc. We were getting one label 1/10, one labeled 2/10, etc. Not good. The temporary solution was to halve in the ERP program the number of labels being printed, and then do two print runs, but this obviously was only a stop gap solution.

The label program comes with virtually no documentation, so it wasn't a question of RTFM. Today I had enough time to play a little with the program, and found to my pleasure that it was possible to add a little code - event handling. The numerator is really two fields: one a real numerator, and one the total number of labels to be printed. The latter was easy to fix: the field received the code "value = value / 2", and thus printed half the number of labels to be printed, which is of course the correct number of chairs. Encouraged by this, I had to think a little before I came up with a function for the numerator - value = (value - 1) / 2 + 1. When value is 1 or 2, the result will be 1; when it's 3 or 4, the result will be 2. Just what the doctor ordered.

Just to be safe, I kept the original label which we designed with its 'pure' numerator; this will be used when printing labels for chairs which are supplied in cartons, or for stacks of chairs (where each chair needs its own label, but they are supplied in stacks of ten).

At the moment, we're using labels which were supplied with the printer and aren't the same size as our original ones. Whilst this doesn't matter too much with labels printed with the external program, it made labels printed with my database program look bad. Early on, I realised that this was because there was a height problem: my program thought that the labels were (say) 4 cm in height whereas in fact they are 4 inches high. Although the printer came with a fair amount of documentation (on cd), I couldn't see where the label height was defined - until I remembered that it was defined in the printer setup dialog. Sure enough, I found the definition there. I'll change the current value when we get some rolls of "our" labels delivered.

Other bits and pieces were explaining to users how to get correct data from the ERP program, and altering a few reports in order to add ordering fields. As I term it, this is easy stuff for man, but hard stuff for mankind. The mantra is business is "keep the customer happy", and I do my best to keep my customers (ie other users) as happy as possible by giving them solutions as quickly as possible.