Sunday, February 27, 2011

Michael Palin

A few months ago, I discovered that the satellite tv channel, BBC Entertainment, was showing various series of Michael Palin's peregrinations around the globe. The first series which I saw (but not all episodes) was about New Europe. This was very interesting to me, as not only did it include places which have always interested me, it also included places where I have actually been (Prague and Karlovy Vary).

Following this series, we were treated to Himalaya, six episodes which finished on Friday. I told my octagenarian father about these, as he spent a year of the Second World War in India. Although I have little interest in visiting these places, the series was fascinating.

Keeping the ball rolling, next week starts the ten part series entitled Full Circle, as Palin and his group travel around the rim of the Pacific Ocean.

A few weeks ago I discovered Palin's website; his commentaries don't completely match what is shown on television, which can sometimes be disconcerting. One does have the impression that day leads to day and that the trips were continuous, even though they might be shown out of continuity (I'm thinking of the two days spent in Karlovy Vary). But it transpires that even that is not true, as evidenced by a letter on Palin's site about the Himalaya series.

Here he is writing about how long the series took to produce, from start to finish. The trip itself was just over 100 days long but the series took 17 months. Palin writes:
Last week someone on the south coast asked me how much time it will have taken me to make the book and film of the Himalaya journey. I thought about it and, though it seemed almost unbelievable, replied with a certain quiet modesty, "About eighteen months from start to finish".
His reply knocked me back a bit. "That long!" he said.

I don't want to moan on and become all precious about how hard we work, but I think there is still a feeling that we're having too good a time for it to be hard work. Well, it's true, most of the time we are having a good time, but we have to make sure on each day of the filming that someone is shooting and someone is recording and someone is telling the audience-to-be why we are having a good time and what the good time looks like.

And that's where the lines of fun and work blur a little, and sometimes after a week of continuous days trekking, camping out, and filming at the same time we become almost numb to the beauty of the world and would swap another fabulous mountain view for a smelly old pub any day.

Let's tot up the figures. First there's the preparation. You can't just turn up at the Khyber Pass and start work. It's on the North-West Frontier, which like many other places we visited on our journey, is a potentially dangerous and unstable area, where terrorists live. So a great deal of chatting up, flannelling and soothing of egos has to go on before we can even leave home. Some of this work was done from our office in London, (thank you the wonderful Natalia, Mirabel and later Sue, team) but most of it had to be done on the ground. Step forward directors Roger Mills and John Paul Davidson and location managers Vanessa Courtney and Claire Houdret. They set the ball rolling, scouting the world, talking to potential contributors, checking out possible stories and wheedling permissions from reluctant governments while I was still at home looking at maps and deciding which kind of toilet paper to take.

So that's about 3 of the 18 months gone before we've left home. The actual shooting took up 6 more months. This involved some 2,000 miles travelling and 7 separate flights out to Asia and back. India, Nepal, Tibet and Yunnan in China was one continuous shoot, as was Pakistan and Assam-Bhutan-Bangladesh, but three short individual trips had to be made in addition. One to a 12,000 foot high polo match in Pakistan, one to a week-long horse fair in the centre of the Tibetan Plateau and one to an amazing annual festival in Bhutan. By my reckoning that's 14 doses of jet lag. In between the jet lags I was writing hard to keep up with deadlines for the book, so months off became months on. Add two.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

One flew over the cuckoo's nest

One flew east, one flew west
One flew over the cuckoo's nest

Above appears the epigram to Ken Kesey's novel from 1962. I first became aware of this book at the end of 1971, when I read Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-aid acid test". My Picador edition of the book was published in 1973, and indeed I remember reading it once on Hampstead Heath one Sunday afternoon in the early part of that year whilst waiting for my then girlfriend to arrive (I have no recollection why I was in London that Sunday afternoon).

The novel might have stayed esoteric had it not been adapted as a film starring Jack Nicholson a few years later. I remember seeing the film three times, which in those days was a privilege afforded to few films. One time I even sneaked a cassette recorder into the Golders Green cinema in order to record the opening music. The film also made a great impression on the Israeli public: 'Cuckoos nest' was written on the wall of more than one building on my first kibbutz. I also bought the book in its Hebrew translation but never managed to get more than a few pages into the text.

Why suddenly all these recollections? Because tomorrow night, our cable tv provider will be showing the film, probably for the first time in thirty years. Every February, in the weeks leading up to the Oscar ceremonies, the provider always screens both classic and new films, and this is a prime opportunity for me to record films that I have always wanted.

I'll probably have more to write about the film after seeing it, but in the mean time, I will quote a little Tom Wolfe: From the point of view of craft, Chief Broom was his [Kesey's] great inspiration. If he had told the story through McMurphy's eyes, he would have had to end up with the big bruiser delivering a lot of homilies about his down-home theory of mental therapy. Instead, he told the story through the Indian. This way he could present a schizophrenic state the way the schizophrenic himself, Chief Broom, feels it and at the same time report the McMurphy method more subtlely.

Of course, the film couldn't tell the story through Chief Broom's eyes: most of the action is focused on McMurphy. As a result, the viewer misses out on Broom's schizophrenic fogs. I remember that the audience in the cinema cheered when Broom spoke his first words, after having played deaf and dumb throughout the story. I wonder how many guessed that the Indian was only pretending about being deaf and dumb.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Even more Blodwyn Pig

All this writing about the Pig made me dream of them during the night: I woke up at about 1:30am with the riff from "Worry" running through my head. I also found myself playing the riff to "Drive me" (for the first time in my life) not so long ago when I was playing my guitar.

Some additional comments to yesterday's post:
I read about Mick Abrahams' autobiography from his website (natch). The interface on the site is not the most intuitive, which is why I missed the fact that the book could be bought from there for 12GBP (list price) plus postage and packing, which would probably be another 6GBP. Mick signs every copy with whatever dedication one requests. I paid about 11:50GBP, so I have to ask myself whether I would want his signature for an extra 7GBP. Had I known in advance, then I might well have ordered directly from there, but I'm not beating myself about it in retrospect. As I say, the interface is not so good, which is why I can't give a link direct to the book.

Some more observations about "Getting to this" (GTT), mainly personal. Of course, I used to listen to the vinyl record on a record player which had an auto-changer mechanism, allowing one to stack records on top of each other and play them in sequence. I imagine that this was mainly designed for singles, but I used to put albums on the auto-changer ... until I had an accident and ruined the end of "San Francisco Sketches" with a scratch which caused the track to jump. After having ruined several lps this way ("The sea captain" and the eponymous "North Star grassman" by Sandy Denny, along with "Lord and Master" by Heron were other tracks which use to skip), I eventually ceased using the auto-changer. More modern turntables didn't have this 'feature'.

"Worry", especially in the chorus, sounds very much like "Benefit" period Jethro Tull. This and GTT came out at around the same time, so forty years later, I'm not sure who was copying who. There is a definite Jethro Tull joke concealed on GTT, which I learnt about from Mick's book: 'Nainos' (as in "Variations on Nainos") is not a Greek island, but rather Ian (Ander)son spelt backwards. I imagine that the lyrics contain a message to Abrahams' former colleague, but I can't really make them out. And yes, Abrahams did sing the final verse through a bucket of water.

Around 1971-2, my mother had a small catering business in Bristol. Once she catered for some random child's birthday party and somehow I was roped in to provide 'entertainment' for the children (aged maybe eight at the most). Even in those days I was serious about my music and didn't know any party songs. I do recall that I played "Toys", which might have been suitable for a grown man to play and sing, but not for eight year olds.

Island Records had a praise-worthy tradition of releasing samplers: elsewhere, I have written about the first two, "You can all join in" and "Nice enough to eat". Their third sampler was a double album entitled "Bumpers" which came out in 1971 and included a track from GTT, namely "Send your son to die". I suppose that this track could be considered a rarity as the mix is different to that on GTT; I don't really have a way of verifying this now (I suppose that I could dig out my vinyl copy of "Bumpers" from under the bed, connect the turntable which is lying unused on a shelf nearby and play the song), but as I recall, the vocals sounded different from GTT, more unfocused.

I imagine that herein ends the Pig ... but one never knows.....

Thursday, February 17, 2011

More Blodwyn Pig

I wrote recently about renewing my acquaintance with the group Blodwyn Pig. As a result, I listened twice to their second album, "Getting to this", last night. As I probably wrote last time, when the record was released (in April 1970), I preferred this to its predecessor, but now I definitely prefer the debut record, "Ahead rings out".

There are a couple of standout tracks: "See my way" (this was originally on  "Getting to this" but rereleased on "Ahead rings out", which makes me wonder when it was recorded), "San Franciso Sketches", "The squirreling must go on" and "Send your son to die". Along with these are a couple of not-bad tracks ("Drive my car", "Variations on Nainos", "Worry") and a few others which are either out of place ("Toys") or filler ("Telephone bomb blues", "To Rassman"). My cd copy also has "Summer day" and "Walk on water" attached at the end.

The sound is fuller than on the debut album, which is not necessarily a good thing. For some reason, Jack Lancaster seems to be missing in action: he is nowhere to be heard on the out of place/filler tracks, and barely puts in an appearance on 'Worry' (his contribution is a fine solo). It should be noted that he is definitely present on the other tracks, and "San Francisco Sketches" is his showcase.

I discovered somehow that Mick Abrahams had written an autobiography ("What is a Wommet"), so I immediately ordered this. Due to the wonderful people at the Book Depository, the book arrived yesterday and I've just finished reading it. To be honest, the book was underwhelming; it was more about the fun times that Mick Abrahams has had being a musician and less about the music itself. There is a little information about Jethro Tull and Blodwyn Pig, but not very much, and the gems are mainly eclipsed by tales of drunkeness and the Territorial Army. The chapters are very short and it seems that every chapter finishes with a few lines on a new page, so the book gives the impression of being fuller than it really is.

There are some interesting words about "Getting to this": The songs on this album had a different energy and feel  and, of course, we now had the additional luxury of 16 tracks to record with. We took full advantage of the new technology and used it to layer guitars and saxes to get a generally thicker sound."

The book also relieved me of a life-long illusion: as Abrahams shares his name with my mother's maiden name, I had naturally assumed that he was Jewish. Far from it; he was adopted, brought up a Christian, was an alter boy, and underwent a religious revival in his 30s. He claims that Abrahams is a common surname in East Anglia. 

I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone except the die-hard completists of Jethro Tull and/or Blodwyn Pig; whilst there are plenty of anecdotes, solid information which might inform the man's music is thin on the ground.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Idea for startup

My wife and I were invited to a bat mitzva party the other night; in retrospect, this was more like a wedding party than a bat mitzva in terms of how people were seated and served food. As one of the parents is Moroccan - and so there were many Moroccan guests - it is not surprising that most of the food served was spicy, or as we say in Hebrew, charif. My stomach (and my lips) are very sensitive to spicy food which is why almost all of the food which I eat is bland.

As I was contemplating a bowl of tomato based spread in front of me, an idea for a startup popped into my head: develop testing strips (like those which test the amount of glucose in urine) which can tell how hot/spicy (piquance) a given food is. This would be very useful for people like me, although it would probably mean that there was nothing at this party which I could eat. The redder the colour of the strip, the hotter the food! Apparently, there is something called the Scoville scale which measures the piquance of a chili pepper.

This idea is probably technically feasible: presumably one has to find an indicator for capsaicin, or for capsaicinoids in general, although these may not be the only active ingredients which are causing the piquance. The wiki link to the Scoville scale says that high performance liquid chromatography is necessary to measure the capsaicinoid content; this would have to be miniaturised into a form suitable for a paper strip.

I mentioned this idea to the man sitting to my left but he wasn't too enthusiastic about it (although he did say that such a litmus paper would probably dissolve when dipped into that tomato paste). Anyway, I offer this idea to the public domain. Please get in touch with me if you have developed such an instant test - but don't expect me to invest in the company.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A moment's hesitation

There was a blogging gap of a week not so long ago; during that time I was involved in the final stages of a new song, "A moment's hesitation", which is now available for playing at Soundclick.

The chord sequence and tune came when I was playing around on my keyboard at the beginning of December; being unable to think of any words, I continued playing with the music and commenced building an arrangement in Reason. Every now and then, opening lines would appear in my mind, but they weren't very good and didn't really lead anywhere. I was confident that I would be able to write the lyrics when a suitable title or theme appeared, but I was having trouble in finding that title or theme.

It wasn't until I watched the bad film "Did you hear about the Morgans" that the synapses began to fire. The film was about a separated couple and the unconventional way in which they came back together. If one would ask me, there is no way that I would want to be reunited with the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker, but I wouldn't mind being the Hugh Grant character, who managed to get in several witty lines. It was these lines which sparked my imagination. I'm fairly sure that the lines which I wrote in my pocket notepad weren't spoken by anyone in the film (and if they were, they would have come from Parker, not Grant), but even if they did, one is allowed to quote a line, especially after changing it slightly.

One evening I wrote most of the lyrics to the song; the next morning I realised that the verses were in the wrong order (what was written as the first verse should come after the second verse). I also added a third verse, which took its inspiration from the final paragraph of Robert Silverberg's novel, "Dying Inside" (highly recommended reading). This is a novel about a person who can read people's minds; it's not so much about what he finds there but rather about the fact that his mind reading skills are diminishing rapidly and soon he will be a normal person who has wasted most of his life. The prose is exquisite and the final paragraph is touching. It seemed appropriate to close the song with a few lines inspired by that paragraph, about a man who has had and has lost.

Once the lyrics were completed, I started singing them against the sketched arrangement. It quickly became clear that one line of lyrics had to be changed slightly in order to be singable, and that the final line would have to be changed. Going over the lyrics in my mind without listening to the music gave hints for a few important changes in the arrangement.

With the new musical ideas aboard, I spent many hours on Thursday and Friday getting the notes exactly as they should be. This might be seen as a very frustrating process because every time that I thought that I had finished the arrangement, another idea would pop up. I see it as a most exciting time - so engrossing that I missed the time at which I was supposed to start cooking dinner on Friday afternoon (only by half an hour). Eventually I reached a stage where I could find nothing more to change and 'fixed the image'.

On Saturday morning I spent several hours singing the song and trying to mix the vocals with the music. As often happens, the results of the first vocal session have to be abandoned later, whereas the results of the second vocal session (Saturday evening) are usually quicker, easier and better. I had a completely mixed song on Saturday night which I played to myself frequently that evening and Sunday, almost getting to the mental place where I was unable to listen to the song any more. Then I played the song a few times to my wife, getting the seal of approval. From there, the path to Soundclick was very short.

I still may have second thoughts regarding the arrangement and opt for something with more space in it. Such second arrangements normally start about a year after having recorded the song; it may be something that I hear or a new technique which makes me want to try out the song in a different manner. Of course, sometimes I hear mistakes which I didn't catch previously and a new arrangement allows me to correct those mistakes - and possibly creating new mistakes at the same time.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Project management exam - results

I received this afternoon an email from Heriot Watt University informing me that the results of the exams held in December are now available. In a flash, I fired up Firefox and clicked on the shortcut which would take me to the exam results page. The result for Project Management was ... 78! This is my second highest score (not unexpectedly, the top score was in accounting) and is higher than I had expected. 

A new wrinkle is that there is a breakdown of marks per question. The first question, organisational behaviour chart, awarded me only 14 marks out of 25; as I had a feeling that I had misunderstood one part of the question, this doesn't come as too much of a surprise. The second question, CPM, awarded me 22 out of 25, and the third question, EVA, gave me 24 out of 25. That leaves 18 out of 25 for the last question, which was an essay about risk (explain the difference between risk and uncertainty); this mark is certainly higher than I expected.

Pleased? Over the moon!

May I remind my readers that this is a British mark; 65-80 is considered an A (very good) and 80+ is X (excellent). Converting these marks into Israeli figures would mean that the 78 is probably around 92. Now of course, I'm disappointed that I didn't get a few more marks in the OBS question, which would have raised my mark into the X band. This reminds me of a story my parents used to tell of a wonder child whose school report showed that he had a mark of 99 out of 100; his teacher's comment was "could do better".

Lest one think that all is wonderful in MBA land, today I completed another exercise in my marketing course. Although the skeleton of the exercise is the same as the other exercises which I have done, the product in this exercise is completely different to the previous exercises and needs different answers. I scanned my handwritten, five page, answer and sent the resulting pdf file to the lecturer. Within about fifteen minutes, I got a reply back, listing four or five issues which need correcting. Of course, one learns more from one's mistakes than from other sources.

Adding corrections to a hand written script probably means that I will have to write the whole thing out again. It's a chore but there are advantages to doing so.