Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Masochistic programming

I wrote three years ago about creating a unicode version of one of our exam programs. Recently it transpired that the program doesn't display Hebrew on some computers (all of which are running Windows 7) presumably because the Hebrew was displayed on a non-unicode dialog. It turns out that on some computers, Hebrew was not set as the non-unicode language; when this definition was changed, the programs were displayed correctly. Even so, there are still a few computers which don't display the Hebrew correctly. I tried to create a completely unicode  version of the program but it seems that the TNT components which I had been using don't display Hebrew correctly (if at all). One reason for this is that the resource file containing the Hebrew text was saved as ANSI, so it's not surprising that there were problems. But even after saving the resource file as unicode (and compiling it with the unicode resource compiler, GoRC), there were still problems.

There is a TUnicodeLabel component which I discovered which does display Hebrew unicode; unfortunately this component does not display right aligned text nor does it display multiple line text.

The answer of course is to update Delphi 7 to Delphi XE but the financial cost seems to outweigh the advantages. Not only that, every string would suddenly become unicode, a change which is liable to cause more problems than it solves.

The idea occurred to me to recreate the program as a standard WinAPI program in Delphi; this is a very masochistic programming technique as it obviates all the advantages that Delphi brings to the table. The only apparent 'advantage' is that the resulting executable file is very small, which might have been important once but now is meaningless. The program code is verbose and difficult to understand; this is how early Windows programs were written, until frameworks such as Delphi and Visual Basic appeared.  Using this technique, I was able to create my own unicode labels and have them display Hebrew correctly.

I discovered this site which gives tutorials into writing WinAPI programs in Delphi. Unfortunately the writing is not too clear (there is also the tendency to confuse its with it's which always annoys and distracts me) and the demonstration programs are presented in a way to defy comprehension, having more comments than code.

After struggling with these concepts for a few hours, I took the dog for a walk. As I have written several times before, this is a very therapeutic step and always helps when confronted with a programming conundrum. As usual, an idea popped into my head whilst walking: keep the Delphi program but add the unicode labels with low-level code. As the exam is very dependent on displaying data but not so dependent on receiving data, this would be a definite possibility to be examined. Can this be done, I wondered? Yes, indeed.

So from one dialog box, I removed the TNT labels and replaced them with calls to CreateWindoxExW. The downside of this is that I am unable to see the labels on the dialog during design time, but the technique does work. The labels at the moment are in a system font and have the wrong coloured background but such matters are not important at the moment. Once I  see how to display multiline text in such a label, I can make a full version of the exam program and send it to be tested on a computer which is known to display my programs incorrectly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Red Cap

I've been watching the television series "Red Cap", which is being broadcast on BBC Entertainment on Saturday nights. This is a series (two seasons) about the British Military Police, situated in Germany. Instead of the usual CID plainclothes policemen, the series shows SIB (Special Investigative Branch) plainclothes policemen; there's not much difference between the two.

Whilst the initial premise of the series is good - a detective series with a change of scenery and background - I think that there's no real follow-through on this. Each episode starts off promisingly, but soon the story starts following one track out of several possibilities, the endings always seem a bit forced and divorced from all that has gone before.

The fact that the series is set in Germany doesn't seem to count for much. Maybe there are no more British troops in Britain, but the Germany of this series seems remarkably British. The only 'advantage' is that the NCOs have a German liason officer instead of a British one. Most of the crimes investigated are not particularly military; the first episode was about the accidental killing of a soldier during a training exercise and promised much, but other episodes have been more civilian.

The last episode which I saw (episode 1.6, "Payback") showed the normal confused characteristics of this series. It begins with a senior officer arriving at the 'station', expecting to meet one of the detectives; it seems that someone has played a practical joke on this officer, for the detective he is to meet is in fact having his annual physical exam and is not on-site. Whilst this is being explained to the officer, his car is stolen. Another practical joke?

Then the story switches elsewhere to a scene in which our intrepid detectives discover a shipment of hashish in a chocolate box. The soldier for whom this shipment is intended reveals himself by coshing his superior officer (for no apparent reason, as he leaves the hash behind). Two detectives start tracing this soldier and discover that he frequents a certain night club. Despite being 'blown', the soldier turns up that evening at the night club where he is observed by the two detectives; they see him meet 'Mr Big' and transfer an envelope, which one of the detectives manages to attain.

The detective who was taking the physical exam talks with a fellow NCO who is about to be court-martialled for striking an officer whilst in Kosovo. The NCO has 22 years of service but would lose all his pension if indeed he would be court-martialled. Whilst the detective is trying to find a way to help the NCO, the latter shows no signs of remorse at his actions.

Cutting a long story short, this NCO stole the first officer's car; it is intended to be used as the getaway car for a bank robbery in which he is involved, along with the hash smuggling soldier and a few others. The envelope which was passed from hand to hand in the night club contains the codes for the bank vault. Two detectives (including the one from the physical exam) are in the bank enquiring about the codes when the robbery takes place; physical exam detective gets shot during the robbery.

The first set of detectives arrive on the scene and don't really do anything. One gets taken as a hostage by the NCO who decided to go it alone with the stolen money; the (female) hostage detective gets replaced by her partner. Then a police sniper shoots at the getaway car; I'm not sure who was driving, but anyway the car crashes. The NCO is killed, despite the car's airbag which blows up in his face (maybe he was shot) whereas the detective is merely stunned. Female detective embraces male detective, showing signs of relief than nothing had happened to her partner.

Why do I feel let down by all this? Apart from the unlikely events of the robbery, what about the hash smuggling soldier? What about Mr Big, who apparently is occupied with human trafficking? Why does the episode end with all of the detectives having their picture taken, whilst in uniform?

As usual, I seem to be in a minority. The few user reviews which appear on IMDB are heartily in favour: Following on from the successful pilot episode first broadcast in December 2001, Red Cap has now been made into a six-part TV series for the BBC. Initially, it seemed like a bit of a gamble turning a successful, one-off episode into a continuous series which could wear the premise thin and make the stories become predictable or silly. But, on the contrary, the stories in the Red Cap series really require you to use your brain, and [are] full of interesting and exciting twists and turns that sustain viewer interest right until the end.You have to pay attention to everything that is being said and inferred so that you don't lose track of the story, and this is always a great thing with thrillers.Tamzin Outhwaite is also extremely well cast as the heroine of the story and is very engaging to watch perform. Fine programming from the BBC.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Human Resources Management results

Today, with little fanfare, the results of the HRM exam which I sat in early June were published. I was disappointed to see that I had received only 55%; obviously my internal marking system was more optimistic than the examiner. On the first question, I received 25 out of 40 (whereas I thought that I would get 30 marks), the second only 20 out of 40 (again, I thought that I would get 30 marks, but this was an odd question not allowing itself to clairvoyance), and the third I guessed correctly, getting 10 out of 20.

This is my lowest mark by far and at the moment I'm displeased; this low score doesn't reflect how I felt about the course. On the other hand, this is a subject which does not interest me very much and I doubt whether I will be needing it in the future. I only took the course because it is required by the Israeli Council for Higher Education; as far as Heriot Watt University is concerned, this is an optional course. It will be interesting to see how my fellow examinees faired: I will be seeing some on Friday when the Finance course begins.

The main thing is that I passed.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lucerne log (5)

Our final day in Lucerne started with a chocolate buying spree - it's amazing for how many people we have to buy chocolates and how expensive they are (expensive is a relative quality - see later on). Once that was out of the way, my wife could get on with the real business of the day - the bric'n'brac market which was set up on the banks of the Reuss river, a minute from our room.

The variety of articles was outstanding, most of it apparently being derived from house clearing sales. I could have bought any number of voltage adapters, an original Sony walkman cassette player as well as a discman player (like my first cd player). The only thing which remotely tempted me was a flute priced at 150 SFr; I don't play the flute but I would like to. But as a non-playing flautist, I don't have the ability to evalute the qualities of said flute; maybe it is a dud, bent so that it is out of tune. A shame, for the price is less than half of a new flute, if not even less.

My wife picked up a few copper items at miniscule prices but went all out with an antique paraffin lamp (with 'Helvetia' stamped on its body) for 45 SFr. We managed to get the lamp into our luggage, but this item nearly played havoc at the security check at the airport because of the smell of paraffin. Had there been a drop of paraffin in the lamp, it would have had to stay behind, at the chagrin of my wife. But soon it will be adorning our balcony, along with an antique cow bell which we bought at Trummelbach.

Once the market was completed, we set off for the train station, there to buy trousers and have lunch. After this, we set off for a side of Lucerne that we hadn't visited, in search of the glacier museum; on the way, I discovered that we were walking along the far end of the shopping street which I had last visited on the rainy day in Lucerne. The weather was now the complete opposite of that day, being sunny and very hot. With the help of a policewoman, we found the museum and had a good time inside (entrance free, courtesy of the Swiss Pass).

Outside the museum is the famous Lucerne Lion; this must be one of the most photographed objects in Lucerne, judging by the crowds who visited and photographed (most of them did not enter the museum). The museum itself is quite interesting, but not overwhelmingly so. Probably the best part was the end, which had nothing to do with glaciers whatsoever - the mirror maze. I filmed my entire stay within the maze, something which has to be seen to be appreciated. I quote: This fantastic attraction with its 90 mirrors was created in 1896 for the Swiss national exhibition in Geneva and has been at the Glacier Garden since 1899. Although the corridors appear infinitely long, they are in effect quite short - so take your time walking through!

From the museum we walked back to our hotel along the shopping street, thus completing the third side of a triangle. There was a brass band playing in one of the squares which I filmed, but the cassette was almost at its end and so I only caught a minute at most. I had wandered around that area on my own on our first evening and had heard a brass band version of 'Smoke on the water' emanating from one of the restaurants. I wonder whether it was the same band.

As time was getting on, we organised our suitcases then took them by hand to the train station - normally a brisk five minute walk, but this took about twenty minutes. Fortunately, a direct train to Zurich airport was waiting for us at the station (we seemed to be very lucky regarding trains - we didn't have to wait, nor did we have to change at Zurich) and we got to the airport at about 7:15pm. The check-in procedure is totally different from that at Ben Gurion, but we were helped by a helpful lady from Swiss Airlines.

Dining in a self-service restaurant, we finally ate rösti, a traditional Swiss dish made from potatoes. I had been aware of this dish from who else but John Le Carre and his novel, 'The night manager', where the eponymous manager offers it to newly arrived guests. After that, I wandered around the shops, where I discovered that the gift shops were selling goods at a price at least 10% higher than shops in Lucerne; it's just as well that we bought the 'expensive' chocolates in a shop by our hotel for had we waited until the airport, those chocolates really would have been expensive.

It transpires that there were two flights leaving to Tel Aviv with only a fifteen minute difference between their departure times. We naturally went to the wrong gate (apparently we were not the only people to make the same mistake) only to be sent to the other gate; unfortunately the first gate was at one end of the huge Zurich terminal E building and the second gate was at the other end. It took at least twenty minutes to walk from one end to the other, so it's just as well that we arrived early.

There was internet access available at the airport, only it wasn't free, and the time which I had purchased whilst in Locarno had expired that morning. Thus I was unable to write nor post this blog from Zurich. The flight was non-eventful, although I suffered terribly from restless leg syndrome (this got me during some of our train journeys as well) and discovered that the most 'comfortable' position for me was to stand in the aisle. Eventually we landed, got through passport control, luggage and customs and thence to a queue for taxis (at least three flights landed within a twenty minute period).

Into bed at 5am, up again at around 10am, but terribly woozy. Only now do I seem to be ok - but I will go to bed reasonably early tonight as I have to be up at 5am tomorrow morning - back to work.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lucerne log (4)

It may seem from reading these logs that Switzerland - or at least, the Switzerland of the tourist - is either mountains or water. Today we visited a place which combines the water with the mountain - Trummelbach Falls. This is a most amazing place in which the visitor can see water - the fall off from the Eiger and other mountains - flow in a mighty surge through the mountain. Paths have been hewn out of the stone in order to allow the visitor access to views of the path of the water. This blows yesterday's Rhine Falls out of the water, to use an inappropriate expression.

After we had finished with the falls (it took us about 3 and a half hours to get there from Lucerne, so this was already after lunch), we had to decide what to do next. Had we arrived earlier, then the plan was to take a local train (or tram) to a place called Kleine Scheidegg and from there take a cog train to the top of a mountain called Jungfraujoch, whose railway station is the highest in Europe. Had we managed to do so, then we wouldn't have returned to Lucerne until 9pm. As it is now 6:45pm, obviously we didn't go there.

Instead, it turned out that there is a cable car service opposite the Lauterbrunnen train station, which when combined with another train, takes one up a mountain to a village called Mürren, at an elevation of a mere 1650 meters - we are getting terribly blase about such things. The train ride had fabulous views of the snow covered mountains on the other side of the Lauterbrunnen gorge, whereas Mürren itself was unremarkable - although a village at such a height is remarkable enough on its own.

We wandered around through the village, photographing the mountains, had an ice cream cone (the cheapest so far in Switzerland) then headed back via the train and cable car. A train was waiting for us in Lauterbrunnen, and we only had to wait a few minutes for our connection in Interlaken.

A good day! This was our penultimate day in Switzerland and our final trip. As our flight leaves Zurich Airport only at 10pm, we will be able to spend a complete day in Lucerne. To my wife's delight, there is supposed to be a flea market being held tomorrow on both sides of the river so that will keep her occupied, although I don't know what I will be doing. And of course, there are chocolates to be bought....

Thus the next log may be written in Zurich Airport or it may be written at home. Whichever way, we certainly went out on a high note!

Lucerne log (3)

This is going to be a short entry due to lack of time.

Yesterday we took a train from Lucerne to Zurich and another from Zurich to Winterthur, whereupon we changed to a suburban line to Schaffhausen. We got off at the miniscule station at Neuhausen am Rheinfall in order to see the Rhine Falls. In terms of waterfalls (the height that the water falls), this was a bit disappointing, but in terms of power, the waterfall was fascinating.

After photographing the falls from several different angles, we went to visit the castle which stands by the falls. This was built as a hotel and houses an exhibition which explains about the falls, the tourism aspect and the arguments held over the years whether to harness the falls' power for electricity and make the area industrial or to leave the area as is. The environmentalists won (and this argument was held in the 1850s).

Leaving the falls, we returned to Zurich where we prowled around the streets for a few hours, prior to our return to Lucerne. A late meal in a riverside restaurant was followed by falling into bed.

Shortly we'll be out again and may not return until nightfall.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lucerne log (2)

Today was a literal wash-out. The weather forecast had shown that today would be rainy and true to form, a thunderclap woke me up at around 4:30am. I had been hoping to go to the Reichenbach Falls, where the fictional Sherlock Holmes faked his death, but the Hebrew Internet reviews that we read had been less than lukewarm about the falls, and so we decided to forego this pleasure, instead spending the day shopping (or looking around shops) in the constant rain.

Not a fun day.

We bought a cuckoo clock at a souvenir shop called Casagrande, which is slightly off the beaten track. There was a wide variety of items for sale in the shop at reasonable prices. We had earlier bought a fair amount of Switzerland tat at a shop called Harry's (one of three) directly opposite our hotel, which probably gets more than its fair shop of custom due to its location, but I got the feeling that Harry was more expensive.

Carrying on from the entry about Bern, George Smiley uses the alias 'Lachmann' in the novel 'Smiley's people'. Not knowing German, I had never known the meaning of this name, but now being in the German speaking part of Switzerland, I became curious. As far as I can establish, it means Smiley - lach means smile! Not a subtle cover name

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lucerne log (1)

Today was a day of mountaineering.

Along with many other people, we caught a train this morning from Lucerne to Engelberg (forty seven minutes) in order to scale the Titlis mountain. Actually we ascended by cable car, which ran in three sections: the first two were 'mundane' (as if any cable car to a mountain is mundane) but the third section was in a car whose floor rotates, thus allowing all the people within to have a 360 degree view.

The peak of the Titlis is 3020 metres, making it the highest mountain that we have visited so far. It is above the snow level, and when we got to the summit, we walked out of the observation building onto a snowy path. It's just as well that I invested in a good pair of leather shoes for otherwise my old leather shoes (with cracked soles) would have caused my feet to freeze. I saw Asian girls wearing open shoes - good luck to them. We also walked around the glacier grotto - a path cut into the glacier itself. As this was dark, we couldn't really see very much.

Coming down was of course similar to going up, although much less crowded and so enabling a better view.

After catching the train from Engelberg back to Lucerne, we then took another train, this time to Alpnachstad (only twenty minutes away). Here we bought tickets for the Pilatus mountain, a dwarf at only 2132 metres, below the snow level. The cogwheel railway is supposedly either the longest in the world, the steepest in the world or both. At some places, the slope is 48%! To my surprise, I discovered that the railway had been built in 1889, originally with steam trains and then electrified in 1932. Even though I am becoming blase about cogwheel railways and/or funiculars, this ride was definitely one to be savoured.

Coming down from Pilatus was via cable car; whilst this was a very long ride (in three sections), most of it was similar to the ride from Cardada, albeit starting from a higher altitude. Again, the cable car path was shielded by trees on both sides; whilst this minimises the view from the cars, the trees probably act as wind shields, preventing shaking.

The Pilatus cable car 'lands' in a place called Kriens, presumably a suburb of Lucerne. One returns to the city via bus.

The weather today was very good, although a bit too hot for my liking. At the summits of the mountains, the air was cool (of course, especially on top of Titlis) but lower down was very humid later on in the afternoon. There was a short and heavy shower at about 7pm, after we had returned to our hotel; this cleared the air a little.

Tomorrow is supposed to bring heavy rain all over Switzerland which is going to put a severe cramp into our plans.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bern, baby, Bern

Roll up, roll up for the Mystery Tour….

Before leaving Israel, I had purchased a pair of Swiss Rail Cards, which would enable us to travel for free on all Swiss public transport as well as receiving 50% discounts on other means of travel, specifically the cable cars at Cardada. We hadn't taken extreme advantage of the card yet, although it will see plenty of use in the Lucerne stage of our holiday. But having such a card enabled us to take the mystery tour – ride the first train which leaves Locarno and see what happens after that.

Just as we arrived at the station, a train was leaving for Bellinzona, the local nexus, so we jumped onto the train. In Bellinzona, we had a connection leaving almost immediately for Lucerne and Basel so we took that train. By the time we arrived at Lucerne, at around midday, it became apparent that we wouldn't be have enough time to travel to Basel, walk around for a few hours and catch a train back to Locarno at a reasonable hour (Basel is in the far north of Switzerland, Locarno in the far south). The train pulled into Olten station, north east of Lucerne just as a train on an adjacent platform arrived, headed for Bern. So we jumped ship (or train).

I had wanted to travel to Bern, but the route which I had intended to take – Locarno, Domodossola, Brig, Bern – whilst scenic would have taken several hours and the first train wouldn't leave until 10:40, so I had abandoned that idea. Obviously fate wanted me to come to Bern, for here I was. Bern railway station is a vast affair and it took some time for us to emerge from the platform to the outside streets. When we did, an unpleasant surprise awaited us: the rain was bucketing down. Dismayed, we made a tour of the small shopping centre in the station then decided to have lunch in a pleasant restaurant/diner on the third floor.

Whilst eating, I was reminded of John Le Carre's novel, "A perfect spy", in which the youthful Magnus Pym is 'discovered' whilst eating in the buffet of Bern railway station. Let us not forget that Le Carre (or to give him his real name, David Cornwell) was stationed in Bonn, presumably after he had been burned by Kim Philby's defection, and so many of his books have scenes set in Switzerland (even his latest book, "Our kind of traitor", has its third section set here, albeit in Wallen).

I was then struck by another coincidence: we were on a magical mystery tour and eating spaghetti. After I explained to my wife about the Beatles' MMT and the big mess which it caused, I remembered that there was a scene in which John Lennon played a waiter and fed the fat man buckets and buckets of spaghetti. We were eating spaghetti….

After eating, we bought a rain coat and a pair of Swiss snow/sunglasses from the camping shop conveniently situated next door to the restaurant. When the saleslady heard us speaking Hebrew, she asked "Israel?", and then proceeded to tell us that she had been a volunteer on a kibbutz thirty years ago. I told her about the volunteer convention which had been held the week before we left.

By the time we had completed these purchases, the rain had ceased and the sun had begun to shine. Pleased, we walked out of the station and into a park; there I noticed a funicular railway which of course we had to ride, and from there we made our way to the river. After a few compulsory photographs, we came back to the funicular, went up and arrived at the Swiss General Assembly building (which I am sure is called something like Bundestag).

More surprises awaited us on the other side: a set of fountains set in a plaza which turn on and off according to some predetermined plan. The unpredictability of the fountains provides a perfect playing ground for children, and they (along with a few adults) were running across the dormant fountains, trying not to get wet. Occasionally all the fountains would erupt for a few minutes,eliciting cheers from the crowd.

Across the road was the type of boulevard so beloved of the Europeans (and so lacking in Israel): a wide road of which a third was given over to cafes. At the head of the boulevard a few giant chess boards were painted onto the pavement, and it crossed my mind that this might be the setting for one of the scenes in Le Carre's novel, "Smiley's People" – towards the end, the Russian diplomat Boris is "borrowed" for a few hours whilst watching such a street chess match.

From there, it was a short walk back to the train station; we left shortly after on a train headed to Lucerne, then took a long train back to Bellinzona which arrived a few minutes late, thus causing us to miss our connection to Locarno. Fortunately, trains leave Bellinzone for Locarno every half hour, so we were back in the hotel by 10pm after a long and mainly enjoyable magical mystery tour.

Santana was playing in the Piazza Grande when we arrived and we could hear him very well, although I couldn't recognise much of what he played. At some stage there was a chorus of 'Soul Sacrifice', but that must have been as part of a medley. After going to bed, I awoke a little later to hear Sting sing 'Roxanne' with Santana – very strange. As I had written, Sting had played the previous night; we heard six songs and then everything went quiet. Did he terminate his concert early? Did he go acoustic? I wonder what happened, for we could hear Santana very clearly the following night. If I had an internet connection, I would look this up, but currently I'm on a train going north from Locarno to Lucerne (passing one pretty village after another) and there are no wifi networks to be found.

Addendum: Now in Lucerne, we have wifi in our hotel room so it's not a problem to look something up. It's strange how Google and Wikipedia have become so essential!

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Locarno log (6)

After the excitement of the past few days, we decided to take Saturday at a much more leisurely pace. As noted elsewhere, I discovered how to connect to the Internet, so I spent an hour sitting on the stand of a statue in the Piazza, uploading blogs and doing a little work. My wife did a round of the stalls which comprised the Locarno market. Once we had finished in the Piazza, we returned to the hotel via the supermarket where we bought supplies. 

Then off once again to downtown Locarno in order to take the bus to Ascona, a village very close to Locarno. This is supposed to be an artists' village but we saw very little evidence of this. On the other hand, we saw what was very similar to a British south coast holiday town: the lake, a wide promenade, restaurants and a miniature train which makes a circuit of Ascona every hour. We rode on the train and had a very good view of the town, so good that we needn't bother investigating on our own. After the train ride, we had some delicious gelati and sat on the lake front, enjoying the view and the good weather. This is what holidays are made of! 

We then caught the bus back to Locarno, getting off at an earlier stop which was only minutes from our hotel. My wife rested whereas I headed back down to the Piazza to 'open my office' again. My previous perch on the statue had been taken but I found another site from which to work which was in the shade. At about 6:30pm, we decided it was time to eat so we headed down to the Piazza again, which was rapidly filling up with people. All the restaurants were full so we headed back towards our hotel, checking every restaurant (and there are several!) on the way – all full. Eventually we found one not that far from our hotel and after we sat down, others joined us. I don't know whether this is a regular occurrence, maybe only on Saturday nights, but the service was incredibly slow. I imagine that the only reason people didn't leave was that they had no other option. 

After eating, I took the video camera down to the Piazza once again, this time to film the crowds waiting for Sting to appear. I came back to the hotel, started writing this blog and heard Sting open his concert at 8:30pm prompt. He is now on his third number, "An Englishman in New York". He opened with "Everything she does is magic", followed by one of his solo songs whose name escapes me at the moment. The sound is not particularly clear from the back of the hotel – maybe it's better at the front, and even better in the Piazza, even though he can't be seen. As Sting is not an artist of whom I am particularly fond, my current position on my hotel room balcony facing away from the Piazza is fine.

Locarno log (5)

I've discovered that in the Piazza Grande, there is a viable connection to the Internet, but one has to pay for the privilege - this is Switzerland, after all. I've uploaded all the previous blog entries and I've also done a little real work (ie work work).

The battery is running out fast so I'll sign off now.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Locarno log (4)

This morning, as is our habit, we walked down to the railway station. The rain had continued from yesterday afternoon, through the evening and into the night, although I think that there were a few hours when it faded away. Nevertheless, the rain started again at about 6am, but had eased up by the time we walked to the station. We admired the stage which had been set up at the far end of the Piazza Grande and wondered how the people would see the concert if the rain continued; we also wondered whether we would be able to continue walking down the side of the Piazza (thus being able to see the stage).

Our train to Bellinzona (and thence to Basle) was waiting for us in the station; as soon as we were seated, the rain became heavy once more. The trip to Bellinzona took about 20 minutes, and after a few minutes wait, another train to us to Lugano. Fortunately there was no rain waiting for us in Lugano, so we were able to stroll leisurely from the train station (which is quite high up) down to the city centre, where we found a funicular railway which runs back up to the station. We made our way through the colourful side streets until we came to the lake, whereupon it became apparent that there was a festival being held in Lugano, specifically a Harley Davidson festival (congress? convention?). The streets were full of bikes and bikers, and stands were being set up which either sold motorcycle accessories or food and drink.

We were more interested in boat trips and swiftly discovered that there was a boat leaving in a few minutes which would take us to the village of  Gandria, which was recommended in my wife's guide book. The boat stopped at several little villages; at one, which seemed to consist solely of a restaurant called Grotto Teresa, I saw two waitresses come out of the restaurant and take down the menu which was hanging on the outside wall. Whether this was because it had started to rain (albeit lightly) or because no one had got off the boat (and so would not be eating in their restaurant) was not clear.

Shortly after we arrived at the pretty village of Gandria. The small jetty led straight into several restaurants and a few alleys which zigzagged back and forth as they climbed the hill. We wandered around for a bit before settling in a restaurant almost chosen at random; it transpired that many of our fellow passengers (a group of about eight motorcyclists from Wolverhampton along with a few others) had also chosen the same restaurant! They had a head start on us because they had arrived early and probably ordered something easy to cook, whereas we ordered boiled trout. We hadn't quite finished eating when the boat arrived to take us back to Lugano, the next boat being an hour and a half later. We quickly finished our meal and besieged our waiter to call out to the ship to wait for a few minutes so that we could get on board (this is southern Switzerland – almost Italy – after all, where punctuality is slightly relaxed). Fortunately, the crew waited and I managed to get on board just before they sailed. To be honest, I wasn't overwhelmed by Gandria and it might have been better in retrospect to have stopped at the Grotto Teresa and receive personal service.

[rant]
Alun Owen was the scriptwriter for the Beatles' first film, "A hard day's night", and reputedly invented a few slang words, such as 'grotty', which quickly found their way into everyday use. Britons are probably well aware of the word grotto; it had never occurred to me that this was a word in Italian. Of course, the plural of grotto is grotti, a homonym of grotty. Anything but. Another Italian word which has found its way into common use is panino, a sandwich. It is the plural panini which is better known, but unfortunately, people tend to consider this as being the singular; thus one sometimes sees the fake word paninis which is taken to mean fancy sandwiches – or should I say, sandwicheses?
[end of rant]

Back in Lugano, we noticed that the boat had dropped us off directly opposite the Tourist Information Office, so I went inside and enquired how to get to the Mount Bre funicular; Mount Bre overlooks Lugano and is 933 metres high. I was given a marked map and told to walk through the park on the way. Unfortunately the instructions weren't too accurate. Several motorcyclists tooled down the embarcadero, which had been closed to other traffic, so we were able to get some clean footage of them. The park was beautiful, full of well tended and colourful flower beds, as well as being alongside the lake. Unfortunately the way from the park to the funicular was much longer than I had been given to believe, making it quite a slog.

When we eventually got to the funicular, it turned out to be in two parts. The first part ascended maybe 50 metres and was quickly over, whereas the second part took us all the way to the summit, and of course took much longer, about 20 minutes. There was housing on the hillside next to the funicular upto a height of about 400 metres, and we wondered whether people use the railway in order to get to work (probably not). It had started to rain again while we were ascending, and by the time we reached the summit, the rain was quite heavy, thus limiting visibility. We looked towards Lugano, but once again there were so many trees in the way that it was impossible to see anything. On the other side, there was nothing obscuring the view except for the clouds. There was so little to do on the summit of Mount Bre that we didn’t stay very long (ten minutes) and took the first train going down. Fortunately I was able to stand behind the driver and film most of our descent, which was at quite a steep angle.

In order not to walk back to Lugano, we decided to take the bus; there was a stop on the main road where one turns off for the funicular. Unfortunately we had to wait for about fifteen minutes (we had hoped to be able to get back to a souvenir shop before it closed, but the long wait for the bus prevented this), although once on board we got back into Lugano quite quickly, thanks to the bus lane and judicious use of the horn. The bus finished at its terminus somewhere in the centre of Lugano; I was able to use the map from the Information Office in order to navigate to the lower end of the central funicular. Once there, we crammed in like sardines and swiftly rose to the train station.

After a short wait, we had a comfortable ride back to Bellinzona but then missed our connection to Locarno, which left as soon as we arrived. So we had another 25 minute wait before a train to Locarno pulled in and we arrived in our fair city at about 8:15pm. As it becoming our habit, we walked across the road to Manora and had a cup of tea with cake; I am becoming quite slick with the 'buona sera, due the por favore' line. People here speak Italian to you whether you understand or not, so it's better to pre-empt them. While we were eating, the rain started bucketing down again (maybe it's a Locarno thing) although it had eased by the time we left.

Whilst in the restaurant, we had noticed several people encased head to knee in plastic (some looked like tailored capes whereas others looked like plastic bags), what Frank Zappa might have called 'The return of the plastic people'. Their density became greater and greater as we walked to where the stage had been set up in Piazza Grande; as we half suspected, we weren't allowed to use our usual path and had to make quite a detour in order to get to the far end. More and more plastic people were to be seen. When we got to 'our' end of the Piazza, we walked down to the barrier which had cunningly be erected at such a spot so that from outside the barrier the stage could not be seen (the piazza is knee shaped and the barrier is at the join of the knee). Hearing is a different matter: I am writing this from the dry comfort of our room and can hear the music quite clearly (although it's not hi-fi). This reminds me slightly of the Cropredy festival; there too are to be found plastic people wandering about holding plastic glasses of beer whilst listening to music being played on a stage. It occurs to us that the plastic coverings are because umbrellas are not allowed in the Piazza as they would block other people's view.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Locarno log (3)

I didn't have any luck in finding a wifi connection. Whilst there were two networks which showed a strong connection (and weren't encrypted), they wouldn't assign me an IP address and so I couldn't connect.

Yesterday was a big trip: we took the Lake Maggiore Express: hydrofoil boat from Locarno to Stresa (in Italy), train from Stresa to Domodossola, and then special train ("100 valleys", or Centovalli) from Domodossola back to Locarno. What should have been an exciting day turned out to be a washout (literally). Our first days in Switzerland had been accompanied by very good weather; not as hot as Israel, but in the absence of air conditioning, the weather was subjectively hotter (and more humid). Yesterday morning was cooler, and as we left our hotel, there was actually a small amount of drizzle, sufficient to make me go back to the hotel and change my short trousers for longs. On the way down to the embarcadero (close to the train station), the drizzle came on and off, but was not a problem. Just after buying our tickets for the journey, the heavens opened and rain bucketed down. We (and many others) sheltered under the canopy of the ticket office and adjacent café, but it was clear that we would be soaked the minute we left our shelter in order to get to the jetty where our boat was waiting. Inspiration struck: we were standing outside a souvenir shop (one of the few in Locarno) and they were selling umbrellas… so I quickly bought a large umbrella and with its help made our way to the boat.

The boat sailed from Locarno to Ascona and to other places southern on Lake Maggiore. Fortunately the rain ceased the further south we went, so we could see quite well. After an hour and a half (the trip as such was shorter but we made about six stops, each time to take on new passengers or to let them off), we arrived at the Italian town of Stresa. Again, there was on and off drizzle. After walking about a little, looking for a cash dispenser (the Italian name is 'Bancomat', the same 'word' as in Hebrew), I spied a bank at the end of an alleyway. Walking down the alley, I became aware that it was very beautiful, with flowers and trees on the sides of the narrow road, souvenir shops and everything which seemed to be missing in Locarno. After about fifty metres, the alley led in into a piazza filled with shops and restaurants. Between the on and off rain, we decided to eat, dining on a lovely trout ("trota"). I learnt the Italian for hot (calda), allowing me to say Vorrei aqua calda (I would like hot water). After the meal, we headed for the train station in Stresa, about ten minutes away; as soon as we had left the piazza, we also left touristy Stresa and entered a commonplace town. The piazza was full of people which made me wonder what they were doing there, as the town didn't seem to offer very much. It may well be used as a staging post for trips to Isola Bella, a very pretty island nearby (we visited this on our previous journey to Italy in 2000).

The rail trip from Stresa to Domodossola was uneventful, although again rain continued to fall on and off. We couldn't see very much anyway because the train had peculiar windows which narrowed the field of vision. Domodossola too was a non-entity as far as we could see and we waiting the 30 minutes for our connecting train quietly. It seems strange to me that the Italians build huge train stations, although I should point out that Domodossola is a connecting point for many trains – we could have travelled to Milan in the south or Brig in the west, but instead we travelled to Locarno in the east. The tour brochure had said to bring passports as we would be crossing the border from Switzerland to Italy and back again, but no one gave us a second look. No one even checked our ticket from Stresa to Domodossola!

The Centovalli train was an exercise in frustration; the rain, clouds and late hour conspired to lower visibility, but even without these poor conditions, we wouldn't have seen that much (at least on the side of the train that we travelled) because there was always foliage growing next to the tracks which prevented seeing the rivers, gulleys and waterfalls which accompany this scenic route.

Once we got back to Locarno, we had a small meal in the self-service restaurant, whose name fails to stick in my memory, even though it's very close to a word in Hebrew – and that serves as the mnemonic, for its name is Manora. Highly recommended for the weary traveler. On our way back to the hotel, we bought a mountain anorak (expensive, but it should last for years); I don't know what we are going to do about my leather shoes with a tear in the sole which causes my foot to get wet in the rain.

Overnight, there were thunder, lightning and relentless rain. It's now 7:40 in the morning and still no respite. It's never fun when it rains on holiday!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Locarno log (2)

Even though we didn't do very much yesterday evening, the little that we did helped us this morning. After a pleasant breakfast in the exceedingly delightful breakfast room of the hotel, we set off for 'downtown' Locarno, a ten minute walk from the hotel. This took us past the stage being erected for the Moon and Stars festival and onto the town's train station. We were actually looking for the entrance to the funicular railway which according to my map was somewhere in the vicinity, but I couldn't find it – until I asked in the railway ticket office and was directed to an unassuming entrance 100 metres away. We had walked past it earlier (albeit on the other side of the road) but hadn't noticed.

The funicular runs from downtown Locarno to a 'suburb' called Orselina, which is very close but much higher up than Locarno. The ride only took a few minutes and wasn't particularly interesting. Once out of Orselina 'station', we walked across the road and bought tickets for the aerial cable car to Cardada, a mountain 1340 metres above sea level (Locarno is 210 metres above sea level). The cable car trail runs through forest, so the view whilst going up was not particularly spectacular.

On the other hand, the view from Cardada itself was breath-taking. The station is set in a forest which is exceedingly quiet, the silence being broken only by birdsong (although when we returned, the birdsong was interrupted rudely by a bunch of German speaking teenagers). A short walk of 400 metres brings one to the terminus of the chairlift to the peak of Cimetta, 1672 metres. We were slightly apprehensive of the chairlift, because one is fairly unprotected; I have a problem with heights and internal balance which prevents me from taking rides at funfairs, etc. (as if I wanted to).

The first minute or so of the chairlift ride was marginally troublesome but after that, we acclimatized and began to enjoy the ride. Again, there wasn't actually that much to be seen from the chairlift (as we were looking to the side, not up or down), but once we got to the summit, the views there took our breaths away. There was a mountain just behind where we were which was slowly being obscured by a cloud (cue 'The mist covered mountain'); I was about to start filming this on video when my wife asked me to take a photograph with this background. By the time I had finished with her camera, the mountain had all but disappeared from view.

We walked up a hill (adding maybe another five or ten metres to our elevation) to an observation point. Although we should have been treated to stunning views, most of the mountains and valleys were covered in cloud. Slowly though the clouds disappeared and this time I was able to film the mountain behind us slowly appearing into view. There was also a communications aerial there; as I filmed it, I mentioned on 'the commentary' that there shouldn't be any problem in getting a signal on my mobile phone. A moment after saying this, the phone began to vibrate: someone had sent me a message.

After wandering about a bit more on the summit, we returned to the terminus and took the chairlift back to Cardada; this time the view was very impressive, and we enjoyed the descending ride much more than the ascending ride. Back at Cardada, we found an observation point which gave us a good view over the hills and valleys; the hitherto invisible Gordevio (I think) came into view.

From there, we rode the the cable car back down to Orselino and from there, the funicular back to Locarno. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

As time was getting on, we decided first to eat before doing anything else. We stopped at a café but then I realized that I didn't have enough cash to pay for any meal. The waitress said that there was a cash machine nearby (in Italian); whilst I did find the cash machine, I also wandered about and found a self service restaurant which seemed to be more promising and cheaper than where I had left my wife. After retracing my steps, we finally found an English menu in the café, only to discover that there was nothing on the menu that we wanted. I convinced my wife that we should eat in the self service restaurant. We had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch of fresh fish, fried on the spot, along with potatoes and broccoli; very healthy and probably much better than anything that we would have eaten at the café. The bill turned out to be higher than I expected, but it was definitely worth the extra – and I could pay by credit card.

Unless I misunderstood the sign, the restaurant also boasted free wi-fi, a service which appeared on the noticeboards of a few cafes and restaurants that we passed on the way, so I am hopeful that I will be able to upload this tonight. Regarding the sign: I can understand about 50% of signs written in Italian, but find it much harder to understand people when they talk, primarily because they talk so fast. Italian is the dominant language in Locarno, followed by German and then French. There aren't that many people who speak English (the café where we didn't eat being a good example). As  long as there is something written, we can get along, and I speak enough pidgin Italian to be understood in certain circumstances (like ordering one dish of vanilla ice-cream and one of banana when it's printed in a restaurant menu).

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Locarno log (1)

As I suspected, there is no Wifi connection in our hotel in Locarno; not only that, the wireless card which I use in Israel was unable to make contact as well. So I am going to be writing these entries offline in the hope of uploading them some day (it also means that I can't connect to the computer at work in order to send my daily reports). More importantly, I won't be able to check the various local sites for each day's activities (especially train timetables).

The flight left Israel on time (5am) and arrived in Zurich just after 9am our time, or 8am Zurich time. After disembarking, we made our way to passport control (having to take a short ride on a train!); there was a nearly empty queue for EU passports so we didn't have to wait very long here. There was only a short walk from passport control to the luggage carousels; the luggage from our flight was on the nearest carousel, and our two suitcases appeared  almost immediately! It was a short walk from Zurich airport to the train station; we got our Swiss Railcards (purchased in advance) certified and then took a train from the airport to the main Zurich railway station. Once there, we found that a direct train to Locarno would be leaving in about 40 minutes; at the same time, we sorted out our mobile phone situation.

The Locarno train left on time and arrived on time, about three hours later. It was very interesting to see the Swiss countryside: very green! There were lakes during the first part of the journey and several mountains, some of them snow topped. Although we had eaten a roll or two at Ben Gurion airport and had a little to eat on the plane, we were beginning to get hungry by the time our train arrived. I had suggested to my wife that I buy something at a  nearby kiosk, but she said that we would get something to eat on the train. Shortly after departure, a man did come by, wheeling a cart, so we bought cheese sandwiches and a bottle of water each. This was our introduction to the Swiss economy: this meagre meal cost 23 SFr, at least twice what it would have cost in Israel. These prices *on the train* were scandalous.

Eventually we arrived in Locarno, found the taxi rank and got taken to our lovely Schlosshotel which seems to be situated in an old castle. This is very much an old world establishment with a largish room, a cupboard with engravings and a rather strange bathroom. The hotel also has its own garden and swimming pool. Apart from the hotel's fittings, it is only two minutes walk away from Locarno's Grand Piazza, which I have investigated slightly. Presumably we will be going there shortly to eat our first meal. More importantly, I have also found a supermarket, where supplies (especially water) can be bought at very reasonable prices.

In a few days, the Locarno music festival ("Moon and stars") will begin, so the Piazza is currenly being turned into an outdoor concert hall. Supposedly we will be able to hear the music from our room and I wonder whether we will be able to see anything without buying tickets. Sting is appearing on Saturday night and Santana on Sunday, so that should be interesting.

Locarno log (0)

It's 3:30 in the morning and I'm sitting in the VIP lounge of Ben Gurion Airport (one of the benefits of my credit card is free entry to the lounge), waiting for the flight that will take my wife and me to Zurich. From there, we travel by train to Locarno, where we will be staying for six days. From Locarno we will be travelling to Lucerne, where we will stay another five days. We have plenty of activities planned, most of them involving travel by train, so if everything works out (and the weather stays fair), then we should have a good holiday.

It's not clear at the moment what Internet access is going to be like - whether there will be in our hotel or whether I will have to take a chance with public access (and knowing the Swiss, this is likely not to be free). So I don't know at the moment how frequent the blogs are going to be.

Time for a cup of tea and a biscuit before boarding....

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Meatballs

Despite this blog's subtitle promising perceptions about programming, cooking and music, the cooking part has been taking a back seat in the past few months. This isn't to say that I haven't been cooking, just that I haven't written about it.

Since having bought a slow cooker less than a year ago, this has become my primary tool for cooking (supplemented by the wok). I've developed about ten recipes which work well in the cooker and repeat them at various intervals. Here's a new one, meatballs and vegetables, which is a variation on this recipe (oven based).

I sliced and diced a few potatoes, carrots, onions, courgettes and pumpkin then placed all the pieces in the slow cooker. I also added some frozen green beans, preferably warmed up in advance by soaking them in hot water. Then I mixed one kg ground beef, three eggs, a chopped onion, 150 grams bread crumbs and some parsley, making about ten to twelve meatballs; these I placed on top of the cut vegetables. The slow cooker was set to high for two hours and then to low for another two hours (the total equivalent of three hours on high); the results were fine. Depending on how hard/soft one likes one's vegetables, another hour on high wouldn't have hurt. One can optionally add some tomato paste to either the meatballs or the vegetables, but I forgot until it was too late.

Most Fridays I use the same vegetable base, adding chicken thighs and drumsticks instead of meatballs. I cook this for about four hours on high and two hours on low, and the results are delicious. In the past few weeks, I've turned the cooker off about an hour before we are due to eat in order to decant 400 ml of the liquid which has appeared in the cooking process; after decanting, I turn the cooker back on. The liquid is used instead of water when making rice, making it both tastier and more nutritious.

I read over the weekend a book called 'Catching Fire', which explains how the 'invention' of cooking caused a tremendous evolutionary leap. Cooking makes the calories in food more accessible but also makes the digestive process quicker and less expensive (again, in terms of calories). The book starts out with the startling position that a human eating solely non-cooked food would probably starve to death within a few months. The 'metabolic economics' part (my term) was very interesting, as was the discussion of mouth and tooth size. The implications of cooking are far-reaching, and one of the final chapters is devoted to how cooking probably created the institution of marriage. 

I was slightly surprised to discover that the material finished about two thirds of the way through the book; the rest of the pages are devoted to notes and a very extensive biography.