Saturday, June 29, 2013

Checking whether emails have actually been sent to Gmail

In the management program which I wrote for the Occupational Psychologist, emails are sent to customers and contacts via Gmail. Normally this works very well, but every now and then the program sends an email which does not arrive at Gmail, hence does not arrive at the customer. These missing emails cause no small amount of frustration. We were discussing this problem yesterday and I came up with a theoretical solution: for every email which the program sends, check after a minute or two whether the email is in the 'sent items' folder of the Gmail account. If it isn't, send it again. A very simple solution but very hard to implement.

First of all, I had to learn how to access the 'sent items' folder of the account. It turns out that this is done with the IdIMAP4 component - see my question on Stack Exchange. The name of the folder is actually language dependent, so I had to change it to Hebrew. The code given uses the UIDRetrieveAllEnvelopes method, which downloads all of the messages in the folder. As no one is actively deleting messages in the folder, this means that every message which the program has sent is in this folder, some 650 messages. Obviously, a method of downloading only the most recent messages must be found.

After fiddling around for a bit, I hit on the following method

today:= datetostr (date);
 with imap do
  begin
   Username:= 'whatever@gmail.com';
   Password:= ....;
   Connect;
   if SelectMailBox('[Gmail]/sent items') then
    begin
     i:= MailBox.TotalMsgs;
     retrieve (i, email);
     while datetostr (email.date) = today do
      begin
       lb.items.add (email.subject + ' ' + datetostr (email.date));
       dec (i);
       retrieve (i, email)
      end 
    end;
   Disconnect;
  end; 

At the moment the above works, but I don't know whether the number of messages (ie mailbox.TotalMsgs) will always refer me to the most recent message. Now that I have the most recent messages, I have to check whether a specific message is to be found. In order to do this, I am using the references field in the email; I didn't know that such a field exists but it seems to be perfect for my needs. To quote some documentation, References is a String property that contains a list of message identifiers for which the message is a reply. References contains the value for the RFC message header 'References'. References is used by NNTP newsreader applications to create a threaded article display.

As the actual email is sent via a thread, I will check it with another thread whose execution will be delayed by two minutes. This second thread will receive the reference number; it will access the sent items folder and check that there is an email which has been sent today with the given reference number. If there is such an email, then first the thread will update the email log table to show that the email has been checked and then it will delete the actual data of the email which is sitting in a file on the hard disk. If no email is found, then the send an email thread will be called again to resend the email. I may have to revise my logging strategy.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

New mobile computer

After two years with an IBM X61 computer which served me very well, I have been upgraded to a Dell XPS Ultrabook running Windows 8. There's going to be a learning curve with this machine:
  • I have to learn how to use the keyboard (it's not clear to me at the moment how to activate the pgup/pgdn/home/end keys as these are doubled on the arrow keys (I've just discovered that one has to press the function key along with the specific key)
  • There are few sockets on the computer. I've been given a network to USB convertor so that I can plug the computer into a wired network, which will be very useful, but there is no VGA socket (instead, there's a mini VGA socket). This means that I won't be able to connect the computer to a projector: this is going to be a problem as I need this capability at least three times a month
  • It will take me some time to get used to Windows 8! Fortunately, I don't need many applications on the mobile so this shouldn't be too much of a problem, but low level functions are going to be problematic.
  • The 'mouse' is proving to be problematic: I have had difficulty trying to create a right click, and sometimes options get selected on their own (although this may be a Win8 problem).

The big wins are of course the computer's weight, the fact that it has a large solid state disk and its battery capacity. Like my previous computer, this one too has no dvd drive, but it also doesn't have a docking station with a drive. I need an external drive which will connect via USB if I want to upload anything which comes on disk (or I could copy the disk to my thumb drive). I like how the keyboard is lit from underneath: I don't know how useful this is going to be but it definitely looks cool.

Now I won't be embarrassed when I work with my mobile computer on the train!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

More vitamin D

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the blood test which I did to determine my Vitamin D level. At the time, there was no result, but now I see that the result is available on the clinic's website: 49.8 nmol/L. As I wrote before, the Israeli Ministry of Health considers anything below 75 nmol/L to be deficient, whereas the guru, Dr Stasha Gominak, considers levels below 60 nmol/L to be deficient. So it looks like by any standards that I'm somewhat deficient in vitamin D. I shall book an appointment for the doctor.

More on the health front: I was supposed to give blood today. I wasn't sure whether I would be allowed because of the various drugs which I now take, because of the BCC operation from a few months ago or because of the acupuncture treatment which I had earlier today. According to the notice that we received regarding the donations, one was not supposed to take medication for blood pressure on the day of the donation. As a result, my blood pressure was too high and I was denied the opportunity to donate blood. 

I asked the paramedics about this notice and they said that they never tell people not to take their medication. I wonder where the clinic got this idea from. It is always being said that there is a lack of blood for transfusions, but the paramedics go out of their way to prevent people from donating. I feel disappointed.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Once and forever

A few weeks after I emigrated to Israel in September 1978, my friend J and I rode into Tel Aviv one evening to see and hear the musical pairing of Yoni Rechter and Yehudit Ravitz in a show called 'Once and forever'. At the time, Rechter was the known quantity, having the Kaveret pedigree, whereas Ravitz wasn't well known (she had sung backup vocals here and there). Of course, all of this was to change in the next ten years, when Ravitz became a very big name whereas Rechter stayed at about the same level. I see that I alluded to this concert two years ago.

Although now I remember nothing about the evening (except for the fact that we went), it probably was a low key but enjoyable concert. Afterwards, I bought the record that the duo produced of the show (recorded in a studio) and many years later replaced it with a cd.

On the way to Barcelona two weeks ago, I stopped in the record shop situated in the airport. I was looking for cds by elusive singer Sivan Shavit but only found her second disc, which I already own. I was almost out of the shop when I noticed that there was a new packaging of the 'Once and forever' album: one cd and one dvd. The latter comes from a concert which the duo (and their backing musicians) gave for Israeli television in 1978 and of which I had been blissfully unaware for the the past 35 years. Of course, I snapped this item up ... and promptly forgot about it.

It was only when we were unpacking the other day that I remembered the double disc. When I had the chance, I put the dvd in the player and watched it on television. Black and white! The music was as charming as I remember it with a slightly different set-list and slightly different renditions. It was fascinating to see them as how they once were - and also to see how the audience was dressed. Obviously, they have matured as musicians but the core of their musicality was already present when they were in their twenties. Of course, most musicians did their best work when they were in their twenties.

Whilst this is still wallowing in nostalgia, the music is still as powerful today as it was then.

I now have a spare copy of the 'once and forever' cd if anyone is interested.

I notice that the dual disc set came out four years ago - why did I only find out now?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

More words on the MBA graduation

I'm still having difficulty in accepting the fact that I graduated with distinction. Hopefully, I'll put this issue to rest by pasting here the opening page of the ceremonial booklet.

The list carries on for a few more pages....
I'm now back at work and have to readjust to the rather strange mindset which some of my fellow workers have.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Edinburgh log (6): Graduation ceremony

The morning started by riding in a taxi from the b'n'b to the Heriot Watt campus, not knowing how far it was or how best to get there. It turns out that the number 25 bus (and others) goes "all the way" (as opposed to getting off at the Haymarket, Edinburgh in-joke), so we could have taken the number 11 to Princes St then change. Anyway, we arrived just after 9am as ordered.

There were plenty of people wandering around in gowns outside the building in which the graduation ceremony was to be held. We went inside where I registered (being told my seat number) then went to the 'robing' room, where a nice lady helped me put on my gown. As it happened, standing right next to me was my friend Anat, with whom I had taken several courses!  A few minutes later we bumped into our fellow student from Ramat Gan, Michal, who was attending with her mother.

Like everyone else we went outside into the strong sunshine and took pictures galore. The one on the left was taken with my mobile phone, but most of the pictures were taken with a 'real' camera.

When we finally went into the auditorium, I discovered that my seat was right at the front (second row), where only a few graduands were sitting. I looked in the program and discovered that I was one of the few who had graduated with distinction (average mark over 70%); the distinguished graduands were to be called up first and so were sitting at the front. As we were sitting in alphabetical order, I was fifth in line to be called to shake hands with and be capped (tapped on the head with the graduation cap) by the university Vice Chancellor. The student on my right was called back for a special prize - she had an average mark of over 80%! The student on my left was Anat. After the speeches, my row stood up and proceeded to wait in the wings; one lady checked that we were standing in the correct order (so each would receive the correct certificate) and another arranged our gowns. I admit to being pleasantly surprised to discover that I had graduated with distinction; one needs 630 marks out of 900 and I had 628.

After us, all the other graduating students were called in alphabetical order and then by subject. As one can imagine, this went on for some time - there were about 250 graduands. I had told my wife to film only the beginning of the ceremony as the entire ceremony was filmed professionally. A dvd of the event was available only a few minutes after the ceremony finished, but of course this contains the entire event; we only need the first few minutes.

After the ceremony finished, we were invited to a buffet lunch in the Business School which was very pleasant. All the staff - both those from the university and those from the caterers - were exceedingly polite and helpful; they all said "congratulations". I would have thought that some of the Business School staff would have circulated between the tables; maybe they did, but no one came to the area where the Israelis were sitting.

The morning was extremely impressive and a fitting end to the past two weeks of wandering abroad. Tomorrow we have a hectic day: we have to get to Edinburgh airport, fly to Heathrow, change terminals then fly to Israel. I hope that there won't be any problems in Heathrow.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Edinburgh log (5): Around and about

I forgot to mention that our coach driver yesterday looked remarkably like Peter Griffin from Family Guy. True, he was not as rotund as Griffin, but by chance, his name too was Peter. He started talking when we were leaving Edinburgh and didn't stop until we arrived back in Edinburgh. I got the feeling that most of what he said flew over his audience's head: there were at most 30 people on the bus and I think that English was the mother tongue of only four. Some of the material emanating from Peter's mouth was interesting (we had a lot of Scottish history with special emphasis at what happened at Glen Coe) as well as some somewhat less interesting material such as information about whiskey and the Scottish diet (he mentioned the deep fried Mars bar). His humour was predictable: my wife bought one of those whiskey miniatures for our son and asked Peter what his opinion of the brand. I whispered that he'll want to taste it, and indeed he commented that bus drivers have to taste all the whiskeys purchased by the travelers (he didn't). If the above seems critical, then I should mention that he was a good egg; a voluble tour driver is better than a silent one.

This morning I went to Bagpipes Galore to get my practice pipes looked at. As it happened, the number 11 bus stops very near the shop, which is by the Haymarket station. The proprietor said that I had made a good purchase and that the pipes were in good condition. He saw immediately that the pipes were missing three reeds (one for each drone and one for the chanter), so he got reeds, placed them in the correct positions, tuned the drones, tried playing, adjusted the reeds, etc then finally played a little tune (I filmed this part on video). In other words, he did a fine job of setting up the pipes. The cost of all this? A mere five pounds! I also bought an instruction manual which mainly consists of sheet music for tunes (in other words, very little on how to actually play a chanter or practice pipes) and an instructional cd which hopefully will show more.

We met my wife's brother's wife's sister (if you can get your head around that!) for lunch today. She has been living in Edinburgh for many years, dancing and teaching dance. Unfortunately, we had phone communication problems which prevented us from meeting her earlier. For some reason, she chose to take us partially around the museum in Edinburgh (an activity which we normally do only when it rains), which actually was very interesting. More interesting was our discussion over lunch. We may meet her again tomorrow after we return from my graduation ceremony.

My Edinburgh Business School hoodie finally arrived. I had been in contact with the company that sells these prior to our departure from Israel and had ordered one. A few days ago, I received an email from the university stating that EBS branded goods would be on sale after the ceremony. Had I have known, I wouldn't have bothered with the early order.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Edinburgh log (4): Loch Ness

As I wrote earlier, we had planned a trip to the Lake District, but we were the only people who signed up for this trip. Instead, we went on a trip to Loch Ness. We have, in fact, done this trip before: thirteen years ago, when we were in Glasgow for a week. The route is not too convenient from Edinburgh, as first we have to cross from the east coast to the west, then back again.

Although the Edinburgh sky was cloudy at 8am, by the time of our first stop at Kilmahog, an hour and a half later, the sun was shining. This is where we visited Hamish the Highland Cow. From here, we entered the Trossachs (but not Loch Lomond), driving through Glen Coe, thence to Fort William (without stopping) before arriving at Spean Bridge for lunch.

Then we carried on to Loch Ness and even went for a short sail on the Loch (we didn't do this last time). Unfortunately, our mobile devices were clocking off one after another (due to lack of charge) so this part didn't get recorded well. We left the Loch just after 4pm in lovely sunshine.

From here, we drove to Inverness, riding around the town but not stopping, thence to the Perth area where we had a brief 'comfort stop'. I was walking around the parking lot at 7pm, marveling at the warm weather. There's nothing like a good Scottish evening, I was telling myself.

I read the Rebus novel 'Set in Darkness' all the way back to Edinburgh, thinking to myself all the time, "oh, I know where that is", "I was in the Royal Oak pub in Infirmary St yesterday", etc. We even went past the Torpichen Police station, which is mentioned in at least one book. I admit to not having paid too much attention to the place names before because they were out of context. Now I have a context. 



This is my 600th blog. I remember noting my 500th last July when I was flat out with pertussis. Now too is not a good time for remembrance. On average, then, I'm writing nine blogs a month or just over two a week. Obviously, there are times when I write more (like now) and times when I write less (I imagine that I'll have little to write about next week).

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Edinburgh log (3): Aberdeen

Whilst trying to find something different to do whilst in Edinburgh, I suggested that we take the train to Aberdeen. At least we would see some different scenery and travel over the Forth bridge. Whilst we enjoyed the journey there, we didn't actually find that much to do in Aberdeen which we couldn't have done in Edinburgh. True, one can admire the granite buildings, but that wears off after a few minutes.

I took my practice pipes apart, primarily to air them (they have a musty smell). I connected the blowpipe to the chanter in order to create a practice chanter but still could not get any sound out of them. I strongly suspect that the pipes are missing a reed. I am going to take the whole set to the bagpipe shop to be checked.

Edingburgh log (2): Round and about

On our first afternoon in Edinburgh, we discovered three things about the bus system
  1. The number 11 bus stops right outside our guesthouse and travels to Leith (one way) and the city centre (the other way)
  2. An all day ticket can be bought for 3.50 GBP, whereas a one-off ticket costs 1.50GBP.
  3. As no change is given, one better pay the correct amount
So we carefully counted coins, aggregated 7 GBP and set out this morning for Leith, buying two all day tickets. According to Ian Rankin, Leith used to be a rather dodgy area but now it's been gentrified. We had a short walk on the seafront promenade by the lighthouse there. Although the sun was out (and quite warm when it was shining), the air was cool and there was a cold wind blowing.

From Leith, we took the number 11 bus back to the city centre. As always, there was a piper playing near where the double decker tourist buses park (there seem to be a few pipers who take it in turns to play). My wife waited for an idle moment then approached the piper to have her picture taken. A few words were exchanged between them, presumably about her country of origin, for a moment later I heard the piper playing 'Hava Nagila'. To be honest, I didn't think such a tune could be played on the pipes (it uses a slightly odd scale), but the piper managed.

After walking from Princes St to the Royal Mile, my wife and I parted company. I was headed to the Royal Oak pub in nearby Infirmary Street, there to partake in the Rebus Walking tour. This was a two hour walk around the area, with special reference to places mentioned in the books. The guide (Colin Brown) is a jovial, Falstaffian, character and made a fairly dull (and very cold!) tour interesting. The highlight of the tour was arriving at St Leonard's police station and seeing a few nearby cafes and pubs which are mentioned in the books. After the tour ended, I walked back to Princes St where I met my wife for lunch. After that, we rode the bus once more in order to return to our b'n'b and have a little rest. I leafed through the tourist guide to Edinburgh and noticed that there was a shop near the Haymarket train station selling bagpipes, with a simple model priced at 90GBP. I thought that it might be worth a visit later on.

On the corner of our road there is a Cash Converters shop - this is an unfortunate sign of the times. People buy items which they either no longer need or can't afford and so sell them to CC, which is like a modern pawnbroker. I had noticed the day before that they had guitars, a violin and a flute in their window (along with other wares), so I thought it worth a short visit. A similar shop in the city centre was selling a 12 string guitar for a cheap price, but it would have been very difficult to bring it home with us. I looked around the local shop but saw nothing which interested me.

When I was leaving the shop, I happened to notice that there was something which looked like a small set of pipes in the window priced at 13GBP. I asked one of the sales people for a closer look, and indeed it was a set of practice pipes. Although I can't play the bagpipes and indeed have little idea how to do so, this seemed an ideal chance to acquire a set. At worst, the bagpipes will join my collection of musical instruments - guitars, mandolins, violin, concertina, oud and Irish whistle.


Later I googled practice pipes and discovered the model which I had bought. As the site puts it, These pipes can be practiced anywhere because they aren't loud like standard pipes. They are especially useful for bagpipers who want to do more practice on their highland pipes, but who have problems finding a place to play without disturbing the people around them. These also work well as a first set of pipes, after you gain proficiency on the practice chanter. An important note for would-be pipers: you still have to start with and work hard on the practice chanter before you play these! The blowpipe and chanter come off and make a long practice chanter when they are put together. This means that you get both a practice chanter and a set of practice pipes out of them.

I will try and visit the bagpipe shop in Edinburgh, mainly to see whether they have any suitable books on how to play the pipes, but also to ask how to produce a sound from the practice pipes. Presumably it will take some time before I too am capable of playing Hava Nagila (I'd be more interested in playing Flowers of the Forest).

If choosing and buying clothes makes my wife's day, then buying a set of pipes (whatever their shortcomings) makes mine.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sophie Hannah

A non-holiday blog entry.

About a week before we left for our holiday, I saw that there was a programme on the tv channel BBC Entertainment with a title something like 'A murder'. I thought that I would record the programme on spec; if it turned out to be no good (as some programmes do), then nothing would be lost. To my surprise and delight, the 1.5 hour programme, complete in itself, starred Olivia Williams and Darren Boyd.

The story itself was quite intriguing (although there was also a certain amount unexplained or there was a missing motive) and I noted that it was based on a story by Sophie Hannah. I downloaded a few books by this author and have been reading them over the past week or so.

I started off - I think accidentally - with the same story which I had seen televised, which in retrospect was not necessarily a good idea as I can see how much has been left out and how much chopped around. After a while, I decided to stop reading that novel and moved onto another which I found better but somewhat annoying.

I'm now in the middle of a fourth book and I'm wondering whether I want to continue reading at all. These stories are not police procedurals - there is very little procedure whatsoever. In fact, the police protagonists seem to go out of their way to ignore procedure. Most of the detection seems to be by divining as opposed to finding evidence. Maybe Hannah thinks this herself, for at one point in the book that I am reading at the moment ("The dead lie down") she writes "Perhaps it's different in the provinces, but in London police officers work on the cases they've been allocated, not on whatever takes their fancy".

It doesn't help that none of the recurring characters in the book are attractive. Normally, there is a certain amount of identification with such characters as DCI Banks and DI Cabot (Peter Robinson) or DI (ret) Rebus and DI Clarke (Ian Rankin), but I find Hannah's protagonists Sergeant Zailer (even when she was in CID, she was very rarely called DS Zailer) and DC Waterhouse unsympathetic and difficult to identify with. Their language frequently tends to the coarse, and their supporting DCs are even coarser.

The novels themselves all seem to be written with chapters alternating between a first person narrative by one of the non-police characters and a third person narrative of the action. Many of the revelations which normally would come via the police procedure appear as part of the first person narration. I don't like this very much.

I came across the following comment whilst looking on the Internet: I am getting a little bored of the neuroses of Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse – who, if you haven’t read any of Hannah’s novels are part of an ongoing plotline. I just kind of want to yell – “sort it out!” I do however, like the fact that Hannah is giving other characters on the police more time. A small part of the reason why I think I enjoy Hannah’s books so much is because of their setting and the funny little observations of people’s ‘Englishness’. I do sometimes wonder if this would translate to readers from overseas, but I suppose that you could say the same about American novels or Scandinavian crime fiction.

I somewhat disagree with the above and don't see much of the funny little observations of people’s ‘Englishness’ alluded to. I think that Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin much better observe contemporary British life (and there are many more musical references!). 

I'll finish the book that I'm currently reading but I don't know whether I'll reread any of them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Edinburgh log (1): Touring the city

We left London this morning and flew to Edinburgh, arriving at our guest house at around 1:30pm. After getting settled in, we walked to the nearest main road (Leith Walk) and had a late lunch in a Moroccan restaurant (!). We asked for a few felafel balls to see whether we should order them but decided against.

After lunch, we took a bus into the main part of Edinburgh (Waverley Station) then boarded one of those round-Edinburgh open top buses. The route seemed a bit strange but we saw everything that we wanted to see, albeit from a distance. Tomorrow, we'll probably do the same but will get off the bus here and there to explore further. 

We finished the ride just before 6pm, only to discover that all the shops close at this hour. So we backtracked a little, found a suitable bus stop then rode 'home'.

Once I got connected to the Internet, I discovered that I had been sent a letter from the local tour operator. We had booked a tour to the Lake District for Sunday, but unfortunately we were the only participants and so the tour has been cancelled. We were offered a trip to Loch Ness, Glen Coe and the Highlands: we actually took a similar tour when we were last in Scotland thirteen years ago.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

London log (3): ERP

I have known for some time that there is a British company which implements Priority, our ERP system. I thought it a good idea to take the opportunity of being in Britain to meet with this company, so a few months ago I obtained a contact number and set up a meeting with the MD. One of the hypotheses which I want to check is whether the Israeli pragmatic personality causes more EUC (end user computing) than the stolid British personality.

During my two hour plus discussion I discovered that Israel in general is more technologically advanced than Britain: there are still plenty of companies in Britain that are managed by spreadsheets! So it might well be that there is more EUC in Britain than Israel: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. In other words, it doesn't matter too much where the company is situated - business is business everywhere. It seems that each company's position in the ERP life cycle will be more important that the country.

One interesting point (or dimension) that I had not considered is companies with multiple business units: my company has three different business units, and the amount of EUC differs from unit to unit. A one unit company is likely to be more streamlined and thus would have less EUC.

The meeting took place in a small town called Eastleigh, near Southampton. I had a few problems finding the correct train, and the journey there was delayed slightly - at one place, the train completely stopped, and over the loudspeaker came an announcement that we were waiting for a steam train to take on water before we could continue. This seemed like the excuse to end excuses - but later on, we did pass the steam train.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

London log (2): The Eye and shopping

Yesterday evening, we walked along the South Bank and even rode the London Eye: we started our ride at about 8:30pm, making us among the last to ride the Eye that night (the ride takes just under half an hour and it closes at 9pm). 

This morning, we started off with shopping along Oxford Street: my wife found some good clothes in a shop and I bought a jacket and some other items in BHS. We returned to our b'n'b with our shopping so that we wouldn't have to carry it around all day, had lunch then traveled to Sloane Square in order to visit the Chelsea Antiques Market which is supposedly on the King's Road. Unfortunately, after walking along a fair amount of this road and even passing the street number of the market, we discovered that it no longer physically exists, although its website lives on. 

We took a taxi back to Sloane Square (barely more expensive than the equivalent bus ride) then traveled to Covent Garden in order to see the street theatre and buy knicknacks. During our time there, it began to rain - typical London mist rain at first which increased in intensity. I got quite wet in the five minutes it took to walk from the local tube station to the b'n'b.

Would you buy a used car from this man? Or take advice about your ERP installation? There were plenty of t-shirts for sale in the stalls with all manner of slogans. I was sorely tempted to buy a shirt with the following slogan, which I am also tempted to add to the description of this blog:

Sarcasm is only one of the services that I offer.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

London log (1): Tottenham Court Road and The Beatles

We arrived in London yesterday afternoon. After a very talkative Kuwaiti taxi driver took us from City of London Airport to West Hampstead, I went to sort out mobile phones for our stay. I brought with me an old fashioned mobile which my father had bought several years ago - the phone has a valid SIM and I had charged it a few days before leaving home - along with the mobile phone that we had bought in Dubrovnik last year. To cut a long story short, eventually I ended up with two phones and two SIMs, but not necessarily exactly how I wanted them. If anyone is interested, I have a spare SIM with 10GBP credit going spare....

Our first port of call this morning was Tottenham Court Road: I knew from reading the Inspector Banks novel 'Strange Affair' that the electronics shops are situated on this street. We had a shopping list which unfortunately grew a bit longer that I had originally intended: a bigger battery for the new camcorder, a bag for the camcorder, a new digital camera for my wife (the one that we bought on the way back from Santorini several years ago has starting playing up), a memory card and a bag for that camera, and headphones. Fortunately, we should be able to claim the VAT back when we leave Britain. I also bought a good European to British adapter, which allows me to charge all my equipment.

From there, we traveled to Marylebone station, where we joined the 'In my life' Beatles walking tour. There are many walking tours held around London during the day and I thought that it would be interesting to take this one. Several gentlemen (and their wives) of 'a certain age' joined us for this privilege. Unfortunately, we were accompanied by that special variety of British rain: a very thin rain which doesn't really get one wet but gets in the eyes.

The tour starts in Marylebone station which is where the opening scenes for the "A hard day's night" film were shot. Of course, the station has changed more than a little in the 49 years since the film was made so one had to use one's imagination to picture what happened then. From the station we walked to the building where Paul married Linda in 1969 (and Ringo married Barbara Bach in 1982), thence to Montagu Square, where Ringo had a flat which he originally occupied, then Paul turned it into a demo studio, then John and Yoko lived there. Onwards, we went to the Asher's family home (Paul McCartney lived in the same house as Jane Asher for several years), to what was the Apple boutique on Baker Street and to the restaurant where a scene for 'Help' was filmed. Eventually we ended up at Abbey Road studios (we took the train from Baker Street to St John's Wood) and walked the most famous zebra crossing in the world.

The guide apparently is known as the 'Beatle Brain of Britain', having won a competition about Beatle trivia. He definitely knows his stuff, although I don't think that he mentioned anything that I didn't previously know. On the other hand, I had never visited any of the places.

I doubt that I would recommend this walking trip to any except the hard core Beatles fans. Walking the streets of London is not the most exciting thing in the world, and the buildings themselves have little intrinsic value. There is also a 'Magical Mystery Tour' trip which includes the Apple building in Savile Row, possibly Trident studios in Soho, the Indica bookshop in Fitzrovia and maybe a few other places. This trip might be better, but then again, apart from Apple, none of the original buildings exist.

In terms of musical history, we are staying close to a few other landmarks from the sixties. Next to West Hampstead underground station is where the Klooks Kleek club used to be (a hot venue of the time) and a bit further on is a road called  Broadhurst Gardens. This is where the Beatles had their unsuccessful demo session for Decca records in 1962 (and also where, amongst others, Giles, Giles and Fripp recorded their only record). I'll probably pop down there later although I doubt that there will be anything to see. There are no studios there now: presumably the building which was a studio now belongs to the English National Opera. Also around here is Fawley Road (Jude the Obscure?), which is where Peter Hammill lived for a while in 1969.

The establishment in which we are staying has a split personality: the main building is in one road, but we are staying in an annexe on a different road about 400 metres away. We go to the main building for breakfast. When I asked about wifi, I was told that there is only in the main building, so I thought that I would have to write these blog entries offline, then take the computer to the main building then upload them. But when I turned the computer on, I discovered that there is an unsecured wifi network with a decent bandwidth available, so I am typing this online (and exceedingly quickly, lest the connection fail suddenly).

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Barcelona log (4): In search of Dali

The only organised trip which I had booked in Barcelona was a day trip in search of Dali. We were told to be at the pickup point in central Barcelona at 8:15 (we were there at 8am) but unfortunately did not leave until 9. Again, we took a taxi from the hotel to the pickup point, but it turns out that there was a metro stop about 200 metres from the point (we came back by metro and via a different station, which involved much less walking between platforms).

Once in the van, we drove for about two hours before reaching Figueres which is near the French border. This is where Salvadore Dali was born and there is a beautiful museum dedicated to him there, in what used to be a theatre. Our tour guide came into the museum with us for a few minutes, gave us a brief overview then left, leaving us to our own devices. Fortunately, our ears picked up a narration being given in Hebrew: there was an Israeli tour group who had arrived at the same time as us, and they had a very knowledgeable guide who was explaining things in great detail. So we hitched onto this group and learnt things that we would never have found out on our own. I don't know how the others in our group fared with this museum, but we had a wonderful time - especially my wife who had studied Dali when in school. We also spent a fair amount of money in the museum shop!

From the museum, we travelled further on towards France, to the village Cadaques, which is where the Dali family used to summer. The way there led through beautiful scenery, but as we were struggling to listen to the guide's commentary (she was also the driver), it was hard to concentrate both on deciphering her mangled English and enjoying the views. I decided to close my eyes so that I could better get the Dali family story.

Cadaques itself is like any other seaside town - which is not to disparage it! I was reminded of Ascona, near Locarno in Switzerland, where we spent a magical morning (although Ascona was better). We ate a lovely sole in a restaurant on the sea front, wandered around a little then rejoined the group in order to travel to the Dali summer house at Port Lligat, a few miles up the coast.

Port Lligat is a little fishing village situated on an inland bay and probably it is very pretty - the sky was very cloudy when we were there. Dali bought a summer home here, then as he became more and more famous, he bought more and more houses. The house is delightful - especially what might be termed 'the garden' (there is no grass). Inside, there is little to hint that this is the home of the most famous surrealistic painter - in fact, it was quite bourgeois - but outside, and especially at the swimming pool, there were definitely wild influences at play.

We probably would have stayed longer, but it started to rain when we were close to finishing the tour. The local guide produced a few plastic bags and gave them to us - the bags contained one time temporary raincoats, and we became - as I termed them in Locarno - plastic people. We continued to investigate outside, but our enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the rain.

Of course, we were the last into the tourist bus; then we set off for Barcelona and arrived back at around 8pm.  Onto the metro, back into the hotel.

Thus ends the Barcelona leg of our holiday. I think that there must be a law called the conservation of serendipity: for everything that seems to go wrong, there is something that goes astonishingly right, something which we didn't expect. The two most striking examples here are Casa Batlló and meeting the Israeli tourist guide in the Dali museum. 

Tomorrow we head for London; I'm not sure whether there is wi-fi in the bed and breakfast place where we are staying in West Hampstead.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Barcelona log (3): Rain stopped play

We woke to grey skies; during breakfast, we could see that light rain was falling which later turned into a torrential thunderstorm with lightning. It seemed that our morning plans were going to be postponed, but fortunately the rain eased off later and we were able to exit the hotel. I was wearing my bought-in-Switzerland rain coat and bought-in-Switzerland shoes.

Our first, belated, port of call was the Els Encants Vells flea market. We took the metro to the Glories station and emerged to see what seemed to be a wilderness in the centre of Barcelona, next to a discarded circle (or placa). There were few people about, but we followed them and after two or three minutes arrived at the market which was already doing a roaring trade, despite the weather.

This is the sort of place which my wife loves and that I strongly dislike, or as I put it "if you're looking for something specific, you won't find anything, but if you're not looking for anything, you'll find plenty". There were basically two kinds of stalls: those situated around the edges were 'professional' stores, selling mainly hardware items or clothing, whereas those in the middle were the 'garage sale' type of stall, selling a tremendous variety of bric'n'brac.

After a few minutes in the market, the weather had improved greatly and I was able to remove my rain coat and dry off in the sunshine. Amongst the first items which I noticed were power supplies for old computers which were glistening with rain drops (and so probably useless) as well as mini DV cassettes for our 'old' camcorder. Needless to say, I didn't buy anything. We arranged a meeting place and I went off to read a book on the Kindle.

After about an hour, my wife turned up at the meeting place after having enjoyed herself but strangely after having bought only two small items. We then returned to the metro and travelled a few stops to the Placa Catalunya station, which seems to be a fairly central plaza with huge fountains in the middle. We stopped for lunch (fish and chips) in a restaurant which turned out to be the Hard Rock Cafe (we sat outside and to one side which is why we weren't aware of the restaurant's identity initially).

After lunch, we went into one of the huge department stores: I was specifically looking for a replacement battery for our new camcorder, as the one which comes with the camera doesn't last long enough. Not finding what I wanted, I then wandered onto La Rambla, which I knew contained a professional photography shop. Unfortunately, they didn't have a battery either but suggested a few more shops back at the plaza. For reasons that escape me, La Rambla is considered to be the main drag in Barcelona, but it doesn't do anything for me. The other shops too did not have the battery.

Trying to save some value for the day (possibly an unfortunate choice of words), we then boarded one of those 'explore Barcelona' buses. The idea is that one buys a ticket for 26 euro in the morning then spend the day riding the bus to a destination, disembarking, spending time at the destination, then waiting for the next bus, re-embarking, and so on. We were starting the trip at 5pm but had no intention of disembarking: the idea was more to see Barcelona from the street (as opposed to the metro). The round trip was fairly long (I believe nearly two hours) and we saw many places that we had already visited, including Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, the funicular at Montjuic, the port and even La Rambla, but also made acquaintance with new places such as the Olympic village and the zoo.

We then returned to the area of our hotel, had a light dinner, and rested for a few minutes before taking a taxi to the magic fountains at Espanya. The taxi was not because we did not know how to get there (we had been there the previous night but had not stayed) but because my wife was having difficulty in walking and there seemed to be too much walking involved. This is something which has to be seen in order to be believed - look at the photos at the linked website. It was also fairly crowded (as were most places in Barcelona), but because this was out in the open in a huge space, the crowd was not threatening - in fact, it was a very friendly crowd. We very much enjoyed this.

We took a taxi back to the hotel and fell into bed: it was already after 11pm and we had to be up early for the next day....

Friday, June 07, 2013

Barcelona log (2) - In search of Gaudi

My wife and I woke early - not surprising as we went to bed fairly early yesterday evening. After a full breakfast in the hotel, we walked a few blocks to where the souvenir stores were and bought a few bits and pieces in each, probably being their first customers of the day. The most important item as far as I was concerned was a hat - I had considered bringing my Switzerland hat to Spain, but that seemed a little strange. I certainly did not want anything to do with Barcelona FC - most of the hats and shirts seem to bare their emblem - but I found a nice hat in beige with a tasteful B logo which seems well made.

Our first port of call was the Sagrada Família cathedral, which is only a few blocks away from our hotel (not by coincidence: when booking the hotel, I thought that we might as well be close to this emblem of Barcelona). I had bought tickets for this via the Internet in order to circumvent the huge entrance queue, and indeed we didn't have to wait at all. Looking at the cathedral the previous evening and in the morning, I had felt that this huge edifice (which is only about 60% complete!) seemed to be overdone, with all the ornate decorations. Maybe it's because I'm used to synagogues, which tend to simplicity. But when viewing from inside and especially from viewing the explanations of the two museums within the cathedral - the latter having a twenty minute film about the cathedral and how it was designed - I began to appreciate the design of architect Antoni Gaudi.

My wife had given me the impression that he had been cut down in his prime, when he was killed by a tram, but it turns out that he was 73 years old when he died, and so 'had a good innings'. One of the activities described in my wife's guidebook was visiting destinations connected with Gaudi, so this is what we did today.

Our second port of call today was the Casa Milà, otherwise known as La Pedrera. We arrived there with little difficulty (we got to the correct metro station, and from there we asked random people for directions; the Spanish are very pleasant and like to help, but they tend to speak to everyone in Spanish even though they were addressed in English. This doesn't help very much) only to discover that there was a fairly large queue to get in. I think that we would have waited for maybe 20 minutes before entering, but before we actually did, a nice young lady walked down the queue and explained that the ticket office was having to close as the Casa Milà was at maximum capacity and that they could not accept any new visitors for the next half hour. The poor woman had to explain this at length to every single group in the queue, which must have taken her some time.

After discussing this for a few minutes, we decided to cut our losses and go elsewhere. I suggested that we eat first as it was already lunchtime. In doing so, we discovered the second of our two main problems with Barcelona: the first (as mentioned earlier) is the language problem (more of this to come) and the second is food. We had to try several restaurants and snack bars before we found something acceptable to our palates - unfortunately this was MacDonalds. For myself, I ordered a fish burger; my wife kindly asked for no cheese (which I countermanded) but the sales assistant wrote down both no cheese (I did want cheese) and no chips (probably just as well). My son - who is accompanying us - wanted chicken nuggets, but instead of the nine nuggets which come with the prepackaged chicken nuggets meal, he wanted the six nuggets version. In the end, we received two nine nuggets meal along with a packet of six nuggets. No matter: we ate the lot (although I do not like their chips which are far too salty for me).

Discussing what to do next, we decided to take the metro to Park Güell. Whilst hesitating by the metro station, I noticed that we were standing in front of an interesting building, which turned out to be Casa Batlló (pronounced Bayou), another of Gaudi's works. I suggested that we visit this house instead of Casa Milà: there was no queue. Inside was amazing: as the audio commentary points out, there are virtually no straight lines inside. Here, the geometrical ideas of Gaudi were constructed on a more human scale than in the cathedral and were much easier to understand and appreciate. I really loved this building (my wife thought that I was being cynical when I told her so) and enjoyed the serendipity. I imagine that this is what a house looks like during an acid trip.

Less serendipity on the way to Park Güell: our son took us to one metro station, but there a helpful lady suggested that we return to a station which would be closer. "No need", said the station manager, after the lady asked him to put us back onto the metro without having to pay: "it's just down here - take the second left and go up the automatic stairs". Well, his instructions were correct, but as as result, we came into the park via the back entrance which is extremely steep. No wonder there are several escalators on the way.

At first, we weren't convinced that we had arrived at the correct destination: true, we were in a park, but there seemed to be none of Gaudi's fingerprints visible. After wandering around a bit (the park needs to improve its directions by printing maps), we eventually stumbled onto the Gaudi part.

The picture below is the main entrance, which we, in our idiosyncratic method, used as the exit. The picture doesn't really do the buildings justice as they are more colourful than the picture suggests. As I heard several people mention, the picture seems to be like something out of 'Alice in Wonderland', although I would call it a gingerbread house.

=

We had to take a taxi from outside the park to the nearer metro station: by this time, my wife could hardly walk. This metro probably isn't much closer than the one that we arrived at - the distance is quoted as 1220 metres - but at least the way does not include climbing up a hill which would be at home in San Francisco.

Our next port of call had nothing to do with Gaudi - the Montjuïc Aerial Tramway or Teleferic de Monjuic. This is a cable car near the port of Barcelona which takes one to the castle which overlooks the port. The cable car ride was reminiscient of Switzerland, but the castle was something else. Built at a vary strategic site, the castle's cannons guard the sea entrance to Barcelona.

After a pleasant stroll around the extensive castle grounds, we rode the cable car back down to modern Barcelona. We then traveled to a famous fountain for an evening performance (I didn't catch its name) but as it was getting late and we were getting tired, cold and hungry, we didn't stay. We'll go there tomorrow night. Instead, we returned to the the Sangrada Familia, found a suitable restaurant, ate pizza, drunk tea, walked home and into bed.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Barcelona log (1): Have a nice day

After a fairly boring flight westwards over Santorini, Greece and Italy, we arrived in Barcelona at around 2pm. After sorting a few things out in the hotel, we had a late lunch then set off for the aquarium. We've been to quite a few aquariums over Europe but I think that this was the best. One thing which we weren't expecting was to see several penguins strolling around in their area.

Travelling on the Barcelona metro is almost the same as the London Underground, although of course one has to pay more attention to the signs in order to understand them.

Next to our hotel I spotted the sign on the left: Have a nice day - BCC. Now, that abbreviation can mean different things to different people. I imagine that most people are familiar with the term bcc in connection with email, although I also imagine that fewer know that it is an acronym for 'blind carbon copy' (who remembers what a carbon copy is, these days?). To fewer people, but especially myself, BCC is an acronym for Basal Cell Carcinoma, the kind of skin cancer from which I suffer.

Today I learnt a new meaning - Barcelona College of Chiropractic. Have a nice day.

Barcelona log (0)

Once again, holiday time has arrived. I'm sitting near the departure gate for our flight to Barcelona - we should be boarding soon. We spend four nights in Barcelona then fly to London, where we will stay for another four nights, and finally to Edinburgh, where we will be a week. Our visit culminates with the degree awarding ceremony in Edinburgh, the event for which I have been waiting a year and which determined our dates.

So far, this trip has been the worst in terms of preparation. First of all, there was the mixup regarding the date of my exam. Then on Saturday night, I idly looked at our Israeli passports, only to discover that mine had run out a few days previously whereas my wife's would run out in a few days. Fortunately, we were able to get new passports within a few days.

I needed to buy mini DV cassettes for our camcorder. No shop in the vicinity had such cassettes and it seems that no one in Israel sells them anymore. I could buy via eBay but it's a bit late for that now. So my wife bought a new camcorder yesterday afternoon with a built in memory card - Panasonic SDR S70. I intend to spend the flight learning how to use the new camera. Hopefully in London I will be able to buy an extra battery and charger for the camera.

Ok: boarding now. More news later tonight from Barcelona.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Vitamin D

Following my (obsessive) interest in my CPAP readings, I tried to find articles which related to central apnea as opposed to obstructive apnea. I didn't find very much, but one web site containing the writings of Dr Stasha Gominak make a very strong argument that apnea - as well as many other maladies or misfunctions - are due to a low level in vitamin D.

Whilst I was absorbing these articles, there was published in the Israeli newpapers an item stating that the Ministry of Health considers that at least 50% of Israeli adults suffer from vitamin D deficiency (don't quote me on this number) and so the Ministry is demanding mandatory addition of vitamin D to milk. 

This is somewhat surprising as Israel (unfortunately) has too much sun and fifteen minutes exposure per day is supposed to be sufficient to create the necessary amount of vitamin D. On the other hand, Dr Gominak points out that we all try to stay indoors, and when we do venture out, we slather ourselves with creams which prevent the ultraviolet light from reaching our skins (a very important point for me, as I have just had another BCC growth removed).

The proportion of dairy products, rich in vitamin D, in the Israeli diet is also comparatively high.

I discussed these points last week when I saw my doctor last week. It might be possible that my headaches - and indeed, sleep apnea - are caused by a lack of vitamin D, and I am not aware of ever having this level measured. He agreed to have my blood tested for this vitamin (really a hormone, as the body secretes it) along with the tests of kidney functions that he wants.

I took the blood tests a few days later and received the results the same day. Unfortunately, there was no result for vitamin D. I waited a few days, in the hope that maybe the missing result would be forthcoming, but no such luck. I suspect that the doctor forgot to add the test to the ones that he ordered via the computer (he also forgot to write one prescription for analgesics).

So unfortunately, I don't know whether my vitamin D level is satisfactory. There is argument as to what a satisfactory level actually is; according to my doctor, the Ministry of Health uses the level 75 ng/ml in blood, whereas Dr Gominak would be satisfied with the range 60-80 ng/ml blood. The high level which the Ministry requires may be one reason why it considers so many people to have a deficiency.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

My blood pressure may not be as high as previously suspected

Since the beginning of the year, I have been following my blood pressure and taking medication to reduce it. In the morning, it is always comparatively low (ie normal) - around the 120/80 mark so beloved of doctors. But sometime during the day it takes off to high levels, and when I measure in the evening, I see values of 155/95 or even higher.

At times, I measure my blood pressure every morning and evening, religiously noting down the values (one doctor told me to report only the average of three readings and not all three) for a fortnight. I've been measuring the blood pressure with my personal sphygmomanometer (a word which I know how to copy and paste from Internet sites but don't know how to pronounce) although every time that I visit the kibbutz clinic, I have my bp measured with the devices there.

During one of my recent visits, the nurse suggested that I bring my machine it so that we could check its accuracy against the clinic's machine. So the other evening, when I had an appointment with my doctor, we also measured my bp with both machines.

Whilst the diastolic value (that's the lower number) was virtually the same with both machines, the systolic value varied widely - my machine reported a value like 155/93 whereas the clinic's machine reported 135/91. It makes one wonder when a diagnosis of hypertension is based on my machine's readings. Today we repeated the experiment: my machine reported 166/93 (I was very agitated at the time of the reading) whereas the clinic's machine showed 148/91.

Unfortunately there seems to be no way to calibrate a sphygmomanometer's readings (although I will look in the owner's manual) which means that my machine is worthless. I will replace the batteries to see if that makes a difference, although I know that I replaced them at the beginning of the year.

Regarding medication: I started off on a minimal dose of 5mg <something> at the beginning of the year. This was increased to 5mg in the morning and 5mg at night, but this doubling had no effect. For the last two months, I've been on 10mg twice a day, which also has had little effect, so now I am going to try 20mg in the morning (to try and prevent the increase during the day) and 10mg at night.

One possible effect of the increased blood pressure is headaches. About a month and a half ago, I went through a terrible phase of daily headaches. Taking an analgesic after a headache had started had virtually no effect. As an experiment, I started taking an analgesic pill at breakfast - this prevented any headache! When I reported this to my doctor, he started me on a daily dose of 100mg aspirin - this is only 20% of one normal aspirin pill which one takes for headaches or fevers. During the past month, I had only three headache days: one time I took no extra analgesia and suffered badly; one day I was quick enough to take a pill as soon as I felt the headache start - the pain disappeared after three hours; one day I took a pill slightly too late - I suffered all day but not excessively.

I asked the doctor what was causing these headaches: he answered that the current diagnosis is migraine,  meaning that he doesn't know what starts them. The diagnosis is based partially on the fact that I reacted favourably to the drug sumatripan (which is specific for migraines but not other types of headache). Unfortunately, taking this drug is normally out of the question as it knocks me out for several hours. The pain comes from the expansion of blood vessels in the brain which leads to them causing pressure on nerves. 

I don't know whether I mentioned it here but about six weeks ago I had my first migraine with aura: I could see flashing lights and zig-zagging lines in my right eye. This episode lasted about fifteen minutes, followed by about three hours of stomach pain. I had my eyes checked a week later but there was no organic damage which could explain the attack (hence the diagnosis of migraine).

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Robert Fripp likes Joni Mitchell

Leafing through Fripp's online diary for 14 April 2013,  I was very surprised to come across the following passage

While driving, listening to favourite music from early professional years in London, including Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Hearing this at the time, I thought: I have nothing to say after this. If Blue helped me through the hard times of 1971, Judy Collins’ Wildflowers (recommended by Judy Dyble) helped me through the awfulness of 93a, Brondesbury Road and GG&F (1967-68); and Who Knows Where The Time Goes through the heartbreak and subsequent horrors of the KC breakup in December 1969. These, with other music-friends, at a time when Music was giving itself away for nothing much more than the price of an ear.

Let us not forget that 'Michael from mountains', one of the songs on Joni's earliest records, was a tune tried out (but discarded) by the nascent King Crimson. Judy Dyble, being an original Fairporter, would of course have been au fait with Joni - she sings "I don't know where I stand"  and "Chelsea Morning" on the first Fairport album, and recordings of the time include "Marcie" and "Both sides, now".

Yesterday I listened to the mind blowing duo of 'Hissing of summer lawns' and 'Hejira' for the first time in many months.