Saturday, December 31, 2016

Farewell 2016 - a summary of the year from my idiosyncratic viewpoint

  1. External
    1. Brexit: whilst I don't live in Britain anymore, and haven't lived there for nearly 40 years, I am still a British citizen and certain decisions that Britain takes affect me. I can't begin to understand why so many people wanted to leave the EU; it seems that in the face of globalisation, people want to assert their tribal identity. The worst thing that Brexit has already done to me is the drastic depreciation of Sterling. Who knows what else is to come?
    2. Trump: I am fairly sure that Trump could not have been elected as US President had it not been for Brexit. All through the early months of the year, I could not understand how someone so seemingly uncouth, loud and uncultured could be taken seriously by the American electorate. He seems to be the opposite of everything that Obama stood for, although to be honest, Obama wasn't much of a success, either. His major achievement was being the first black president; he certainly wasn't much of a friend to Israel. 
    3. Deaths: does it just seem this way or was 2016 a bad year for musicians? David Bowie, Keith Emerson, Dave Swarbrick, Sir George Martin, Leonard Cohen, Greg Lake, and in the final days of December, Rick Parfitt (Status Quo) and George Michael. Actors, too: Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds. Strangely enough, apart from Swarb, I only have one record each from most of the others, and only a few films for the actors. I think that it's a function of statistics: I'm 60, and most of the musicians that I appreciate are 7-10 years older than me, meaning that they're in their late 60s/early 70s. A fragile age to be, approaching death. George Michael is the anomaly, being only in his early 50s. Immediately after having written this, I see that Jeff Duntemann has written on the same subject  (although without the musicians!) and at greater depth.

  2. Internal
    1. Health: the year started very badly for me, with a three month period of flu complications, culminating in a blocked ear. This was treated at the end of March, and since then, I've been in pretty good health.
    2. Theanine: I've written about this a few times during the second half of the year. I think that this supplement has made a quiet but definite difference to my life. I've become less moody, less given to turning things over and over in my mind and generally more cheerful. 
    3. Doctorate: after having my initial intermediate submission rejected - the rejection was expected but not the manner of its rejection - I worked hard on improving the text and in August, the second version was accepted. This means that the end of the doctorate is within sight, a fact which has also greatly improved my general outlook on life. Over the past two months, I've been collecting data; this is going slower than I would have liked, but I am making progress. Soon I will have to start thinking about how to present the data. Of course, I can't make any conclusions until I cease collecting data and begin to analyse it, but it will be easy to present the conclusions.
    4. Songwriting: the return to songwriting has taken me quite by surprise. I've known for a few years that if I want to continue recording (which I enjoy despite the effort), then soon I will have to start writing new songs as I exhaust my supply of old ones which have yet to been rejuvenated. But somehow I have managed to defer this ... until this year. By December, I had written four new songs as well as new lyrics to two old songs; over the past week I have almost completed another song (the music and arrangement are complete; I have two unconnected verses which I wrote yesterday). I don't have too much difficulty in writing the music for new songs but  have difficulty with the words as I don't have anything in particular which I want to write about. 
    5. Reaching the age of 60: maybe once this was a milestone, but "60 is the new 40".
    6. Becoming a grandfather: although the impact is growing, this still isn't a major factor in my life.
After having written all of the above, I have to conclude that however bad 2016 was for the general populace, for me it was actually a very good year. I am very optimistic about 2017 (it must be the theanine talking).

This is my 999th blog, so the next blog will be dedicated to blog statistics.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

What really makes me happy these days

A month and a half ago, I wrote in connection with meeting companies who work with Priority, "There is an engineering college near our offices in Tel Aviv where I want to  ... pop in and say hello". It took a few weeks, but eventually I did pop in, and after going here and there, I managed to find the person who is responsible for Priority in the college (they use the program for accounting and for purchasing). I stated my case; the person said that she would look into the possibility, but eventually replied that the college would not participate. So much for the academic brotherhood!

Countering this: I saw that one of our customers uses Priority (to me, it's obvious when I see their purchase orders). I made the pitch ... and the customer agreed to participate! This makes me happy.

But what really makes me happy is when completed questionnaires begin to arrive from this company! I don't know anything about them (although I had a quick peek at their website yesterday and it seems impressive) which makes their participation even more heart-warming.

Everyone is busy at the moment with completing the year and stock taking, but in the next few weeks I want to overcome my tendency to stay at home by hitting the road and visiting some companies in the North. Maybe I'll take my wife along and have a conjugal outing!

[SO: 4357; 5,21,42
MPP: 772; 1,4,6]

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Biscotti again

I baked the first batch of biscotti at about 4pm on Friday afternoon; they had all gone by 8pm on Saturday night. I had to wait for my wife to buy more flour and almonds before I could make a second batch on Monday evening. Whilst I used approximately the same ingredients as before, I also made a few minor changes. 

  • My wife bough almond slices whereas I had used small almond chunks which were more akin to flour; this probably affected the dough negatively.
  • I added a fair dollop of blackcurrant jam this time - I had bought a new jar so it was easy to remove a generous spoonful.
  • I added a little orange juice to make the dough more smooth and pliant.
As a result of the above, the dough was less thick and easier to mix. I spread it out on the baking tray as a very large 'log' - I was aiming for a lower height than previously, which help the dough cook more evenly. The baking technique was the same as before.

I think that the results from this batch are better than from the first; these really are tasty!

My daughter suggested that I use spelt flour instead of white flour; at first, I thought that Google Translate had made a mistake in its translation of the Hebrew name, but it transpires that there really is a type of grain called 'spelt'. This isn't an ingredient which we keep (although she does); yesterday, I was in Tel Aviv and next to our offices is a shop which stocks a very wide variety of ingredients and cooking utensils (they're also very expensive), so I bought a bag of this flour. Next time, I'll use half white flour and half spelt in order to see the result. 

At the rate at which the pieces are being eaten, the next batch will be baked on Friday again.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Puzzle

My daughter sent me this puzzle; can you solve it?

What's intriguing to me is not the solution but how I arrived at the solution. I'll try and reconstruct my thought processes, row by row.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Monthly grandfather picture

My daughter downloaded an app for her phone which distorts pictures. Some of the results are of the kind where one would pay good money not to see them, whereas a few have some artistic value.

This is me and the granddaughter yesterday evening. No wonder she looks a bit skeptical - she knows what the end result is going to be.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Eggless almond biscotti

Over the past few months, I've been ordering various items from I-Herb; this started with theanine, moved on to magnesium supplements, through herbal teas and mint chocolate and onto peanut butter and almond biscuits. The peanut butter is fine but I was a bit disappointed in the almond biscuits: these are cut very thin and they're very brittle. I was expecting something else.

A few days ago, I was in our company's offices in Tel Aviv and helped myself to a biscuit - very similar to the almond biscuits (aka biscotti) that I had bought, only these were softer (more chewy). When I asked where they came from, I was told the name of a bakery. A day later, the penny dropped: I could probably bake some myself and in doing so, achieve the consistency and size which I would like. I should point out at this stage that apart from a short period when I was in the army and used to bake myself a cake which I would take with me when I stayed over weekends, I don't bake. I don't like the fussiness of having to follow a recipe exactly.

So yesterday I researched recipes; there are plenty on the Internet so I could choose the most suitable. I ignored all those that use butter - so that we could eat the biscotti after meat. Then I thought that it would be caring if I could find a recipe which doesn't use any animal product, such as eggs, so that my vegan daughter could eat them. Here is the recipe on which I based my biscotti (I love the ignorance of calling them 'biscottis' - biscotti is the plural of biscotto, in the same way that panini is the plural of panino. It seems that the biscotti recipe is open to mild alterations in the flavouring.

This morning I bought applesauce and slivered almonds; the rest of the ingredients we have at home. I added to the list of ingredients a little blackcurrant jam which was left over in the fridge, along with fresh blackcurrants and goji berries. Mixing the ingredients was fairly easy until I added the wet items (sugar, applesauce, oil, berries, almonds) to the flour; this mixture got progressively harder to mix. Eventually I dumped the entire mess onto a baking tray covered with parchment, and tried to shape it into a 'log' as per the instructions.

I then put the tray in the oven for 25 minutes at 175C as instructed, before taking it out in order to allow the 'log' to cool. Here is a picture of the result (I had already started cutting it before remembering that I should take a picture).


An alternative name for what I was baking is mandelbrot - Almond Bread in German (also the name of the computer scientist who discovered fractals, Benoit Mandelbrot - and indeed, it does look like a loaf of bread at this stage. But the name is biscotti which means 'cooked twice' (like biscuits), so I chopped the loaf into small pieces; in my opinion, I should have spread the loaf out more so that it would have been less high and would have baked a bit better. I then put the tray back in the oven for another ten minutes at 150C, which finished the baking; cutting the loaf in this manner (and turning the pieces through 90 degrees) allows slices taken from the thickest and central part of the loaf to cook properly.

Here is the final result - they look quite different from the commercial versions, each slice being much larger and probably containing slightly less fruit than I had intended.

My wife had a slice and gave her approval, which means that I'll be baking this every now and then. I hope that my daughter likes this too.Next time, I will add more blackcurrants and/or goji berries, and I'll try and reduce the thickness of the 'log' before baking, probably with a rolling pin.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The best of our spies

This book, by Alex Gerlis, was one of those which turned up on my Kindle after its resurrection (the battery is doing very nicely, thank you); its title was intriguing enough to earn it an early read.

The book is set during World War 2 and is a twist on the more conventional type of WW2 spy stories. It open with a French refugee woman being stopped at a checkpoint (a good way to get our sympathy and turn this woman into the protagonist) - it turns out that this woman had been recruited by the German secret service and had absconded. She is then sent to Britain with an undefined mission. Do we cheer for this woman or hope that she gets captured?

MI5 were aware of her as they found her radio man; via this man they found the female spy and then constructed a mission for her., of which she is unaware. Eventually the woman is overtly recruited by the British SOE and sent to France as an agent; there she joins the resistance, and the information that the SOE send her  (which is passed on to her German control who is aware of her return) states that the Allies' landing with be in the Calais area and not Normandy. It transpires that there really was a deception operation such as this, although of course the details vary.

This could have been a fascinating read but unfortunately the writing let it down. The novel is too long, almost everything is spelt out for the reader (at one stage, a character recapitulates the plot as it then stood in case someone didn't follow) and the ending was slightly predictable.

A good spy novel is one which leaves you scratching your head at the end and trying to work out what really happened. This isn't such a novel.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Robbie Robertson - Testimony

Over the past few days, I've been reading Robbie Robertson's autobiography (or at least, partial autobiography) "Testimony", which begins with him joining Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and ends with 'The Last Waltz' – in other words, the pre-Band and Band periods in his life. It is very interesting to contrast his version of events with the version of Levon Helm, The Band's drummer, singer and occasional mandolinist. Serious historians could also reference Barney Hoskyn's book "Across the great divide", which I have only in hard print. The title of this book was chosen carefully; not only is it the title of the opening song from their best known album, it also hints at the great divide in the group.

What amazes me is how Robertson is able to recall and write about minor incidents, some of  which happened over 50 years ago, including dialogue. True, Robertson does say at the beginning that he is blessed with a prodigious memory (this is in connection with some of his relatives), so his recollections may well be accurate.

Robertson and Helm basically tell the same story until The Band's eponymous second album (aka 'The Brown Album'). Not surprisingly, Robertson devotes more than a few pages to the electric Dylan tours from 1965/6 which Helm chose to forego, as well as to the early Woodstock days.

Only after the second album did The Band taste success, and with it become rich overnight. Their riches led to a surfeit of drug (ab)use and the creation of two versions of history. There are a few questions which arise from reading Robertson's book, such as...

•    Did Robbie sing very much in The Band? Robertson writes about singing low harmonies and basically being a fourth, live, singer; Helm says that Robertson didn't like singing, that his vocal mike used to be turned off when performing live, and that their Woodstock performance was ruined by Robertson's vocals.
•    Was Robertson the musical director of The Band or was it Garth Hudson (as per Helm)? Mention is made of Robertson 'conducting' by means of his guitar neck, which Helm disparages. As an outsider, I have to say that Robertson receives more than his fair share of screen time in “The last waltz”, whereas Richard Manuel can barely be seen.
•    Who wrote 'Life is a carnival'? Robertson, Helm and Rick Danko receive a rare shared writing credit. Robertson writes “Rick and Levon came over to my studio in Woodstock one day, and I played them a song I was just finishing called ‘Life is a carnival’, whereas Helm writes the opposite: “The exception for me was ‘Life is a carnival’, which Rick Danko and I worked out music-wise and Robbie put to words”.

One very telling anecdote is that before ‘Music from Big Pink” was released, Robertson signed an agreement which split the songwriting royalties evenly between all five members. Not only this, but later on, Manuel, Danko and Hudson sold their shares back to Robertson; Helm requested time to think, but the subject is not raised again, so one doesn’t know whether Helm retained his rights. If this story is true, then most of Helm’s bitter tirade against Robertson is negated.

As Greil Marcus writes in "Mystery train" (197?), "In order to save the group, Robbie took it over. He took it over as lyricist, manager, strategist, savant, visionary and spokesman”. This is the impression that one gets from reading “Testimony”. Was it a good thing? As Robertson writes, after the second album it was him, three junkies and a musician suffering from narcolepsy. He had no choice.

History belongs to the victors; Manuel, Danko and Helm are dead and can’t react to what Robertson writes. All those who enjoy the music of the Band will be rewarded by reading this book.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Repairing the Kindle

After the panic/distress of having lost all of my e-books dissipated, I set about restoring the books. Once that was done (and after backing them up!), I downloaded the Kindle Collection Manager and tried to assign books to collections. I knew where about 70% belonged, but as the program's interface is minimal (to be polite), I could only see the books' titles and not their authors, so some books will have to be collected manually.

The Collection Manager updates the Kindle which then has to be reset in order to recognise the assignments. Resetting the Kindle always requires a leap of faith but especially after the previous escapade. When the Kindle came back up, the collections appeared with their books; I was, however, unable to assign books to collections via the Kindle: the 'Add to collection' option was greyed out.

Checking the Amazon web site, I discovered that this problem gets fixed once the Kindle connects to Amazon. Even though the Kindle was connected to the Internet via its wireless connection, it still wasn't connecting to Amazon. I discovered that the hard reset also unregisters the Kindle, so I tried to register anew. I know the required email address but had no idea what the password was, so I had to go through the awkward process of resetting the password. There's a problem with the website - I thought that I had reset the password (and quite probably had), but instead of seeing a screen saying that the password had been reset successfully, I saw the opening screen in the sequence which invites me to enter a password.

Eventually I realised what was needed and reset the password; I then entered this password into the Kindle in the correct place, and - lo and behold! - I could manually add books to collections. There was still no sign of the books which I had purchased via Amazon - I thought these would have downloaded as soon as I registered.

Whilst looking through the books which were on the Kindle, I saw that the final 'book' was entitled 'Archive items (22)'. I caused this list to be displayed and this is where I found the missing books. After pressing the correct sequence of keys, these books finally downloaded and found their place on the Kindle. I once again backed up the books!

Lessons learnt from this episode:  
  • DO NOT USE 'resetmykindle' unless you are absolutely desperate! 😓
  • Backup the books beforehand. 
  • Make sure you know what the password for your Amazon account is.
I will now read some of the new books - for example, Robbie Robertson's version of what happened to The Band.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Kindle disaster

I've noticed that the battery has been running down fast on my Kindle. I remembered that I had similar problems a few years ago which I documented here, so I decided to use the same technique. First I set up the Kindle to accept a password, then I rebooted and entered the 'secret' password, 'resetmykindle'. The Kindle rebooted.

I didn't bother creating a backup for I assumed that the previous backup still existed, and there was no mention of restoring the backup onto the Kindle. I was surprised to see that there were no books on the Kindle after rebooting,  but not too concerned as I could restore that backup ... except that I could find no backup!!!

400+ books gone!

After several hours searching, downloading and converting, I've managed to restore most of what I had previously. I couldn't remember the names of some books so those obviously can't be restored, but I have found other interesting books. 

Moral of the story: backup the Kindle onto the mobile computer, and possibly to Mega. There is a problem with the latter option, as Mega does not store multiple copies of identical files and there is the possibility that someone else has stored one or more of the books which I have in mobi format. Maybe I'll create a giant zip file and store that.

It would seem that books which I have purchased from Amazon have yet to be downloaded, despite having the wireless connection set correctly. I'm more interested in the battery functionality. I also have to restore all the collections, which is going to take some time. Fortunately (or not), over the next few days, I'm going to have several hours in which I will have nothing to do (and no means to do anything), so fixing the Kindle will be a good way to use this time.

[SO: 4352; 5, 21, 42
MPP: 772; 1, 4, 6]

Friday, December 09, 2016

Greg Lake, RIP

I remember a day in the spring of 1970, sitting in someone's darkened bedroom in the early evening, hearing the words

Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh,
But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying

I was too young to realise at the time that this was a song about the fear of a nuclear holocaust, but the dramatic singing and the majestic mellotron strings certainly moved me. 

We were listening to "Epitaph", the third track on the debut album by King Crimson. "In my opinion, it's Greg's best vocal performance - anywhere" said Michael Giles, the group's drummer (Sid Smith, p. 63). Greg Lake was the vocalist and bassist of the first incarnation of KC and as such entered the annals of rock fame.

After this line up splintered, Lake stayed with KC long enough to record some vocals for their second album, then left to join Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer in the supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer, about which I wrote a little here.

Greg Lake died a few days ago from cancer. I learnt about this from an email sent to one of my mailing lists early this morning (along with the death of John Glenn, first American in space, later a senator). To my surprise, both deaths were reported in one of the Israeli papers this morning (I can understand reporting the death of Glenn, but Lake seems a little esoteric for an Israeli newspaper).

As someone commented, it's a bad year for musicians - Bowie, Cohen, Swarbrick, Martin and no doubt others - but in a sense, it's to be expected. The majority of musicians that I and my generation like/adore/admire were born in the 1940s, making them all in their sixties and seventies. That's a reasonable age for dying.

Strangely enough, I read the other day that the life expectancy of Israeli males is 81, second highest in the world (I didn't notice where it was the highest), a fact attributed to basic training in the Israeli army, which improves cardiac function.