Saturday, July 28, 2018

100 years

Today would have been my mother's 100th birthday, had she lived that long.

1918 seems so very far away from 2018 in terms of changes. Even when I was a child, in the 1960s, 1918 seemed very far away. The most obvious agent of change was the second world war: science and technology changed to meet new demands, but also the semi-rigid class structure of pre-war Britain began crumbling. Whilst  there were many changes between an urban childhood in 1818 and 1918 - running water, indoor plumbing and such like - a child would still have occupied himself with similar games and hobbies. Today's children wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they were sent back one hundred years.

Huge advances in medicine have occurred in the last one hundred years; modern hygiene had become accepted by 1918, but antibiotics were still to come. Life expectancy was in the mid-50s; now it is in the early 80s. My father will soon be 96. But despite these advances, the human body is still the same and wasn't built to last so long. If previously major causes of death had been infectious diseases or malnutrition, today people die of cancer and heart failure. No one had Altzheimer's disease because no one lived long enough to suffer degenerative diseases.

I'm sorry for the sad tone of this blog. I think that it would have been written differently had I written it yesterday. Today my father came for his weekly visit and there seemed to be a massive deterioration in his condition; he seems to be wasting away, losing the will to live. It may be just the very hot weather of the past week which is causing this, but it may be permanent.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Careless love

Once again it's the end of July, and as always, there is a new DCI Banks book to devour, "Careless love". Again, the title of a song and again, there's little connection between the song and the book, although maybe the third line, "You've ruined the life of many a poor girl" is appropriate. The book starts with the body of a dead girl being found in a car which had previously been involved in a crash. How did the girl die? How did she get into the car? More importantly, who is she? Another body is found with similar characteristics: seemingly a suicide, but how did the person get to where he was found (in the middle of a moor)?

Slowly but surely, our intrepid team (down to four: Banks, Annie Cabbot, Winsome Jackson and Gerry Masterson) collect scraps of information about the two cases; they finally find a link between the two, and as they do so, they are informed of a similar death in a nearby city that seemed to have occurred at the same time as the first two deaths. Painstakingly, one fact follows another and eventually a major breakthrough is made - and this is around the 75% mark!

My review at Amazon is as follows: A few disclaimers: I have read (and generally loved) all of the DCI (now DS) Banks books. As is typical with these books, they start off with a dead body and an investigation which seems to go nowhere for most of the book, with the pace picking up only towards the end. The book is an example of a police procedural, in which a steady accumulation of facts (with no sudden leaps of intuition) finally pays off. In-between, there is a fair amount of music mentioned (some classical, some rock, some jazz) as well as poetry: one's mileage may vary with this material; personally, I love it as it makes Banks much more human. There are also several very up-to-date issues mentioned, such as Brexit and Syrian refugees.

This is very much a British book, so readers coming from different backgrounds may have different expectations and may take the non-investigative material to be a waste of space. As a contrast, I have just read back to back eleven books about an American forensic pathologist; almost of all the books are about serial killers, with some stories lasting three books. Plenty of guns, plenty of swearing, the 'good guys' shooting and killing the villains, etc. Only the forensic parts were interesting. The Banks books - and "Careless love" is no exception - occur in a more polite and realistic setting.

I can't say at the moment that this is one of the better books in the series; it takes a while for the good points to shine, and I've only read the book once so far. It certainly is not a bad book. I can understand readers who will be impatient with the slow pace, but that ironically is what makes the book more life-like.

The only thing which left me scratching my head was the entire Zelda plot-line (this will be clear to someone who has read the book). I didn't mention this originally because it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the book; it could be excised and no one would notice. But it does set up a storyline which could be the next Banks book, although the only way that Banks could be involved is by having a murder in his 'parish'.

The American books which I mentioned are a series written by Patrica Cornwell, with lead character Kay Scarpetta, who originally is the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, USA. The first book was very good (it won several prizes), but the others are disappointing. The first ten books are written as first person narrative by Dr Scarpetta, which lets us know very well what she is feeling and thinking, but limits the action to what she perceives, whereas the eleventh book is written with an unlimited narrator and so the action ranges far and wide. It was very jarring to read about a character called 'Scarpetta' after having been inside her skin for so long. It is telling that she enters the eleventh book only after several other characters (none of whom are pleasant) have made their entrance, somewhere around the fourth chapter.

At first, I thought that the books would be like 'Silent Witness'; the pathology parts definitely are, but the rest is certainly not. There are a few books in those first eleven (and there are twenty five and counting in the series) where there is but one post-mortem, and that takes place only half way through the book. I'm only reading these books because I've been traveling a great deal in the past few weeks and so have the time, along with a limited attention span.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

DBA update

After a break of several weeks which was due to my supervisor travelling frequently, I finally received his comments regarding the version of the thesis from May. As opposed to previous responses, this time he has left comments in the Word file - topics that need to be written about, expanded upon or explained - but has also edited the actual text here and there. Most of these corrections turn a 'which' into a 'that'.

For example, one of the aims of the research is To discover whether there are similar enhancements which are implemented independently by several companies, thus becoming candidates for inclusion as standard modules. The 'which' has been turned into a 'that'.

I have always thought that my written English is good (even if now and then I get stumped for a word), so these frequent corrections surprised me. I decided to find out when 'that' should be used and when one can use 'which'.

From an English grammar site, I found the following:

That vs. Which: What's the Difference?

Here's an easy way to remember the difference between that and which: if removing the words that follow would change the meaning of the sentence, use "that." Otherwise, "which" is fine. Some people will argue that the rules are more complex and flexible than this, but I like to make things as simple as possible, so I say that you use that before a restrictive clause and which before everything else.

So, with regard to the research aim, removing the clause 'which are implemented independently' would definitely change the meaning of the sentence, and so 'which' should be 'that'. There should be very few superfluous subordinate clauses in the thesis (every word and sentence counts, so there's little room for extraneous content), so every 'which' should be a 'that'.

I haven't looked at most of the supervisor's comments yet, but I imagine that there is much more than my grammar that needs improving (as usual, I initially typed 'which needs improving' before I remembered the above lesson).

Friday, July 06, 2018

Song for Yom Kippur

A year ago, I wrote about the kibbutz tradition of a special evening on Yom Kippur, where people read poems or stories, or sing songs which are very meaningful. I had some spare time recently when I started thinking about this evening: I don't have any new songs (which I have written) ready for the evening, so maybe I should try an Israeli song. One candidate which came to mind is a song called (something like) 'Instead of separating'.

I first heard this song in 1976 when I was returning to Britain from Israel; whilst waiting in the terminal, I bought a record by the Israeli trio "Chocolate, Menta, Mastik" ('mastik' is chewing gum). I discovered on this record a good song, 'Instead of separating', which bore the stylistic marks of composer Matti Caspi: there is a chord sequence of Bm7b5-BbMaj7-Esus4-E7, which is typical of him. Also, the third and fourth verses of this song started out the same as the first two verses, but then veered off into very unusual chord sequences. The same trick appears in the second verse of 'Yemei Binyamina' (which coincidentally I 'performed' for the Yom Kippur evening several years ago). Today I discovered the song on YouTube. Needless to say, my version is quite different.

When I was studying Hebrew in Arad at the beginning of 1979, one day we were given a poem to learn and possibly translate. Reading the words, I had a sense of deja vu -  I knew this poem! They were the words to 'Instead of separating'. Incidentally, although the lyric was written by a man, the words are written from a woman's point of view (the first recordings were by women). I marked all the places which needed a gender change.

For the musical arrangement, my intention was that the first two verses be quiet and relaxed, with the next two verses being somewhat harsher, in order to match the wild chord sequence. There were a couple of false starts with the sequencing but eventually I was able to arrange a first verse which is extremely light. I expanded the arrangement through the following verses, but almost every day I found myself taking out parts or delaying them. For example, there are two lines of strings in the second verse: the first eight bars has only one line, whereas the second strings line enters in the ninth bar. The arrangement was sufficiently complete yesterday for me to record vocals.

Today, circumstances conspired to give me several hours of free time, so I elected to use them to record vocals to the two songs which I have ready. A few takes of 'Instead of separating' were followed by two of 'Gemini and Leo', at which time I felt confident to nail a master take of 'Instead of separating'. Then I started mixing the song, finding the appropriate set of studio effects for the vocal; this changes from verse to verse.

I was listening to the track aloud from my mobile computer, when my wife came home and asked what all the 'tick-tick-tick' noise was, which to her ears was annoying. 'Those are the drums', I told her; I didn't mention that they were instrumental in maintaining the 12/8 pulse. "They're ruining the song; you're singing so gently and the backing track is sympathetic, but those drums ruin everything". On her advice, I removed the drums.

Now the song sounds even more naked and possibly more convincing than before, although I have to get used to it. It seems that the song can be heard here.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

New chicken recipes

I found some new (to me) recipes for cooking chicken, so I tried them out over the weekend. In both cases, something 'went wrong', so I'm not sure that the dishes tasted as they were supposed to.

Last weekend, we ate in a restaurant in acknowledgement of 37 years of marriage. I ordered chicken teriyaki, which was very tasty; the meat came from the thigh, which is always tasty. I wondered how the meat was cooked, and discovered that the recipe was very simple: cover some chicken thighs or strips of breast with teriyaki sauce then cook in the oven for 20 minutes at 200°C. Recipes don't come more simple than that! I had some frozen chicken breasts, so I defrosted them, cut them into strips, placed them in a glass Pyrex dish ... and then discovered that I didn't have any teriyaki sauce! I did have once but must have used it. Fortunately, my wife was just about to go to the supermarket to buy a few items so she bought the sauce for me. The brand which she bought wasn't what I had purchased before, and indeed, this sauce seemed to be soy sauce with no added sugar. The result was fine, but I was expecting something slightly different.

I happened to see on the internet a recipe for chicken pieces with onion: this involves dicing two large onions, frying them lightly in a big pan, then adding the pieces (drumsticks) and cooking on a low light for an hour and a half. The onions are fried in half a cup of (canola) oil which seems to be an excessive amount as there was plenty of oil left in the final result. After about an hour of cooking with the chicken pieces, I noticed that the flame had been doused. I relit the cooker, only to see the flame light and die within a few seconds. Obviously we had run out of gas. Unfortunately, the gas cylinders outside the house are not labelled: it seems that I changed our neighbours' gas and not ours. In order not to ruin the food, I moved the chicken, onions and liquid to a large glass dish then placed the dish in the oven for another half hour at 160°C. Again, the result was fine, but I wonder how it would have been if it had been cooked for the entire period on the gas. In the evening, I changed the correct gas cylinders.

This second dish will definitely enter the repertoire, although next time I will use less oil.