Monday, March 31, 2008

Lots of things to do

I received a package from Amazon a few days ago, containing the following
  • "Trisector", the new cd by Van der Graaf Generator
  • two Rebus books written by Ian Rankin, "The Falls" and "Exit Music"
  • one book written by Brian Viner about his life in the countryside
  • one book about cognitive therapy, called "Feeling Good" (or similar)
I am slowly working my way through the package for I have several activities competing for my spare time, to wit:
  • writing and updating programs for my occupational psychologist
  • taking the dog for long walks
  • writing important letters
  • watching films which have accumulated
Last year on the way to Santorini, I bought a dvd machine which records as well as plays, and so I've found myself recording several films a week. One ridiculous weekend not so long ago had me recording 6 films over 24 hours, as the satellite company showed good films in the run-up to the Oscars. I've had a look at this week's schedule, and there are "only" five films in the entire week which I want to record. Anyway, the machine has been fritzing for quite some time: I can record properly and finalise the discs, but when I put them back into the machine in order to watch them, the machine refuses to recognise them (even though the discs are readable on the computer). On Saturday the machine stopped initialising and so I knew that it was time to take the machine to be repaired. I had taken it a few weeks ago when it started acting up, but the technicians said that there was nothing wrong with it. This time there was no argument, and the laser within the disc drive was replaced. So far I've managed to watch 45 minutes of "Shirley Valentine", and today the machine will have its first real test when it is supposed to record "Local Hero" (one of my top films; my wife can't watch the bought version because it doesn't have Hebrew subtitles) via timer this afternoon.

Anyway - I have all these films taped - but I've only seen part of them. One needs personal time to watch and enjoy them.

Israel moved onto Summer Time on Thursday night, which means that it doesn't get dark until after 7pm. As a result, I can now take the dog for long walks after I get home from work; previously there were days when we could only manage a swift walk around the block before darkness fell. These walks take between 45-60 minutes, and whilst they give me physical exercise and a chance to unwind, they also take time.

I've been working very long hours this month writing programs for the occupational therapist. One exam has been converted for use externally - that is, we put it on the Internet, from where companies with which we are in contact can download and then administer the tests in their environment, sending us the raw results. The first thing which I did with the program was to convert it from using the BDE to using a resource stored stringtable, in which are stored all the questions, as well as various strings which are displayed on the screen. We are hoping to have the questions translated into different languages (Russian is the major target), and now the program can easily support this. Another problem which we encountered the other day was that the program cannot be run on a mobile computer (well, of course, it can be run, but the user interface depends on pressing keys on the numerical keyboard, and a mobile doesn't have these keys). Letting other people run this program tests it properly.

We are also developing an aptitudes exam, which has caused me to learn new things (like how to store a JPG image in a database and then display it) as well as looking at these programs in a new, more abstract, light.

Our flagship product, the program which reads and evaluates users responses, is continually undergoing changes. The output is becoming more and more sophisticated, and now we are tailoring it for the specific needs of external companies. These results, simply put, give a psychological profile of the person sitting the exam; initially they were used for communal settlements wanting to check whether prospective candidates would make successful settlers, but now we are trying to move into the business market, and so are trying to tailor the results so that they fit into a business orientated mode. We have added - on the basis of existing data - filters and aggregates to check how a candidate does in specific areas of management. Whilst the base of the program - and the exam - remain unchanged (and have to, in order that the statistic analysis which resides at the bottom layer is unaffected), I am constantly adding new tables in order to handle new ways of looking at the data.

I also realised the other day that I could combine several tables, each of which contains only an id and a name, into one table, containing id, name and type. I can't do it now, as those ids are not unique and of course are scattered amongst other tables, but if I find myself having to add a new table with an id/name tuple, then I will extend one of the currently existing tables. This is the approach which I used in the aptitude test, when we decided to store each examinee's occupation and educational level. Keeping a separate table for five or six entries has a high overhead.

So now it becomes apparent how little time I have for reading books. More about them later.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Clarification

In my previous entry, I wrote "Israeli youth do not read Orwell or Eliot in school; they read the Bible (in what seems to me to be the least most important subject, even less useful than trigonometry)."

I didn't mean to give the impression that the Bible (old testament) is less valuable or even less literary than Orwell or Eliot, although that is exactly what I did. If my fellow workers would quote the Bible at appropriate moments, then I would be pleased. But it seems that the Bible is taught more as a historical story and less of a moral approach to life, and that's why fewer people quote it.

If someone can find a reference which will help us in purchasing strategies, I would like to be the first to know.

Teaching at schools seems to miss the point frequently. The point about trigonometry is not the trigonometry itself but the fact that it introduces new mathematical tools into the student's toolbox, a new way of looking at the world. As I frequently say when I see Excel being used for something for which it is not the appropriate tool, "when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail". Schools are more geared to teaching the students the specific knowledge, instead of training them how to generalise the knowledge in the hope that they might use it in a completely different situation.

I was going to write "Literature informs computer science - how quaint!", but then I remember that in Stephen Levy's book about the Macintosh, "Insanely Great", the developers (especially Jef Raskin) did exactly that - look to literature and art in an attempt to improve their product, and make it more "human" as opposed to more "computer".

Another example: I was explaining to someone the other day how modular our ERP program (Priority) is, and how there is very little "program" - all the screens and all the reports are actually defined in database tables, and the "program" loads these screens or runs the reports as necessary. Thus it is virtually indefinitely extensible. One day later, I was talking with my occupational psychologist about the 'aptitudes' program which we have been developing, which contains several different mini-exams (finding the odd one out, vocabulary, etc). I had only developed a very early - but functional - version of the program, in which every mini-exam had its own table (and structure), its own data entry screen and its own exam screen. She wanted to extend the program without me having to add infrastructure, and then it occurred to me that I should write the program in the same vein as the ERP - allowing the administrator to define new exams, to enter the questions and even display them in a modular structure. I spent most of yesterday doing that.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Literary allusions

I sometimes wonder whether my colleagues at work think that I'm a little weird. Instead of talking about football or the wonderful dish I cooked the other night or even work, I tend to insert little pieces of culture which seem to come from nowhere.

People's ringtones are a rich source of information to be shared. Yesterday I found myself telling people about the pentatonic scale after hearing someone's Japanese sounding ringtone, and indeed my own general ringtone is a souped up, syncopated version of Eric Satie's "Gymnopedie" (which I got from a colleague who simply thought that it sounded nice). I actually bought a disc of Satie the other day, which I find quite pleasing and relaxing, although I must admit that I prefer a chamber orchestra to solo piano.

During a discussion about stock control and purchasing strategies, the immortal words of George Orwell suddenly entered my head.

He who controls the present controls the past
He who controls the past controls the future


How apposite! One part of the purchasing strategy looks at the average use of raw material over the past few months, the number of months being variable. Normally it's six months, but I could change this. He who controls the present controls the past - changing this variable can cause changes in the average use, especially if it's a new part. Future orders in part (excuse the pun) depend to a certain extent on this average, and so he who controls the past controls the future.

As usual, no one knew what I was talking about.

Another pair of quotations from '1984' also finds favour in these quarters, especially when talking about databases and user privileges:

Knowledge is power
Ignorance is strength

Most of the time I don't actually express these literary allusions but keep them to myself, because I know that most lack the references. Israeli youth do not read Orwell or Eliot in school; they read the Bible (in what seems to me to be the least most important subject, even less useful than trigonometry). As opposed to earlier generations of British schoolboys, I didn't have much Shakespeare forced upon me (that's why I was reading Orwell or Eliot), but I did pick up a little S, here and there. Playing The Young Cato in our school's production of "Julius Caesar" made me appreciate his language much more than trying to read his unpenetratable plays, but Israelis read even less than I did (although I think that all of S's plays have been translated into Hebrew). References to Brutus tend to fall on deaf ears, although people do know about knifing in the back.

Possibly I read '1984' and its soulmate 'Animal Farm' too young. I know that I was genuinely frightened by these books, both by the physical violence displayed in the former, but also in the latent violence present throughout. The thought that people could change their ideological outlook overnight is something that dismays and frightens me to this day - and in a way, I've been a party to it myself. I have often compared the ideological switch of the kibbutz movement (from "share and share alike" to "take what you can get") to the overnight changing of allegiances in '1984' (we have always been at war with Eastasia) - but again, few seem to know what I am talking about.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chava Alberstein

Last night we went to see veteran Israeli singer Chava Alberstein at the concert hall on the kibbutz. In thirty years of Israeli concert going, I've never seen her before. I'm sure that this is more my fault than hers, although I'm equally sure that she hasn't been performing for the past few years. There are no excuses though when she appears on our doorstop.

Chava plays competent acoustic rhythm guitar; supporting her were another acoustic guitarist playing lead lines, yet another acoustic guitarist who sometimes doubled the leads, sometimes harmonised the leads and sometimes played supported the rhythm. There was also a percussionist who made interesting sounds on a variety of instruments. I very much enjoyed the first ten or fifteen minutes of the show but then it began to pall, basically because every song started to sound the same. A ray of sun shone through the clouds when the percussionist suddenly played a few notes on some kind of marimba (I couldn't see as for me he was positioned right behind Chava).

A highlight of the first part of the concert was an acapella song (accompanied only by percussion) which worked on three levels. First of all, the song itself - an observation of paranoia whilst in passport control - was witty; secondly, the singing was divine; and most important, the stark nature of the song broke up the boring dynamic which had been established, and enabled the audience to refresh their ears.

After this song, the band went electric - one guitarist took up an electric, the other a bass and the percussionist went to trap drums. The result would have shamed an average garage band. They weren't bad, but they weren't very good. The drummer, who uptil now had been fairly impressive, was very limited on the kit, whereas the guitarist preferred twiddling around in a fruity tone which didn't add much. The bassist was almost inaudible.

Fortunately, this assault on the senses ceased, and then the third part of the show began, again in acoustic mode. The final song was one of Chava's most famous - and most moving - "Like a wild flower", the tale of a girl who finds herself as an outcast in kibbutz society and decides to leave.

The whole concert could be viewed on several levels, each with a different mark -
  • the songs - generally of a high quality
  • the singing - excellent (and let us not forget that Chava has been performing for 40 years)
  • the arrangements - good, up to a point
  • the dynamics - non existent
  • the phrasing - four to a bar and very disappointing
The final, unaccompanied, song was actually a microcosm of the problem. Being a song which the entire audience had waited to hear, they all joined in. The phrasing of the first verse was very much on the beat and very standard. But by the time the third verse had come around, very few of the audience were still singing (maybe they don't know all the words), and syncopations were finally happening almost every line.

The rhythmic aspects of the evening were also disappointing. One waltz, one song which might have been in 12/8, and the rest in fairly straight-forward 4/4. No sambas, no bossa novas, no syncopations and no variations. No wonder I felt bored after fifteen minutes.

For the weeks prior to the concert, I had been wondering whether I should try and approach Chava after the concert. Several of her songs had meant a great deal to me in earlier days, but I haven't really listened to her in the past twenty years, and I know that performers are much more interested in what they are doing now rather than some forgotten song from 30 years ago. The solution came to me one day when I was walking the dog and listening to cover versions of songs which I had recorded. One of those songs - and in fact the only song which I have ever recorded in Hebrew - was a song which Chava made famous, albeit in 1975. I decided to give her a disc with that one song on it, along with a letter telling her how much some of her songs had helped me learn Hebrew all those years ago. This way I wouldn't have to talk to her.

And indeed I didn't talk to her. When my wife and I ascended the stage (as we do after most of the concerts to say a personal thank you to the performers), we were stopped by some official character who took my package and said that he would make sure that Chava got it. So much for all the indecision whether I should have my picture taken standing next to her. My email address was included in the letter, but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for a reply.

Back to blogging

I haven't been here for a while, for various reasons, most of them totally uninteresting (like two weeks of flu). When I did decide that it was time to start blogging again, I was cut off out of my account and couldn't remember the password. No problem, says Blogspot/Google: press here and we'll send a letter to your email account giving instructions.

Yes, well the letter did indeed arrive but was coded in some strange unreadable language. All attempts at turning it into something recognisable failed. So I tried several different pages at Google in an attempt to rectify the situation, and eventually one sent me a readable email with a link to a page which enabled me to reset the password. Obviously, as otherwise you wouldn't be reading this.

Most of the last few weeks have been spent furiously coding, either at work in our ERP system, which is slowly but surely yielding to my wishes, or at home in the second job. Lately I've been working a lot on Word Automation; it's a subject which isn't covered very well, especially not for someone working in Delphi. I have to read the information contained on several different sites in order to get working code, and even then it's still a process of trial and error to get something that I want.

I've just learnt how to automate tables, and more importantly how to get them to autosize. The result is quite attractive.