Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Swell Season/The Frames

After writing my previous entry, I thought that it would be a good idea to check what Glen Hansard sounded like prior to The Swell Season. I downloaded a few Frames' records (don't worry: they are all deleted now for reasons which will shortly become clear) and listened to them on the way to and from my Friday MBA lecture. The songs varied from the innocuous to the annoying, with only one song - an instrumental - really finding favour (and typically, this instrumental seems to be completely different from everything else, as if it were a different group playing). It was interesting to note that two songs which appear on The Swell Season (ie the eponymous first album) also appear on The Frames' "The Cost" album, "Falling slowly" and "When your mind's made up".

The latter opens with two electric guitars playing similar but not identical arpeggio patterns, which makes for interesting listening via headphones. The arrangement is almost identical to the later versions, although the 'instrumental freak-out' section is over the top here. I would rate this to be at about 80% of the later, clearer, arrangements. I note that the piano arrangement seems to be note for note the same in all the versions.

On the other hand, "Falling slowly" loses all its charm when interpreted by a band and without female harmony vocals. This initial version sounds very basic, and the overly simple tune is exposed mercilessly. This would rate about 25% compared to later versions.

In other words, the standard rock group setup of The Frames (taking into account that they have a violinist) does not excite my ears. Paring down the sound (and especially removing the drums) and adding the string instruments definitely improves the songs.

Please let me know you listen to a group that plays songs with acoustic and chamber like arrangements. Let not the songs be all fey and magical, such as the Incredible String Band.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Updates (mainly The Swell Season)

I reread the first half of 'Bad boy' again earlier in the week. When writing about the book two weeks ago, I mentioned that I didn't find any major mistakes in it. This time around, I noticed a rather subtle mistake concerning Tracy Banks and her mobile phone; the mistake probably arises from a sentence being deleted from the text of the book - it's not a logical mistake as were the others.

Over the past six months, I've been listening very frequently to the Swell Season. The first item of theirs which I bought was the deluxe version of 'Strict Joy', which comes as a three disc set. The first disc is the 'Strict Joy' album itself; the second is a live concert, and the third is a dvd containing interviews along with some of the performances which are on the second disc. I bought this package from, which sold it at a very reasonable price, and only slightly more expensive than the one cd version (which is why I bought the deluxe set). is quoting the limited version at almost twice the price of the standard disc, so it's worth shopping around.

There's a very interesting song on 'Strict Joy': 'Love that conquers'. The opening instrumental phrase (which is repeated almost ad nauseam) is in 5/4, which allows one to excuse the lack of harmonic activity. But when Glen begins to sing, suddenly the time signature is 6/4! Is the previous bar lengthened or is it the sung bar? Does it matter. Then it's back to 5/4 for a few more instrumental bars, and then bang! Back to 6/4 for a line. Later on in the song, Glen and Marketa add a few more syllables to the lines which are sung in 7/4. They must have had fun recording this.

About a month ago, I found a copy of their film, 'Once', on the Internet and eagerly downloaded it. I now discover that Amazon (UK) are selling it for a pittance - but either way, the film is without the Hebrew subtitles which are so important for my wife. In fact, most of the Dublin accents are so strong that I miss a fair amount of the dialogue as well. Maybe one day it will be screened here.

The film opens with Glen Hansard in the same position (but ten or more years older) as he was at the end of 'The Commitments' - busking in Grafton Street. The film was enjoyable, but not outstanding; it's more enjoyable for me watching them make music. There is an amusing scene where Marketa Irglova brings her Hoover to be repaired; she drags it around, making it look like she's taking her dog for a walk. Here's an interview which I've just found about the making of the film.

After watching the film, I felt compelled to order the original 'Swell Season' cd. The arrangements of this album are much more 'chamber' style - guitar, piano, violin and cello - and preferable to my ears that the slightly rocked up versions on the 'Strict Joy' live disc. It's the drums that do the damage. I also prefer the sound of their initial disc to the sound of 'Strict Joy'. It's a shame that they didn't use any wind instruments - an oboe, Uilleann pipes or even a flute would have been a welcome addition.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

More inbasket

About a month ago, I started measuring access to this blog and also joined the Amazon Associates program. Whilst the number of people reading this blog is hardly astronomical, there are more hits than I had expected (and unfortunately, a certain percentage of those belong to me).

Surprisingly, the most popular page on this blog is the original post about the Inbasket exam. I imagine that most of the people reading the page wanted to know how to pass the exam successfully and presumably hoped to find some hints. If that is the case, then I'm sure that they were disappointed. There isn't really any way to learn how to pass such exams; the key is to practice on existing exams and to have a great deal of common sense. The exam is testing one's ability to deal with happening events in a reasonable order, and that's not something which can be easily taught.

This reminds me of an issue in the MBA organisational behaviour course, when the subject was leadership; the lecturer said that the Americans believe that everything can be taught, whereas the British tend to believe that leadership is a part of one's personality and is composed of several smaller components. The inbasket exam is similar to a leadership exam; either one has it or one doesn't.

Anyway ... this being the most popular post, it only goes to reason that I have actually earned a few cents by someone clicking on the book reference given on that page, and even apparently buying the book.

In the mean time, the Occupational Psychologist has developed a new exam, this time for the manager of a non-residential old age activity centre. I asked her how she managed to develop the exam so quickly and she said that it was a combination of interviewing people who work in such a centre along with adapting existing material. A few people took this new exam, which revealed yet again a few more bugs. The DLL plugin approach to the exam proved itself in quickly allowing us to implement a new exam.

I often read blogs about entrepreneurial enterprises; this blog  is very lucid on the subject:
"To summarize: Anything that can be copied will be copied, including features, marketing copy, and pricing. Anything you read on popular blogs is also read by everyone else. You don't have an 'edge' just because you're passionate, hard-working, or 'lean'. The only real competitive advantage is that which cannot be copied and cannot be bought. Like what?"

The psychological testing clinic (I have to find a better name in English) is not the only one of its kind in Israel, but we are definitely in a niche market. The competitive advantage that we have is the in-house development of the computerised exams. For example, we are considering the use of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI); this is a standard psychological exam, although intended for more pathological use than we generally need. One can read about the exam on the Internet and even buy books which give the questions (I don't know whether one needs to be a licensed psychologist in order to do, but I imagine not). Our advantage is that we can quickly take the Hebrew version of this exam and computerise it; our even bigger advantage is that we can then generate both standardised and customised reports from the standard data.

But our biggest advantage is that the OP is interested in expanding both the range of our services and their quality (ie new reports, etc). Whilst my contribution is not trivial, I am only shaping/sculpting information which is given to me; the jewels - the psychological knowledge - come from the OP.

Again, the inbasket exam framework is a huge advantage which enables us to move into unexploited territory with little difficulty.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bad boy

With very little fanfare, the nineteenth book in the DCI Banks series, "Bad boy", was published a week ago. Amazon had been plugging it for only three weeks before its publishing date so the gap between knowing about the book's existence and reading it was fairly short.

Most of Peter Robinson's books tend to start slowly and build up steam as they progress, and this book is no exception to that rule. In fact, this one started so slowly that it took almost half the book before its pace became more than leisurely. Contributing to this is the fact that DCI Banks is on holiday in San Francisco when the story begins and there is a great deal of development before he returns to Eastvale.

In Banks' absence, most of the story (until his return) is told through the eyes of his colleague DI Annie Cabbot. She has been the third party limited narrator in previous books but has always had to 'share the stage' with Banks. Here the first hundred or so pages come from her point of view, and when the book does switch to another character's pov, it is that of Tracy Banks (DCI Banks' daughter, who until now has been a peripheral character - more mentioned than actually present - in most of the books).

This book is not a classical police procedural; there is no murder to be solved, but the book does present much more police procedure than one normally gets in a novel. Judging by the acknowledgments at the end of the book, author Robinson got most of this material directly from the real police. As such, this is not another in the regular Banks series, where Banks has to outwit someone who committed a murder at the beginning of the book. Instead this is a less cerebral and more action focused story - which does not centre around Banks (at least, not until the end).

In my one read through of the book (which probably was taken at a faster pace than I will take in the future), I didn't notice any glaring mistakes. In previous books, I've found a few; the first time I pointed the mistake out to author Robinson, but as he notes on his website,

By the time a book goes to press, it has been read by about twenty people, many of them professionals in the book business, and still mistakes slip through. They always will. It’s human nature. You might think you’re the first person to notice that Banks’s eyes are blue on page 53 and grey on page 314, but you’re probably not. And sometimes these gentle admonishments come at quite the wrong moment. When you’re having a difficult time with the book you’re writing, the last thing you want is some smart Alec telling you there’s something wrong with your last book!

In 'Strange Affair', Annie Cabbott eats meat after having been a strict vegetarian in all the books; in another, Banks leaves a hotel room without turning off the television, but when he returns, he turns it back on (maybe the maid turned it off in his absence). Rereading "Innocent graves" a week ago, I found a very subtle error in which the location of an interview is given wrongly. But as I say, 'Bad boy' doesn't seem to have such an error.

This is similar to continuity problems in films: very rarely is the viewer aware of such problems as she is too caught up in the story to notice, but watching the film at a slower pace will often reveal a multitude of errors.

I assume that Robinson has reached the limit of the traditional police procedural and is now extending his range, utilising the same cast of characters but on solving problems other than murder. As such, his actions are to be applauded - because otherwise it would be very hard to explain the high murder rate of Eastvale, a fictitious setting for what was once a small town and now seems to have grown to alarming proportions.

Unlike other of his novels, this book didn't touch a nerve in context of its background material, for example  "Piece of the heart" or "Close to home" (aka "The summer that never was"). As such, it becomes an exciting read but not a novel from which my life might be enriched, or cause me to think about similar events which might have occurred in my life.

Looking at the other reviews currently at Amazon, they all say that this is Robinson's worst book in the series. Whilst it is far from being the best, it is also different from the others (a fact which I tried to point out two paragraphs earlier) and as such should not necessarily be compared to the others. At least it has a definite storyline with a beginning, a middle and an end, which is more than the previous 'experimental novel', "All the colours of darkness", had.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Back to school

Today was the first day of the autumn semester of my MBA programme. On the drive there, it was as if the car knew where to go, in the same way that superdog knows the route of our twice daily walks (sometimes I change it just to confuse her). On Fridays, the lectures are in two shifts: from 8-11am, and from 11:15-14:15. I prefer to have lectures in the first shift, but this semester mine are in the second shift. As today is the first day of term when the lecture kits are distributed, I turned up early so that I would definitely be on time for the lecture. As it happens, there was no queue for the kits so I had at least half an hour to kill after receiving the kit. I spoke a little with the course director, checking my future plans, and he also disclosed my result in the economics exam (a very respectable 71).

This semester I am taking the project management course, which should be very useful in the day job. Whilst in a sense almost all of my work could be considered to be composed of projects, strictly speaking a project has to involve more than one person. In this case, the column which I wrote two months ago describes what is a project by every definition, and is sorely lacking management. I am tempted to take some of the material which was presented today and apply this to the MTD project, showing where it is failing (although I know full well where the problem lies, without knowing anything about project management).

Ironically this evening I was looking for some material about in-basket exams on the internet and found a series of three blogs on the subject, ironically from a blog which is mainly about project management. I intend to visit this site more frequently.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The in-basket 6

Until now, in discussing the inbasket exam, I've only written about how the exam has been implemented and the various programming techniques necessary. Now it's time to stand back a little and look at the larger issues of the exam. But first a little debugging....

This time last week, the exam underwent its baptism of fire and was used with 'real live' examinees. The person running the lab contacted me as he was unable to get the database version of the exam to run, so I made a remote connection and transferred the new dll version of the exam (which had not been completed debugged).

In the evening,  I remote connected again to the testing lab and downloaded three result files for examination. It immediately became clear that there were several errors in the file structure, some of which were easily correctable and some were somewhat harder. After 'massaging' the text file (and simultaneously correcting the exam program so that it will produce the correct format the next time it will be run), they were in a form which could be read in to the database and could produce reasonable results.

Meeting with the OP the next day, she informed me that four people had undertaken the exam. Where was the fourth person's results? I hadn't seen a fourth text file anywhere, but we found written confirmation that there was a fourth person who had undergone the test (it seemed possible to me that a fourth person was supposed to have undergone the test but did not). When checking on which computer this fourth person had used, I saw that the dll version of the exam had not been installed there; had the person undergone the test using the database version, the results would have gone directly into the database - and I overwrote the database in the morning as its structure had changed slightly. What could we do?

The answer of course is use the backup (which is done every evening to one of two external hard drives). We found the backed up database file and I was able to ascertain that the fourth person's results were indeed stored within the database. I took this file (taking care to rename it) and then wrote a one-off program to extract the results in the required text format.

When this file was read into the (new) database, a few new bugs became apparent, mainly connected with the handling of instant messages. I wondered why the first three files had not surfaced these problems; checking the answers carefully, it became apparent that there were no results for the im's in the result file. I checked the program code and saw that the results should have been written to the file, and even underwent the quick and dirty demo exam in order to confirm that the im's results were written.

It then became clear that the instant messages had not been displayed in the 'real' exam. Via the debugger, I ran the exam with the 'real' inbasket dll and saw that there was a bug in the code which was responsible for finding an instant message to be displayed (the equivalent of an sql query). The bug itself was in the resource file, not in the program code, meaning that the real bug was in the code which outputted the resource file. Like all bugs, hard to find but easy to fix.

So now we have a (hopefully) completely debugged exam. What can we do with it? Unfortunately, most of the analysis of the results would seem to be 'analogue' - text only, analysis by the psychologist, based on what was written, how it was written, to whom it was written, etc. There doesn't seem to be a standard 'key' by which the exam results could be marked. This is in contrast with the accounting exam which I converted; this exam differs from the 'real' exam in that the accounting exam requires the examinee to place several tasks in correct order (there are various constraints which force the order) but require minimal replies, whereas the 'real' exam's value is based on the replies themselves and not on the order in which they were dealt with.

What 'digital' results can I produce from the data? I had considered something like 'average time that message is displayed on screen', as we had noticed that one examinee seemed to take a long time to answer messages whereas another answered very quickly. This idea was discarded because theoretically an examinee could open all the messages in the inbox (thus having several simultaneously open windows) and then decide which to answer first. So the only metric that we currently have is how many times each message has been answered. Most messages should only be answered once, but some might (and some have to) be answered more than once. This metric shows the results in a concise format.

Following on from this, I am considering a metric in which we will see how many times a message was closed without it being answered. I am not convinced of the value of such a metric; just because it will be easy to write does not mean that it has any value. I noticed than one of the examinees was constantly opening and closing messages without answering them, and this metric will give such behaviour a numerical value. I am not qualified to determine whether such a numerical value has any psychological value.

As I wrote earlier, the successful implementation of the inbasket exam (as a framework) allows us to incorporate exams which are suited to different fields, thus allowing the OP and her staff to enter the recruitment field, either as primary recruiters (which might be considered as diluting the consultancy's core business) or as secondary recruiters (supplying evaluations to an outside recruiting company). I am also considering showing the exam to people at work; we no longer have a HR function within the company and people seem to be hired willy-nilly. Use of the test will allow us to winnow out people and concentrate on more successful applicants (not that there are many jobs being offered, if at all).

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Tuna mousse

Last week, my wife and I were invited to a party hosted by a couple on the kibbutz. The food was all non-meat and included two fish mousses: one made from tuna and one made from salmon. They both were very tasty and seemed simple to make, so I downloaded a recipe and tried my hand.

Here is the recipe:
1 170g can of tuna, drained
1 small onion, chopped
6 tablespoons of mayonnaise
1 tablespoon of ketchup  (this may well be unnecessary)
1 teaspoon of vinegar
1 sachet of gelatin
150 ml boiling water
150 ml cold water

I mixed the tuna, onion, mayonnaise, ketchup and vinegar together until a smooth consistency was achieved. The recipe recommends doing this in a food processor but I don't have one. I did try in the blender (which I normally use for milk shakes) but everything clogged up due to a lack of liquid, so this wasn't very successful. Maybe I should try blending only the onions and then add the resulting liquid to the other ingredients.

In a separate bowl, I added the gelatin powder to the water and stirred until all the powder had dissolved. Then I added this liquid to the rest of the ingredients and mixed thoroughly.

The next and final stage of the recipe required me to pour the mixture into a mould and then refrigerate. I don't have such a mould in the kitchen, so I looked for something suitable. Eventually I found two cd containers - I buy disks in bulk in a plastic container with a spindle. The outside cover of the container seemed suitable, so I cleaned two of these (thanking my foresightedness in not throwing the empty ones out) and then poured the tuna mix into them. Playing safe, I put the containers into the freezer.

The next morning, I took the containers and put them in the refridgerator, and in the evening they were suitable for spreading. Both my wife and I had tuna mousse on bread for dinner, and the results were encouraging. I thought that there was too much onion but my wife thought otherwise. If I were serving the mousse on a plate, I would probably use an ice cream scoop in order to transfer the mousse to the plate.

A simple dish with no cooking: perfect for the summer.