Saturday, December 24, 2011


Negotiations and love songs
Are often mistaken for one and the same
(Paul Simon)

I started my eighth MBA course, Negotiation, a bare week ago, but already we've had four sessions as the timetable calls for one session on Thursday evening and another on Friday morning. This is quite a taxing schedule and it's not clear why this was adopted; I suspect it might be that the lecturer far lives away from Tel Aviv and this schedule minimises his traveling time by allowing him to sleep over in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening. We have six weeks like this (twelve meetings) and one more Friday morning meeting which takes us up to the end of January. There are no lectures whatsoever during February, then there is a revision meeting at the beginning of March and the exam on 10 March. This isn't the sort of schedule which I would have preferred, but as the youth of today say, "Deal with it".

The opening lectures gave an introduction into the subject of negotiation (the text was written by Professor Gavin Kennedy), in which we initially learnt that negotiation is but one of ten ways of resolving disputes (or making decisions). The other ways are refusal, persuasion, problem solving, chance (tossing a coin), arbitration, coercion, postponing, instruction and giving up. The major difference between negotiation and the other methods is that in negotiation, both sides give up something in order to achieve a mutually agreed conclusion, whereas in the other methods, one side gives up nothing and the other side gives up everything.

After this, we learnt about the four stages of negotiation:
  1. Prepare
  2. Debate
  3. Propose
  4. Bargain
The following lecture was about preparing for negotiation; this includes identifying interests, deriving tradables  from these interests, prioritising these tradables and then defining entry and exit values for them.

On Thursday night we learnt how to conduct the debate stage of negotiation, which means trying to maximise one's constructive behaviour whilst minimising one's destructive behaviour (I won't list what constructs these behaviours). 

I wasn't feeling very well that evening and had to leave halfway through the evening; on Friday morning I was feeling a bit - but not much - better, so I decided to drive to Tel Aviv. Fortunately, we didn't have a lecture - instead we had to simulate a negotiation; the scenario was taken from an old exam paper. The class (very small: we started off at 8am with maybe eight students and the number doubled by 8:30am) divided into two groups, where each group took one side of the negotiation. Each group was tasked with identifying the interests and deriving the tradables  etc, as per the earlier paragraph. We were also advised to try and do the same for the opposite side so that we wouldn't been surprised during the negotiation.

During this time, most of my group were silent; only two other people and I contributed to the discussion. This was slightly annoying as I was having difficulty in speaking and had to maintain a constant infusion of tea. Nevertheless, I and one other were nominated to conduct the negotiation. At least I won't have to do this again in the future.

I won't describe how the simulation went (not that anything extra-ordinary happened); afterwards, everyone else in the class was invited to make comments about what they saw. Unknown to the negotiators, one extra person from each group had been specifically nominated to analyse each team's behaviour (constructive and destructive). Whilst there was a fair amount of constructive behaviour (I was very conscious of all four negotiators being extremely polite, not interrupting and trying to be 'good'), there was also a certain amount of destructive behaviour. What was lacking primarily, though, was a lack of connections between tradables (I'll give you this if you give me that), which made the negotiation problematic.

I will paraphrase a comment made by someone yesterday (who came late): at first, I thought this was going to be a boring exercise,  but by the time it had finished, I came to understand the theory much better. Indeed, the criticism brought home how we could have better run the negotiation (in mitigation, I point out that none of us were personally involved, so the other side's reduction of its price by "five million pounds" would not have happened in real life).

The lectures are held in the same room as my previous course, finance (in fact, all my lectures for the past two years have been held in this room). In the previous course, one had to arrive early in order to get a good seat (the lecturer had a quiet voice, so I preferred to be near the front in order to hear her properly). In this course, one can arrive half an hour late, bring two friends and still get a good seat! I'm not sure how many students are actually registered to take the course, but most have only made token appearances. Apart from a 'hard core' of maybe eight who appear every time, the course seems to have attracted a floating set of students who appear now and then. This seems to bother me more than it bothers the lecturer.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The sense of an ending

Although I grew up reading literary novels, these days I read more non-fiction than fiction, and more police procedurals than anything else. Despite this, I very much enjoyed reading Julian Barnes' novel, "The sense of an ending", which won the 2011 Man Booker prize (I didn't know this when I started to read the book).

I think that my enjoyment stemmed more from identifying with the protagonist than anything described in the book, which means that I will have to reread the book in a few weeks in which time I hope that my emotional involvement will have lessened.

It's not as if anything specific which happened in the book happened to me in real life (in fact, I would be hard pressed to find anything which happened in the book that also happened to me); it's just that the opening half of the book is, (quoting the Guardian)
[a] memoir of "book-hungry, sex-hungry" sixth form days, and the painful failure of his first relationship at university, with the spiky, enigmatic Veronica. It's a lightly sketched portrait of awkwardness and repression. This is something which makes a great deal of sense to me and seems very familiar. I too look back on my formative years from a 30-40 year distance.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Watching the weight / 3

Even though I finished my course of acupuncture and massage about six weeks ago, I continue to eat according to the diet that the naturopath gave me, and continue with my 'heavy' walking in the evenings. I had an appointment with the naturopath the day of my finance exam (two weeks ago already!) and she was very pleased by the fact that I had lost over 5kg in weight.

I asked her about the flax seeds which I had been eating - it turns out that these should be ground before eating them! I was eating and excreting them without deriving any benefit. She gave me some alternatives to the flax seeds which don't require any treatment prior to eating - wheat germ and chi'a seeds (? I'm not sure what these are in English). I bought some wheat germ which I have been adding to my morning yoghurt; this has no discernible taste but definitely thickens the yoghurt. Yesterday evening my wife surprised me by grounding some flax seed, so I added this to my yoghurt this morning - the result was near enough the same as with the wheat germ. Both of these items seem to provide many micro-nutrients.

My weight did decrease to 79.1 kg prior to the exam but it's crept up by about half a kilo since then. I'm not sure what I was doing then or since which might have caused the change - apart from a great deal of mental exercise. I know that the brain requires as much as 15% of the body's energy intake, but I don't think that one can increase this amount by thinking hard!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Front end program for converting HTML to PDF

I was approached by someone (not in my company) with a peculiar problem, connected with our mutual ERP program, Priority. This person has to send to a medical insurance company copies  of invoices issued to certain customers each month, in PDF format.

Until she approached me, she had been selecting and displaying each invoice separately (Priority uses Internet Explorer as its default display mechanism for all reports, including invoices), then sending the invoice to be 'printed' via a PDF printer (thus creating a PDF file) and then renaming the file to be the name of the customer (unfortunately, Priority gives an arbitrary name to files it creates). This process was taking a few hours every month and I was asked to speed it up.

My initial action was to change a definition in the PDF printer driver, so that the driver would create a separate file for every page sent to it. I then showed the person how to select and display all the necessary invoices in one go and send the data to the PDF printer, thus creating several files. Unfortunately, there still existed the need to rename each file. This simple action maybe cut the time needed by 25% but it wasn't enough.

There had to be a better way. The first stage in improving the process was to write a little program (a stored procedure, really) in Priority which creates one html file per invoice, where the file is named according to the customer name and the invoice number. Unfortunately, it transpired that it was not possible to create such a file when the customer name was in Hebrew, and as all the customers' names are in Hebrew, this was quite a problem. So I substituted the customer identity number (not the customer number) for the customer name and was able to create separate html files.

Then there only remained the problem of creating pdf files from these html files. At one stage, I asked whether the medical insurance company would be willing to receive html files, but the answer was negative. After contemplation, I realised that I needed a program to convert html to pdf in order to provide a complete solution.

Like many problems, this was easier said than done. I spent several hours googling html pdf convert and then checking out the links. Most of the answers which I received pointed to online services, which would not be suitable. Of the answers remaining, most of these were for commercial programs. I found one program which seemed to be free; I downloaded it and tried it out but saw that it lacked a batch mechanism (my idea required to convert 10+ files in one go). I tried a trial version of a commercial program: whilst this had a batch interface, it included a 'trial message' version in the pdf, and more damning, failed to convert a Hebrew html file.

Eventually I found a command line program (CLP) called wkhtmltopdf, written by a enthusiast programmer (as opposed to a commercial program written by a professional programmer). My experience is that such programs are often better than commercial ones, although getting them to work can be awkward. First I checked that this program could convert a Hebrew html file correctly (yes). Then I set about writing a front end interface program - this program would list all html files found in a specific directory, allow the user to choose which files to convert and then pass these files to the CLP for conversion.

My first version of the front end program wasn't too successful as it tried to start about ten simultaneous instances of the CLP; this brought my computer to its knees. Whilst waiting for my computer to reboot, I realised that I needed to send one file to the CLP, wait for it to finish converting, and then send the next file.

Another problem which I encountered was that the CLP couldn't handle files which were stored in a subdirectory of c:\program files. I solved this program by using a routine which creates short directory names (eg c:\progra~1). The 'executing' flag was added as a precaution that the user not close the program before all the chosen files were converted; the program's CanClose procedure checks the value of this variable and refuses to close if executing is true. Edit1.text hold the location of the CLP.

Here is the interesting part of the code.
procedure TForm1.ConvertBtnClick(Sender: TObject);
 i: integer;
 ExitCode: DWORD;
 mydir, htmlname, pdfname: string;
 SEInfo: TShellExecuteInfo;

 ConvertBtn.enabled:= false;
 executing:= true;
 FillChar (SEInfo, SizeOf (SEInfo), 0);
 with SEInfo do
   cbSize:= SizeOf (TShellExecuteInfo);
   Wnd:= Application.Handle;
   lpFile:= PChar(edit1.text);

 mydir:= IncludeTrailingPathDelimiter (shortdir (;
 for i:= 1 to lb.items.count do
  if lb.Checked[i-1] then
    htmlname:= mydir + lb.items[i-1];
    pdfname:= copy (htmlname, 1, length (htmlname) - 4) + 'pdf';
    seInfo.lpParameters:= PChar(htmlname + ' ' + pdfname);
    if ShellExecuteEx (@SEInfo) then
      GetExitCodeProcess (SEInfo.hProcess, ExitCode);
     until ExitCode <> STILL_ACTIVE;
 executing:= false;
It's not enough to use the Windows API ShellExecute procedure as this simply executes the given program; this is how I managed to create all the simultaneous instances of the CLP.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

50 words for snow - Kate Bush

I've been listening to this album on and off for the past few weeks, ever since an advance copy was available on the NPR website. I've been dreading writing about it, because I find the album difficult to categorise.

I was a very early adopter of Kate Bush, marveling at her 'Wuthering Heights' single and buying her first album in January 1978. I enjoyed all of her first five albums, although there were often songs which didn't find favour in these courts. The sixth and seventh albums were bought and almost never played. I obtained 'Aerial' when it came out but again hardly ever played it. It seemed as if time had stood still for Ms Bush and her music seemed anachronistic. 'The directors cut' again was hosted on NPR prior to its official release, earlier this year. The reworked album was quite listenable but again wasn't really the sort of music to which I listen these days.

'50 words for snow' is different from almost everything else Ms Bush has recorded. Unusually, it is very sparse, featuring mainly piano and vocals only. Of course, there are other instruments (Steve Gadd's drums are a highlight, as are the orchestral instruments which add shade here and there) but they're subdued.

In my humble opinion, the sequencing could have been improved. The album starts in a very risky manner, with Kate's son Bertie taking lead vocal on "Snowflake". I find this song very precious (in the non-complimentary sense of the word) and I can imagine many listeners being put off by the first minute of the song (which lasts almost ten minutes). The second song, "Lake Tahoe", also starts in a testing manner, with some operatic vocals. This song continues for just over eleven minutes.

But the third song, "Misty", is where it all comes together. Even though the track lasts for thirteen and a half minutes (!), one never gets the feeling that the track is over-long, or indeed, long. It is a master lesson in dynamics, especially the drums. The next three tracks are much more accessible than everything that has gone before whilst the closing track is a return to the amorphous ballad.

My wife has picked up on this album as well. Yesterday we had the bizarre situation in which I was listening to the album on headphones whilst writing a blog entry; when I finished, I went into the lounge only to hear the same album on the stereo, albeit not the same song (that would have been too weird).

This is an impressionistic piece of music full of prosody; as a musician who lives by harmony, I feel that I don't appreciate it as much as I could.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Preventing "MDI creep": how to decascade a child window

I confessed a terrible feeling of emptiness to my Occupational Psychologist (OP) during our weekly meeting yesterday: until the day before, I been concentrating almost entirely on learning Finance, and now that the exam is over, I don't need to know how to price an option nor what the theory of indifference to dividend policy is. "Don't worry", she said, "I'll find you things to fill you up". And so she did (Happy birthday, by the way!).

One side effect with using MDI applications (such as the management program which I wrote and constantly improve) can be described as follows: when the program's first child window is opened, this window will have its top left hand corner placed in the screen's top left hand corner (coordinates 0, 0). The second child window will be opened automatically at 10, 10 and the third at 20, 20. This was a good idea when screen resolution was not particularly high as it makes good use of the screen's 'real estate'. But times have changed; the OP has one of those extra wide screens and she uses it in a mode which provides a huge amount of real estate. All the child windows congregate on the left hand of the screen and the right hand side is unoccupied.

So the OP drags certain child windows to the right hand side so that she can see several complete and unhidden child windows simultaneously. All is fine until a new child window is displayed; within the program I followed each new window creation with the 'cascade' command - and then the personalised display disappears when all the child windows line up again on the left hand side. This was easy to fix by removing the 'cascade' command after new window creation.

But more insidious is that the MDI screen manager (to which we have no access) will create new child windows as if cascade is still in effect. In other words, the first child window will be created at 0,0, the second at 10,10 and the third at 20,20 - even if the second child window has been moved to a location 200, 600. Worse, this behaviour continues even after the child windows have been closed: new child windows will appear at a location which would be consistent with cascading all the previous child windows.

I researched this behaviour a little yesterday afternoon and discovered that it has been named MDI creep. Whilst naming the behaviour makes it easier to talk about, it doesn't make it any easier to solve.

I posted a question of the Stack Overflow site and master programmer David Heffernan gave an answer which pointed me in the correct direction [I often wonder how David actually gets any work done as he seems to be found almost permanently on SO, answering people's esoteric questions]. It took me about an hour of to-ing and fro-ing with his idea before I had something that worked and about another hour of polishing the entire solution.

The solution boils down to three different parts:
  1. How to enable a child window to signify that it wants to be 'uncascadable'
  2. How to universalise this ability
  3. How to prevent the main MDI window from cascading the uncascadable child windows
The answer to the first part is to use each form's system menu; this is the menu that pops up when one clicks on the form's icon sitting in the top left hand corner of the caption bar.  I used to use the system menu in the early days of Windows programming, but haven't touched it in over a decade. Each form has to add an option to the system menu whose effect will be to toggle the 'cascadability' of the form; so the form has to detect when that option has been chosen and to toggle an internal variable. At the same time, it would be good to give visual feedback on the menu what the state of that variable is at any given time.

Here's the article which I used as the basis for developing the code to add the menu option and detect its being pressed. Finding out how to give the visual feedback was a bit more difficult but eventually I found out how to do this (and more importantly, how to do this correctly!). I'll show the complete code a bit further on.

When I originally wrote this code, it was sitting in the form which needed to be decascaded, but it occurred to me that the technique would be much more valuable if I could use it in almost every form and I wasn't going to copy the code fifty times. The solution is to use form inheritance - to define an ancestor form type which contains the code and then define the actual forms to inherit from this ancestor type. This is one of the huge strengths of Delphi (the entire VCL works on this principal) but is something which I have barely touched.

unit ManageForms;


uses Windows, Forms, Menus, Messages;

 TNoCascadeForm = class (TForm)
                    SysMenu: HMenu;
                    nocascade: boolean;
                    Procedure GetSysMenu;
                    Procedure WMSysCommand(var Msg: TWMSysCommand); message WM_SYSCOMMAND;
                    Procedure SetCheck;
                    Procedure SaveCheck; virtual; abstract;


 SC_NoCascade = WM_USER + 1;

procedure TNoCascadeForm.GetSysMenu;
 SysMenu:= GetSystemMenu (Handle, FALSE);
 AppendMenu (SysMenu, MF_SEPARATOR, 0, '');
 AppendMenu (SysMenu, MF_STRING, SC_NoCascade, 'Decascade');

procedure TNoCascadeForm.WMSysCommand (var Msg: TWMSysCommand);
 if Msg.CmdType = SC_NoCascade then
   nocascade:= not nocascade;
 else inherited;

procedure TNoCascadeForm.SetCheck;
 iChecked: Integer;

 if nocascade
  then iChecked:= MF_CHECKED
  else iChecked:= MF_UNCHECKED;
 CheckMenuItem (SysMenu, SC_NoCascade, mf_bycommand or ichecked);

Procedure GetSysMenu first gets a pointer to the form's system menu, then adds two options: the first is a separator bar and the second is the 'decascade' option. When this option is pressed, a system message of type 'SC_NoCascade' will be sent to the form. Of course, the form has to know how to handle this message.

The final line in this procedure (which will be called once during the inherited form's create method) is to SetCheck - this procedure draws (or erases) the check mark next to 'Decascade' on the system menu, according to the value of the variable nocascade. This is initially set in the inherited form by reading a value stored in the registry; if there is no registry value then the variable is false (no check mark).

When the system message of type 'SC_NoCascade' is sent, it is intercepted by the form's WMSysCommand method. As all system menu messages pass through this method, it is vital to check what the actual message is; if it is not the specific message, then it is passed on to the inherited message handler. Assuming that the message received is SC_NoCascade, then first the method reverses the value of the internal flag, then calls SetCheck to have the menu option updated and finally calls an abstract method called SaveCheck (this probably should have been defined as a stub in the ancestor form).

The SaveCheck procedure is located in the inherited form and stores the value of nocascade in the registry. This is necessary, for if a new inherited form were to be displayed, its nocascade variable would contain the value previously stored in the registry - which would be oblivious to the change which has just occurred. This procedure has to be located in the inherited form as it is dependent on specific registry values which the ancestor form cannot know.

Here is part of the code of a form which inherits from TNoCascadeForm:
unit Manage57;


  Windows, Messages,  ManageForms, ,,,;
  TShowCallsTree = class(TNoCascadeForm)
   Procedure SaveCheck; override;


{$R *.dfm}
procedure TShowCallsTree.FormCreate(Sender: TObject);
 myheight = 440;
 mywidth = 816;

 constraints.MinWidth:= mywidth;
 constraints.MinHeight:= myheight;
 with reg do
   height:= ReadInteger (progname, 'ShowCallsTreeH', myheight);
   width:= ReadInteger (progname, 'ShowCallsTreeW', mywidth);
   nocascade:= ReadBool (progname, 'ShowCallsTreeCas', false);

procedure TShowCallsTree.FormClose(Sender: TObject; var Action: TCloseAction);
 with reg do
   WriteInteger (progname, 'ShowCallsTreeH', height);
   WriteInteger (progname, 'ShowCallsTreeW', width);
   WriteBool (progname, 'ShowCallsTreeCas', nocascade);
 action:= caFree

procedure TShowCallsTree.SaveCheck;
 reg.WriteBool (progname, 'ShowCallsTreeCas', nocascade);
After this excursion into the worlds of system menus and inherited forms, we can know address the issue for which we have gathered: how to decascade a child window.

David says in his answer: looking at WM_MDICASCADE it has an option to skip disabled MDI children from cascading. So you could disable certain child windows, send a WM_MDICASCADE message yourself and then re-enable the child windows. Probably easier said that done. The program's main form has a method called cascade, but this is an encapsulation of the WM_MDICascade message and leaves no room for manoeuvre. It has to be replaced by sending the actual WM_MDICascade message, and this message has to have the parameter 2 in order to ensure that disabled windows are ignored.

The main form iterates over the child windows, looking for a form which is decended from TNoCascadeForm; if its nocascade variable is set to true, then the form is disabled. Once this has been done, the form can send the above message to its MDI container window, which handles the cascade. Then the form iterates once more over the child windows, re-enabling those which had previously been disabled.

procedure TMainForm.mnCascadeClick(Sender: TObject);
 i: integer;

 for i:= 0 to MDIChildCount - 1 do
  if MDIChildren[i] is TNoCascadeForm
   then if TNoCascadeForm (MDIChildren[i]).nocascade
    then TNoCascadeForm (MDIChildren[i]).enabled:= false;

 sendmessage (mainform.clienthandle, WM_MDICASCADE, 2, 0);

 for i:= 0 to MDIChildCount - 1 do
  if MDIChildren[i] is TNoCascadeForm
   then if TNoCascadeForm (MDIChildren[i]).nocascade
    then TNoCascadeForm (MDIChildren[i]).enabled:= true;
The proof is in the pudding - this really works! Thank you, David, for the help in pointing the way.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Post mortem on the Finance exam

I've been quiet for the past few weeks mainly because I've been revising for the MBA Finance exam, which was held today. Other than this, there hasn't been much to write about (not that this will stop me...).

The exam was in two halves; 50% of the marks come from multiple choice questions (MCQ) and 50% come from open questions. The agreed tactic was to start with the MCQs, do those which could done without too much thought or effort, then do the open questions, and in the remaining time one does the MCQs which were previously skipped over.

The examiners don't care how one arrives at the answers of the MCQs; they could come from calculation, from intuition or from guessing (I prefer to calculate). The class had passed around a collection of MCQs collected over the years, and I don't think that there was one question today which appeared in the collection (so much for those students who memorised the questions and answers!). Of course, there were questions of the kind "If someone receives a loan of X pounds and repays so much for four years, what is the rate of interest?" and "How much do I have to save every year if I want to receive a pension of 1 milllion pounds in 25 years, with an interest rate of 6%", but apart from that, almost everything was new. I skipped maybe four questions the first time around; three became obvious when doing them at the end, and the fourth question I guessed (even though there are four options, two were algebraicly the same, presented in slightly different forms, so the possibility of getting the question right is 50%). There were a few questions which I am slightly doubtful about in retrospect, but I imagine that I got about 40 out of 50 marks here.

The first open question started off with a calculation comparing leasing buses or taking a loan in order to buy them, For ten marks, one had to lay out the cash flow, calculate the the company's weighted average cost of capital (WACC) and say which option was better. We've done similar exercises in the past, so this wasn't problematic. Even so, talking with someone after the exam, I discovered that I might well have made a mistake here regarding one of the sums of money. Even so, I'll probably only lose one mark, because I used the correct methods throughout.

A further five marks were to be made by listing the advantages of leasing (easy), four or five with a strange question about a company selling its shop and then leasing it back straight away, and then a few more marks about 'agency problems'. I would like to think that I did very well on this question.

The final question (20 marks) started off with calculating spot and forward interest rates before demanding the calculation of a bond's current price and a question about the bond's duration. As it happens, I had ignored spot and forward interest rates until the subject came up at a revision meeting about two weeks ago when I relearnt the material, which is not too complicated. The data, however, were presented in an unfamiliar manner and I made a false start before I hit on the correct method (or at least, I hope that it's the correct method) of making the calculations. The subquestions about the bond were easy although on reflection, I made a small mistake regarding the duration (lose one mark).

Unless I have made a gross miscalculation, I should have done very well on this exam. Results in about six weeks.

As it happens, I've been reading (when not revising) a very interesting book on the Kindle, called "The ascent of money" by Niall Ferguson. This should be required background material for both the Economics and Finance courses. Apart from the interesting historical background, it is also written after the 2007 crash, which changed the rules of finance. At times, I found the course amusing with remarkably high interest rates (10% is not to be sneered at, when the interest rate in Britain or USA is about 1% these days); even more amusing were the statements that "real (inflation less) interest rates are the same in every country" and that "exchange rates can be calculated on the basis of inflation rates". Will someone please explain to me why the exchange rate for shekels to sterling has remained around six for some time? The interest rate in Britain is maybe 1% and the inflation rate 5%, whereas the interest rate in Israel is 2.75% (just lowered from 3%) and inflation is also about 2.75%. The exchange rate should be completely different. 

Despite being told that there are no arbitrage opportunities for long, the above shows possibilities: if I were to take a loan in Britain for (say) 1000 pounds at 2% per annum (I don't know whether that's accurate), I would have to pay 1020 pounds back after a year - but as there is 5% inflation, that would only be 971 'real' pounds. I could invest that money here in Israel, get a higher rate of nominal interest and then repay the loan, making a profit. But I won't do this.

Next Thursday, I start my penultimate course, "Negotiation". Unfortunately we have one lecture on Thursday evening and one lecture on Friday morning for six weeks but no lectures in February (the exam is in March). I wish I could sleep in the college on Thursday night instead of returning home and then returning the next morning.