Monday, May 21, 2012

Very very busy

The fact that I haven't written anything for the past week (and more) reflects that I have been too busy to even consider writing anything. Here is a list of tasks which I have to perform outside of my daily job, along with their priority
  1. Prepare for exam in Strategic Planning (7 June)
  2. Prepare for holiday (14 June)
  3. Support the occupational psychologist
  4. Continue sequencing and recording my versions of Van der Graaf Generator songs
  5. Work for LaTet
Hopefully that's all.

Apart from attending lectures and preparing exercises, I've also commenced rereading all the theoretical material necessary for the Strategic Planning course. The exam consists of three questions; the first requires examining all the financial data given in a structured manner, which is not hard, but one has to remember all the items in the structure. At the end, one has to make some form of comment. The second question is similar to the first, but here there are no financial figures, only comments about how the company is faring, what problems it is facing, etc. The third question seems to be entirely open, but we have been warned that it is often about the 'agency' problem, which boils down to how two people in the same organisation see things differently. I'm not worried about the exam and feel that my revision is on schedule.

Most of the preparation for the holiday has already been done: I've booked flights, accommodation and excursions. I've even bought video cassettes. Hopefully there's very little left to be done, and what has to be done will be done after the exam.

Fridays I devote to the OP; this schedule seems to be working fine at the moment.

On Saturdays, when I can't read any more about Strategic Planning, I work on the songs. I completed a version of 'Refugees' very quickly; the sequencing took only a few hours, but the vocal (and more to the point, processing the vocal) took longer. I completed an arrangement of 'Pilgrims' but had great difficulty in singing it so I have yet to record a vocal. In the mean time, I discovered that sheet music of this song had appeared on the web; I printed out the staves and compared it to my version - I would say that there was about 95% correspondence, so the alterations needed to my version were minor. For the first time, I have created a guide music track, along with a clarinet playing the tune. Unless things drastically improve, it looks like I am going to record the vocals against the guide track and then mix them with the 'proper' arrangement. This way I should be able to sing the tune properly.

I donated a few more hours to charity yesterday afternoon/evening. The previous week we had talked about a report which monitors the effectiveness of the telephone staff (who call people in order to obtain donations). In a few spare moments at work, I prepared a skeleton version of the report; yesterday I completed the report and debugged it against the real data of the charity. My opposite number was very effusive in her praise; apparently the two hours which the report took me to write will save them innumerable hours and make them more effective. Probably the next task which I will tackle will be recording data about the 6,400 volunteers - I have to define the framework, they'll enter the data - but I won't have much time before my holiday.

And of course, there is always work. The past few weeks have been very intense; I have been occupied with several projects, instead of just turning up and helping people with their latest problems. Well, of course, it's always better to be busy than idle, but I do wish that there were fewer concurrent projects.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Charity begins at home

There are many charities in Israel; some would say too many. Some of these, especially those connected with orthodox Jewry, might be on the dodgy side. Twice a year, at New Year and Passover, many charities appeal - these days, by phone - for donations. Whilst I don't mind giving money to charity, I don't like being approached in my home for money. A few years ago, I decided to give money only to two charities; this way I could fob off any other charity by saying that I had made a charity budget and had already donated that budget.

One of these two charities is 'LaTet' (to give), which provides food for families below the poverty line; I can't recall at the moment the name of the other charity, but it cares for autistic children. Both charities made a great step forward last year when they introduced automatic monthly donations via credit card. In one fell swoop, they improved the amount of donations that they receive, they required less manpower to achieve those donations and they also made it easier for the donators.

I received a few months ago a receipt from LaTet, noting absent mindedly that the receipt was printed via Priority, the same ERP program that I use at work. The only thing that struck me at the time was how such a program could be so flexible to support both a company which manufactures furniture and a charity. 

Last Friday night, I was walking after dinner, looking at the full moon and at the city of Bet Shemesh, whose population is an uneasy mix of secular, traditional and ultra-orthodox Jews. I wondered how many people there had enjoyed a full Sabbath meal and how many had gone hungry. I idly wondered whether I should volunteer a cooked meal every week (I have done this on occasion for families on the kibbutz in special circumstances) or even volunteer to deliver meals. But then I realised that if I really want to make a contribution, then I should do it in an area where I have a competitive advantage (as we say in MBA speak): implementing Priority.

Fired with enthusiasm, I found the website of LaTet, and sent them an email volunteering my services in improving their implementation of Priority. I have no idea whether they make good use of the program or whether they simply know the basics, but at least I am prepared to help.

I had half forgotten about this until yesterday afternoon, when a lady telephoned me, saying that she was from LaTet, and that I could contribute to them a very valuable service by donating my time and knowledge (those aren't her exact words by any means; hers were more like 'hitting the nail on the head'). It seems that their use of Priority is somewhat basic/lacking. She said that they had no money to pay for a consultant to do a professional job and so they were very pleased that I contacted them. We agreed to meet next Sunday, when I will go to their offices and learn what they are doing.

Later I realised that they hadn't checked my bona fides; I might not be an expert in Priority (a fact which would quickly arise in our meeting) or I might be an expert, so expert that I could extract from them money without them knowing. Unfortunately, there have been several cases in which charities have been fleeced (either knowingly or unknowingly) so this possibility definitely exists. There was a small uproar a few months ago about this charity when it was discovered that the general manager was receiving a monthly salary of 30,000NIS. I, probably like many other people, thought that he was donating his time for free (Shimon Mizrachi is the chairman of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club and he definitely donates his time). A crook might see this as an opportunity to improve his standard of living.

It later occurred to me that the 'not having enough money to pay a consultant' story didn't quite ring true: I know that we pay 30 thousand NIS twice a year in order to use Priority. This payment covers licensing issues along with help desk support and is compulsory. It may well be that this charity has much fewer users than we do and also fewer modules (after all, they don't need the production side at all which greatly simplifies matters) so their annual cost should be much lower. Maybe the company from whom they receive help desk support even waived the cost as a donation. Whilst I won't ask about the money side, I will ask if the charity receives help desk support and from whom. Help desk support is not implementation and development, which is what I do.

It will be very interesting to see how they run their business and how it can be improved. Like every good deal, both sides should derive profit (not necessarily monetary) from the agreement. They should be able to improve their existing and potential customer management whereas I should be able to learn another organisation's need (grist for the doctorate mill).

I should note that this is the first time I have done anything like this. Of course, I have donated my programming time to deserving causes on the kibbutz, but that's like (or at least, was like) helping my family. It's not nationwide charity work.

More on this subject in a few days after the meeting.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Early footage of The Band

In the wake of Levon Helm's death, footage of The Band at various stages in their career has started to appear on YouTube. I only became aware of this the other day, so I haven't had much of an opportunity to view the footage, nor see how much is pre-Last Waltz and how much is post (I have The Last Waltz on DVD).

I did see two versions of 'The Weight' - the first was from Woodstock (yes, The Band was there but their manager, Albert Grossman, didn't want their material in the film or on the soundtrack, possibly because Robbie Robertson's microphone was live) and the second from a concert in Pittsburg a year later (there are four songs in this film). I want to focus on this latter footage which seems to have been made by a single camera.

The camera starts off by focusing on Robertson - after all, he is the guitarist, appears to be leading the musicians and has a microphone in front of him into which he appears to sing - but after a while, the cameraman realises that Levon Helm behind the drums is the one who is singing the verses. During the chori, he pulls back to show Rick Danko (and Robertson) singing. Where does the third voice in the chorus break come from ('and ... and ... and ... she put the weight back on me)? From Robertson, of course. Richard Manuel? Never heard of him. Garth Hudson? Unheard and unseen.

After the cameraman finally learns that Helm is singing the verses, he returns to the drummer at the beginning of every verse, only to discover in a panic that Helm is not singing the fourth verse.  It takes a while, but the camera pulls back and starts searching for someone moving his lips. Eventually it settles on Rick Danko, singing about crazy Chester.

As there was only a single camera, there obviously was no director who can be blamed for not doing his homework. So the sole cameraman is guilty: he didn't bother to find out who the vocalist is before the concert. Poor man: little did he know that The Band had three world class vocalists who would often sing in unison or pass the tune around (at least in the early days). 

"Time to kill" is the opening song which features a constant duet between Danko and Helm; the camera stays on Danko almost all the time and one is left to guess to whom belongs the second verse.

There are means of saving films shown on YouTube as avi files; I am storing these clips and will one day burn them to DVD.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

ERP beats Excel at CRM

Today I witnessed what was supposed to be a small victory in my fight against using Excel in the workplace. I was called into the General Manager's office where I was asked about our ERP program's abilities in the realm of Customer Relation Management (CRM). I explained that I had developed a module several years ago for tracking events and all the people that were invited to that event, including the status of each person (invited, declined, participated, etc). I also explained that I have instructed at least four people in the use of this module and none of them had left much of note (all of these four no longer work with the company and I sincerely hope that there was some other reason than this module!).

Enter the woman who has been dealing with CRM the past few months. She of course has been maintaining her 'database' in Excel and sees nothing wrong with that. The GM told her that her data have to be transferred to Priority so that they can be managed properly - here is my small victory (I didn't have to persuade the GM that Priority is a better tool than Excel for CRM).

A few hours later, the woman sent me her spreadsheet and straight away I knew that we had a problem. Although theoretically I can simply copy her list of contacts and paste it into Priority, this won't work in practice because not all of her contact have previously been defined in Priority. Not only that, some of the contacts were defined with first names only; as unfortunately no one has ever bothered to devote the necessary amount of attention to defining contacts in Priority, some of the contacts already existing are also on a first name basis only. There may be a match between the first names, but the non-existent surnames may well be different.

I tried to show her how to work with the program but she wasn't too enthusiastic. "Why can't I continue to maintain my lists in Excel?" was the question; I explained to her why Excel is not the tool for the job. At the moment, we have deadlock as she is not prepared to take her list, to check whether each person exists in Priority, to check the details, etc.

Hopefully she does appreciate the value of the data once they have been entered. But she's heavily pregnant and wants to get the job done today (this is a failing of many people here; they want to get the job done but don't want to handle the necessary paperwork). We are currently waiting for the GM to return in order to discuss the subject further.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Some MBA metadata

At yesterday evening's session (where we went over an old exam question discussing the performance of a company which has branches in Britain and America), I acquired some MBA metadata:
  • 24% of the students who took the Finance exam with me in December failed outright
  • A further 7% received a conditional fail (this means that they scored between 45-49%; under certain conditions this might become a pass)
  • Several of the students who are studying Strategic Planning with me are also studying Project Management and are finding it extremely hard (or rather, finding that the lecturer doesn't lecture very well).
The Finance results are interesting. Apparently, quite a few students memorised the multiple choice questions which have appeared in previous years. Out of the 20 MCQs which appeared this time, only one had previously appeared, so these students were already at a great loss. Apparently they hadn't bothered attending the lectures or hadn't absorbed the material (and we had a good lecturer). I don't know who failed - I haven't seen most of the students from that course since.

As regards Program Management, I was fortunate in that a Scottish lecturer came and gave us three extra lectures. His material was highly illuminating and basically sorted out the entire course. I'm sure that those who attended his lectures did well in the exam (as did I). I will give my fellow students my notes, but I suspect that they won't derive as much from them as I did (given that the notes are in English and in my handwriting). Perhaps I should give them a tutorial.