Friday, August 31, 2012

Fomer school friend knighted

I don't know quite why the urge arrived, but just now I googled an old school friend of mine, Timothy Holroyde. To be honest, I don't quite remember how we were friends as he was a year in front of me; I seem to recall that he lived nearby and was a classical scholar. I once hosted a fairly boring party at my house and he was a guest of honour.

I've tried googling other old friends, but apart from finding one person who seems to work for the Board of Education, I've only drawn blanks.

Anyway, Google started returning links to a Timothy Holroyde who had been knighted and appointed to be a Justice of the High Court. Could this be the same Tim that I knew, head boy of Bristol Grammar School in 1973?

The Queen has been pleased to approve that the honour of Knighthood be conferred upon Timothy Victor Holroyde Esq. Q.C and His Honour Judge Gary Robert Hickinbottom on their appointments as Justices of the High Court.
Notes for Editors
Timothy Victor Holroyde: Born in 1955 and educated at Bristol Grammar School; Wadham College, Oxford. Called to the Bar, Middle Temple, 1977; A Recorder since 1997; Bencher, 2005.

And this story is from January 2009! Well done, Sir! 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Three emails

Yesterday evening I received three very interesting personal emails. I should point out that I subscribe to four music-related mailing lists so I normally receive anywhere between 30-60 emails a day; interesting personal emails are rare.

The first was from a lady who I met (in the new, virtual sense) via the Robert Silverberg mailing list several years ago. At first, her enthusiasm caught my eye; then I noticed that she was writing from an Israeli email address and so I had to contact her. After a few exchanges of personal email, I invited her to the kibbutz for a harvest festival which she and her daughter enjoyed. We started collaborating on Silverberg related material in Israel when our contact was abruptly terminated: she informed the mailing list that she was ill and would have to cease posting. Putting two and two together, I guessed that she was probably suffering from breast cancer. 

Anyway, she has now recovered and whilst she hasn't posted to the mailing list yet, she has written to me and we are renewing our connection. She writes that she was in contact with RS and his wife during the period and that they were very supportive of her.

The second email contained the results of the blood test for Pertussis (whooping cough) which I did on Sunday. Here are the results

Test value
Bord.Pertussis IgG 64 IU/ml
Bord.Pertussis IgA Positive
Bord.Pertussis IgM Negative

What does this mean? I haven't been able to find a suitable reference which explains the above in clear and simple English, but as far as I can gather, the IgA level means that I definitely had pertussis. My doctor may order a repeat test in another week or so; the Ministry of Health might also be interested in these results.

There exists a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the doctor who treated me during July and August: my regular doctor (who ordered the blood test) was abroad for several weeks and so I had to see his replacement. I get the feeling that she (the replacement) had never seen a case of pertussis before (although the kibbutz nurse guessed correctly!) and wasn't too sure what to do, so she covered all the bases. In her defense, I should note that the illness is very difficult to diagnose in the early stages and that once it has taken hold, there is very little which can be done save let nature (and antibiotics) take its course. She could have ordered the blood test which I did on Sunday, which would have at least helped me psychologically (I always maintain that people feel better when they are diagnosed with an illness, no matter how severe, than to suffer from undiagnosable aches and pains). She also wasn't very supportive in her manner, as opposed to the regular doctor who goes out of his way to make his patients feel that he cares.

The third email came from Heriot Watt University. I took my final exam for the MBA degree at the beginning of June and expected to receive the results by the end of July (I tacked on the cubicle wall facing me certificates from previous exams and note that the relevant ones from previous years are dated 19 July and 22 July). All through August, I checked the university's website looking for the results, but none appeared. Eventually I decided to write to the university and ask what was happening - this mail obtained an immediate result, this third email which I am writing about. I was informed (without apology, I think) that my results had not been linked to my file and that I would see the results "tomorrow" (ie today). This, I suppose, is the digital age version of 'the cheque is in the post'. Of course, almost the first thing that I did this morning was to log onto the website and check my mark.

Well, I passed the exam with a mark of 60%. This is lower than I would have liked but as I wrote before, "From the grading guides which I have seen, it is very difficult to achieve an outstanding mark in this exam. It is also quite difficult to fail - as long as one uses the analysis format (which has been drummed into our heads) and one mentions the process method enough times. So it's clear that I passed although I have no idea what the final mark will be." 

This means that I have now completed all my scholastic obligations and so am entitled to the MBA degree to be awarded in next year. Documentation which I have from the university says that "Students will be contacted about a month after the completion of all the obligations with an information pack about graduation". Theoretically this month has already passed so I shall contact the local college where the lectures were held to see whether such an information pack has arrived for me.  

Somehow I feel almost numb about these results; whilst I am pleased that I have passed, it doesn't seem to affect me at all. Maybe I'm starting to worry that my marks aren't good enough to be accepted into the doctoral programme - although I can say that most of the courses which I took were completely divorced from my working life, whereas my proposed doctoral research is something which sits at the centre of my job.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Disappointing blood test results

Way back in February and January, I wrote about a dairy drink called Danacol, which is supposed to reduce blood cholesterol levels. I had a blood test done at the beginning of February in order to establish a base level and had another yesterday in order to see how six months of Danacol have influenced my cholesterol levels. Here are the tabled results of my last three blood tests:

Date cholesterol triglycerides HDL (good) LDL (bad) ratio
15/08/11 205 149 39 137 5.26
03/02/12 188 135 44 117 4.27
26/08/12 207 197 44 124 4.70

All of the numbers - save the HDL - should be as low as possible. It's clear to see that apart from maintaining the HDL level, all the other values have deteriorated! In other words, assuming that everything else has remained the same, Danacol had no effect on me!

Of course, as a scientific experiment, there are several problems. 
  1. I am basing my data on one measurement point (ideally the values should be measured weekly, or at least monthly)
  2. I am assuming that the food that I eat has remained the same (not too difficult, seeing as I almost always eat the same) - for example, I might have been eating more 27% fat cheese than before, as opposed to 9% or even 5% fat. I certainly have been drinking more milk (although mainly 1%) in the past six months (Spring/Summer) than in the previous six months (Autumn/Winter).
  3. I am assuming that my recent illness has had no effect on the lipid levels
  4. The body is not a perfect machine
 My immediate decision is to stop buying Danacol! Your mileage may vary.

Some of the blood which was taken on Sunday will be tested for Pertussis (whooping cough) antibodies. Apparently it is possible to determine whether there are any 'old' antibodies remaining from when I was inoculated as a child and whether there are any new antibodies which were created in the past few weeks. If there are new antibodies - then I did suffer from Pertussis. The results have yet to arrive.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The first step (in solving problems) is the hardest

Continuing a very erratic series of blogs about problem solving, I want to describe a real life problem which I faced and how I solved it. The psychological aspects of this story are more interesting than the problem itself.

First, a little history. I have described before how my company is actually an amalgamation of two (if not three, four or even five) previously existing companies, each with its own specific product line and way of doing things. In terms of our ERP program, the two main companies each have their own environment; whilst many things are the same between those environments, certain things (some crucial) are different.

The Board of Directors decided that as from 01/01/13, we will all work in one environment. Such a decision was made a year ago as well, but was rescinded almost immediately. I've been working on creating a joint environment for the past month or so and have solutions for almost everything (MRP is going to be a real problem!). We decided that initially the development work would concern itself with changing what needed to be changed in order to allow the two companies to co-exist; only later would efforts be made to change those work habits which I consider to be worth improving.

On Monday, I was informed that the merging of the environments is to be postponed for another year and that I was to stop all development work (some of which was contracted out to our ERP consulting company). I would give equal odds that the joint environment will not be active on 01/01/14, but that's irrelevant.

One small issue in the merging process was that of part prices. Our ERP program allows two mutually incompatible approaches: supplier price lists or 'only one price per part'. Naturally, one company uses the price list approach whereas the other uses the 'one price' approach. As far as I am concerned, the price list approach is far superior, for it allows one to manage several prices for the same part (one price per supplier), to allow quantity discounts (one can define a price for amounts 1-249, a separate price for amounts 250-499 and a third price for 500+; these quantities are not fixed, so a second part might have one price for quantities under 1000 and a second price for quantities over 1000), and of course a proper history of prices is maintained. Tools exist for automatically updating the supplier's price list should prices be increased by a given percentage.

I can't really see any advantages in using the 'one price per part' approach, although I might be blinkered. I think that this approach's supporters would probably say that they only ever have one supplier per part and so don't need the flexibility. I think that they're wrong.

Anyway, we had to make a decision as to which approach would be used in the single environment and supplier price list was the choice. I had informed the people in the purchasing departments that use the single price approach that they would have to begin preparing themselves for the change before I knew that the project was abandoned (or postponed), so theoretically I could now tell them that they could continue working in the same manner to which they were accustomed. Whilst this might be considered a violation of the Prime Directive - don't change work habits which don't need to be changed - I considered this an opportunity too good to be missed.

I considered the problem of implementing the change. Each part has a defined purchase price and a designated supplier; my intention was to take this information and build price lists for each designated supplier. But when I tried to define a price list manually, the program informed me that I could not do so as the environment was working by part prices. When I tried to change the system variable which determined by which approach the program worked, I was told that I can't change the variable as there are extant part prices.

I felt that I was facing a chicken and egg problem - I need the part prices to create the price lists but I can't create price lists without deleting all the prices - and of course, if I do that, then I will have no prices with which to create the price lists!

How would you solve this problem?

After humming and hawing for a bit, I outlined a four stage strategy
  1. Write a procedure which will take the existing prices and output them to an external file in a format which will be conducive to reading them back in again 
  2. Delete the existing prices
  3. Change the system variable
  4. Create an interface program which will read the file back and create the price lists
The first three stages went smoothly, but I had difficulty in reading the data in the file, so much so that I was unable to create a single price list (there were also problems with the file itself, but that's irrelevant).

Of course, now I was left with a test database bereft of all the part prices so I couldn't continue with anything. My next step was to copy part prices from the production database into the test database - for around 16 thousand parts! Whilst this step would have taken about fifteen minutes in good circumstances, it transpired that there were at least thirty parts defined so badly that one is unable to update them. This caused my rate of copying to be severely compromised, taking maybe an hour to do so (and some part prices I didn't bother copying). 

Taking the time allowed me to think a little about what I was doing. I vowed that before doing anything else, I would copy the price parts to a separate location within the database so that I would be able to repeat the conversion process if things went wrong without having the same problem of manually copying  all those prices and getting stuck with problem parts. As it happened, there was a vacant field in the parts table which I could utilise for this purpose.

Then the penny dropped. The prices were stored in a field called purprice, and the system variable was checking whether there were any values greater than zero in this field. Copying the prices from purprice to a field (which I'll call savedprice) allowed me to zero purprice - and thus change the system variable - whilst maintaining the price in savedprice. I could write a procedure which would build the price lists from the saved prices. In other words:
  1. Save price in new field and zero old price
  2. Change system variable
  3. Run procedure which reads the prices from the new field and creates supplier price lists
The program needed in stage 3 here was much simpler than the program required in the previous stage 1 and utilised an interface which already exists (no need to write a new interface program which proved problematic). I was able to write the program - and painfully debug it - in about an hour; converting the test database from one approach to the other took about fifteen minutes with a minimum of pain.

As I wrote at the beginning, I am more interested in how I arrived at the insight necessary to solve the problem and less in how I actually solved the problem. It has been my experience that the solution to many problems are simple to implement/code once a suitable approach has been adopted; the problem is finding the suitable approach.

I had so blinkered myself with the chicken and egg aspect that I couldn't see at first how the simple initial step of saving the required data (prices) in a different place would enable me to solve the problem. Cat Stevens once wrote a song called 'The first cut is the deepest' (initially recorded by P.P. Arnold and then possibly by Rod Stewart); in problem solving, I would say that 'The first step is the hardest'.

I noticed this same blinkering effect with people trying to find an optimum solution for the puzzle in which four people have to cross a river with a two person canoe. Those who started with the slowest person crossing first (Andrew and David in my example) had great difficulty in finding the optimum solution, whereas those who had the two fastest people (Andrew and Brian) had less difficulty.

The lesson to be learnt from this example is how to convert what seems to be a chicken and egg problem into something more simple. We'll see whether I've learnt anything the next time such a situation arises.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Back to normal (well, almost normal)

Over the past few days, the intensity of the coughing attacks (especially at night) has been decreasing and it was becoming clear that shortly things would be returning to normal. So after having had the pleasure of a night spent in my bed without waking up for a coughing attack, I decided to return to work (I should point out that I have been working from home, when not coughing, but it's not the same thing).

I still occasionally have an unproductive cough and can still feel the mucus at the back of my throat, but my status seems to have returned to what it was three weeks ago. I still can't talk at a volume above that of a whisper, so I don't try.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Still coughing

My last post was an excellent example of why people should not diagnose themselves. Since about lunchtime yesterday there has been a vast improvement in my condition, which rules out the self diagnosed whooping cough and rules in the more likely upper respiratory tract infection. I am still coughing (especially at night), but there are no more paroxysms, thank God. The end is in sight - which is why it can't be whooping cough, aka 'The 100 day cough'.

There is still some amount of mucus which occasionally prevents me from breathing properly; this mucus is still extracted with great difficulty (and with whooping, or more accurately, hawing) but the effect required - and the price paid by my muscles - is much less.

I tried sleeping in my bed, but a coughing attack at about midnight sent me back to the reclining chair in the lounge where I have been trying to sleep for the past few days. During the day, I was watching television and almost nodding off; my head must have angled down for again I suffered an attack (this exact thing happened the day before). So: I must keep my head up at all times - very difficult when trying to sleep!

I had two chest x-rays taken today, one from the front and one from the side. I've seen the resulting pictures but have not yet seen the specialist's analysis (there is a great internet based system in operation the past few months which enables one to see the x-rays from any browser). 

On a completely different subject, this is my 500th blog! I started blogging after returning from a holiday in 2005, so in seven years I have written 500 blogs, or about 71 a year. This is works out at about one and a half blogs a week on average, which I think is fine. 

Tomorrow is my 56th birthday.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Diary of a cough

On or around 9 July, an innocent cough appeared, at first very timid, which didn't seem to be connected to anything. As the doctors say, it was unproductive. By the weekend, I was still coughing and now feeling slightly weak - but there was no elevated temperature.

Obviously this cough was worrying me enough by then to go to the family doctor (15/7); she examined me and listened to my lungs. "The lungs are clear", she said, "and everything else seems to be ok, although the throat is slightly red". As the weakness had passed, I was "released for observation" without treatment.

Nothing much happened during the next week, although I began coughing harder and harder; in fact, I would have coughing attacks at night which left me temporarily very weak. The cough was still unproductive. So I returned to the doctor on 23/7; she repeated her examination with the same results. This time she prescribed an anti-histamine (which would be intended to reduce any inflammation, not that she could see any) and a mucolytic agent (which would thin out the mucus and allow me to expel it).

Again, nothing much happened for a few days, although one night I had yet another coughing attack and felt that I couldn't breathe at all. Fortunately, I have the CPAP machine, which blows pressurised air into my nose, so I quickly put the mask on and started breathing again. The next morning I drove to Jerusalem in order to see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist (this was the nearest clinic with the most immediate appointment). He checked me out and even performed an endoscopic examination (tube goes into the nose and down to the back of the throat) which was very uncomfortable, due to the local anaesthetics. There still seems to be nothing wrong organically.

The next few days - unfortunately, the weekend - were a repeat: coughing attacks which left me unable to breathe (or so I thought), with a wheezing sound. Most of these attacks happened at night, where I had the CPAP machine, but one happened when I was in the local supermarket; the manager was quite frightened by my performance (I too was frightened).

The piece de resistance was the Saturday night, when at a frequency of about once an hour, I would wake up, start coughing exceedingly violently and not be able to breathe. Of course, I wasn't getting any sleep - and neither was my wife. The attacks would end by my body trying to vomit - I did in fact vomit once on Saturday morning, when the two cups of tea which I had just drunk ended up on the floor. But generally these were only dry heavings. 

At about 3am, I had a brainwave: maybe I am suffering from side effects of the mucolytic agent. I checked the instructions which came with the tablets, and sure enough, breathing problems and vomiting were listed as possible side effects. I decided there and then not to take another of those tablets. At 4am, my stomach started rumbling, as if I were going to vomit once again, but I managed to control myself and so saved yet another attack. 

Later on during the day, I managed to snag an appointment with the family doctor (29/7) and tried to explain what had been happening since we had last met (by this time, I could hardly talk). She seemed disinclined to my theory that I was suffering from side effects; she tended to believe that I was suffering from reflux gastritis which can cause coughing (and I am technically a chronic sufferer of this, but I take a pill every day and so am asymptomatic). I tried to describe my breathing problems and unintentionally went into the same non-breathing loop there and then. It turns out that I was breathing - the wheezing was the automatic attempt to force air into the lungs - but not in a normal matter, and of course my freaking out wasn't helping.

The doctor ordered a chest x-ray (which I intend to do today; I don't know what she'll be able to see from an x-ray) and prescribed an antibiotic as well as increased dosage for the anti reflux gastritis medicine. 

A chance remark by a nurse in the clinic suggested to me that I might be suffering from whooping cough aka pertussis (as it happened, there had been an item on the news the previous evening about mothers refusing to let their babies be inoculated against whooping cough); when I got home, I started researching the subject. And what did I find?

The classic signs of pertussis are a paroxysmal cough, inspiratory whoop, and vomiting after coughing. If there is vomiting after a coughing spell or an inspiratory whooping sound on coughing, the likelihood that the illness is pertussis is nearly doubled. The incubation period is typically seven to ten days in infants or young children, after which there are usually mild respiratory symptoms, mild coughing, sneezing, or runny nose. This is known as the catarrh stage. After one to two weeks, the coughing classically develops into uncontrollable fits, each with five to ten forceful coughs, followed by a high-pitched "whoop" sound in younger children, or a gasping sound in older children, as the patient struggles to breathe in afterwards (paroxysmal stage). Fits can occur on their own or can be triggered by yawning, stretching, laughing, eating or yelling; they usually occur in groups, with multiple episodes every hour around the clock. This stage usually lasts two to eight weeks, or sometimes longer. A gradual transition then occurs to the convalescent stage, which usually lasts one to two weeks. This stage is marked by a decrease in paroxysms of coughing, both in frequency and severity, and a cessation of vomiting.

I think that my symptoms match the bill: the slow build up, the paroxysmal cough, the whoop, hourly episodes. Whether I do actually have whooping cough (ie a bacterial infection) is irrelevant; I do have the symptoms and I certainly have the 'whoop'. Knowing this made coping slightly easier: I don't get totally stressed out when an attack occurs (although the paroxysm is exceeding unpleasant and slightly painful) and know that immediately after, my body is trying to breathe. I have worked out a repeated arrangement of cough, clean mouth/spit, breathe, which seems to do the trick. Also, I am now actively removing as much of the mucus/phlegm from my body as I can, which should help.

I have to sleep in a chair with my back raised so that the mucus doesn't drown me, a position which is hardly conducive to sleep. I awake after maybe an hour for a coughing attack which lasts maybe fifteen minutes; then at least another fifteen minutes go by before I am calm enough (and my mouth clean enough) to try to rest again. As a result of all the above, I'm only sleeping a few hours every night - and of course, this sleep is not continuous and so not useful.

During the day there are fewer episodes - mornings seem to be less problematic - so I manage to get some work done (of course, I haven't traveled to work the past few days). I generally feel almost all right, although very tired. I daren't lay down for a nap, for if I do, I will wake up with a coughing attack. I have to be very careful about what I eat - adding wheat germ to yoghurt is a very bad idea as the small grains stimulate my palate which causes me to cough.

Today I hope to do the chest x-ray and tomorrow I will return to the doctor. It looks like I will have to conduct my side of the examination via a mobile computer as I can barely talk (physically talking seems to encourage coughing attacks). The quoted passage above doesn't give me very much hope - the paroxysmal coughing stage can last eight weeks! Of course, I may not have whooping cough, in which case this stage should be shorter.

[Edited 13/09/12 - a few of the final paragraphs have been revised and rewritten]