Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Nothing more

A few weeks ago, I was listening to my take on the traditional Irish tune, "Killarney Boys of Pleasure", during my evening perambulations. As this song followed my versions of some Sandy Denny songs on my mp3 playlist, I was still thinking about which additional Sandy songs I could sequence. It struck me that I could use the basis of "Killarney" for "Nothing more", the song which opens the eponymous Fotheringay album.

True, the chord sequences are slightly different: "Killarney" is Em/Bm whereas "Nothing more" is Em/C, but that wouldn't be a problem. The real problem of "Nothing more" is that its harmonic palette is so limited - it's composed of six verses, three of which are Em/C and three are C/Em, as well as another two instrumental verses of Em/C. At the end of each verse, there are two repeats of D/Em. So it was clear that any arrangement would have to rely on stylistic and intensity variations as opposed to harmonic variations.

I did "cheat" by changing the chords in the instrumental sections to Bm/A but that doesn't seem to make that much difference.

Anyway, I started of with a very quiet verse, with acoustic bass and a mixed pad, then slowly built up the sound with cor anglais, soprano saxophone, clarinet, cello and arrpegiated harp. I really like the clarinet lines. When I had finished the arrangement - and listened to it for a week, tweaking here and there - it was time to record the vocal.

As far as I remember, this went fairly quickly: there were several false starts, as usual, and I had to repeat the final verse, but otherwise there were no problems. It took me several hours to find a vocal sound with which I was happy (equalisation and reverb). After a few more days of listening, I decided to make a copy of the vocal for a few verses, then with the help of my vocal tuner program, I was able to create a simple harmony vocal track. This was mixed in stereo, and placed 'behind' the main vocal.

I very much liked the result, so I decided to place it on the Internet and share it with the Sandy Denny mailing list. True, I have received only two responses, but they were both very favourable:
  • I like the composition, the instrumentation, and your voice, too. Will be in my iTunes library.
  • Thanks for the cover. It's beautiful.
You can make up your own mind by listening to the song.

Appendum: after writing the above, I went for my evening walk. Nick Drake was first up on the mp3 player and I thrilled to the sound of his guitar and the restrained arrangements of the late Robert Kirby. When I came home, I found an excellent midi arrangement of Drake's "Day is done" on the Internet. I liberated a few bars of the guitar part, switched the notes around slightly, then added them to my arrangement of "Nothing more" in place of the pad. The resulting track has more space between the instruments and is slightly less mechanical (one of the advantages of playing a 'pointillist' part through the NN-19 sampler is that the stereo position of each note can be random). I'll have to listen to this version several times before I decide which will become the "official" version. I'll also have a deeper look at "Day is done", especially at the strings.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Children of the revolution

The end of August means that there is a new Inspector Banks novel available, written by Peter Robinson. This novel, in keeping with the partial tradition with Robinson has established, is named after a song, in this case one by T. Rex. The song itself was not particularly good; it is not referenced in the novel (can one imagine Banks listening to T. Rex? Maybe to their predecessor, Tyrannosaurus Rex, but not the teenybopper music that Marc Bolan made from 1971 onwards).

This year, I bought the Kindle version of the book: I clicked on the payment form on Amazon, connected the Kindle to my wifi, and a few minutes later the book was available for reading. Amazing!

The novel itself is not so amazing. Whilst I had difficulty in putting it down (I read it over the course of a weekend), I wouldn't class this book amongst his best. I've been trying to think of reasons why ...
  1. A body is found after heavy rain, thus there are no forensics.
  2. There doesn't seem to be any real motive for the death - it isn't even clear whether the death was caused by murder, manslaughter, accident or suicide.
  3. Banks' team investigates only one death, thus there's none of the two pronged attack (Banks on one side, Annie Cabot on the other) which make some of the later books so good.
  4. Annie's characterisation is making her more bitter and less attractive as the years go by. Sergeant Winsome Jackson - who could have been a star - is given more inner dialogue than in previous books and turns out to be a prude. It's very hard to identify with her.
  5. Hints are tossed out at the beginning of the story that Banks is due for retirement (he is approaching 60) but may be promoted instead. I expected that the story would end with some reference to this, but no.
  6. Similarly, it seems that Banks may have found a new romantic relationship, but there's no development.
So, due to the lack of forensics, the team (only four people) work on the meagre leads that they have. Banks is warned off one lead as this involves a friend of the Chief Constable - of course, by the end of the book, one sees that this was the correct path. The whole investigation seems to be arbitrary, and it's only by chance that a solution is found. I doubt that this would happen in real life.

I'll give the novel another read but I doubt that I'll be more impressed. At least I didn't notice any mistakes - Robinson thanks several people for copy editing.

At the end of the novel, there was an advert for 'other books that you may enjoy', including a new Ian Rankin novel. It seems that Rebus has rejoined the police after the retirement age has been increased, and he investigates something along with DI Fox. That book will be published in another few months. So it seems that Rankin hasn't started writing books with Siobhan Clarke as his main protagonist. 

Throwing in hints about Banks retiring is taking a page out of the Rebus universe. I can understand why the police might be raising the retirement age - people's life expectancy is growing and there isn't enough money in the retirement funds to keep people for twenty years.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Chaining functionality

I see that I've hardly written any blog posts this month; it's not because I've been sunning myself in the Bahamas without access to the Internet, but rather because I've been too busy at work with all sorts of activities which aren't of much interest here.

As it happens, there was a nice coincidence of events the other day: the same procedural issue reared itself both at work and also with the Occupational Psychologist, so I feel that I can write about it here.

At work, there was someone who wanted that orders be marked after she had printed labels for that order. I asked her how she printed the labels and here was the explanation (my words):
  1. I run program A which extracts data from the order and places them in a temporary table
  2. I run program B which prints labels from that temporary table
  3. I run program C which deletes all my entries from that temporary table.
The OP had something similar:
  1. Change status in a docket
  2. Add default meetings to that docket
  3. Print the checklist of exams for that docket (based to a certain extent on the meetings for that docket)
In both cases, I was able to suggest a change in their work-habits which reduced the amount of overhead: I suggested that they chain their activities. Of course, such chaining is dependent of the programmer and not the user. In the first case, I added to the beginning of program A the command to delete entries from the temporary table, and at the end of the program, I added the command to print the entries in that table. I also suggested to the user that she run the program from within the order screen itself, which saves having to input the order number to the program. All she has to do now is press a button and the labels print automatically.

In the OP's case, changing the docket's status to a certain status will now cause the default meetings to be added to that docket, and adding the default meetings will cause the checklist to be printed (or more accurately, displayed in Word, prior to printing).

In both situations, the original programmer concentrated on atomic activities: this is correct, but can be improved. In the work situation, there are many programs which have to print labels and it is advised always to clear the temporary table before adding new values. So these activities are written once and called many times. But chaining these activities together didn't require me to "reinvent the wheel": printing the labels is accomplished by adding a print stage to the original program, and cleaning the user table is a one line SQL command.

I have noticed that users tend to have a very data-centric or atomic view of their activities whereas I tend to have a more process-centric view which works at a higher level. Hopefully, adding these two higher level programs will open the eyes of the users to the fact that with a little glue, one can work at a higher level, achieve more in less time, and minimise the overhead.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Research questionnaire

Over several instances of taking the dog for a walk, I've been thinking about the questionnaire which I will be using for my doctoral research. In the background, there is also the work which I am currently doing for the Occupational Psychologist regarding our aptitude exam - calculating standard deviations and item analysis. 

It became clear to me the other day that the questionnaire can be divided into two logical sections: the first section gets data regarding the various dimensions that I wish to check (ie person's age, experience with ERP, level of formal education, department) and the second level gets data regarding the user's work habits. At the end, I intend to run correlation analyses on the work habits to see which dimensions cause an affect in the work habits. I realised a few days ago that I need to formalise the work habits section by giving a score which would reflect the level of 'end user computing' (EUC). I haven't checked the questions which I have developed so far, but I think that they don't give me a quantitative value but rather qualitative data.

Developing this thread; I thought that it would be a good idea to try and incorporate within the research questionnaires a competency exam for Excel. Instead of having questions like 'Do you use the IF function in your spreadsheets (yes/no)?', I could have a question like
When you enter data into a cell and press the Enter key on the keyboard, the cursor will move to ...
  1. The cell below the cell where you entered the data
  2. The cell to the right of the cell where you entered the data
  3. It will not move
  4. The formula bar so that you can check your data
  5. Not sure
Having such questions in the questionnaire will allow me to assign a value to the user's competency in Excel, and then I can see whether there is any correlation between this value and the user's personal data.

Yesterday evening, after walking the dog, I started googling 'excel competency test' and found several interesting sites. I continued looking until I found a multiple choice questionnaire which was exactly what I was looking for (the above question comes from this questionnaire).

I'm not sure whether I took the test purposely giving wrong answers (so that the feedback to the exam would give me the correct answers) or whether I tried to answer the exam honestly. Anyway, I achieved a score of 10 out of 17, which is possibly higher than I had expected, although maybe I was confusing this test with another which I tried, in which I didn't get a single question correct. This second questionnaire wouldn't be very useful for my purposes, as I need a spread of values, but the first questionnaire seems at first sight to be good.

I will translate the questions into Hebrew, put them into a program and then test them out on people at work. This way I can fine tune the competency part of my research questionnaire.

The above question reminds me of another piece of the puzzle that is called a thesis: at some stage, I want to include some historical data regarding spreadsheets. 'Everybody' knows that the first computer spreadsheet program was called 'VisiCalc' which was written around 1978 (or was it 1976?) for the Apple 2 computer (in fact, it was the 'killer app' for this computer and caused millions to buy the computer). The developers weren't able to port VisiCalc successfully to the IBM PC; the original spreadsheet leader was Lotus 1-2-3. Excel's birth and success are linked to that of Windows which didn't really take off until 1986-9. I remembered that on the PDP-11, we had some kind of spreadsheet program in about 1984 which was called 'Saturn-Calc'. I went looking for clues about this program the other day and actually managed to locate its author, with whom I have exchanged a few emails. Anyway, I came across the author in a mail which he sent to the development team of Open Office, detailing an option in Saturn-Calc which allowed the user to choose to which cell the cursor would go after pressing 'Enter'; the developers thought that this would confuse users so decided to go with Excel's behaviour, which is to go to the cell below the cell where the data had been entered. 

So the answer to the above question is 1.

Friday, August 23, 2013

My first visit to America

Whilst looking for my old diaries, I came across old passports and so discovered that I first visited America on August 23, 1978. When I blogged earlier about this visit, I wrote that I couldn't remember anything about the days before flying, but now the memories have returned.

As I wrote before, I was living in Cardiff over that summer. On Friday, 21 August, I took the train to London and as I had nothing better to do, I went to the cinema to see the film 'House Calls'  (with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson) which had just been released. The next day I was with a group of friends and we decided to go to the cinema; by default we ended up watching 'House Calls'! The film on the plane to Newark was ... 'House Calls'!! The film itself was quite good but not worthy of watching three times in three days.

My hosts in San Francisco were my best friend's sister and the sister's husband. I had met them a few months earlier when they had come to London; as a gesture to my best friend, I took them around a few sights in the city then had dinner with them in the sort of restaurant which I would never visit (touristy and very expensive). I remember arriving at SF airport at midnight (which for me was 8am - I had been traveling for 24 hours) then phoning my hosts, expecting them to collect me and not realising how far the airport was from the city. They told me to take a bus to the bus terminal which I did; they collected me from there.

They lived in an apartment on Seventh Avenue, near Golden Gate Park. On my first day, after clearing the cobwebs in my head, I set out for the park and rambled. For me, this was the first of several historic sites: the first 'Be-In' was held here in January 1967; only eleven years previously but it seemed like a lifetime. From the park I walked down to the Haight, bought a book and a record which I was looking for, then retired to eat lunch under a tree in the park (in those days, I still ate in MacDonalds).

After having eaten my burger, I took stock of the situation and quickly realised that I didn't have enough money for my three week trip if I continued spending at the same rate as I had started. This simple fact cast a pall over the entire trip and prevented me from enjoying it more.

I don't remember now all the things that I did in San Francisco and certainly not in which order they occurred so I'll simply list what I do remember. After a week, my hosts 'cast me out' and I had to move to a cheap boarding house for another week. I misled the owner about exchange rates sterling to dollar which he wasn't too pleased about. Places I visited in the city were the Golden Gate Bridge (of course), North Beach, Sausalito, Chinatown, the Pacific shore line (I walked what seemed like a hundred blocks in order to get there!), Fisherman's Wharf and the Embarcadero (there was a jazz group playing on the grass) and Berkeley University, across the bay. One day I took a combined boat and bus trip to various places in Marin County, simply to see something new.

I remember attending a service at a synagogue on a Saturday and hanging around outside hoping that someone would notice me and invite me to dinner. I was too shy to approach anyone directly, and as a result no one invited me.

On my final day, I wasted some precious dollars by traveling to Candlestick Park to watch a baseball game; director and actor Ron Howard threw the first ball. I very much enjoyed the day and bought a 'SF' baseball cap which I wore for the rest of my trip. It seemed that San Francisco was divided into two parts: the side where I stayed which was sunny whereas 'the other side' (including Candlestick Park)  seemed to be in perpetual cloud.

My primary influences had been 'On the road' by Jack Kerouac and 'The electric kool-aid acid test' by Tom Wolfe.

After two weeks in San Francisco, I took the Greyhound bus to New York: my plane ticket was to San Francisco but my return was from New York. I had planned this in advance so that I could see both cities. The bus left at midnight and went via Sacramento on its way to Reno, Nevada (cue song). I awoke here after a muddled sleep and thought that there was a half hour stop, so I got off the bus to stretch my legs. The bus drove off almost immediately after I disembarked, so I was stuck in Reno for twelve hours with no money and only my copy of John Le Carre's "Honourable Schoolboy" (which I had bought in Heathrow on my way to America) to keep me company. As the Americans say, bummer.

Once back on the bus, I tried to make the best of my situation. The bus would stop every few hours so that people could eat and/or visit toilets. The Americans always serve big portions but charge accordingly, which I couldn't really afford. At least once, someone paid for me to have a meal at a diner. One morning, in some mid-West town, I looked for a grocery store where I bought a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and a carton of chocolate milk: I ate peanut buffer sandwiches for the rest of the journey. I was hoping that my rucksack would have got lost (it was traveling on the first bus) so that I could claim compensation, but the rucksack was waiting for me in the Port Authority building.

Once in New York, I thought that I would be able to stay with members of Habonim. After all, in London, we frequently hosted people who were passing through. Unfortunately (yet again), my expectations didn't match reality; every night I had to find new lodgings which weren't always conducive (I had no money for a hotel). For the last few nights of my visit, I stayed with a family in a comfortable house - but this was in Long Island, so I had to spend money on trains into and out of the city. 

Due to me wearing the SF baseball hat, more than once people thought that I was from San Francisco rather than from Britain, although one woman in Central Park who drew my portrait without me asking to do so complained about 'hoity toity Brits' after I declined to purchase the portrait (no money).

The only things that I remember (at the moment) of this visit were Central Park,'Guernica' at the Museum of Metropolitan Art (where I saw the first non-comedic Woody Allen film, 'Interiors'), and pinching a book* from the New York public library, a book which I had been unable to find in the myriad second hand bookshops which line Manhattan. Obviously, my lack of money ruined my stay and prevented me from remembering much. On the final day, I mosied around the city, trying to delay the inevitable, but eventually I came to the Port Authority and took the shuttle bus to JFK where I spent the night (I had done this a few times in Israel as well, after arriving there late at night). 

In Heathrow, my parents met me and took me back to Cardiff where I spent a week or so before making the final trip to London prior to emigration.

* The book was called "The boy who could make himself disappear" by Kin Platt; I had become aware of the book as I had seen the film 'Baxter' (based on the book) a few weeks previously and had been deeply impressed. To quote a review of the book, "I first read this book thirty years ago and literally thousands of books later I still vividly remember the impact it made on me. I think I started crying about page fifty and didn't stop until the end. The subject matter, child abuse and willful neglect, is ugly, but the telling is done with such subtlety and delicacy that to this day this book still sits on my shelf. I've recommended it to quite a few young teens who I knew were strong enough to take it and virtually all of them loved the book. Even the fact that the ending is hopeful rather than happy doesn't put them off. Kids are realists more than we think and I believe they appreciate the author not taking the nicer and therefore easier way out with this work. They can get all the cute and sweet stuff they want from Disney, Kin Platt wrote about the real world where happily ever after doesn't always happen. Sometimes it's good to remember that.

I couldn't put it better myself.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Once upon a time, Jews in Israel (and everywhere else) had strong, Biblical names. Boys were named Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Adam, David or Jonathan, whereas girls where named Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Rebecca or Hannah. Why, even my grandparents were called David, Rebecca, Joseph and Sarah; my mother was called Hannah. But such days are long past, and nowadays children get all kinds of names; the best names are qualities (No'am = pleasantness) or abstract nouns (Shai = gift, Raz = secret, Vered = rose), whereas some are compound words (Or-Li = light to me) and others are just sounds (Kai).

Whereas at one time a name indicated its owner's gender, these days names tend to be unisex. I know both males and females called No'am, males and females called Shai, and males and females called Raz. In this spirit of unisex names, I present the following puzzle.

Gal, Yuval and Amit* are all in the same family (no incestual relationships). One of the three is the father of Gal; one is the only daughter of Yuval, and one is the sibling of Amit. Amit's sibling is neither the father of Gal nor the daughter of Yuval.

Who is the odd one out in terms of gender?

*These three names are indeed unisex and unfortunately are used by both genders.