Thursday, December 24, 2015

Priority training

Although I seem to be one of the least connected people in Israel, every now and then I do strike lucky with 'a friend of a friend'. Such a connection led me the other day to an interesting conversation with the manager (and owner) of a small training centre, which most not coincidentally has the license to train people for Priority. What is coincidental is that this centre is about 200 metres from what I once described as 'the other company's showroom, which is in the city of Petach Tikva'. So I knew exactly how to get there.

The conversation ranged over several topics, although I'm going to comment about only those which pertain to my doctorate. First of all, the owner was only too pleased to participate in the research, although he warned me that they have only about ten users, and most of them don't use Excel at all. I had to explain that it's fine that there are Priority users which don't use Excel - I need them as a control group in order to see the differences between them and those that do use Excel. 

But it had occurred to me that the real value to be extracted from this connection was not the centre itself, but rather the access that it provided to its students. When I put this to the owner, at first he demurred. He felt that allowing me to talk for upto half an hour to his classes would be a waste of his students' time. What would be better would be for me to give an entire lesson (I assume around two and a half hours) about Priority and then at the end talk about my research and attempt to sign up the students.

I explained about one of the questions about training in the questionnaire: did the training that you received explain techniques about how to use the program, or did it explain how to achieve goals by means of the program? Almost certainly, most people receive the first kind of training (pressing F6 does this, F11 does that), whereas what most people need is the second kind (which explains for example what a delivery note is, why it is used, and how to manage them). The first kind of training is suited for groups whereas the second kind is suitable for individuals - and thus much harder. Of course, a training centre gives the first kind of training.

One of my personal advantages (and I have been told to be less modest about this) is that I can give both types of training. How can I use this advantage and inveigle myself into the training centre, at least for one session (I'm not looking for a full time job!)? The solution was to write an article - which will be the basis for a full lecture - which displays how to write a report in a business context. The report writer receives a request - "write a report which shows all the payments made to suppliers within a given time period" - but because of assumptions both on her part and also by the person making the request, several iterations are required until the correct report is produced. 

Of course, during each iteration, I show what the business need is and how to implement it in Priority. In doing so, I also introduce a few pearls which can't be found solely by reading the documentation and which probably aren't taught. I have no idea how much material utilised in the final version of the report is taught - I hope that not too much is new, otherwise I will have to explain the technical side more than the business side, which is not my intention.

I sent the article to the owner, who presumably will pass it on to the person who runs the Priority training (they run several courses about various computer subjects). I haven't received a response yet, but then not everybody works at my pace - and they may have more important things to do with their time.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Zero values in Priority tables - a blessing and a curse

I am writing this for various reasons: to document for myself a quirk in Priority, to prepare an article for the Priority Users Internet Forum, and as a way of getting myself back into the habit of writing. If you don't use Priority, then this post will have little value.

In SQL databases, there is a way of distinguishing when a field has a value (even if that value is zero) and when it is not known whether a field has a value (there may be a value for what the field represents but it hasn't been entered into the database) – NULL. Handling null generally is problematic for programmers and can frequently lead to incomplete results. Two reports which ostensibly work on the same data can give different results as a result of null fields.

The designers of Priority decided to skip this minefield by removing the keyword 'null' from their SQL subset. A null value is represented by zero, which for 99% of the time is what one would naively expect. This solves a great deal of problems but ironically creates a problem, which is what I want to write about here.

SQL tables generally have one or more foreign keys – these are values which point to other tables. A simple table – such as supplier type – will have at a minimum three fields:
  1. 'id': in Priority-speak, an 'A' key; not displayed
  2. 'code': in Priority-speak, a 'U' key, displayed
  3. 'des': the description of the type, generally not indexed
This table has no foreign key, but its 'id' field will be a foreign key in other tables, for example, suppliers: a supplier may have defined a supplier type, in which case its 'suptype' field will contain the appropriate id value from the supplier types table. A supplier for which no supplier type has been defined will have zero in its 'suptype' field; this is allowed as it is not compulsory (or in Priority-speak, mandatory) to define a value for the 'suptype' field.

In a simple report which lists suppliers by their supplier type (and ordered by type), first will appear all the suppliers which have no supplier type, followed by those that do. This is good as such a minimal report would allow us to see which suppliers do not have a defined supplier type (the fact that we can establish this by means of a query within the suppliers' screen is beside the point). We can also easily add the sum of purchase orders for each supplier within a given time period. Should we wish to see the sum of purchase orders for a given supplier type, we simply make the 'supplier type' a parameter. If there were a code '100' and we wanted to know the sum of purchase orders for all suppliers whose supplier type is '100' within a  given period, we would simply enter that value for the parameter; no suppliers without a defined supplier type would appear.

The problems begin when we use a 'step' procedure to calculate data which are later displayed in a report. The procedure receives as a parameter a list of all supplier types that we wish to include in the report; we use this linked table of types in the query which selects the suppliers to be examined. If we want to see data for all the supplier types, then there is no problem, but should we wish to see data for only one supplier type, we will be astounded to discover that the final report contains data not only for the chosen supplier type but also for all the suppliers without a supplier type!

This is because each table – even linked tables passed to procedures – contain a dummy zero tuple. This is needed so that queries which link a supplier without a supplier type to the supplier types table will not fail (the zero in the supplier's 'subtype' field matches the zero in the supplier type table).

The standard way of writing such a query would be
The above is fine if we want all the suptypes, but is not so good when we only want a subset. Trying to correct the 'zero problem' by writing the below query will cause problems when we want all the suppliers – including those without a subtype.
[Actually, there is a subtle definition problem with the word 'all' in the previous sentence: in certain cases, use of '*' will return only records which have a non-zero value in the given field, whereas passing an empty string would return all records. Sometimes this can be used as a solution to the 'zero problem'.]

So: sometimes we need an extra clause in the query, but of course, we can't predict when such a clause is needed.

The way which I have found to solve this problem is to calculate how many records there are in the suptypes table before it is linked as a procedure, then do the same after the table has been linked. If the results are the same then the user wanted everything, but if they differ, then suppliers without a suptype should not be included. This is fairly easy to do in a cursor based procedure  (the statements required to solve the zero problem are displayed in bold font below) …
This is more difficult to perform with the INSERT INTO/SELECT syntax:
One advantage of using a cursor is that suppliers who have no purchase orders within the given time period can be included in the record set, although such a left join (as it is known in standard SQL) can be achieved by adding a question mark after the word PORDERS in the FROM clause. Of course, using a cursor enables further calculations which can't be squeezed into the INSERT INTO/SELECT type.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Margin Call and redundancy

As there are business novels, so there are business films. One such example would be Oliver Stone's Wall Street, another would be Up in the air, and even possibly Working Girl.  Dredging one's memory brings up The secret of my suce$s. I am mentioning these films because I have started watching Margin Call - at the moment, I don't have much time on my hands and so I've only watched about ten minutes of this film. Also, I don't want to write about the film but rather compare an event which takes place in the film's opening scene with real life - or maybe compare Israel with America.

The film starts - like 'Up in the air' - with two unnamed women walking into an office, calling someone aside then informing that person that he has been made redundant, he will receive half pay for the next six months, is required to accept the redundancy package within 24 hours (what happens if he refuses?), and then immediately is escorted off the premises, his mobile phone already disconnected.

By chance, I happened to see a redundancy notice given to one of our employees (I only saw it because I have to remove the person from the list of users in Priority). A meeting was held between him, his manager and a vice president, in which the reasons for his redundancy were presented. His final day of work is one calendar month from that meeting.

Whilst the American approach is better from a data safety point of view, it also seems unhuman. Why immediately disconnect the phone? It would seem that Israeli companies allow their workers less supervised use of their computers - and that month of grace would be more than enough time to remove all the personal information and store it elsewhere. It would also give the unscrupulous more than enough time to download sensitive data, such as a customer list.

Ironically, although I am in the place to do maximum damage to our data, I also have the least incentive to do so. I am not a salesman so I am not concerned with data about what we have sold to whom and at what profit. My knowledge is stored in my head - it's what enables me to be a consultant.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Training the dog

We have had Cora the dog for three weeks and a day. At first, she was almost frozen until she began to get accustomed to her new surroundings. She seems like a good dog, but there are some aspects to her behaviour which need to be improved - like barking and snarling at people (and dogs) outside of the home and also inside. We had been told by the kennels that she was well behaved, but that observation didn't appear to be accurate. As a result, we were given the phone number of a dog trainer. The kennels said that they would pay for the training (although that promise has yet to be fulfilled) - and I thought that we might have to pay the kennels for the dog. 

So far we have had two training sessions. The most important point is to show the dog who is in charge: the humans, not the dog. As we have never had such problems with our previous dogs (or we had forgotten), we have to be taught this as well. The first thing to change was the lead - we have a 3m flexi-lead which was very good for Mocha but unsuitable (for the time being) for Cora, as it allows her to wander around whilst being nominally connected to me. The kennels had given us a fixed 1.5m cloth lead when we took the dog home, and this is exactly what we need.

Yesterday we continued with our lessons. The first thing was to add a second collar - this one is 75% cloth and 25% chain; this is very important as a short tug on the lead connected to the collar simulates a nip on the throat by the dog's mother. The trainer taught Cora a sign for 'sit!', along with the vocalisation. When she didn't sit, he gave a short tug and the sign again; this time she sat. Of course, whilst training, he gave her treats to help reinforce the lesson. This went on for several minutes, then it was my turn. Although at first she wasn't too co-operative (obviously I'm not authoritative enough), she soon got the message.

This morning, when we went out for our walk, I tried the 'sit!' manoeuvre, which went surprisingly well. I didn't even use the hand sign; I just gave a short tug on the lead and Cora sat. For a change, she also relieved herself while we were out - toilet training has been a problem. I noticed that both last night and this morning, she was much more compliant, so the lessons are having an effect! I seat her when people come close and this helps.

One problem which we will have to sort is the reaction between Cora and Gutz, my daughter's dog. They came over on Saturday night for a while; this time, there was less barking but both dogs were kept on their respective leads and didn't interact physically. We are going to have the dubious pleasure of Gutz's company for a few days at the end of January, so I sincerely hope that they will begin to tolerate each other's company. 

There are no problems with our cat, whom Cora meets on the stairs every day. The cat (whose name is Brazil, but we rarely call her by name) had become accustomed to greeting Mocha and rubbing up and down against her. She was at a loss when Mocha died, and when Cora arrived, she tried to continue where she left off. Cora tolerates - or ignores - Brazil, which at least means that we don't have fights on the stairs. But we haven't got to the stage of physical contact yet (well, it's only be a few weeks) and the cat seems disappointed.

[SO: 4032; 3, 17, 38
MPP: 632; 1,  3, 6]

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Tuning the piano

A few weeks ago, I wrote about adopting a piano. The piano tuner came yesterday and examined the piano. First, he took all the panels off

to discover that due to neglect, there were cobwebs and other detritus which had to be removed by the judicious use of a vacuum cleaner. After looking at the piano, the tuner realised that he recognised it: he had tuned it a few years ago and replaced a few strings. The family who owned the family had no room for it and stored it outside - which is why there are cobwebs inside and a cracked polyurethane finish on the outside. But otherwise, the piano is in good condition.

It transpires that the piano is actually a very good piano; the tuner was prepared to pay 15,000 NIS (about $4,150) for it on the spot, and he said that it was worth upto 20,000 NIS ($5,550). Apparently a new model sells for about 80,000 NIS ($22,200)! 

There are quite a few repairs which need to be done: a few dampeners have been lost (that's why the F above middle C rings for so long), the pedal action needs to be fixed, and the entire piano needs to be tuned. But all of this will cost only 500 NIS, which is what I expected. As far as I could gather from the internet, tuners charge by how much work they have to do, where the price ranges from 250-500 NIS. I expected that we would be at the top range of the scale.

From the way the tuner was talking, I had a feeling that there was a great deal of work to be done, so I was relieved when he said that it would cost 'only' 500 NIS. He lives locally, which is very good, and will come again on Wednesday morning with the replacement parts. Then he'll do all the necessary work.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Even dogs in the wild

Over the past few days, I've been reading Ian Rankin's latest Rebus novel, "Even dogs in the wild". This is a piece of pure vintage Rankin with the familiar characters of John Rebus, Siobhan Clarke and 'Big Ger' Cafferty along with recent addition Malcolm Fox taking part. Rebus may be retired but he acts as he has always acted; Clarke is always the stabilising force, and Fox allows Rankin some characterisation which doesn't normally appear (no spoilers!). Unfortunately, the older Rebus gets, the less he listens to music - although there is some form of explanation, saying that one of the loudspeakers in Rebus' flat is broken.

I'm not going to write much about the book as I am sure there will be review upon review which will do the job satisfactorily. I do like how the clues which become apparent right at the very end were skillfully sown into the narrative at the beginning; I only picked these up whilst rereading.

I want to write about one possible item which got through the copy editing and had me scratching my head (fortunately, it's not that important a point). The book starts with Fox having to clear his room as a team from Glasgow are coming in. Fox's boss says that there are six members of the team, and at one stage they are even named (Ricky Compston, Alec Bell, Beth Hastie, Bob Selway, Jake Emerson and Peter Hughes). Yet for some reason, there are only five desks in the room. Then there is this exchange:

‘Explains why my boss thought we were welcoming a team of six,’ Fox added.
‘Aye, someone at Gartcosh bolloxed that up – and got Ricky Compston raging at them for their efforts.’

In other words, it seems that Rankin had originally intended to write along the lines that Gartcosh ("now home to the Scottish Crime Squad) informed Edinburgh that six people were coming ... but only five arrived, the inference being that the missing person is a mole. This supposition supports the above quote. But somewhere along the long, six people actually did arrive, so the editing process messed this up.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Going to see a man about a dog

Yesterday, we "went to see a man about a dog", or in other words, went to a dog shelter to see whether there was a dog available for adoption which met our requirements. When we spoke to the supervisor on the phone in order to check whether they had dogs (the previous day we had phoned somewhere else and were told that they had no dogs for adoption), we were told very enthusiastically that they had 120 dogs and that we were very welcome to visit.

The shelter is about 20 minutes' drive from our home, coincidentally where my brother in law and his family live. This is a rural setting and the shelter has plenty of room. When we arrived, we saw many dogs milling around outside, playing or resting, along with about ten people. Most of the people actually work in the shelter; there were only a few outsiders checking adoption. Unfortunately, of those 120 dogs, about 110 are male and we want a female – this creates fewer problems with the other dogs on the kibbutz. First, we checked the dogs which were enclosed in pens (or cells); these were all male. Of course, all the dogs are of mixed breed; it's difficult to imagine how a pedigree dog would end up in such reduced circumstances, and anyway the folk wisdom is that mixed breeds are hardier than pedigrees.

We did find two bitches outside: one was almost all white and one was almost all black.  After some thought – and taking one for a short walk – we decided to adopt the black one ("Cora" – probably someone had been watching Downton Abbey). She's a size or two smaller than Mocha, and about a year and a half old. Although the supervisor tried to tell us the dog's history, it was very hard to hear for all the barking (we had come at feeding time). We think that she was brought up with a family and then something happened. The supervisor was only too willing to allow us to take the dog for a test period, between a week and a month. If everything works out, then we will notify the shelter in order to receive the dog's documentation. We will also have to ensure that the data saved in the dog's chip will be changed. This idea of a test period is very good; it takes a few days for any dog to get accustomed to new surroundings (especially after the somewhat less than salubrious surroundings of a dog shelter) and some prospective adopters have to get used to the idea of having a dog.

Yesterday evening went reasonably well: Cora was very quiet, but of course she needs to get used to us and the house (and especially to the smell of a non-existent dog). We went out for three walks yesterday evening and one this morning, so that she could get used to the regular walking path. She didn't sniff very much, and more importantly, did not excrete. Unfortunately, she did empty her bowels this morning – but inside the house. Hopefully these behaviours will change quickly. I haven't heard one bark although she did cry when she was left on her own this morning (on the balcony, not inside).

Friday, November 13, 2015

The latest addition to our musical menagerie ... and peppermint food

For reasons which escape me, my wife has long wanted a piano in our house. It's not as if she can play .... Anyway, her brother heard of someone who wanted to get rid of their piano so my wife became interested. We didn't have to pay for the piano, only for its removal - 600 NIS (about $180).

It's a Czech August Förster - there isn't much about this make of piano on the internet, apart from this exchange. The piano looks in good condition, but after checking the keys, I can see that it hasn't been played for quite a while, as several keys are out of tune, whereas one key (F3) resonates for a long time after being struck. We shall have to call in the local piano tuner, whoever he is, for a session.

I was pleased that the piano didn't take up too much room. The piano joins its brothers and sisters - guitars, bagpipes, violin, melodica, electric keyboard and Irish whistle - and maybe one day we'll make some music with it.

I paid a visit to the local branch of the Italian ice cream chain that I mentioned a few weeks ago. I was disappointed to see that they had no mint ice cream; in fact, the selection was somewhat smaller than the one near the hospital. When I mentioned this to the staff, I was told that this is because they are a smaller branch.

The sticker on the right hand side of the freezer says "Milk ice cream, 4-8% fat. All the ice cream is fresh, prepared daily on the premises". When asked about the mint ice cream, it seems that if I phone a few days in advance, they will prepare me a 1kg package. As I have only eaten about half of what I bought a month ago (the weather hasn't been suitable lately for eating ice cream), I don't know when this is going to be.

Another package of peppermint tea arrived today. The first shipment took quite a while to arrive so I thought to order in advance. I'm convinced that the second shipment took less time. I haven't been drinking peppermint tea very much lately, preferring to drink green tea, stinging nettle tea and ordinary breakfast tea.

Near where I sometimes work in Tel Aviv is a shop which sells spices, hard to obtain specialist foods and kitchen equipment. I think that they're very expensive, but they do sell items which one can't obtain anywhere else. They don't sell peppermint tea or peppermint extract, but I noticed the other day that they sell peppermint cordial. I went to buy a bottle of blackcurrant cordial, and the peppermint was standing next to it. These are imported from France and cost about three times as much as normal cordial (ie fruit concentrate) costs.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

900 blogs

Blog number 801 was written on 27/01/15 and blog number 900 on 8/11/15, so that's 100 blogs in 10.5 months, or 9 and a half blogs per month.

1Vinyl log24
6Fairport Convention7
8Richard Thompson6
9Sandy Denny6
10Home movies5
12Van der Graaf Generator5

The only real surprise is that I wrote more about my single holiday this year than I wrote about the DBA. The subjects of the blogs are interesting: so much has happened since January. It may seem odd that there are so many Fairport/Thompson/Denny posts, but that is due to the vinyl log and the publishing of a new Sandy Denny biography. A great deal of my youth is connected to the Fairport family.

Conceptual change

The last few weeks – if not months – have been very frustrating, in terms of my doctoral research. I have spent a great deal of time during this period locating companies which use Priority, then locating a suitable contact person within that company, then sending my introductory package. Sometimes those companies have answered with refusal, but more often they have 'answered' with silence. It has been coming clear to me that unless something drastic is done, the entire doctoral project is in danger of not being consummated.
Let's backtrack to module 2 of IBR3: methodology. The text discusses two alternative methodologies, quantitative and qualitative. These methodologies lie at opposing ends of a continuum, so a research project could be 100% quantitative, 90% quantitative and 10% qualitative, etc. A quantitative project basically asks the question "How much?"; it is carried out by means of a fixed questionnaire, is hypothesis based, and those hypotheses are tested by means of statistical analyses of the results obtained from the questionnaires. Such a project also requires a large number (100+) of observations, where the sample is supposed to be representative of the total population. Anyone who knows the methodology of my research project will recognize that I chose the quantitative route.
On the other hand, a qualitative project basically asks the question "Why?"; it is carried out by interviews (which may be fully structured, semi-structured or freestyle) on a small sample which does not have to be representative of the entire population. Its conclusions are considered to be binding with regard to that sample only and not to the general population, although they may be indicative. I could have concluded the final sentence in the first paragraph by writing "It has been coming clear to me that the only way to succeed with my doctoral project is to change to a qualitative methodology".
A few days ago, I emailed all the contact people of companies who have agreed to participate in the research, asking how many responses could be expected from each company. This was in an attempt to see whether the sample size would be sufficient to support the quantitative approach. So far, I have received only one response to that letter: someone wrote to tell me that their company does not use spreadsheets along with Priority. My initial, from the hip, response was to ask (rhetorically) why they signed the participation agreement if they don't use Excel; as it happens, another company with which I was in contact also claims that they don't use Excel, which is why they didn't sign the agreement, assuming that they would be of little use to me.
Yesterday evening, the pieces began to fall in place. I would like to have written that my conclusion was reached after analysing the entire doctoral project and rethinking, but that wouldn't be true. It was more a case of suddenly realising that not only would the qualitative approach be better, the fact that this company does not use Excel could be turned to my advantage.
I still intend that they complete the questionnaire, as the collateral information which can be obtained is very useful. But more importantly, I intend to interview about five users in an attempt to discover how they manage to use Priority without Excel. Obviously, this is possible – in fact, desired behaviour – but it's very difficult to achieve in practice. I would like to say that even I do not use Excel, but that's not strictly true. Hopefully, I will be able to 'extract the secret' from these interviews, then compare them to similar interviews in other companies which do use Excel. I can also attempt to corroborate the findings from the one company with the other company which does not use Excel and which did not sign the agreement.
Fortunately, this company is located about twenty minutes away, so it would be quite convenient for me to spend a few afternoons there. The company which did not sign is located in Afula, which is a two hour drive away and very awkwardly situated.
I have decided that as from today, I am ceasing my attempts to find more companies and sign them up. On the other hand, I am not going to ignore those that have already signed: I will send them the questionnaires, and some of the data will be useful. Thus my project will be partially qualitative and partially quantitative. I am going to run these ideas past my mentor and I imagine that he will be supportive.
Then I will have to rewrite parts of my intermediate submission. The methodology section will have to be expanded as well as the 'conclusions' section of the pilot study, but apart from that, I don't see – at the moment – any parts which will have to be excluded. One might say that adding the qualitative aspect is greatly improving the quality of the project.
As is my nature, I have to examine the above and find where I went wrong. I can see that from almost day one, I have been fixated on the quantitative approach, and have never considered any alternative. This assumes that I knew from the very beginning why people use spreadsheets; I thought that I knew because I work with such people. The idea that people can and do work without spreadsheets never occurred to me, because I had never seen it in practice.
Rereading the material in IBR3 yesterday evening, I saw a hint which I had ignored. One of the differences between the approaches is that qualitative methodology is often used as an exploratory technique, when researchers are not sure of causes. I have often stated that my research is apparently the first of its kind; had I been more experienced (read, less blinkered) or had read IBR3 in a more open frame of mind, then I would have known that the qualitative approach would have been better suited to this research. My mentor had tried to nudge me in this direction at times, but I was convinced that my approach was better.
Well, I was wrong. Maybe it's just as well that insufficient companies signed up.
Another hint may have unconsciously come from a discussion which I had on Friday morning with the Occupational Psychologist. We were discussing the extremely low marks which one examinee achieved from our flagship questionnaire. Obviously, statistically, someone has to have low marks (in the same way that someone has to be last on the bus), but the fact that he had similar marks across the board was suspicious. When I examined the raw data from his exam, I saw that only slightly less than half the questions had been answered. Once this would have meant that his raw data would not even have been accepted into the database, but a recent change in the raw data file format now allows this.
I was somewhat incredulous to see this so I asked whether anyone had noticed that the examinee had not completed the exam. "Yes", replied the OP. "We have here the observations made by the person administering the exam, and … yes, it was noted that the examinee did not complete the exam. Not only that, the psychologist who reviewed the data also noted this fact". I should point out that the OP was extremely worried that we were basing recommendations solely on the computerised data, so she was greatly relieved to see that all along the chain, the incompleteness had been noted and in fact commented upon as a sign of the examinee's psychology.
Only after writing the bulk of today's blog did I become aware of the relevance of this incident, which can be translated in the following manner: I see only the quantitative aspects of the OP's work and am barely aware of the qualitative aspects. In this case, the quantitative data was sorely lacking (read: useless), but the qualitative data proved exceedingly useful. In other words, due to my psychological composition, I am strongly attracted to the quantitative side and tend to ignore the qualitative. This has to change!!
Now I am wondering whether the fact that I have been reading John Le Carre's "Honourable Schoolboy" might have some bearing. George Smiley remarks on Karla's lack of moderation (or his fanaticism) and foresees that this will lead to his downfall. Once again, my fanaticism was the belief that the qualitative approach was the methodology required, but fortunately have managed to avoid the downfall.

Obligatory irrelevant musical observation: a few days ago, the listening material on my mp3 player was the groundbreaking "The Yes Album" from 1971. I devoted quite an amount of thought as to why this album was so good but as to why it pales in comparison to VdGG. I won't go into that now, but I am reminded that the ultimate track on that album is called 'Perceptual change'. Maybe that phrase was hanging around in my brain, for I have undergone a perceptual – or more accurate, conceptual – change in the past few days.

[SO: 4012; 3, 17, 38]

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Vinyl log 24 - 29 October

29October1975Van der Graaf GeneratorGodbluff

One of the events of the emotionally charged month of August 1972 was the breakup of Van der Graaf Generator. Whilst it could hardly be said that this event had any direct involvement upon my life, it was still upsetting. Whilst the Fairport family provided music for the body, VdGG provided music for the soul, and their breakup denied the possibility of any more of their fantastic music.

A taste of what was lost was delivered in Peter Hammill's first solo album ("Chameleon in the shadow") via the closing track "Black room". This brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it, both because of the quality of the song itself and also as a reminder of what was no more. The second PH album had more quasi-VdGG tracks than its predecessor, but it was still a watered down version of the magnificence that had once been achieved. The third PH album, "In Camera", was truly solo, whereas the fourth, "Nadir's last chance", was a head-scratcher. True, it featured all four VdGG members, but playing songs in various styles, none of which were theirs. Had I been able to read the future, I would have taken this album as a sign that the band were about to get back together. 

The reunion became public knowledge over the summer of 1975; I missed their two 'secret' gigs in North Wales and probably wouldn't have known about them even had I been in Britain at the time. But I, like everyone else who cared, knew what was what by October 1975.

One day (29/10/15), a record sized package appeared at my door. Charisma Records were under the impression that I was still reviewing records for my college newspaper (in fact, my involvement had ceased some months previously, and at the time, I was working for Schweppes) and so had sent me a copy of 'Godbluff', the new VdGG album, for review. I immediately devoured the album and attained a new level of consciousness. At the time, G was in Neuchatel, studying French at the source; I remember writing to her, telling of my extreme excitement. The language I used was highly poetic, influenced by the high that the record had induced. I doubt very much that she would have liked it at all. 

To add to my transcendental state, I saw VdGG for the first time in years at the Thames Polytechnic in Woolwich two days after having received the record (apparently a Friday night). This gig was miles away – literally the other side of London – but Jeremy and I had to go. We set off on his motorbike (him driving, me riding pillion) for the long ride, whilst I sang the songs at the top of my voice. We had to wait outside of the concert hall for a while before being let in; we heard part of the band's soundcheck, primarily the tango section of 'The Sleepwalkers'. The gig itself was heaven; apart from the entire Godbluff album, we were also treated to some other gems. 

This was the first gig at which I attempted to go backstage; playing on my correspondence with PH, I assailed a roadie and prevailed upon him to ask whether we could meet the band. The answer came back a few minutes later – "He vaguely remembers the name but he's too tired". Maybe we were too polite and maybe the setup was not conducive, but I recall this as the sole attempt in all my years of concert going (at least in Britain) of attempting to go backstage.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Remembering Mocha

It's the little things about Mocha that I'm going to miss the most, like
  • Coming home in the afternoon and hearing her feet scratching the wood of the balcony in welcome
  • Getting up from my chair in the evening and going in the bedroom to put my walking shoes on; a moment later, a head will peek around the door to see what I'm doing
  • If I don't feel like walking, she'll come and peck at me with her nose to remind me that I still have to take her out for a walk
  • 'Ringing' her food dish to show that she wants to eat. She rang it yesterday evening after we came home from our final walk, and she ate ravenously
  • Whenever we would sit down to dinner, if the smell of the food interested her then at some stage a head would appear by the side of the table, taking in what was there
I wonder how the cat will react. Normally she finishes 'breakfast' at the same time that Mocha and I would return from our morning walk; the cat would rub Mocha up and down, whilst Mocha stood there stoically. Today, when we went out in the morning, I had almost to drag Mocha down the stairs (she doesn't like the rain and maybe she thought it was still raining), and the two of them stood together for a moment on the landing. I was tempted to take a photograph of the two of them together - it's a shame I didn't.

Goodbye, Mocha

Mocha, our dog for the last nine years, died about an hour ago. It seems that she ate something which she shouldn't have; all night, she behaved strangely, salivating constantly, and this morning she barely came out with me for her walk. We were in touch with the vet, but Mocha died before we could get her to be examined.

Let us remember her in her prime. The pictures below was taken about three months ago.

And this is when she was a puppy

One of her favourite positions

Watching television


Sunday, October 25, 2015

The end of summer time

Today Israel turned its clocks back from summer time to winter time. This year had the longest period that I recall using summer time. 

Almost immediately the weather reacted: first rain, then heavy winds and hailstones the size of tennis balls. There was only mild rain where I live, but other areas were badly affected and had no electricity from about 9am until 9pm.

One person with whom I am in contact with regard to my research and also teaching Priority could only contact me after 8pm; he said that his company had been without power all day long.

Monday is supposed to be dry but the rains will continue on Tuesday and Wednesday. Often, it's not the rain which is problematic but the wind. We should, of course, be thankful that we are not living in the Philippines, which has just suffered a very strong typhoon.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Living in the past

Let's go back 45 years to September and October 1970. At school, I was in a class named RE1 - Remove Express 1 - where I and 30 schoolmates would try to do in three years what most people required four years (O levels). My form master was Mr Roger Perry, who lived in a neighbouring street to mine. History, a subject which hadn't greatly interested me until then, was taught by Mr "Sam" Houston; this year we had an experimental syllabus about American history, so my lack of interest in the middle ages was not a handicap. English lessons were split between a regular teacher (Mr Camp? Don't remember) and a visiting American, 'Bud' Stillman. 

Over the summer I had become greatly interested in writing poetry - "The Mersey Sound" had become my constant companion, and I had also become interested in Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. Stillman was well aware of these poets and was, as they say, the right man in the right place. At first, he was very encouraging, but as time went on, we had some disagreement and I ceased to be his pet.

At the same time, a professor from the University of California, Davis (UCD) came for a sabbatical at Bristol University. I have no idea now what his subject was; I don't remember if I ever met him. But he did have a family which included a 14 year old daughter (and maybe one other?); she had three things going for her: she was female (naturally), American and Jewish. Thus I was deputised to look after her. The family lived at the 'other end' of Henleaze Road, near the Downs on one side and near Robert on the other side; their home was about a fifteen minute walk from mine.

I tried to make her my friend but there seemed to be no spark whatsoever between us. Apart from several chats, the only extra-curricular activity that I remember was taking her to a Jethro Tull concert at the Colston Hall on 4 Oct 1970, when they were touring the 'Benefit' album. I recall writing a song for this girl, entitled "Mebbe Debby" (ie maybe Debby will ...), which was a rock'n'roll song in the style of Little Richard or Chuck Berry. I have a suspicion that I wrote in on piano. No words survive. The song told of the non-relationship between us and probably was very derivative, both lyrically and musically.

Musically, things were to change in November 1970, but more of that in a few weeks' time.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Italian ice cream in Israel

There is quite a resemblance between Hadassa Hospital (which is where I underwent the ENG test) and the airport. The car park is a fair distance from the hospital itself but is also at a much lower altitude (the hospital is on the top of a hill whereas the car park is halfway up the hill). There is a shuttle bus which collects people from the car park and drops them off at different places around the hospital. Until ten years ago, people used to enter the hospital directly, but then a new entrance building was erected; this houses several shops and cafes. An underground pathway leads from this building to the hospital itself, making it very difficult to orientate oneself in relation to the above ground hospital. A series of tunnels branching from a general entrance hall led to a lift which brought us to a more familiar location; getting from there to the room where the ENG test is conducted was fairly easy.

After the test was completed, we made the return journey, this time stopping in the shopping mall situated in the entrance building. As I wrote before, I was feeling a little washed out and was thinking that maybe a cup of tea would be a good answer – although the chances of having tea as I like it were low. I then spotted a shop which provided an alternative answer: Aldo Italian Ice Cream. They were serving (amongst other flavours) the mint ice cream that I like (I tasted a sample before buying); the flavour is peppermint and not pistachio! The server informed me that although the cream is sourced locally, all the flavouring concentrates are sent from Italy. This explains why the taste was as good as what I have eaten before in Monterosso or Sorrento.

The ice cream was divine, although I should note that there were pieces of chocolate dispersed within and that chocolate was of low quality. As I assumed that I wouldn't be returning to the hospital  in the near future, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and buy a kilo of this excellent ice cream (the server tried to include as little chocolate as possible). When we got home, I immediately stored the ice cream in the freezer then checked the Internet to discover that not only does Aldo have about thirty branches in Israel, it also has one in Bet Shemesh, albeit in a shopping mall which I don't normally visit. Obviously I don't get out enough.

Now I know where I can get a fix of Italian ice cream, should ever the need arise. 

[Edit: As opposed to what I wrote above, it transpires that the local branch of Aldo is situated in the mall which I do visit - but in the food court, a part where I never go].

[A much later edit: every branch of Aldo operates on its own, although each gets raw materials from the same source. Each branch is at liberty to sell the flavours which it thinks will sell - which is why the Bet Shemesh branch does not sell peppermint ice cream. I have to wait for an annual visit to Hadassa in order to stock up.]

[SO: 4002; 3,17,38]

Vertigo and ENG

As I have hinted here several times, I have had episodes of dizziness and loss of balance, technically known as vertigo; the last attack was probably triggered by our trip to Venice in May. For a few weeks after that, I had to lie in bed turned on my right side and any attempt to turn to the left would cause immediate vertigo. Fortunately I almost always sleep turned to the right, but the lack of choice was annoying.

After this went on for a few weeks, whilst also suffering in a dramatic increase in headaches and migraines, I went to an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor. After a brief assessment, he ordered some medication, but more importantly ordered three tests: a head CT scan, a hearing test and something called ENG. To my surprise, I was able to have the CT within a few days - the results show no problems. I also had the hearing test within a week or two, which also showed no problems.

The ENG test seems to be popular - or rather, the hospitals allow barely sufficient resources to meet the demand. One Jerusalem hospital offered me an appointment in December, which would have meant a waiting time of about four months. Fortunately, another hospital offered me an appointment in October (only about two and a half months waiting), and this is where I was a few days ago. Although a waiting time of four months is extreme, the technician told me that it is important to perform the test when the subject is not suffering from vertigo. This way, the test can be performed properly without internal attacks interfering with it.

There were three parts to the test, all of which I 'performed' whilst lying on a modified dentist's chair. Electrodes were attached to my skin; these pick up the galvanic response of the muscles around the eyes. It seems that my very dry skin caused problems for the electrodes; at one point, the technician had to replace them and even then, she wasn't sure that they were working well. Does this mean that I will have an advantage when taking a polygraph test (not that I ever have)?

During the first part of the test, I had to look at an electronic board placed about 1.5 metres from me. On this board appeared a red dot, which moved from side to side; I had to track this dot with my eyes without moving my head (this sounds easy but is actually quite difficult). At first, the dot moved smoothly back and forth, but in a later stage, it appeared at a random location on the board. After a few minutes of this, the board was rotated by 90 degrees, thus the dot was moving up and down; this was harder to track. The board was then rotated back by 90 degrees, but the speed of the dot moving from side to side was slowly increased until it was whizzing back and forth. Maybe the technician continues to increase the speed until it becomes obvious that the person being tested cannot track the dot at the increased speed. All of these tests left me with a queasy stomach but with no vertigo.

The second part involved me moving rapidly from a sitting position to a prone position, turned to the right (my preferred sleeping position). I then had to turn to lie on my left side. This was repeated a few times and didn't cause me any apparent vertigo.

The final part was the caloric test, which is divided into four parts. Throughout the entire test, I had my eyes closed (opening the eyes tends to cause vertigo to cease). In the first part, hot water (44 degrees) was introduced into my right ear for a minute or so; this was initially quite painful as the temperature of the water was too hot for comfort. After about 30 seconds, I began to experience vertigo; this is perfectly natural and in fact the purpose of the test is to see whether there is a measurable difference in the induced vertigo, depending on ear. Subjectively, it felt as if I were turning in circles, which is not the normal sensation of vertigo that I get.

It took a few minutes after the cessation of the water for the vertigo to subside, which is again perfectly natural. Once I felt normal again, I had to rest for five minutes before the procedure was repeated, this time hot water in the left ear. Again, vertigo after a few seconds, but this time it felt as if I were spinning in space, a 3-D sensation as opposed to the 2-D sensation in my right ear. Once more, this was not the sensation of vertigo that I have when lying in bed.

After a further rest period, I had cold (30 degrees) water introduced into my right ear. This produced no subjective sensation at all, although the technician said that the electrodes did detect some vertigo. After the mandatory five minutes of rest, cold water was introduced into the left ear, which almost immediately caused vertigo. I think that the intensity was less than with the hot water, but I don't recall exactly.

After the mandatory rest period, I was free to go. I felt a little washed out but otherwise ok. After about another hour, I felt totally normal. Although I was promised the results almost immediately (the same day), they have still to arrive, so I don't know whether a problem was detected in my balance system. The technician mentioned something about a non-localised problem, meaning that there is something wrong but that the tests didn't point to a specific location or cause. Hopefully the ENT doctor (or the neurologist who I will see afterwards) will be able to decipher the results and find the reason for the vertigo and headaches.

I note with pleasure that I haven't had a single bad headache in the past three weeks (and only one mild one). I was given new medication for headaches exactly at the same time of that last severe headache; this is a mild opiate along with paracetamol. So far, I have taken only one pill, which certainly got rid of the headache but gave me terrible gastric reflux pain. Fortunately, I haven't been required to repeat the experience of taking this pill, so I don't know whether the reflux was a direct consequence of the medication (let's hope not).

Update: the results arrived about half an hour after posting the above. They read "There is no spontaneous nystagmus. LT beating nystagmus recorded with positional test. Oculometric tests are normal. Bithermal caloric test is within the normal limits".

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Vinyl log 23 - 20 October

20October1971Dave EvansThe words inbetween

As I wrote here several years ago, 1971 found me as a dewy-eyed teenager sitting agog at the Bristol Troubadour. I had just discovered that my adopted home city had a strong "folk scene," and that good music was always to be found in that musky room in the Clifton district. Of the many musicians that I saw there, the strongest impression was made by a guitarist and singer called Dave Evans. It always seemed that he had several hands playing the guitar at the same time, and his performances used to hold me spellbound. One Sunday evening at a concert (at the appropriately named Newman Hall, actually not far from my house), Dave introduced an instrumental as "a number which I recorded this afternoon for a forthcoming album". I waited a few weeks, then went round to the local record company's headquarters and purchased my copy of The Words In Between.

The "local record company's headquarters" was situated a short walk away from my school, at the top of Park Street, and was called The Village Thing. The person who I used to deal with was called Rod Matthews who was a graphic designer. He was also a drummer and played on a later VT record by Hunt and Turner; by the time that record had been released, I no longer frequented the VT offices, which was just as well as I was saved having to tell Matthews that he wasn't a very good drummer.

The newspaper here runs a weekly column in which they ask questions of minor celebrity, generally about the celeb's youth. One frequent question is "what advice would you give to your 16 year old self?". Apart from trying to grow a thicker skin, I would have advised my younger self to seek guitar lessons from Dave Evans. I have no idea whether he actually gave lessons but it wouldn't have hurt to ask. But at the time, I considered myself a mean rhythm guitarist and would have been embarrassed by the need to take lessons.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

'Intriguing' email

Today I received an email, part of which reads as follows
Are you the author of work entitled « Spreadsheets in an ERP environment: not what the doctor ordered »? It was apparently written at the Heriot-Watt University in 2015. I believe this particular topic could be of interest to a wider audience and we would be glad to consider publishing it. We would be especially interested in publishing a complete academic work of yours (a thesis, a dissertation or a monograph) as a printed book. Our services are free of charge for authors.

The email was sent by someone from Lambert Academic Publishing; the inherent flattery in the mail (I think that my research subject is interesting but not many other people do, and this person divined this from my modest two page article) caught my detector. After a quick search on Academic Stack Exchange, I found a question entitled " Is Lambert Academic Publishing a reputable company? The short answer is "no!".

Here's a link to a very interesting article on the subject, entitled "A Trip Through the Surreal World of an Academic Book Mill".

Thursday, October 08, 2015

How the mind works

I have been reading this fascinating book by Steven Pinker for some time. It is large – 765 pages – and both engrossing and intellectually deep. Thus my normal high reading speed is tempered somewhat. In a sense, this book provides a great deal of measured academic background for David Lodge's excellent novel, "Thinks". There is a section on qualia and one section on emotions and why they exist. Whilst the statement apparently made by Darwin and discussed at length by Lodge's characters – crying is a puzzler – does not appear in Pinker's book (or if it does, I haven't come across it yet), there is a section about grief, which also is discussed by Lodge's fictional professor, Ralph Messenger. 

Following is some of what Pinker writes on the subject: No one knows what, if anything, grief is for. Obviously the loss of a loved one is unpleasant, but why should it be devastating? Why the debilitating pain that stops people from eating, sleeping, resisting diseases, and getting on with life? Jane Goodall describes a young chimp, Flint, who after the death of his beloved mother became depressed and died himself as if of a broken heart. [I should mention here that after my paternal grandmother died, my paternal grandfather died after a few weeks, and the same thing recently happened to the parents of someone on the kibbutz – NBN].

Some have suggested that grief is an enforced interlude for reassessment. Life will never be the same so one must take time to plan how to cope with a world that has been turned upside down. Perhaps grief also gives people time to contemplate how a lapse of theirs may have allowed the death and how they might be more careful in the future [pp 444-5].

Another snippet reminds me of a letter which I received from my mentor a few weeks ago which incensed me at the time; I decided to wait a few days to calm down before replying. When I did reply, his letter seemed much more to the point and basically exposed my misunderstanding. Pinker writes: Sometimes we have glimpses of our own self-deception. When does a negative remark sting, cut deep, hit a nerve? When some part of us knows it is true. If every part knew it was true, the remark would not sting; it would be old news. If no part thought it was true, the remark would roll off; we could dismiss it as false. Travers recounts an experience which is all too familiar (at least to me). One of his papers drew a published critique, which struck him at the time as vicious and unprincipled, full of innuendo and slander. Rereading the article years later, he was surprised to find that the wording was gentler, the doubts more reasonable, the attitude less biased than he remembered. Many others have made such discoveries; they are almost the definition of "wisdom". [p 447]

Post script: I looked at the appendix of Lodge's "Thinks" and saw that amongst the books which Lodge read prior to writing his novel is "How the mind works" by Stephen Pinker.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

More statistics functions with SQL

There are  three  commonly  used  measures  of  central  tendency: the  mode, the median and the mean. The mode describes the most common score, the median the score of the middle case, and the mean the average score. The measures available for analysis depend on the type of variable.


 In my data, the 'results' table contains the results (naturally) for a given section (or variable). Since data from nominal and ordinal variables cannot be aggregated (see previous post), each section corresponds to a single question, thus the results (or scores) are actually the options chosen for that question.

In my pilot study, the results for the following ordinal question were
Q45: What is your highest level of education?
1. Ninth grade (O-levels) - 0
2. A levels - 1
3. Professional diploma - 3
4. Bachelor degree - 8
5. Masters degree - 4
6. Doctorate - 0

The mode is clearly 8 - bachelor degree. This can be determined by a fairly easy SQL query:
select score, count (*) from results where section = :p1 group by score order by count (*) desc
where p1 is a parameter whose value is the number of the section being evaluated (for education, it's 12). The query will return several rows, depending on how many options exist for the question, but only the first row (which will be 4, 8) would be used.

If one arranges the values by score, they are 1333444444445555. As there are 16 values, the median lies between the 8th and 9th value, which in both cases is 4. Obtaining the median via SQL without using a cursor is fairly tricky - it involves the use of two less frequently used SQL keywords: first and skip. The query which I came up with is
select first 1 skip 8 score from results where section = :p1 order by score
The number following first defines the number of rows to be returned - in this case, one. The number following skip defines how many rows in the original dataset should be skipped before applying first: translated into English, the query says order the values, skip the first eight values then return the next one. In other words, return the ninth value - the median - when the rows are ordered.

The reason that the '8' is on a separate row is because it cannot be parameterised; it has to be added dynamically into the SQL query during preparation; isolating this value simplifies the addition.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Recommended statistics book

Hopefully my silence here over the past two weeks can be interpreted as being due to a period of hard work interspersed with holidays in which I have done little. That description corresponds quite well to the truth.

Over the past few days, I've been working once again on the statistical analysis of the interim data collected during the pilot study of my doctorate. This follows an interchange with my mentor whom at first I thought was misunderstanding me; it turns out that I was misunderstanding him. I should try to remember that whenever he writes something which seems to be wrong, he is writing from a position of knowledge and so I should try and see from his point of view what is wrong.

It appears that I was labouring under a misunderstanding regarding some of the variables, and I've been working on redefining them. To recap, a variable can be one of four types: interval (eg age, IQ, years of employment), ordinal (data which can be ranked, but the gaps between each value are not constant), nominal (name only, eg religion, department) and dichotomous (two values only, eg gender).

Only data from interval variables can be aggregated; my mistake was trying to aggregate ordinal data. Having improved my understanding, I can now see how the misunderstanding arose: ordinal data can participate in multiple regression analysis (where each option is assigned a dummy value), but one can't aggregate those dummy values from more than one question.

So whereas before I had one variable called 'Training', composed of the aggregate value of three questions, I now have three variables entitled 'frequency of training', 'type of training' and 'quality of training'. These variables are compared to the dependent variable (use of spreadsheets with Priority data) by means of ANOVA and the F-test.

I can recommend the book "Statistics: a tool for social research" by Joseph F. Hailey as being both a good introduction and also a companion for the calculations required in my research. Unlike other books which I have read on the subject, Hailey begins with the four types of variables and notes which mathematical operations can be carried out of which type of variable. Of course, he carries on to show which analytical tools can be used on which type of variable. 

Although I had read about ANOVA elsewhere, the material had not been presented in the way which allowed me to make the connection with my data. In fact, there is a detailed ANOVA calculation in the 'Introduction to Business Research 3' course, but again this was presented in a slightly different way. IBR3 makes no mention whatsoever of the four variable types, which I think is a shame. I shall point this out to my mentor.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

New Year greetings

This evening is the Jewish New Year, so to all my readers - a happy and prosperous New Year! May this one be better than the last.

Let's climb into the time machine and set the dials for ... Rosh HaShana, 1975: 40 years ago. I spent the summer of 1975 on Kibbutz Bet Ha'emek, revisiting the glories of my gap year. I remember this as a lovely summer, which reinforced my decision to emigrate. Rosh HaShana is the only festival which is celebrated for two consecutive days. On both evenings, all the kibbutz ate at trestle tables set on the grass outside of the dining room.

I was flattered to be asked to participate in the pick-up band which played in the ceremony for the first night; I was playing bass guitar. As I recall, we played three songs. After the short ceremony, I stepped off stage to join my friends for the meal.

At some stage, I was asked whether I would work in the kitchen on the second holiday day. One might see this as being an out of line request, but it didn't bother me much: I would be going home shortly and I had one day off anyway. I spent the entire 8 hour shift cooking 800 pieces of chicken shnitzel for the kibbutz to eat on the lawn the second evening. I'm fairly confident that I didn't eat any myself.

Back into the time machine, I set the dials for Rosh HaShana, 1980: 35 years ago. I was in the middle of my army service then. Despite the efforts of the kibbutz secretary who told the army that I was required for the holiday celebrations on the kibbutz (who else could play the guitar?), I was short-listed for guard duty during the long holiday. Probably on the day, I was offered a choice: either stay on the base or travel to a moshav in the north of Israel and do guard duty there. I thought that the moshav would be more interesting than the base and so ignored the prime directive: never volunteer for anything in the army.

Along with two girls from my unit (who I didn't know; I spent my days in a laboratory which was situated outside of the actual unit, so I knew very few people there), I joined up with maybe thirty other soldiers. About eight of us were deposited at a place called Dishon, which is in the very far north of Israel, on the Lebanese border.

I had a horrible time: the guard duty itself was not too demanding, but the room in which we slept was infested with mosquitoes. To my great annoyance, none of the people living on the moshav took any interest in us; I thought that maybe we would be invited into someone's house to help celebrate the festival but we were ignored. One of the girls from my unit turned out to be a slag and spent several hours under the covers with one of the other soldiers. I don't remember now how or where we ate.

After arriving home, I discovered that - as usual - a surplus of soldiers had been asked to stay for guard duty and some had been released home. In other words, had I not volunteered to go to the north, I might well have spent the three days at home on the kibbutz. This was the cherry on the icing of a horrible few days (I can think of several alternatives to 'cherry', but none of them are polite).