Thursday, October 31, 2019

Coincidence or deliberate reference?

The protagonist of John Le Carré's new novel "Agent running in the field" is a confirmed player of badminton (club champion), and as such makes his introduction in the book.

Rereading the fascinating "The spy and the traitor" by Ben Macintyre, I am struck by the fact that Oleg Gordievsky, the eponymous spy and traitor, was a badminton player. There was an attempt to recruit him to MI6 with a female badminton player but this approach fails.

I wonder whether this was a coincidence or a deliberate reference in JlC's book to real life events.

Macintyre's book is, of course, essential reading for all fans of JlC, to read how things are done in the real world.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Agent running in the field

This is a new John le Carré novel which I pre-ordered and so was able to download it onto my Kindle on the day of its publication last week. As this day was a Wednesday, I was able to read it on the way to Karmiel and on the way back. I finished it before I arrived home, so it required about three hours reading.

Unlike some of JlC's novels from the 90s, it was an easy and entertaining read - but not particularly deep. To those who think that all JlC's novels are like Russian matryoshka dolls, full of deception and conspiracy, where nothing is what it appears to be: this is not one of those novels. In fact, this one was fairly straight-forward, with only a few twists in the tale (one I guessed in advance, another took me by surprise, although it didn't seem to be particularly important).

It was an interesting read, but no more than that. Certainly not classic JlC. The writing, of course, is a pleasure to read, but that doesn't compensate for the relatively slight plot.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

This must be the place (2)

I've just come across one of the funniest versions of this Talking Heads song which I wrote about last year. Highly recommended to break the ice!


Saturday, October 19, 2019

Juliet (naked) - the film

I was mildly surprised a few days ago when I saw that our local television film channel would be showing the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's "Juliet (naked)" book, to which I have referred several times on this blog. I didn't even know that the book had been filmed. My first thought was that Hornby has a very high ratio of films to books - "Fever pitch" (twice), "High fidelity", "About a boy", "A long way down" and now "Juliet (naked)". The unfilmed (as yet) books are "How to be good", "Slam" and "Funny girl"; the last book would make a good film.

As I have probably written ad nauseam, I dislike films (or television series) based on books which change things for no apparent reason. This film was no different: whilst there were changes which made sense, others were annoying. The lamest change of all was giving protagonist Tucker Crowe the email address 'tucker.crowe@aol.com'! Really! Surely the obsessive fans would have tried this in their attempt to contact their hero. In the book, Crowe chooses for his email address the name of a minor character from one of Charles Dickens' books (I don't remember it off-hand) from which no one would have made the connection to Crowe. On the basis of this moniker, Annie brings Crowe some Dickens' novels when she visits him in hospital.

The main characters didn't match up physically to how I envisaged them: Duncan should have been shorter, pudgier and less self-confident whereas Annie should have been taller (I have to admit that I was very taken with the actress who played Annie - Rose Byrne - who is Australian, which explains her varying accent). The look I envisaged for Tucker Crowe was as a younger version of Richard Dreyfuss in "My life in ruins"; I'm fairly sure that the book describes him as having short cropped hair. On the other hand, the town councillor was pretty much as I expected him.

So: I was underwhelmed. The parts of the book which spoke to me did not come over in the film and so we were left with a fairly lame and unlikely tale. It will be interesting to see what my wife thinks of the film.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Priority: LIKE cannot accept a variable

I wanted to write a form trigger which is dependent on the value of a certain field (the number of a previous order). Unfortunately, this field is not bound but rather a simple text field, which means that instead of it holding values like KL191234 (this would be the previous order number), it holds values like 1234, 191234 or even 1234/5. This is problematic, but one evening the answer came to me: use the standard SQL keyword LIKE, where the order number is preceded by *. Thus KL191234 will be matched by *1234 or *191234 (but not *1234/5). On this basis I wrote the following code, where TEST_PREVORDER holds the value of the previous order
:PREVORD = 0;
SELECT ORD INTO :PREVORD
FROM ORDERS
WHERE ORDNAME LIKE STRCAT ('*', :$.TEST_PREVORDER)
AND CUST = :$.CUST;
GOTO 99 WHERE :RETVAL <= 0;
The syntax checker told me that there was an error with STRCAT. In order to combat this, I placed the STRCAT function before the query, assigning its value to a variable, then used this variable in the query. This did not help matters.

Eventually I realised what the problem was - LIKE (at least, in its Priority definition) cannot accept a variable as its parameter; it has to be a 'naked' string like '*T' or 'T*'. As usual, this doesn't seem to be defined anywhere, but I discovered that I had commented on this a few years ago (not on this blog).

So add this to the growing list of improvements for Priority SQL. The syntax checker
  1. should check that every cursor which is opened is also closed.
  2. should check that every LINK has a matched UNLINK (this is probably very difficult)
  3. should allow LIKE to take a variable as its parameter
The final code became
/* Stupid code required because LIKE cannot accept a variable as a parameter */ :TPO = :$.TEST_PREVORDER; :TLEN = STRLEN (:TPO); GOTO 4 WHERE :TLEN = 4; GOTO 6 WHERE :TLEN = 6; GOTO 8 WHERE :TLEN = 8; GOTO 99; LABEL 4; :TPO = STRCAT (ITOA (YEAR (SQL.DATE8) MOD 100), :TPO); LABEL 6; :TPO = STRCAT ('KL', :TPO); LABEL 8; :PREVORD = 0; SELECT ORD INTO :PREVORD FROM ORDERS WHERE ORDNAME = :TPO AND CUST = :$.CUST; GOTO 99 WHERE :RETVAL <= 0;
Note that the code 'falls through' the labels: if TPO is '1234', then the code will jump to label 4, where TPO becomes '191234'. Then the code for length 6 executes: TPO becomes KL191234. Then the code for length 8 executes - which is the real code. In other cases, there would be another GOTO on the line before 'LABEL 6' but here it is not required.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Acting like an MBA (a 'suit')

I wrote a few months ago about 10 years of post-graduate study, mentioning that I have learnt a great deal throughout these years although to be honest, I haven't seen myself applying much of the material. Thinking about this the other day, I realised that this statement isn't quite true.

Over the past few months, the CEO set up a series of weekly meetings at Karmiel, discussing various aspects of the work there. These meetings are one after the other, so I arrive at about 8:45 am, immediately join one meeting, then return home several hours later after participating in six or seven consecutive meetings. I make contributions to these meetings, but sometimes it's very difficult to get a word in when the CEO is talking strategy. The CEO has withdrawn himself from these meetings from the beginning of September, passing the chairmanship to a vice president so I have found myself making more and more contributions, finally acting like an MBA. 

Also, the new manager of the furniture factory (appointed after the sudden death of my friend Ya'ir) came without a business background (one wonders why he got the appointment), so I have been working with him on a weekly or fortnightly basis, bringing him up to speed and explaining all kinds of things; basically being an MBA. The other day, he once again expressed his thanks for the time that I have devoted to him; I told him that, apart from this being part of my job, it has also been instructive and enjoyable for me as well. This allows me to come out of the shade of the CEO and to apply material which I learnt during the MBA studies.

I think that there should be a raise in my salary, but I have my doubts whether this will happen (although nothing will happen if I don't ask). As I remarked to the furniture manager, when things go well, one doesn't investigate problems too deeply, but when business results are poor (and they have been recently), one investigates thoroughly. How can one justify a salary increase when results are poor? 

There are two other aspects of salary which ought to be taken into account. One is scarcity: how scarce is the ability that one brings to a job? This assumes that everyone can perform manual labour, so this is not scarce and results in a low wage. Few people can successfully manage a company, so this ability is scarce and should be awarded proportionally. I think that even fewer people can combine between business knowledge and the ability to enhance an ERP system: I provide a various scarce ability and so should be suitably rewarded.

The other aspect is responsibility: again, manual workers have little or no responsibility for the final product or how well a company performs, whereas responsibility increases as one ascends the management chain. I advise but do not take business decisions; my responsibility is lower than one might think. My work has little effect on the bottom line. I can make people more efficient but I can't make the company more successful.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Two (historical) events which I wish had never happened

My friend the rhinovirus came to visit two days ago, so since then I've been displaying all the usual symptoms: blocked nose, disappearing voice and especially general weakness. Fortunately it is holiday time here so I don't have any commitments in the next few days, thus allowing me to recover without causing any complications.

I found it very difficult to get to sleep last night; as a side effect of the virus, I'm not walking 5 km in the evenings and so my body is not physically tired. To add to my problems, I had an over-active brain last night and all I could think about was two events which happened to me in 1974. One has to suspend one's belief that these events really happened.

As one might recall, I was in Israel for the first half of 1974. The first event happened when the group was in Jerusalem, so it was presumably in January 1974. I had travelled from Jerusalem to spend a weekend with a family in Netanya; I would return by train.  It's hard to accept this now but there were trains from Nahariya to Tel Aviv and from Netanya to Jerusalem 40+ years ago; the 80s were a bad decade for Israeli trains.

Somehow, we knew that there was a train leaving at about 5 pm (how we knew this is interesting as there wasn't an Internet which would show times) for Jerusalem and one about 10 minutes earlier for Tel Aviv. I was driven to the train station where there was a train waiting; without checking, I went to alight this train, whereupon it started moving. Without thinking, I stood on the step, holding on to the handles of the carriage, like in Wild West films. The train picked up speed, and I'm still holding on - from the outside. After about ten/fifteen minutes, someone must have noticed me, for the train stopped. I was able to open the door and enter the train. Of course, I was shaking like a leaf.

In the train, I came across a member of Kibbutz Bet Ha'emek (where we were based). Whilst talking to him, I discovered that of course, I had alighted the train to Tel Aviv, which was a few minutes late as opposed to alighting the train to Jerusalem. I don't remember talking to the train conductor, but soon the train stopped at a station (I remember it being Bnei Barak, which doesn't make sense for a train from Netanya to Tel Aviv) where I disembarked. Shortly afterwards came the Jerusalem train and off I went. The old train station in Jerusalem was at the beginning of the Hebron Road, which was a kilometre or so from the seminar centre.

The second event happened a few months later when we were solidly in the midst of the 'work period'. I had decided to spend a weekend at Kibbutz Mevo Chama in the southern part of the Golan heights; this was the kibbutz where the most recent emigrants from British Habonim had settled, and it was assumed that the next group - to which I would belong - would also settle there. Despite having been there for two one week periods, I hadn't developed any real feel or liking for the kibbutz, so presumably I thought that going there for a weekend would be an attempt to improve my liking.

Reconstructing from memory, I must have left Bet Ha'emek on a Thursday afternoon, travelling by bus to Tiberias, from where would leave another bus to Mevo Chama at 8 pm. Unfortunately, I arrived a few minutes after this bus departed, so I was stuck in Tiberias. In retrospect, it might have been more prudent to return home (if this were possible), but instead I decided to spend the night there. Having very little money (I only needed to pay bus fares), a hotel or hostel was out of the picture. With little choice, I decided to sleep on a park bench near the police station; I think that I had explained to them my position and they suggested that I spend the night in the park. One must remember that this was shortly after the war and everyone was suspicious of strangers.

Although it was warm, it was very uncomfortable sleeping on a bench which I suspect was not long enough (and I'm not exactly tall). I woke in the early morning and made my way to the bus station; presumably it being Friday, there wouldn't be a bus at 8 pm but rather at 2 pm. Unwilling to wait another eight hours or so, I decided to take a bus to kibbutz Ein Gev, which whilst being on the right sight of the Sea of Galilee, was also next to the sea, whereas Mevo Chama was at the top of a high cliff, overlooking the sea.

I don't remember now how I got from one kibbutz to the other; presumably I must have hitched a lift for some of the way (north to Samech Junction, which is just above the '92' mark on the map, then east and up, finally south on '98'), but I do remember walking part of the way, with blackened vehicle wrecks by the sides of the road - don't forget, this was a few months after the war.

Eventually I arrived at the kibbutz and had yet another dismal time there, which near enough sealed the fate of this kibbutz for me - NO! I must have returned 'home' safely with no memorable incidents.

While writing this memoir, I first thought that I never returned to Mevo Chama, but that isn't so. In 1999 (?) we rented a small holiday home near the sea of Galilee (it would be in the top left hand corner of the map), and one day we took the children to the Golan and to Mevo Chama. We walked to the club house where I had celebrated my 16th birthday, admired the views, then drove on. Also at some stage we had visited the hot springs at Hamat Gader, which is a few kilometres south and east of Mevo Chama; I had been there in 1974 before the site had been developed in a tourist attraction.

There used to be a parlour game which we used to play where one would describe two incidents, one which happened and one which was imagined. The other players would have to guess which incident was true and which was not. I always used the railway story along with some invented story which would sound reasonable for me - and no one ever guessed that the railway story really happened to me.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Cosmology

Over the past week, I've been reading a very interesting book entitled "The 4% universe: dark matter, dark energy and the race to discover the rest of reality", written by Richard Panek. This is a subject which has always fascinated me and the book gives good explanations about the subjects covered.

Especially interesting to me at the moment are the discussions about doctorates: in the sciences, these are supposed to follow the scientific method which is composed of three stages:
1. make observations
2. propose a theory which explains those observations
3. make predictions on the basis of the theory.

A good example of the above method is Mendeleev and his periodic table of elements. Various facts were known about the elements which had been isolated by 1869; Mendeleev proposed a theory which could explain those facts, but he also made predictions about elements which had yet to be discovered. When new elements were discovered, their properties were checked against this theory and the predictions confirmed.

Unfortunately, doctoral theories in social sciences (and business administration is placed here) don't usually present testable theories.

The book begins with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation which had been predicted and found by accident in 1965. It then goes on to discuss the work of Vera Rubin who worked - at first in isolation - on galaxy rotation rates. From there, super novae are discussed, and in my opinion, this is where the book gets bogged down, as there are two competing teams and it's difficult (at least, for me) to remember who belongs to which team.

The findings of Rubin (and originally those of Hubble in 1929) show that the galaxies are speeding away from us and that the rate of acceleration is also increasing. The estimated mass of the galaxies cannot account for this, implying that there is mass which we cannot see - the eponymous dark matter (which, to be topical, is the name of Randy Newman's most recent record). Without going into the calculations, it appears that we can only see and measure 4% (4.5%) of the universe!

With a neat piece of synchronicity, it was announced a few days ago that one of the winners of the 2019 Nobel prize for physics is Jim Peebles, who appears frequently in the above book. The citation is for 'theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology'.

Tangentially, Frederik Pohl's "Gateway" series is about cosmology: at the end of the second book, there is discussion of the missing mass (dark matter) and a supposition that someone is causing the universe to contract (which would require even more matter and/or energy) in order to restart the universe with different parameters (for example, the mass ratio between protons and electrons). One character wrote a doctoral thesis on this subject which was not accepted, as it did not produce testable predictions (unlike in real life).

Without going into the subject very deeply, there are about six numbers which are observed which do not evolve from theory; changing these numbers would cause the universe as we know it not to exist, or at least to change drastically (for example, changing the value of one parameter would prevent the existence of stars). This is known as the 'Goldilocks principle', and I own a book by Professor Paul Davies which explains this (unfortunately, the book is harder to read than the Gateway books or even 'The 4% universe'; also I have it in print and not Kindle). Why Goldilocks? Because these numbers produce a universe which allows human beings to exist, and so the universe is 'just right', like Goldilocks' porridge. This is also known as the 'anthropic principle'.

I would love to know how Pohl researched that series and whether he originally conceived just the initial book or the entire series. The style and structure of the first book is different from the others, so there is reason to support the suggestion that the other three books were not originally planned. Also, the first book dates from 1977, which is prior to several large steps in cosmology (as discussed in '4%'; for example, the inflation theory of Guth dates from 1980) whereas the others could have been based on new discoveries and/or theories.