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Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Mellow Week For A Change!

After the frantic and frenetic past few weeks, things mellowed down significantly this week. Maybe it has something to do with the adjustment of my attitude towards my project, maybe it is something else. Who knows, and seriously, who cares?! I can do with some more mellow weeks at any time!

My project continued scraping along this week at its predictable pace: slow if it moves forward at all. There were the usual bumps and hiccups, with our IT department making some more stupid and unreasonable demands. We put together a couple of meetings to discuss the timeline further and nail some details down, but the IT department folks "were too busy to make it" to either of those meetings.

That just gave me extra time to work on my own projects. Let us see, I actually got significant amounts of work done on three different projects. First of all, I decided to share my knowledge of Microsoft Access with others by starting a series of blog posts on Access tips and tricks. I published the first of these on Friday, about finding medians using plain SQL, and have material for the next several weeks planned out.

You see, being new to blogging, I keep forgetting that blogging is about keeping the flow of articles steady over the long run. Slow and steady wins the race! Nobody returns to a blog that has 30 posts on one day and nothing for the next 3 weeks. I am discovering these nuances on my own instead of just learning them from a book, but the lessons best learned are the ones you learn first-hand, not by reading from a book.

Getting back on topic, I could have written up everything I wanted to say about Access in one giant article and posted it on my blog all at once. Or I could have made 30 posts out of it and then posted them all last week. And then, I would be left hunting for new material to post on my blog. Now, the way I have it thought out, I can post dribs and drabs about Access every week for the next several months. It keeps the blog active, keeps up the curiosity of my repeat visitors who will always have something new to look forward to, and I don't have to cram all the work of writing up the posts into one afternoon! Moreover, I can gauge the interest of my readership and adjust later posts to better tune my blog to the interests of the readers and what they want to see. I am guessing a basic book on blogging probably has similar advice, but I learn better, though more painfully, this way!

Getting off topic once more (talking about blogging reminded me of this), I also put together a quick post on the topic of traffic exchanges and their value in publicizing your blog when you initially start blogging. It is not a long term fix to the problem of getting traffic to your blog: if there is no interesting or useful content in the blog, then traffic will always be hard to come by. But it is a solution to the problem of how to let people even know that your blog exists.

Getting back on topic once again, I ran an 8-hour training course on Microsoft Access for my department during the summer. My department uses Access mostly for data analysis. The database aspect of it is more of a convenience to have, but nobody uses it in my department to support or run any production models. Instead it is primarily used to pull data in from our enterprise data warehouses, do lots of analysis on the data, and produce results for mostly internal consumption (justification for a project, and so on and so forth).

As such, I concentrated my training on the more "boring" aspects of Access such as advanced SQL. I did not even go into the graphical user interface aspects of Access because that is an ocean that can not be covered in any reasonable length of time in a training course. I learnt to use Access, including forms, reports, VBA, etc., by reading books, and I think people interested in learning that should do the same. But the SQL part of Access is not only very amenable to being covered as a short training course, it is also extremely useful. The knowledge is transferable to other relational database management systems and it is useful for data analysis using programs like SAS also. Anyways, this is the part of Access that is useful for data analysis. Forms and reports are useful for production code in which non-technical users need to input data and/or get analysis results in a format that can be printed out, etc. But in our department, the numbers are more important than how they got in and out of the database, so I don't feel guilty about leaving out the fluff when I designed my training course.

Most importantly, SQL is the analytical part of Access which appeals to my brain intuitively. Reports and forms are very useful, but the graphical aspects of these elements don't appeal to me intuitively. I am not a graphically oriented person, and my GUI designs tend to be minimalistic and functional, rather than being grand and eye-catching. I will probably teach my colleagues VBA in another training course in the coming year, but I probably won't get into forms and reports unless people beg me.

Personally, I think Microsoft Access is the best rapid application development (RAD) platform ever invented. I use Access for all kinds of projects, some of which have nothing whatever to do with data. I have put together Sudoku solvers, crossword puzzle creators and various other personal projects in Access ever since I was introduced to the software several years ago. The forms give one a ready and easy way to grab user input, and VBA is powerful enough for most purposes as a programming platform. Have I ever told you that I love Access?! I do, and it's not just an infatuation either!!

Secondly, I reached an important milestone in entering my eBook collection into my database this week. I completed entries for 2,000 eBooks, and have only a couple of hundred left to go. I had set myself a deadline of close to the end of this month, early in the year, for completing this task. I slacked off on the task during the summer months, but I have been working on it quite vigorously the past few weeks. I am glad it has reached a significant milestone and the end is in sight. Once, my current collection is in the database, it becomes more of a maintenance project where I only have to remember to enter into the database new acquisitions.

Thirdly, I got started on a project at home to train my kids for a math olympiad taking place early next year. I have sat with them and started going over past olympiad question papers as part of the preparation. Olympiads are tricky because they test concepts rather than the mechanics of solving problems. I find it difficult sometimes to get into the theoretical aspects of how to find the solution to some of these olympiad problems without tuning my kids out completely. They are very good at math 3 or 4 grade levels above theirs, but they don't have the theoretical underpinnings to understand the subtleties of linear algebra or deriving the volume of an irregular solid using calculus.

In my Wednesday karate class, we went over our "basics" after a long break. I like the repetiton entailed in doing the basics of karate. It is essential to learn the proper way to perform the basic techniques, as well as improve one's power while doing them. It teaches you the right mechanics, the right way to breathe, the right way to keep your balance, etc., etc. In our class, we do 6 basic techniques with a closed fist as part of the basics, 4 open-handed techniques, and 4 types of kicks.

The closed-fist techniques are front punch to the chest, inside fore-arm block, outside fore-arm block, rising block, down block, and finally an inverted fist strike to the face. The open-handed techniques are knife-hands to the temples, the collarbones, the throat and the solar plexus. The kicks are front-snap kick, side-snap kick, round-house kick and hook kick.

The hand techniques are delivered out of a side-stance or Sanchin stance, while the kicks are delivered out of a front stance. When the younger students were doing these basics, the sensei walked around and corrected various aspects of their techniques, the mechanics of the delivery, the stances, etc. One of the main problems with the kicks was that the younger students were not coming back to a good forward stance after each kick. The mechanics of the kick looked OK, but they were wobbly after each kick. Turns out, their weight distribution on a front stance was not appropriate: they were resting more of their weight on the back leg than they should. Every time they kicked, they would transfer weight to the front leg, kick and then try "falling back" on the back leg again. This not only led to slow and less powerful kicks (transferring weight from the back leg to the front leg before each kick makes them slow, the process of trying to fall back on the back leg leads to pulled kicks that are not as powerful as they could be), but also balance issues associated with getting back into a proper stance after each kick.

My sensei is a big believer in the basics and we used to practice them more frequently before, but it has dropped off in the last few months for some reason. I was glad we did it this week. I also like drills where we punch and block our way back and forth across the floor of the dojo in pairs. We haven't done those in a while, but I am hoping we get to do those soon too. I also worked with the younger students and taught them more self-defense techniques, in a continuation of what I have been doing the past few weeks.

On Thursday morning, I got irritated with news coverage of the Yankees winning the world series. So irritated that I had to write a blog post about this awe-inspiring feat that they have performed - NOT! It is basically fawning and brain-dead news coverage like this that made me stop following professional sports quite a few years back. I am glad things haven't improved much because I just don't have time in my life to go back to following sports closely!

I hope this week signals the beginning of a streak of mellow weeks to follow. I have not posted anything on Vedic Mathematics in a while. It is not because I haven't found the time to write up what I know. It is because, I haven't been hitting my books for the past couple of weeks. Hopefully, I will have something to write up on that topic in the next week or two, now that I am able to breathe deeply and relax! I also have the rough outlines of a couple of short stories that I want to flesh out and post on my blog. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I have neither the imagination nor the eloquence to be a good one. But I still want to pursue it at least as a way to spice up my blog.

Who knew having to work with an obstructionist and obstreperous IT department would be such a relaxing experience! It is time to get ready now for another hopefully mellow, refreshing and reinvigorating week of sitting at work and working on things that are important to me!!

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