System Performance – Thinking Sideways

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I find system performance problems utterly engrossing. Although CPUs have accelerated (in line with Moore’s Law), and multiplied, and although memory has expanded, network communication speeds have increased and access times for storage media have shortened, software has become more sophisticated and we still find ourselves drumming our fingers whilst waiting for our systems to respond.

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When you’re dealing with a performance problem you must think imaginatively and picture the way computing resources are being deployed. If you’re working on a client-server system, where large numbers of PCs might be accessing the same server software (often a database) it is more complicated still.

Sometimes a server processor is too slow (statistics might show that it is never idle), and processes must wait for its availability. In this case you must try to reduce the work it’s doing, by improving the efficiency of code, or by shifting processing from the server to the client.

Sometimes network communications are too slow, and you must reduce the volume of data being transferred between client and server, or reduce the frequency of transfer (web page size can matter in these circumstances, and program logic).

Sometimes a database is poorly designed and an application must ask too many times for data from too many records. This reveals itself as too much data storage activity, or too much database software processing. The answer, then, is to redesign the database, or configure it more effectively so that frequently accessed data are better cached.

Sometimes there is contention for resources. A large database system will often contain ‘control records’ that ensure consistent use of a system (such as a record holding the ‘next invoice number’, a record that many processes may need to update). If access to such records isn’t managed cleverly, one (or many) processes may have to wait for another process to finish its work. Sometimes the result is ‘deadlock’ when one process has ‘locked’ a record that another process wants, and that other process has ‘locked’ a record that the first one wants.

Instinct, and an ability to imagine these resources vying with each other, is a useful talent when it comes to solving problems. Doctors will attest that instinct plays an important role in the diagnosis of human sickness.

But sometimes you solve one problem and create another. Thirty years ago, when I was a junior programmer, I was working on the development and implementation of a financial management system that used a complex database to store its transactions. The client was exasperated by the poor performance of the system. Analysis showed that the CPU was idle most of the time, whilst the disk storage devices were overheating (metaphorically). I looked at the database design and I could see that it resulted in fragmented, almost randomly distributed data, when smooth physical distribution of sequential data was what was needed.

So I redesigned the database and built a caching mechanism that used an algorithm (using chains of pointers) to retain the most frequently accessed records in memory, where they could also be accessed without ‘locking’. Data access activity fell tenfold, but so busy was my algorithm (I mistakenly used bits rather than bytes as indicators in an unnecessarily sophisticated attempt  to save on program size) that the CPU started steaming (metaphorically) instead. The CPU simply couldn’t get through its work. I’d improved overall performance slightly, but insufficiently, and the client abandoned the system. I’d moved the bottleneck from one location to another. There’s always a bottleneck.

But perhaps the most fascinating and frustrating performance problem I was involved in (on behalf of LLP Group) was at Otopeni Airport in Bucharest. Our client, Air BP, was using SunSystems for its financial accounting and reporting (for both local and corporate purposes). They called us, stumped, because, from time to time, and unpredictably, the system slowed markedly and became too frustrating to use. It was a typical client-server system. There were about eight PCs in regular use, and a server sitting in the corner of the office that contained the SQL database that SunSystems used.

We spent hours at Air BP’s airport office. We played around with parameters on their PCs and on the server, and when we were there (as so often happens) the system worked perfectly. It was the exact opposite of the ‘demonstration effect’ which causes software to go wrong just when you want to show it to someone. In this case, it never went wrong when they wanted to show us the problem.

We were stumped too. From time to time we would put our (metaphorical) spanners down and sit and think about it, and have a cup of tea. And usually whilst we were thinking and sipping the system would start to slow down again. Was there a malicious child sitting inside it? We’d go and look at the server parameters, and, hey presto, it started working well again. We looked at the server statistics. The CPU wasn’t busy, the disk storage device wasn’t busy. There was plenty of memory.

And then one of my more logical or imaginative employees had a brainwave.

‘When we’re working on the server, it works well. But when we’re not, after five minutes or so it gets slower. What happens on the server when we’re not working on it?’

‘No idea.’

‘The screensaver switches on.’

And that was it. There was a lovely swirly screensaver that came on after five minutes of inactivity on the server console. So complex and lovely were its graphical calculations that it used 95% of the CPU’s capacity. We simply switched it off.

Sometimes it’s the last thing you would think of.

The Scribblings of Convicts

The most infamous of books written by jailbirds is almost certainly Mein Kampf, Hitler’s torrent of crackpot history and racist nonsense, written whilst he languished in jail after the failed Munich putsch of 1923. It has recently emerged from copyright and was republished in an annotated scholarly edition a week or two ago.

But there’s a respectable tradition too, including John Bunyan’s late 17th century spiritual allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, begun in Bedfordshire County Prison. Other literary luminaries of the prison cell include Cervantes, Oscar Wilde  Nelson Mandela, e e cummings, Jean Genet, and Martin Luther King.

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Perhaps in the hope of contributing to this tradition (though not, I trust, in the vein of Mein Kampf) the Romanian legal system allowed, under a law passed in 2006, a reduction of 30 days from a prisoner’s sentence for each academic book written and published whilst in jail.

The incentive worked. Some 300 books were published by prisoners last year, one of them, a 213-page work, written in under seven hours.

Sadly, Justice Minister Raluca Pruna recently announced that the law would be annulled by emergency decree.

“According to prison administration figures, the number of books published by detainees went from one a year between 2007 and 2010, to 90 in 2014, and 340 last year,” Ms Pruna told a news conference. 

“Given that the phenomenon has spiralled out of control, I have proposed that the government repeal this arrangement via emergency decree,” she added.

Romania’s jails have recently been filled with the great, the good, and the rich, as a result of a large-scale drive against corruption, and whilst there is much that these prisoners might write about, and they certainly have time on their hands, it is widely suspected that some of their works may not be entirely their own. Romania’s anti-corruption prosecutors are investigating.

Businessmen Dan Voiculescu and Dinel Staicu top the list of literary prisoners with ten books each. Voiculescu’s record is especially impressive, given that his sentence only began in August 2014.

Another jailbird on the list is businessman Gheorghe Copos, who was sentenced to four years incarceration. According to The Guardian, Copos was accused of plagiarism for a book entitled Matrimonial Alliances as a Policy of Romanian Kings in the XIV-XVIth Centuries, a subject in which he had shown no previous expertise. Catalin Parfene, a journalist who wrote a thesis on this subject for his master’s degree at the University of Bucharest, told The Guardian that the book had a structure identical to his own work, and repeated his arguments and ideas. Nevertheless, Copos was released from jail, and will presumably devote the rest of his life to further historical research.

Sadly, if this enlightened law is repealed by decree, Victor Ponta, Romania’s former prime minister, to whom a prison cell might yet one day be allocated, must set aside his academic ambitions and the chance to atone for plundering others’ texts for his doctoral thesis.

You are nothing in Romania unless you have an academic treatise to your name. Even Elena Ceausescu, the largely uneducated wife of the Communist dictator who ruled the country until 1989, had the time to pen a work on polymer chemistry. It didn’t save her, though, from getting shot with her husband after a travesty of a trial on Christmas Day 1989.

Flying the EU Flag

I’m delighted to see the European Union flag flying (or, more accurately, hanging limply) in the foyer of our office building in Prague. Part of a Czech Ministry has taken up residence just a few metres away from my desk. I look forward to the happy buzz of busy bureaucrats.

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A few weeks ago a Romanian friend asked me, with an unfeigned air of perplexity, if I thought it likely that the United Kingdom would leave the EU. I said I thought it very possible, perhaps even 40% likely, though I, myself, would be sorry if it were to happen.

For Romanians, and for many citizens of the new member states, most of them formerly members of the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union, joining the EU felt like a homecoming, the reassertion, in many cases, of values they had once lived by or aspired to live by. ‘Joining Europe’ has brought economic benefits, as investment and subsidies have flowed eastwards, and as new markets have opened, but it’s the emotional sense of belonging to Europe, of a belief in common values, that fixes these nations in the Union.

Though the average citizen might find it hard to articulate the meaning of ‘Europe’ if stopped in the street and asked, it’s more or less obvious to the newcomers what Europe stands for – very often things they didn’t have, such as freedom of speech, human rights, democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, property rights, the rule of law (including equality under the law), open and efficient Government, qualified capitalism, equality of opportunity. And more, no doubt.

By contrast, the argument in the UK is presented as a technical one, not an emotional one. Will we be better off or worse off, in or out of the EU? Perhaps because the values and standards I’ve listed are second nature to the British, any politician who recited them would be ridiculed as talking sentimental piffle. We take these values for granted, as if they’ve always belonged to us, were even invented by us. We’ve lived by and fought for these values over centuries.

For us, these ideas are endemic, so there’s no sense that we’ve gained very much by joining a club that promotes them and protects them. We’re up to the task of protecting our way of life without the help of others. So the idea of ‘Europe’ exerts no strong magnetic attraction, certainly insufficient to prevent the United Kingdom drifting off into the Atlantic. In fact, we seem only to resent the EU’s administration of these ideas, and especially if we disagree on their detailed interpretation.

The real shame is that the EU has failed to blow its own trumpet. It’s been useless at promoting itself and the hugely successful, hugely precious values that underpin it. My own view is that ‘European’ politicians lack the stature and celebrity of our national representatives. I would like to see a short European Parliament peopled by the heavyweight politicians we already know. That way we might feel part of it.

Sadly, the current debate in the United Kingdom is dominated by those who want Out, and no one argues passionately for the In case on matters of principle, preferring merely to rubbish the case for Out. We need some positive rather than negative arguments.

I see the EU’s circle of stars here and there as I travel about Europe, even in countries outside the EU where money is being spent to raise the standards of education, transport, and other institutions. For example, in  Moldova, the EU’s investment is a benign political influence, and as the EU’s values spread, so the world will become a better and a safer place.

It’s great to see limp EU flags hanging in the foyers of Government offices, but seeing them only reminds me of how much more work the EU must do to convince the British and many others that the whole project is worthwhile.

What’s the News in Bucharest?

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‘What’s the news in….. ?’ may be an unexciting opener, but it’s often the first question I ask when I arrive at one of our far-flung offices (LLP Group). It’s an open-ended question, and a good conversation starter, but I also ask it because I’m genuinely curious. What makes the news in Sofia, Budapest or Bratislava mightn’t have hit the headlines on the BBC or Sky.  

So, ‘What’s the news in Romania?’ I asked my Romanian colleagues yesterday as we sat down for a mid-afternoon Christmas lunch (the second in two days). They should know by now, of course, that what interests me is scandal and gossip, political or otherwise, but in the concerned silence that followed I suspect they were scratching their heads for trade balances, GDP growth, inward investment figures, and so on. Who cares about such things at this time of year, or ever, for that matter?!

‘I’ll tell you what’s the news in Britain,’ I offered, as the pause lengthened. ‘We’ve just sent a man on a dangerous mission to space, and another one on a dangerous mission to Brussels to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership. And a thousand happy and relieved immigrant Syrians are already complaining about the weather. If that’s not assimilation, then I don’t know what is.’

‘Been there. Done that. We sent our man into space years and years ago,’ one of my colleagues proudly pointed out, though it was probably before she was born.

‘And did he come back?’ I asked. And from there we quickly got to the factoid that I was born on the day that poor ‘one-way-ticket’ Laika (a Russian terrier of some kind, I believe) was blasted into space.

‘I saw Angela Gheorghiu in the street,’ another colleague offered (perhaps knowing that I have a soft spot for opera, if not for preening divas).

It was a gloomy afternoon, and the background music was funereal, though the words, apparently, were Christmassy and joyful. A sense of the absurd prevails in Romania and Romanians are naturally and properly distrustful of Government, of the Judiciary, of officialdom in general. I shouldn’t have expected good news.

To my mind, some of the best recent news has been the resignation of the Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, already a proven plagiarist, and the possibility that he might be charged with criminal fraud. But according to my colleagues it’s quite likely that a deal’s been done and he’ll avoid prosecution as a reward for resignation. So much for an independent legal system.

The fact that Romania’s jails are crammed with corrupt politicians and corrupt businessmen and women should also be cause for celebration, I thought, but there’s a sensible ‘let’s wait and see’ attitude about whether the judiciary is truly independent and sufficiently powerful. After the next election it’s possible that the jailers and the jailed will simply swap positions.

There’s also an interesting story about dogs. Romania, and particularly Bucharest, has always had too many. Former President Basescu, when Mayor of Bucharest, impressed his electorate by sterilising the wild canine population of the city, to non-Romanian Brigitte Bardot’s dismay (see Street Dogs). Some dogs were also offered to the Russian space programme, but were refused as being insufficiently Russian. Now, apparently, the aim is to forbid farmers from possessing too many – a ‘one dog on the plains and three dogs on the mountain policy’ is to prevail in rural Romania (see Romanian Shepherds Protest Dog Policy).  Who the beneficiaries might be (ramblers?) is not clear to me, but the result was an invasion of farmers waving agricultural implements that brought traffic in the city to a standstill on Tuesday. It’s good news of a kind, I suppose, that Parliament has nothing more important to debate.

Parliament has also brought a number of businesses to a halt by forbidding the public use of buildings over a certain age unless they’re certified as possessing sufficient structural strength to survive the next, long overdue, earthquake (see Might Close Down).

It was a jovial afternoon, and the food and wine were good, even as the sky darkened and the rain began to fall. It was a cold walk to the Athenee Palace Hotel.

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Thursday was, by contrast a glorious day, and it felt as if the news could only be good. The sun was shining brightly on an ever-tidier Bucharest. Secret Santa called at the office while I wasn’t looking and left me with very good news indeed – a loaf of traditional Christmas bread (here shown a little squashed during my onward journey to Budapest).

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Blingless in Sofia

There are large parts of the world where many of those of moderate wealth, and all of those of great wealth, have acquired their possessions questionably. In such places bling abounds. If there are ‘expensive’ restaurants for business visitors or tourists they tend to be decorated brightly, opulently and ostentatiously, with the undiscerning, and undeserving, rich in mind. They are peopled by fat-bellied, swarthy gangsters, shouting into their mobile phones, blowing cigarette smoke with arrogant abandon and largely ignoring their blonde and leggy molls, who look on vacantly, even anxiously, uncertain of their tenure.

Such was Sofia some fifteen years ago, and such is Moscow still, and probably Almaty. If you weren’t wearing Gucci, or Versace, and weren’t dripping with ill-gotten gold, you were consigned to a table in a dimly lit corner of the restaurant, to be served, eventually, by reluctant waiters, and glanced at with sneering pity by more profligate and better-tipping oligarchs.

I feel a great nostalgia for such times. There was an edge to travel in the newly free democracies of Central and Eastern Europe that has been lost to normality. It was an adventure. Now it is merely a pleasure.

I’m in Sofia for two nights on the first leg of a four-country tour of LLP Group’s offices in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, before returning to my home city of Prague, and then on to the UK for Christmas with my mother. I’m travelling not on a Santa-style sledge, drawn by flying reindeer decked out in our company’s colours, but by low-cost airlines, which take me through two additional capitals, Belgrade and Berlin. If time permits I might also make a detour to Vienna on Sunday, since I have designs on Demel, the great Viennese café and cake shop, who make the best stollen and gingerbread in the world. I need stocking fillers for Christmas.

The purpose of my tour is unambitious and largely gastronomic. I take my colleagues out to lunch or dinner. I bestow Christmas goodwill, and listen to their woes and joys. Yesterday I took my Bulgarian colleagues to my favourite place in Sofia, the entirely bling-less Made in Home, a restaurant that is the antithesis of gangsterism, ostentation and tastelessness. The blingy rich wouldn’t even be seen dead there, though, aware of it or not, they’re far more likely to be seen dead at the places they do frequent. Its décor comes from grandmothers’ attics, bizarrely juxtaposed with original modern paintings and prints. Its chairs are a mismatched collection from the last ten decades, and your table may well have been made from a door. It’s cosy, friendly, inexpensive, and peopled by people of all kinds, none of them eager for display, and the food is absolutely excellent. It is the kind of place you might find in New York, London, Tel Aviv, or Paris, but that’s not to suggest it’s bland.

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We booked a table for 12.30 and although we set out from the office at 12.15 we were lucky to arrive before losing our table. Traffic in Sofia is appalling, made worse by breakdowns (see my colleague Stoyan removing an overheated car from our path) and by road works. Sofia, one of my favourite cities in Eastern Europe, is still being remade.

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We enjoyed an excellent lunch, choosing from a menu that included Bulgarian as well as ‘international’ dishes. The emphasis is on vegetables, but you can also eat fish and meat. It was so good I returned, alone, for dinner, and ate the zucchini patties with yoghurt all over again.

 

SunSystems and Manufacturing – A Transylvanian Tale

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Imagine Transylvania in 1997, a part of Romania still largely populated by vampires and werewolves. It’s a place that’s bitterly cold in winter, scorching hot in summer, and most terrible of all, it was then a dark corner of the world where accounting was done largely on paper by huge armies of accountants, and a place where manufacturing planning systems were entirely unknown.

Welcome to my accounting department….

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Imagine, also, that South African Breweries (SAB), a newly acquisitive international brewer, had acquired Ursus, in Cluj Napoca, one of Romania’s best-known breweries.

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Acquisitions at any time, and in any place, are a cultural nightmare, but international acquisitions are the most difficult, especially in emerging markets. The nominal cost might be attractive, but the challenge can be almost unmanageable.

The first step in any acquisition is to establish reliable financial systems, but the brewery’s army of accountants couldn’t tell SAB what they really wanted to know about Ursus, at least not in a timely, GAAP-compliant way.

What they really needed was a flexible financial system that could meet Romanian statutory requirements and report intelligibly to their South African headquarters. Given that SAB manufactures beer, a large system such as SAP or Oracle might be the obvious choice because they do manufacturing, sales, purchasing and distribution as well as accounting. But there wasn’t a hope in hell, nor in Transylvania, of implementing such complexity. And local financial software systems were fit only for the undead nature of Romanian statutory accounting, not for the sophistications of GAAP reporting.

So we, LLP Group, and our recently formed subsidiary in Bucharest got the job of implementing Infor’s SunSystems and of making it work in a manufacturing environment.

Manufacturing accounting is all about calculating the cost of finished goods. A finished item, such as a labelled bottle of beer, comprises packaging  and content. Content, in turn, comprises this and that – water, sugar, yeast and whatever else goes into a bottle of beer. There’s a bill of materials that describes the component parts of every item, and the cost of labour and machinery involved in producing it. Most companies calculate a ‘standard cost’ for each item and component based on estimated costs of components and labour, and in many countries it’s perfectly permissible to value stock on the basis of standard costs, as long as the actual costs vary within reasonable limits.

But not so in Transylvania. The law demands that ‘actual’ costs be calculated, or the next best thing, a rolling average of actual costs. You can do this in SunSystems, using a T-code for each finished or semi-finished product, crediting a production account with all the products that come out of the production process at standard cost, debiting all the materials and labour consumed at standard costs. Purchase price variances, and manufacturing variances emerge, that must then be allocated against materials consumed at the next higher level in the bill of materials, and materials still unused.  It’s an intricate calculation, and one that even manufacturing systems didn’t do well in the 1990s, but to do it in SunSystems takes more courage that knocking on the door of Dracula’s castle.

It helps, of course, if the number of finished and semi-finished products is few, and in the end the packaging materials were more complicated than the beer itself. It helps, too, if you know manufacturing systems, and we used Fourth Shift, a small but powerful manufacturing system, solely for the definition of bills of materials and the calculation of standard costs. It doesn’t help, though, if inflation is running rampant and you have to recalculate your standard costs several times a year.

But we made it work, or rather my colleague Jiri Stiller, now manager of all of LLP Group’s operations in Central and Eastern Europe, did it, spending a year in Romania, in Cluj Napoca and Bucharest. He wore garlic next to the skin and never went out after dark, but as far as I can tell, his blood is still human and he’s very much alive.

SAB used SunSystems for many years, but eventually moved to their standard software system – SAP. Romania has changed too, and Cluj Napoca is now a pleasant, modern, easy city, where you needn’t fear vampires nor accountants.

SunSystems is a wonderfully well-designed financial system. Its unified ledger and transaction analysis concept makes it one of the most flexible and versatile in the world. It can do almost anything, even in Transylvania.

NOT Jiri Stiller – at least not during the day.

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Copy Cats

I’m fascinated by mathematics, though my own understanding of it peaked at 18, when I was merely competent, never precocious. I wonder from time to time, as we all do, what mathematicians are actually ‘doing’ when they retreat to think and squiggle.

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I touched on the philosophy of mathematics when I was at university and I remember reading about Bertrand Russell’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s massive three-volume Principia Mathematica, which sought to derive mathematics from the basic principles of logic (an undertaking that Kurt Godel later showed to be impossible). Though it may not be true, I was amused by the story that it’s only after about 500 pages that you reach a sentence that reads ‘..and so therefore 1 = 1′. I never read the book, nor will I, not least because you need a wheelbarrow to carry it around.

I am fascinated not by the squiggles but by the mathematical struggle itself, and I recently read a layman’s account of Andrew Wiles’ heroic 1995 proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (after 358 years of effort by the mathematical community) with great excitement but little understanding. Proofs are like ‘discoveries’, akin to the discovery of the South Pole, or the first landing on the moon. The outer reaches of mathematics are uncharted territories, waiting to be found, mapped and possessed. Wiles’ proof was like the discovery of  the North West Passage, the finding of a route from one impossible mathematical place to another.

But of course mathematics isn’t anything like ‘discovery’ in the geographical sense. There isn’t any mathematical ‘reality’ out there for mathematicians to explore. It’s just a game with symbols, perilously constructed on a simple foundation of 1,2,3,4,5,6…. and so on. Who chose, for example, to extend the rules of that game to allow the square root of a negative number?

But the wonderful thing, I am told, is that it’s not a pointless game at all, not just a form of amusement for very clever people. Mathematics, together with all those improbable extensions that take it well beyond what most of us can grasp, and well beyond any use that most of us might have for it, has proven a useful tool for science. Those flights of fancy and intellect have practical applications in areas such as quantum theory.

So, I was excited to read yesterday that another of the great unproven hypotheses of mathematics had finally been proved – Riemann’s Hypothesis, which has to do with the distribution of prime numbers. Indeed its mere statement, unlike Fermat’s Last Theorem (no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two), is beyond most of us.

Riemann’s Hypothesis is one of the seven somewhat difficult Millenium Problems listed by the Clay Mathematics Institute. Solve any one of these and you’ll win a million dollars.

What I read yesterday was that Riemann’s Hypothesis has been proved by a university lecturer in Nigeria, Opeyemi Enoch, who was inspired by the enthusiasm of his students to give it a try.

But apparently it isn’t true, and the Clay Mathematics Institute still lists the problem as unsolved. Other sources report that the theoretical papers Opeyemi Enoch had referred to were neither his nor an accepted proof of Riemann’s Hypothesis. Probably a case of plagiarism. See Not Proven.

Plagiarism seems so foolish nowadays, so unlikely to succeed. There are many tools to hand (one of them being Google) that will quickly determine  if a paragraph of text has been ‘borrowed’. You wonder why anyone still bothers. It’s a risky practice. But accusations of plagiarism still bring down the high and mighty, or, in some cases, should do so if the plagiarist possessed a modicum of shame.

Romania’s former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who resigned a couple of weeks ago, currently stands accused of corruption and may face trial, but some years ago he blithely sailed through very plausible accusations that large parts of his doctoral thesis were copied.

Plagiarism, one must remember, is a time-honoured tradition in Romania. Elena Ceausescu, wife of the former dictator, received a number of academic awards for her work on polymer chemistry, though when she left primary school she was proficient only in needlework. It is unlikely that she could have understood even the first page of her 162-page thesis.

“It is not enough to succeed, others must fail”

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This splendidly waspish remark is attributed to the writer, Gore Vidal. He was, himself, immensely successful, though acclaimed more for his ‘unserious’ writing than for his political novels, which I find, frankly, quite indigestible. It was these thoughtful and interminable novels about politics that he wished to be remembered for (rather in the way Leonard Bernstein longed to be remembered for his vast symphonies instead of West Side Story, when most of us would have been glad merely to have written one good tune from the show).

Gore Vidal wrote screenplays too, mystery novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box, made a lot of money, and mixed in the Princess Margaret set. But, struggling, despite his success, with some crippling insecurities (I suppose) he suffered fools very gladly indeed, in that it gave him immense pleasure to be both socially and intellectually superior to almost everyone he met. In most cases he was certainly the latter, but I can’t help thinking that those who are conscious of the former have already failed miserably in some way.

Envy is also a sentiment of the young. When we are striving for success or recognition, other people’s talents and successes are an affront. We must grin or grimace determinedly when we hear news of some friend’s astonishing triumph, triumph of a kind that has, as yet, eluded us. But as we age, we begin to take genuine pleasure in others’ success. Success and failure are not the necessary and balancing outcomes of a zero-sum game.

On the way to Bucharest airport yesterday, my colleague, Ioana, and I popped in to see our former colleagues, those working for the company that LLP Group sold 19 months ago. It was LLP Dynamics then, and is Xapt Romania now. Not so successful then, but conspicuously, confidently successful now. Microsoft’s Dynamics suite of software was never my cup of tea, and certainly, under my direction (and others) the company hadn’t thrived. I knew I couldn’t solve the underlying problems, and by the middle of 2013 it was wearing me down, so selling it brought me some guilty relief (and some cash, too, of course, though nowhere near the amount we’d lost). Guilty, perhaps because I felt I might be putting my own interest before my colleagues’. I was the captain, and I was abandoning the ship.

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But it wasn’t like that. The sum of human happiness has been greatly increased by the sale – my happiness I was sure of, but theirs too, as I could see yesterday. Now Xapt Romania is doing very well indeed. It’s the largest and best Dynamics AX reseller and consultancy in Romania. It’s profitable, it’s growing (now it employs nearly 50 staff), and it feels happy to me. Hats off to Mihai Madussi and his team.

It’s actually ok to fail, even if others succeed!

And, let’s face it, we haven’t failed everywhere. What’s left of LLP Group, (LLP Group, LLP CRM and systems@work) is still very much more my cup of tea, and it’s doing very well indeed.

At the Athenee Palace in Bucharest

It was Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy that first drew me to Bucharest. I had been sent on a consulting assignment to Budapest in the summer of 1987, and only three weeks into the assignment couldn’t resist travelling, a long and arduous overnight journey, in appalling heat, by train, to its like-sounding and neighbouring capital (famously, an international rock star recently greeted his Bucharest fans with ‘Hello, Budapest!’). A sinister security man inspected every item in my luggage as we crossed the border, and then pronounced, like Dracula on the threshold of his castle, ‘You are welcome to my country.’

My Hungarian colleague were astonished that I wanted to visit Romania. The country was skidding into its last two Ceausescu years, and Hungary’s relationship with the regime, despite fraternal socialist solidarity, was hostile. Ceausescu was bent on ethnic homogenisation, apparently destroying traditional Hungarian villages and collectivising their inhabitants into insanitary concrete bunkers.

So, I was realistic about what I might find in Bucharest. I didn’t imagine that the shabby grandeur and glamour that Olivia Manning describes would have survived. Olivia and her British Council employed husband, Reggie, arrived in Bucharest on 3rd September 1939 (the day war was declared in Britain) and remained there as the country succumbed gradually to German influence. It was then, as now, all about oil. Romania possessed vital oilfields of strategic significance to the Reich.

I’m in Bucharest, again, 28 years after my first visit, staying at the Athenee Palace Hotel. I visit often, since LLP Group has a branch in Bucharest, but I don’t usually stay here. It’s a five-star Hilton Hotel and expensive. But business deserts Bucharest during the heat of the summer and I got a very good rate, and thereby access to the cooling indoor swimming pool.

athenee palace

This hotel plays an important walk-on role in the Balkan Trilogy. Its English Bar is the scene of social ascent and descent, political gossip and shamelessly overt spying. Olivia Manning and her husband lived just around the corner in a flat that I think is one of these:

Olivia Manning

The Balkan Trilogy is largely autobiographical and one can plot Olivia’s and Reggie’s lives directly from the pages of these three novels. She found the city daunting – exciting and appalling in equal measure. She described it as being on the margins of European civilisation, “a strange, half-Oriental capital” that was “primitive, bug-ridden and brutal”, whose citizens were peasants, whatever their wealth or status.

When Romania became a dictatorship a couple of years later, Olivia and Reggie escaped on ‘the Lufthansa’ to Athens, and then, when that city fell, to Cairo.

Whatever charm the hotel once possessed has been subtracted by the Hilton chain, so there’s little to remind you of the dreadful but fascinating first years of the Second World War.

After the Communists came to power the hotel declined rapidly into socialist shabbiness. Whether it’s true that every room was bugged and every waiter a spy I do not know. I can’t imagine that anyone of interest or note stayed here.

I saw the hotel myself during its lowest years in 1987, during my weekend away-break from Budapest, mainly to drink in the atmosphere of the Balkan Trilogy, and I found myself drinking a warm unlabelled beer in the courtyard of the hotel as a toast to Olivia and the past. I waited nearly 40 minutes for it and nearly missed my train to Brasov.

In 1989 the changes came, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu got shot, and in due course Bucharest became less interesting, more modern, and, as the years passed, even service at the Athenee Palace became sharper. I’m sorry that the hotel is a bland ghost of its former self, but I don’t think Hilton had much of a choice. It’s comfortable, and I’m grateful for the air-conditioning during this summer’s European heat wave.

The only spying you’ll find is on the contents of your minibar.

On My Bike

I’m on holiday, bicycling from Miskolc in North-East Hungary to Timisoara in South-West Romania, largely in order to demonstrate (mainly to myself) that I am still young and vigorous. The first day couldn’t decide the issue, though. After a wrong turning on the outskirts of Miskolc, but stubbornly refusing to retrace my steps, I made a 70 km ride into a 95 km ride and arrived in Nyiregyhaza exhausted, as anyone, young or old, might have been.

The starting point of the trip, at least, is in no doubt, but time will tell if I manage the 362 kilometres (as the crow flies, not as the bicycle rolls) from start to finish. Boredom, weather, fatigue, mechanical failure, puncture, and (let’s hope not) accident may curtail the journey.

I’d planned, in fact, to bicycle through Sub Carpathian Ruthenia, but when I explained to anyone interested (and some who were not) that this is just the inner edge of South-Western Ukraine, and therefore a rather welcoming place, I was told not to, on the grounds that kidnapping, accusations of spying, and other mishaps were almost certain. Never mind that this is the Europhile part of Ukraine and was once Czechoslovakia and Hungary (before the Second World War), and Austro Hungary (before the First), and even, for one day, an independent Ruthenia (see Economist).

I thought it unlikely that I could pedal into a warzone from there (I would have to cross the Carpathians for a start and then go on at least another 1,000 km) but I am heeding their warnings and will stay on one or other side of the Hungarian-Romanian border.

bike route

What is there to see?

Large fields of wheat, and maize, large fields of spindly green things that could be fennel (is that unlikely?). Road workers resting by the road, farm workers resting by the fields. Low bungalows in small villages apparently empty of people. Birds. A hare. Above all the tarmac unrolling in front of me, which is all that really matters, getting me from A to B.

But I do notice that the region looks more prosperous than when I was last here, twelve years ago. Agricultural machinery is modern, even monstrous, no longer on the old slow human scale. Village houses look less shabby, and Debrecen, capital of Eastern Hungary, has undergone a radical makeover. The great Calvinist Church has been painted, the streets are tidy and lined with elegant cafes, and an impressively modern and quiet tram slithers through the central square. Sleepiness persists, of course, though more tidily. This part of Hungary hasn’t been in a hurry since the revolution of 1848.

One thing hasn’t changed. Stopping for water about 20 km from Debrecen I engaged a kindly middle-aged lady in conversation (to the extent that my declining Hungarian allows). When I told her what I was doing she said ‘Watch out for the cigany’, and in case I didn’t understand this she said it another way, ‘You know, the brown people. They will rob you if you give them a chance.’ Casual racism persists here, as all over Central  and Eastern Europe.

At Keleti Station in Budapest – in the film noir style.

adam bicycle