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Friday Philosophy – Is the CBO becoming way too complex? October 19, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, performance.
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20 comments

I was at the SIOUG annual conference in Slovenia this week (and a very good conference it was too) and I was watching a presentation by Christian Antognini about how the CBO learns by it’s mistakes. This was of course mostly about adaptive cursor sharing and cardinality feedback. Chris was also able to share a few tid-bits about 12c enhancements in this area. I can’t go into details, but basically it looks like the CBO is going to not only enhance those two features but there is a new one where the CBO can change the plan on the fly, as the same query progresses.

As I watched the presentation I found I was in two minds about this. Part of me was thinking “Yes, these features do help in the CBO realising it has chosen a poor plan and improving things for the next execution – and it will get better at it”. The other part was thinking “Oh dear, yet another source of confusion and of performance of queries changing when ‘nothing has changed’“.

It also solidified an idea I have for a new presentation, about how what you see in the execution plan may well not be what is actually executed. ie there are optional bits in there that do not get run at execution time, depending on the results of prior steps.

But I digress. What I ended up wondering at the end of Chris’s talk was this. Is the CBO getting just too complex? It is all very good that extra abilities are being added so that there is a better chance of a good plan being chosen in the first place and the various ways we can control the choice of the plan grows and grows. But we are long past the point when you could write even a simple sql statement and know what the plan will be before you explain it – let alone run it, check the plan and then run it again a few minutes later and be sure the plan will be the same.

Why does this bother me? For three reasons:

1) Performance will not be stable, so the user experience will not be consistent – and so they will be unhappy. Users will generally be happy if they run a report and it takes one minute, if it takes one minute each time. If it takes one minute and then it takes 5 seconds, they want it to always run in 5 seconds, else they fell cheated or that the system is broken. In fact, I am pretty sure a user will be happier if a report always takes 2 minutes rather than it take 5 seconds or 40 seconds but they never know which! (So long, that is, that they never, ever see it run in less than 2 minutes).

2) If performance of a particular SQL statement is absolutely crucial, I need to know how the CBO can and probably will satisfy it so that I can work that into my solution. Otherwise I am reduced to trying out informed options (or maybe random changes :-) ) in order to find the optimal solution – and I cannot be sure that the plan won’t suddenly swap later unless I fix the plan. OK, it might swap to be faster, but I only notice when it swaps to be a lot slower.

3) I’ve said this before, but I am starting to really wonder how anyone new to this starts understanding oracle performance tuning any more. Reading blogs and books about how Oracle works and what impacts the CBO teaches you a lot about what is possible but it only makes sense when you do little tests and proofs of concepts. ie you actually run simple examples and see what happens. But with all these options, considerations and now on-the-fly alterations to plans by the CBO, it is very confusing. Even I, after 20 years of doing performance tuning on and off, am constantly finding myself looking at relatively simple SQL and having to work out why the plan is as it is and satisfying myself that it has not changed. I started with the CBO when it was a lot simpler and I’ve been introduced to the complexities gradually, as they have been introduced, so learning about it has been easier for me.

Perhaps I should not worry about this. I mean, the CBO is getting better at doing what it does, that is good. It is getting hard for those younger and smarter than me to learn about it, so my career is protected. And there is more stuff to talk about so I can keep going to conferences and talking about them.

And with that happy idea, I’m off to start the weekend. Where was that cork screw?

Friday Philosophy – I Am An Exadata Expert August 10, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Exadata, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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5 comments

(Can I feel the angry fuming and dagger looks coming from certain quarters now?)

I am an Exadata Expert.

I must be! – I have logged onto an Exadata quarter rack and selected sysdate from Dual.

The pity is that, from some of the email threads and conversations I have had with people over the last 12 months, this is more real-world experience than some people I have heard of who are offering consultancy services. It’s also more experience than some people I have actually met, who have extolled their knowledge of Exadata – which is based solely on the presentations by Oracle sales people looking at the data sheets from 10,000 feet up and claiming it will solve world hunger.

Heck, hang the modesty – I am actually an Exadata Guru!

This must be true as I have presented on Exadata and it was a damned fine, technical presentation based on real-world experience and I have even debated, in public, the pros and cons of point releases of exadata. Touching base with reality once more, I did an intro talk “the first 5 things you need to know about Exadata” and the “debate” was asking Julian Dyke if he had considered the impact of serial direct IO on a performane issue he had seen and he had not only done so but looked into the issue far more than I – so he was able to correct me.

But joking aside –  I really am a true consulting demi-god when it comes to Exadata

I have years of experience across a wide range of Exadata platforms. That would be 0.5 years and I’ve worked intensively on just one system and am in a team now with some people who are proper experts. So a range of two. Yes, tongue is still firmly in cheek.

This situation always happens with the latest-greatest from Oracle (and obviously all other popular computing technologies). People feel the need to claim knowledge they do not have. Sometimes it is to try and get consultancy sales or employment, sometimes it is because they don’t want to be seen to be behind the times and sometimes it is because they are just deluded. The deluded have seen some presentations, a few blog posts and maybe even got the book and read the first few chapters and are honeslty convinced in their own minds that they now know enough to make effective use of the technology, teach {or, more usually, preach} others and so proclaim on it. {See Dunning Kruger effect, the certainty of idiots}. I’m certainly not arguing against going to presentations, reading blogs and books and learning, just don’t make the mistake of thinking theoretical, second-hand knowledge equates to expert.

With Exadata this situation is made worse as the kit is expensive and much of what makes it unusual cannot be replicated on a laptop, so you cannot as an individual set up a test system and play with it. Real world experince is required. This is growing but is still limited. So the bullshit to real skills quotient remains very, very high.

If you are looking for help or expertise with Exadata, how do you spot the people with real knowledge from the vocal but uninformed? Who do you turn to? {NB don’t call me – I’m busy for 6 months and I really am not an expert - as yet}. If your knowledge to date is based on sales presentations and tidbits from the net which may or may not be based on a depth of experience, it is going to be hard to spot. When I was still without real world experience I had an unfair advantage in that I saw email threads between my fellow OakTable members and of course some of those guys and gals really are experts. But I think I was still hoodwinked by the odd individual on the web or presenting and, I can tell you, though this background knowledge really helped - when I DID work on my first exadata system, I soon realised I did not understand a lot about the subtulties and not-so-subtulties of using a system where massively improved IO was available under key conditions. I had to put a lot of time and effort and testing to move from informed idoit to informed, partially experienced semi-idiot.

I know this issue of the non-expert proclaiming their skills really frustrates some people who do know their stuff for real and it is of course very annoying if you take someone’s advice (or even hire them) only to find their advice to be poor. Let’s face it, is is simple lying at best and potentially criminal mis-selling.

I guess the only way is for peopel needing help to seek the help of someone who has already proven themselves to be honest about their skills or can demonstrate a real-world level experience and success. I would suggest the real experts should do that most difficult task of pointing out the mistakes of the false prophets, but it is very tricky to do without looking like a smartarse or coming over as a big head or jealous.

I’ll finish on one thing. Last year I said how I thought maybe I should do more blog posts about things I did not know much about, and be honest about it and explore the process of learning. I did actualy draft out about 3 posts on such a topic but never pushed them out as I was way too busy to complete them… That and, being candid, I really did not want to look like an idiot. After all, this Oracle lark is what puts beer in my hand, hat fabric on my wife’s millinary worktop and food in my cat’s bowl. The topic was….? Correct, Exadata. Maybe I should dust them off and put them out for you all to laugh at.

You Will Be Our Slave – Err, no, I Won’t May 27, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in contracting, Friday Philosophy, rant.
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10 comments

For the sake of current clients, this posting has been time-shifted.

I’m looking at the paperwork for a possible new job in front of me. Document seven out of 13 is the Working Time Directive Waiver. It’s the one where you sign on then dotted line saying your proposed new client can demand more than 48 hours of work a week out of you. {This may be UK or European Union specific but, frankly, I don’t care}.

I’m not signing it. For one thing, I doubt the legality of the document under EU law – especially in light of the issues the UK government had with this and junior doctors {who often, and still do, end up making life-deciding decisions on patients when they are too tired to play Noughts and Crosses, having worked 80 hours that week}. For another, well, I don’t give a damn. I ain’t signing it.

Now, I’ve just completed about 60 hours this week for my client. Not a problem at all, something needed doing, I could do it and so I have. I have done, am doing and will continue to do long weeks for clients when there is a business need and it fits in with the rest of my life and it is not a chronic situation {chronic is a medical term that means “long lasting and on-going”}.

If I am doing 60 hours plus every week, that means I am trying to do 2 people’s job at the same time and doing both of them badly. I don’t care how great I am at doing what I do, if it is 60 hours each and every week, I’m doing it badly because I am too stressed and tired to be doing it well. Also, where is the rest of my life? I have no “rest of my life”.

If my client is asking me to do 60 hours this week and I say “no” and they sack me under the Working Time Directive waiver – that means it is not a request, it is an enforcible demand. I am their slave. Nope. Not happening. It is best all round if it is acknowledged up front before I arrive on site that the client may ask and I may well say yes – but I can say no.

I know, some of you will be reading this and saying “but I need my job and if that is what it takes, I do it”. Well, I’ve worked for 20+ years and I’ve realised that (a) there are organisations that don’t abuse you and (b) you actually get little real payback for those ridiculous hours. But it can ruin your non-work life, even your family life. I don’t need any individual job and I am bloody well not playing those games any more. Employment in a modern, democratic society is supposed to be a mutual agreement and, if is it not, I ain’t playing. That is my small win for all those years of grind and I’m insisting on it.

I know, some of you will say “look, it never comes to anything, just sign it and ignore it like the rest of us”. No. If you are right, it is a corporate lie and is not required. And, to my detriment, I know you are wrong and sometimes there is an attempt to enforce it. If you cannot get me to do the 60 hours by asking and explaining, either you do not have a valid reason {and history proves I am an utter push-over to a half-reasonable request} or there is a reason very important to me why I can’t comply. If you try and insist, you really are treating me like a slave. That empty space? That’s me having gone for a looong walk.

I am not signing a document saying “you can demand I work over 48 hours any and all weeks you like”. Your are not signing a form saying “I can demand any time off I like week in and week out”. All contracts have a clause saying “this is not working between us, we will curtail the agreement”. We will use that if need be, not a bullying document that says I am your slave.

I am not signing.

Friday Philosophy – It’s not “Why Won’t It Work!” it’s “What Don’t I Understand?” April 27, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
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I had a tricky performance problem to solve this week. Some SQL was running too slow to support the business need. I made the changes and additions I could see were needed to solve the problem and got the code running much faster – but it would not run faster consistently. It would run like a dream, then run slow, then run like a dream again 2 or 3 times and then run like a wounded donkey 3 or 4 times. It was very frustrating.

For many this would provoke the cry of “Why won’t it work!!!”. But I didn’t, I was crying “What don’t I understand???”. {I think I even did a bit of fist-pounding, but only quietly as my boss was sitting on the desk opposite me.}

I think I’ve always been a bit like that in respect of How Things Work”, but it has been enhanced within me by being blessed to work with or meet people for whom it is more important for them to understand why something is not working than fixing it.

I was reminded of this by a thoughtful comment in an email that one of the oaktable sent to the list. They made the comment that what they felt was common between members of the oaktable is “that we’re not interested (really) in what the solution is of most of our problems, but actually, what is the underlying issue that really causes the problem?”

It struck a real chord with me. Quite a few people I’ve come across seem to be fixated on wanting to know solutions – so that they can look knowledgeable and be “one of the best”. But that’s just stamp collecting really. It’s like one of those ‘games card’ fads that each generation of children has, where you want to collect the best cards so you can win. I never got it as a kid as there are few rules, tactics, ‘how it works’ to elucidate. What success is there in winning when it’s just down to the cards you have? {And being candid, I didn’t like them as partly as I never had the money to buy many cards and partly I was rubbish at trading them. No sales skills.}

I know the solve-it-don’t-just-fix-it position is a topic I have touched on before, but I think the attitude of trying to fix problems by understanding how it works is far more satisfying than doing so by knowing a set of solutions. You develop a deeper understanding to help solve new problems than any amount of solution-stamp-collecting ever will. However, another wise voice on the Oaktable discussion pointed out that you can be in a work environment where there is no time to investigate and you simply have to try your set of fixes and move on if you hit one that works. Your work environment can strongly influence how you work and, it some ways, the ways you think.

I bet some people are wondering what my problem at the start of this post actually was? Well, a nice technical blog about it may appear over the weekend, but the core reason for the toggling of working/not-working was partition swap. We have data coming into the system very fast. We build a new summary of the key data in one table and then swap it into active play via partition swap. On the live system, stats had not been gathered on the “swap” table we had introduced but had on the active table. So, each time the partition swapped, we went from good stats to “empty” stats or the other way around. The empty stats gave a quite, quite dreadful execution plan.

Friday Philosophy – Identifying and Nullifying Fake Urgency April 20, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
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6 comments

You know how it goes. You get a call/mail/text with something along the lines of “I need to know all the details of customer orders placed on Tuesday 7th by customers based in Botswana – and I need it ASAP, by end of play today at the latest”. So you skip lunch, drop that task you have been trying to get around to doing all week and work out how to resolve the issue that has just been dropped on you. It takes a lot of effort and you finally get it sorted out around an hour after you told your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat you would be leaving the office that day – and mail it off to the requestor. You might even call them to let them know it is done, but oddly they don’t answer.

Next day, you see the guy who wanted this urgent request and ask if it was what they wanted “Oh, I have not looked at it yet – but thanks for doing it.”

NO! “Thanks” does not work in this situation. I’d have more respect for this guy if he laughed at me and said “got you again, sucker”. Many of you know what I mean don’t you – if you are in a support-type-role, this can be a big part of your life.

I had a job years back that seemed to consist 90% of such tasks. I was the development DBA team leader responsible for testing, validating and promoting code to production. Everyone’s changes were Urgency Level 1, to be done as an emergency release and many could not be put in place until after 5pm. I’d be sat there at 18:30 in a massive but virtually empty office, applying changes along with one or two of my guys. Everyone else had gone home. This was not once or twice a month, it was 4 or 5 times a week. What are you to do?

Well, I came up with one tactic that seemed to work pretty well.

Anyone who asked for an emergency change had to be there, on site, available when the change was done.
There were of course cries of protest and people stated it was ridiculous that they had to be there, they were not needed, the change had been tested thoroughly {oh how I laughed at that – a thoroughly tested “emergency” change huh?}. No, I replied, you had to be there in case it went wrong as it’s your system, your data and, frankly, your emergency. If it is not urgent enough for you – the guy wanting it to be done – to be inconvenienced, well it sure as hell is not urgent enough to inconvenience me. “You can call if there are problems” – What, after you have escaped the locality? Maybe turned off your phone? And if I get you , I have to wait for you to come back in? No no no. Urgent emergency now equates to presence in office. After all, I’ll be there.

I stuck to my rule. If the requester could not be bothered to stay, I downgraded the request to “Planned” and put it through the CAB process. If the requester dumped on one of their team and made them stay, I mentally marked them half a point down and factored it in next emergency.

The change was remarkable. I was no longer in the office on my own every evening. I was not there with someone else either. I was simply not there as, when you made the emergency a little bit inconvenient to the requester, it magically stopped being an emergency.

There was another change. Less cock-ups. Seeing as these changes now went through the CAB process and slightly more testing {like, some testing} the duff changes were more likely to be detected before they caused damage. My bosses went from regarding me as “not a team player” to “Not a team player – but we kind of get your point now”.

So my advice is, if someone wants to try and make something your emergency, find some way of making sure it remains inconvenient to them. If they are willing to put up with the inconvenience, then it is a real emergency and you need to crack on with it.

OUGN 2012 Second Day – Out on the Open Seas March 23, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes.
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As I said yesterday, I am not one for blogging about conferences. So what the heck, I’ll do another post on this one :-).

You might have picked up on the fact that I am not very good on the sea and have a lot of nervousness about this idea of spending 2 days on an ocean-going liner. So today is the day we move over to being on the water, the OUGN conference proper. I’m delighted to say I am not the only one nervous about this boat lark, Marie Colgan {or, as I should be calling her, “The Optimizer Lady” – since Doug Burns christened her back at the UKOUG 2011 conference} feels the same. There is nothing better to reduce one’s apprehension about something than finding someone else who is just as if not more anxious about it. I suspect this is an evil way to think but I can’t help it.

The day went well, my overview of VLDBs could have maybe been a little more polished – I think I was trying to cover too many topics and not spending enough time on anything, apart from “why a small number of spindles is bad” which I spent too long on. But I did make two points that I think are major considerations with VLDBs and are actually not very technical. (1) If you are going to have to look after a massive database, try very, very, very hard to keep everything as simple, standardised and controlled as you can. (2) Find other people to talk to about VLDBs. Most companies that have them are reluctant to talk, either because of the industry type (Defense, Banks, Pharma) or a perceived giving away of corporate advantage (Banks, Pharma, Utilities and pretty much all companies really).

Anyhow, having done my talk I was now free for the next 2 days to enjoy other talks, socialise, relax – and keep internally checking if I felt nauseous or not. The sea has turned out to be very calm and the boat very stable. But I keep checking and, of course, that makes me feel a little anxious – and thus ill.

However, I have to say that the travel sickness pills I have been taking do seem to be very effective. They are effectively in making me feel woozy. But, and this is important, not ill. I’m having to rely on beer for the latter.

One thing I really, really like about this conference. Everyone is stuck on a boat, they can’t escape. Which means you get to see lots of people all day and it makes the whole thing have a nice sense of community.

Right, Maria is about to present again. I’m going to go and sit in the front row and sway lightly from side to side. Apparently it makes her feel even worse…

OUGN 2012 First Day – First Panic March 21, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, Perceptions, Private Life.
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I’m not really one for blogging about conferences – I mean who cares what someone else saw being presented? But this is the first time I have stopped moving long enough (and been in contact with the internet world) to blog and my brain is too fried to do a technical one.

The journey here was very smooth and the train from the airport to central Oslo makes the ratty, tatty, confined coaches of the UK look as awful as they really are. So I arrive in the central station and decide I will need some local Kroner to pay the taxi to the hotel. So I find an ATM, put in the card and ask for money. Card refused. Huh? But I rang my bank at the weekend and let them know there would be transactions from a foreign country (after some issues a couple of years back my wife always lets the bank know when she will be away and she made me do the same). I tried another ATM from a different company. Refused. OK, damned bank, I’ll use my other card. Refused. Errrr…… In a foreign country, no idea really where I am, not got any local currency. Not looking good.

I wander into Oslo looking for a real, proper bank. Most Norwegians speak perfect English, maybe if I still have problems I can go in and ask. Find bank, go to ATM, about to ask for money….Notice the figures being suggested on this ATM are a lot smaller than the last place. Yes, I had my mental decimal place in the wrong location and I had been asking for almost £1,000 rather than £100. No wonder the request got refused (I keep my daily limit low, it stops be buying too much rubbish on any given day).

So, I head off to the event, get there for Lunch and have a great afternoon. My presentation on IOTS went well and, as I said yesterday, I think I’ll put it to sleep for a while now.

I saw Harald Van Breederode talk about Oracle Database Smart Flash Cache before I did my slot and I always like to hear Harald talk. It was good as ever, but I found myself not so much interested in the idea of using SSD-type storage as an extra “slow SGA” extension (as opposed to a “fast storage” extension) but more that in 3 or 4 years, memory-based storage will be the default and a whole swathe of my knowledge will once more become redundant. I mean, how important will it be to keep physical reads down via things like IOTs once physical reads are relatively cheap? You won’t really care much about expanding your SGA with a secondary cache when you have 4TB of main memory and 100,000 IPS (inputs per second, we will have to see how much faster Output can be made with memory-based storage).

This highlights one of the things I really like about conferences, meetings and chatting to fellow techies in the pub. The actual main topic or point might well be interesting but the secondary thoughts and ideas can be just as striking. I was talking to Uwe Hesse after the talks had finished and part of that was about learning new stuff and training courses. It made me realise that it is way too long since I ran any training courses. I love running training courses.

OK, I’ve had a rest, back to socialising with fellow OUGN 2012 attendees.

Friday Philosophy – The Inappropriate Use of Smart Phones February 24, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life, rant.
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16 comments

I’m kind of expecting to get a bit of a comment-kicking over this one…

I never much liked mobile phones – Yes they are incredibly useful, yes they allow countries that lack a ground-based telephony network to create a nationwide system, yes they allow communication all the time from almost anywhere. That last point is partly why I dislike them. {Actually, I don’t like normal phones much, or how some people {like my wife} will interrupt a conversation to dash across the room to answer it. It’s just a person on the phone, it will take a message if someone wants to say something significant. If someone calls your name out in a crowd, do you abandon the people you are talking to, dash across the room and listen to them exclusively? No, so what act that way over a phone?}.

However, I hold a special level of cynical dislike for “smart” phones. Why? Because people seem to be slaves to them and they seem to use them in a very antisocial way in social and even business situations. It is no longer just speaking or texting that people do, it’s checking and sending email, it’s twittering and blogging, it’s surfing the net and looking things up. I have no problem with any of this, I do all of these things on my desktop, laptop, netbook. But I don’t do them to the detriment of people who are there in the flesh – whilst supposedly in a conversation with mates at the pub or carrying out a transaction in a shop or using the coffee machine at work or, basically, standing in the bloody way staring at a little screen or rudely ignoring people who I am supposed to be interacting with.

The below is my phone. It makes calls, it sends texts, it might even be able to work as an alarm clock (I am not sure). It does not do anything else much and it was ten quid {actually the below might be the version up from the really cheap thing I have}:

I was pondering this rude (ab)use of Smart Phones in a meeting this week. It was a meeting to discuss a program of work, what needed doing and by whom. It was a meeting where everyone in the room was involved, each person’s opinion was important and we all had a vested interest in the outcome of the meeting. So why did over half of the people not only have their Smart Phone out but were tapping away, scrolling through stuff, looking at some asinine rubbish on Facebook {yes, I saw you}? One or two people in the room might have been able to argue that they needed to keep an eye out for important emails or calls – but really? Are things so incredibly important and only you can deal with them that you can’t just play your full part in a meeting for an hour? I was so annoyed by this that I missed half the meeting internally moaning about it…

I just see it as rude. It’s saying “while you people are talking, I can’t be bothered listening and I certainly don’t need to give you my full attention. And I don’t even care that I’m making it so obvious”. Or “I am buying this item from you and we need to deal with the transaction but you are so inconsequential I don’t even have to pause this conversation about which cafe to meet in next week. You do not deserve more than 15% of my attention”.

I supposed that is what really gets my blood slowly heating up, it’s that it has become accepted to be so rude. Just walk down the street, head down and eyes fixed on your glowing little screen, making no attempt to navigate with your fellow city dwellers. I made a decision 2 {correction, 3} years ago that, if you are walking along staring at your phone and you are going to collide with me, you ARE going to collide with me if you do not become aware of me and make allowances – and I am lower down than you, I braced my shoulder and I am going to win this one. If they are so fixated on that bl00dy screen that they do not heed any attention to others, people ping off me like they’ve been thumped by a tree stump. It now happens a lot and I always “win”. I’m surprised no one has punched me yet.

If I was a manager again I would introduce a simply rule. No Smart Phone in your hand unless you have a stated reason for doing so. There are many valid reasons, which will all be related to the meeting. Otherwise you are just being disrespectful. If you feel the meeting does not apply to you or this section is not relevant, fine. Sit still and listen anyway. You might actually find it useful to know what everyone else is doing. Stop playing bl00dy mental chickens or whatever or updating your status to “bored”.

I will hold strongly to these opinions. Right up until the minute I finally buy that iphone I’ve been considering getting. I really want to be able to check my twitter account during meetings, you see.

The Most Brilliant Science Graphic I Have Ever Seen January 5, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in biology, Perceptions.
Tags: ,
18 comments

The below link takes you to an absolutely fantastic interactive demonstration of the relative size of everything. Everything. Stop reading this and go look at it, when it finishes loading, move the blue blob at the bottom of the screen left and right.

The Relative_scale_of_everything

The raw web link is:

http://www.primaxstudio.com/stuff/scale_of_universe/scale-of-universe-v1.swf

The web page says scale_of_the_universe but it should be relative_scale_of_everything_in_the_universe. Did you go look at it? NO!?! If it’s because you have seen it before then fair enough – otherwise stop reading this stupid blog and Look At It! NOW! GO ON!!!

Yes, I do think it is good.

I have to thank Neil Chandler for his tweet about this web page which led me to look at it. Neil and I talked about relative sizes of things in the pub towards the end of last year, in one of the Oracle London Beers sessions. I think it was Neil himself who suggested we should convert MB, GB and TB into time to get a real feel for the size of data we are talking about, you know, when we chuck the phrases GB and TB around with abandon. Think of 1KB as a second. A small amount of time for what is now regarded as a small amount of data – This blog so far is around 1.2kb of letters. Given this scale:

1KB = 1 second. About the time it takes to blink 5, possibly 6 times, as fast as you can.
1MB = Just under 17 minutes. Time enough to cook fish fingers and chips from scratch.
1GB = 11 and a half days. 1KB->1GB is 1 second -> 1.5 weeks.
1TB = Just under 32 years. Yes, from birth to old enough to see your first returning computer fad.
1PB = pretty much all of known human history, cave paintings and Egyptian pyramids excepting, as the Phoenicians invented writing about 1150BC ago.

The wonderful thing about the web page this blog is about is that you can scan in and out and see the relative sizes of things, step by step, nice and slowly. Like how small our sun is compared to proper big ones and how the Earth is maybe not quite as small compared to Saturn as you thought. At the other end of the scale, how small a HIV virus is and how it compares to the pits in a CD and the tiniest of transistors on a silicon chip. I’m particularly struck by the size of DNA compared to a human red blood cell, as in how relatively large DNA is. Red blood cells are pretty big cells and yet all human cells (except, ahem, red blood cells) have 3.2 billion letters of DNA in each and every one of them. That’s some packaging, as cells have a lot of other stuff in there too.
{NB, do remember that the zooming in and out is logarithmic and not linear, so things that are close to each other in the graphic are more different than first appears, especially when the image becomes large and in effect covers a wide part of the screen}

Down at the sub-atomic scale there are a fair number of gaps, where one graphic is pretty much off the scale before the next one resolves from a dot to anything discernable, but that is what it’s like down that end of things. Besides. It’s so small it’s hard to “look around” as there is nothing small enough (like, lightwaves went by several orders of magnitude ago) to look around with.

My one criticism? It’s a shame Blue Whale did not make it into the show :-)

I actually had flashbacks looking at this web page. I remember, back in the mid-70′s I think, going to the cinema. Back then, you still had ‘B’ shows, a short film, cartoon or something before the main event. I no longer have a clue what the main event was, but the ‘B’ movie fascinated me. I think it started with a boy fishing next to a pond and it zoomed in to a mosquito on his arm, then into the skin and through the layers of tissue to blood vessels, to a blood cell… you get the idea, eventually to an atom. Some of the “zooming in” where it swapped between real footage was poor but it was 1970 or so and we knew no better. It then quickly zoomed back out to the boy, then to an aerial view of the field, out to birds-eye… satellite-like…the earth… solar system… I think it stopped at milky way. I wish I knew what that documentary was called or how to find it on the web…

{Update, see comments. Someone links to the film. I know I looked for this film a few years back and I did have a quick look again before I posted this message. I did not immediately find it but someone else did, in 10 seconds via Google. Shows how rubbish I am at using web searches…}

Friday Philosophy – When Things Feel Wrong October 28, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

I got pinged by someone else missing the Friday Philosophy today {BTW, Good news, the technical blogs start again on Monday}, so…

Take a look at the below. It is a rather pleasant spot of countryside on Sao Migel in the Azores, where the area in the foreground has been converted into a bit of a garden to take advantage of the natural beauty.

Nice, isn’t it? Sorry the sun is not shining, but there you go. This waterfall just across the road from a set of water mills and waterfalls at Achada, which is one of the tourist spots that features often in brochures for Sao Miguel. But look at the scene again. Does anything strike you as odd about that waterfall? I could not put my finger on what it was, I just knew it looked odd. (Graham, if you don’t spot this immediately you owe me a pint).

There was a path heading up the valley to one side of the waterfall, one of a network meandering through the gardens, and I went up it. After a short while there was a smaller path heading up the hill more directly. It looked maintained but too steep to be a “wandering around enjoying the scenary” path. So I went up that. At the top of this path was a structure, a concrete “block house” It hummed and it gurgled. There was another path heading back the way I came, towards the waterfall. I followed along it and I found the top of the waterfall…

Yes, the waterfall was a fake. It was coming out of this huge concrete trough fed by a large pipe which went back to the humming, gurgling concrete block house. Returning back down to the bottom of the waterfall I could put my finger on what was odd about that waterfall. There is a valley to the left. OK, that is not so odd, the water could be coming from high land to the right of the valley and draining into the valley at this point. Except there is another valley to the right of the waterfall as well. Both had small streams running through them. This waterfall could only be natural if there was a perfectly formed, shallow middle valley heading up to the hills between the other two valleys and the only point where the water could escape was at the confluence of the lower two valleys. There was also a lot more water coming down this waterfall than was coming down the two valleys.

What has this got to do with Oracle and databases? Well, have you ever been in the position where you look at the output from a system and it just does not “feel right”? I sometimes refer to something I call DBA Intuition. There is also Developer Intuition and there is certainly Tester Intuition. All are where you are not sure why but it just looks or feels wrong (or, you just get a feeling for what a problem is or what the solution might be, all I class as DBA intuition, but I digress).

As an example, you are tasked to look at one of those terrible BI-type reports that consist of two pages of SQL and they want to know why it takes so long to run. Before you dive into the code, you look at the result of the report and you just think “That seems like an awfully large number of people responding to that advertising campaign” or “I can’t believe 10 percent of our income comes from selling baby diapers”.

Usually when I have dug into the actual report or part of the system that feels wrong I find out one of two things. That I had no idea that part of that business really worked that way, or, that the report is utter garbage. Somewhere in that report there a missing table or a logic flaw {nested AND and OR statements are a good place to look}. This of course has the advantage that there is no need for me to tune the report until someone can tell me WHAT the report is supposed to be identifying.

DBA Intuition is, I think, basically a gut feeling you develop in response to experience. I suppose I have more “tuning intuition” these days, I look at how fast some SQL is coming back and the volume of data and I think “seems reasonable actually” or “something is very inefficient here”. I’ve noticed that good system testers have this intuitive knack of just asking the new system to do things in a way or order that does not match the original intention.

So, I encourage you to trust your intuition. If some part of the system feels wrong, go and root around in the system undergrowth; climb up to the top of the data waterfall {OK, I’ll stop with the bad IT metaphors) and see what you find.

Incidentally, after I found the pump house we walked the other way up the valley, following the pipe and the pleasant gardens. It took maybe 20 minutes but we found the "real source" of the fake waterfall, which was a very nice, natural waterfall sitting in the very bottom of a pleasant valley – just where a waterfall should be. It just took a little more effort to get to it. I'm sure there is some moral story in there but I'm damned if I can work it out :-)

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