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APEX Connect – A Slightly Different Conference May 13, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, development, Meeting notes.
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I wanted to do a write-up for the APEX Connect conference that happened in Bonn, Germany, a few days ago, as it was a slightly different conference than I normally go to and a slightly different experience for me.

I really don’t like DBMS_OUTPUT!

APEX Connect is a German event (put on by DOAG) that is focused on APEX, SQL & PL/SQL, and JavaScript. So more of a developers’ conference. It was an unusual conference for me for a few reasons:

  1. I don’t generally go to developer-focused events, my current roles tend to be performance & architecture based and, despite having been a developer or development DBA for most of the last 30 years, I (wrongly) mentally class myself as a “DBA type”.
  2. I was doing a keynote! I’m not used to that, but I was honoured to be asked.
  3. I was doing only the opening keynote, so once that was out the way I had pretty much 3 days of being a normal delegate. That made a really nice change.

The conference was well attended and well run. A couple of things that they did right was to have good catering and coffee was always available – good coffee! It really makes a difference and it is something some conferences (including the ones I help organise) struggle with. You have no idea how much venues in the UK want to charge to make coffee available all day, let alone *good* coffee!

Something else that struck me was that the audience was a little younger than many Oracle-focused conferences. This was helped by DOAG’s #NextGen programme which encourages students and recent graduates to come to conferences and meet professionals working in the industry. I met a few of these students/recent students as they had been tasked with asking all the keynote speakers a question, which I thought was a nice way for them to meet these “stars” and realise we are just normal people, doing a job.

Some of the usual suspects! Conferences should be, I believe, half educational and half social.

Another thing was the male:female ratio. Looking at the sessions I was in, it was about 75%:25%, which in our industry is a little unusual – and very encouraging to see. I had a good discussion with Niels de Bruijn on the subject of sex (balance), who is the main organiser, and it is a topic I have discussed a few times with Sabine Heimsath, who organised the SQL & PL/SQL stream and who asked me to present. Niels was pleased with the balance at the conference, and I shared my experiences of trying to increase the balance in the UK (I’d love 25%!). It is not a simple issue and I think (note, these are my words and not theirs) that it is almost a lost cause for my generation. I think things went wrong in the home computer industry in the 80’s and continued through the 90’s, with IT being portrayed by the general media as typically male and the IT-focused industry keeping to a very male-focused stance. I won’t stop trying to address the balance but I wonder if where we can really make the difference is in events where the audience is younger…

Anyway, APEX Connect had a nicely balanced and lively feel.

As I said earlier, I had been asked to do the opening keynote. My job was to say something that would be relevant to the whole audience, which was not too technically deep, and set the scene for APEX Connect. An added bonus would be for the audience to leave the talk energised for the rest of the conference. My normal talks are about tech… but I do branch out into talks on presenting, disasters and, err, beer. Talks to entertain basically. So that is what I aimed for, to entertain and to energise.

Server Side Development…

I’m one of those annoying presenters who does not usually get particularly nervous before a talk, I simply step up to (OK, behind) the lectern and go. But for the second time in 6 months (the other being the opening words for UKOUG 2018) I was really nervous for this. I think it is because when you talk on a technical subject, you are describing how something works and, so long as the audience understand, the rest of the talk (little stories, extra facts) are window dressing – enjoying the talk is a good thing to achieve but is secondary. With a keynote the Window Dressing is actually the main thing, and if the audience does not enjoy the talk you have not done the job. I’m glad to say I got a lot of positive feedback and I was very much relieved. I think I hit “peak enjoyment” for this talk when I described my early career (Builder, Oracle 7 PL/SQL developer, server-side developer, Development DBA) and used the graphical slide here.

Server. (on it’s) Side. Developer.

I have to say, with that talk out the way I was able to really enjoy being simply “at a conference”, seeing some great talks (Toon Koppelaars, Connor McDonald, Kamil Stawiarski, Eric van Roon – I missed Luiza Nowak & Heli Helskyaho but I had seen those talks before), chatting to lots of people, and enjoying the socialising.

I want to say a big Thank You to the organisers – Simone Fischer, Niels de Bruijn, Tobias Arnhold, Kai Donato and all the others behind the scenes. I know what it’s like doing this! And a special Thank You to Sabine Heimsath for asking me to present and for helping me get places and answering odd questions on German culture!

I’ll finish with what I think conferences and the community are all about. This does not just apply to developers of course, but to all of us in the industry:

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Preparing A Device for Someone New To I.T. April 26, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life, Uncategorized.
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In my previous post I covered what I felt were the main considerations on deciding how to get someone with no real experience of I.T. online, for an example an elderly relative like my mum. In this post I’ll cover setting up the device.  Set-up is actually quite complex and there is a lot of assumed knowledge, like how the keyboard works, what spyware you leave turned on (none!) etc. So I am setting it up for her.  First I’ll just recap the main points on why I decided to use an Apple iPad for my Mum:

Keep the main screen as simple as possible

  • A small tablet – but not too small.
  • Simple, intuitive interface.
  • A Smartphone or iPad mini was too small.
  • PC/laptop ruled out as too complex for her.
  • Apple device as her main potential contacts use Apple devices.
  • A lack of remote access by me was less important than the above considerations.

On of the first things I did was to ask my friends (via Twitter) what they would suggest or had found worked when they had a similar task. Thank you to everyone who replied. If you have further advice, add a comment or contact me and I can update this post. The main suggestions were:

Keep It Simple

Mum has never used a keyboard, never used a smartphone and is not very technically adept. Everything she is learning is almost new to her, from what the enter key does to what an icon is. The closest reference I can use for her is the menu of options on her TV recorder – and she has some pretty bizarre ways of using that (but if it works for her, that’s just fine). So using the device has to be very, very simple. I want the main screen to be simple and non-threatening:

  • Remove every App that is not for something she needs to use (or I need to help).
  • Move any icons I need but she does not (or at least not at first) off the first screen.
  • Be brutal, delete as much as you can –  you can add back anything you later find you need.
  • Only have one app for a given task. Choice in this case is probably just confusion.
  • Include one or two (and only one or two) key things she will want to use.

I’ll just cover some of those bullet points in more detail:

Remove every app not required. My mum has no interest in stocks & shares, in monitoring her health, in maps of where she is (she knows where she is, she does not go anywhere else!). She certainly has no interest in “iTunes Store”, “Photo Booth” or any of the other “free” apps provided by the vendor. They will just be confusing clutter at first.

If there are 2 dozen icons on the screen, Mum will worry about what they all do or what will happen if she clicks the wrong one. And she will click the wrong one. It is a worry we don’t need.

When she first starts, she will struggle to find the right icon – even from a simplified list (and she did). The fewer choices the better.

So I deleted absolutely everything but the half dozen things she needed. If in the coming weeks, months or years she wants anything a deleted apps provides, they can be added back. When she is comfortable with the first lot, I can introduce more.

The very basic “what the buttons do” help sheet

Move Icons I need to the second page. There are some things I need to get the device all set up for her and then tweak it. Two of them are “Settings” and “App Store”. You could argue that “Settings” will have things that Mum might like to change. But she won’t know how and she could mess up things if she changes her settings. So they are moved to the second page – and I told her to leave that page if she ever gets on it! The chances are she will not find the second page of Icons. (I did show her how to get off it, but stressed she call me if in doubt).

I also put a couple of things on the second page that I think she might want to use soon.

Only One Way.  I was advised to provide Mum with e.g. two ways of getting hold of me, in case one fails. Well, no. I do NOT want to have to show her two messaging apps and teach her the differences, I want one method that she can become confident with. It’s part of keeping it simple. Mum will be challenged to learn one interface, if I try and show her a second she will get confused over what works in which app. She can call me on the phone if the new way of communicating is not working, she is happy using a phone (as in just a phone, one that only makes and receives calls).

If Mum decides she does not like the app I choose (e.g. BBC News for, well, news) we can swap later. But right now I pick what I think she will like. And for the sake of simplicity, I chose a set of apps that are from the same provider, so work the same way.

We in the I.T. profession often love that we can swap between programming languages or have 4 or 5 social media apps to choose from. But we live and breath this stuff. This is all new to Mum. When you learnt to drive a  powered vehicle you learnt to drive a car. Or a motorbike. Or maybe even a tractor. You did not learn to use all three at the same time – and also an articulated lorry at the same time!

One or Two things she wants. I got a lot of advice of things to add to make the device fun or interesting, such as games, picture editing, or puzzles. The principle is good – but the reality is you need to think about the person and what they want from the device. And the keeping it simple aspect.

My mum loves jigsaws – but she loves the physical side of them! She has her tables set up, she talks about the manufacture she likes as the pieces fit together so well, she likes to glue together the occasional jigsaw she really likes. Maybe in the future she will look at Jigsaw apps, but right now she wants to keep her physical jigsaws.

What she wants is (1) a way to communicate with me (2) information on cycling and Formula 1 (3) the weather. So I gave her them. Nothing more, I’m keeping it simple. So that is Messenger, BBC sport and BBC weather. BBC news completes her intro to the web.

(Note, I also tried to introduce searching for things on google, but it did not work well – google does not understand “I want to know about him, that cycling chap, the one who’s not got side-burns”. We will come back to google in a month or so).

Make it Big and Bold

I don’t know about you, but the last time I changed my smartphone I got one with a slightly larger screen as I was having to hold the old one further and further away from me so I could focus on it. And I set my new smartphone to have larger Icons.

Add pictures they will like to their social media and the device. Keep personal information to a minimum to protect them.

If you are new to I.T. and you are starting to have issues with vision or hearing, there are options for any device to make it easier to use. Check out the “Ease of Use” or “accessibility” options of the device. Ironically, they are not always the easiest to find. For iPads they are not a main option but under “General”. That’s not very helpful, Apple!

You maybe don’t want to bring up the topic of failing faculties with an older relative – so don’t. Just set up the device to have large icons, big text. and loud messages. Big and Bold.

Also, think of adding pictures and sounds the person will like. I changed the iPad wallpaper for a picture of our cats and when I created her facebook account (hmmm, I’ve not covered that…) I added a background of myself and my brother up some hills and a picture of our last cat as her image. I would have made it a picture of one of her cats but I did not have one. And that will be a nice thing to do with her sometime. The main thrust is use images the person can relate to.

To make the device easier for Mum to use I considered the following:

  • Increase the text size.
  • Increase the icon size.
  • Bold text & increased contrast can help if vision is poor.
  • Set the volume loud and make sure one of the first things you demonstrate is how to increase (and decrease) volume.
  • When you start messaging, send pictures. It’s more interesting.
  • Show them emojis. My mum seemed to really like emojis. Less Tyoing!
  • Put pictures they will like as their wallpaper and social media images.

I think I could have done more in this respect. What I should have done was got pictures from her and scanned them, or looked back in my old photo collection. I could have set the wallpaper to a picture of my Dad (long gone) or of all us kids or something. And any social media you set up for the person, think what pictures you can use for backgrounds and avatars.

 

Reference Material

The online help on tablets etc is pretty good – once you are able to look for it and learn what you can ignore.

For anyone who is really new to technology, reference material is going to need to be a lot more basic.

Keyboards Confuse the Uninitiated

I prepared several sheets of information for my mum, like how to use a keyboard, which I show here. I also did some pictures of the iPad and annotated it – and left space for Mum to add her own notes!

My Mum found these really helpful, especially being able to scribble on them herself (which sometimes was replacing my helpful text with her weird description on what a key did!).

As well as this, I got her one of those “a senior citizen’s guide to the iPad” magazines. They are a good place to go to once the real basics of how to turn the device off and on and how a keyboard works have been learnt. BUT, they have a big drawback – they try and show lots of things in order to address a wide audience, and they usually have a long section at the start about “setting up your device”. I already set it up, Mum does not need it. So, edit the magazine!

I went through the magazine and crossed out in big, thick, black lines the bits she did not need. I also crossed out those sections on an app I had not given her but did a similar thing, and wrote at the start of it “do not read, Mum! Yours works differently!”

 

Random Other Advice

“Tell her not to clean the screen with a brillo pad! :)”
Well, it was a bit of a joke but it leads to a serious point. Explain how to look after the thing. I made the point that she should not get the iPad wet and to dry it immediately if she does spill things on it. And, if she drops it down the loo, take it out immediately, turn it off if it is on and put it somewhere warm – and call me!

“Yes, you can leave it plugged in, it will work for several days between charges. No you can’t damage the screen by tapping it with your finger, but do not use a screwdriver. Hitting it harder will not make it work more.”

We should (and will) get a cover for it so Mum can hold it more easily. Her house is carpeted throughout so dropping it (which she does, but she is close to the ground) is not such an issue.

“tell her how to get rid of Siri when she accidentally starts Siri up.”
I have turned off Siri as much as I can. And this leads on to the general topic of telling the person what they can and should ignore.

I told Mum to ignore prompts she will get (“You have not backed up your device for a week, kittens will die!”) or requests for feedback or surveys; how to shut down advertising boxes; do not respond to anything that ask you to provide information or download anything. And, just because you now have a “computer”, you should still ignore any telephone calls you get offering to help you with your computer problem. They were a hoax before you had a computer, they still are – keep telling them you don’t have a computer.

“Be patient…”
That last one is key. This is all new to them and if you are a regular visitor to my blog you are probably an I.T. expert. It can be very hard for us to understand how new this is for non-I.T. people and we assume knowledge. Like, what the enter key does in different situations and using the shift key (a single press of the shift key is different to a double press – and undoing the ALL CAPS of a double press only take a single press, which my Mum rightly pointed out is not logical!).

My mum really, really did not understand the keyboard very well to start. But touching the screen and dragging things around she took to straight away. I guess different people take to different parts more easily.

Be prepared to be very patient (*) and do not be surprised if some things take them an age to understand and yet other things they seem to get immediately. At some point, probably very early on, they will find out how to do something you don’t know!

(*) as my wife comments (in the comments section) alcohol may be required for post-training de-stress!

Introducing I.T. to an Elderly Relative February 25, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
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Introducing an older person to the connected world can be a challenge. So I thought I would describe my recent experiences in introducing my elderly mother to I.T and the internet. Each such situation will be different of course, depending on the prior experience of the person and the skills you believe they have. I’m going to run through what I think are the main initial considerations. I knew from the start it was going to be a particular challenge with my mother, so I think she is a good example. Hopefully, for many the task will be a little easier…

From cheezburger dot com

Firstly, why are we doing this?

Not everyone has to be on the internet and I knew it was going to be stressful for everyone involved, so the first question to ask is “Is it in the best interest of Uncle Bob to go through this?”

For years my mother has shown very little interest in computers or the internet, and at times she has been quite “Oh, those damn things!” about it all. But over the last 2 or 3 years Mum’s started showing an interest. This has nothing to do with the fact that her youngest son’s whole working life has been in I.T., I think she’s simply started to feel she is missing out as there are so many references on TV programs and the newspaper to things on the internet. “Just go to blingy bong for more information!”. And to her, it really is “blingy bong”.

I think it is vital that the person wants to get online – and this is not a one-week wonder.

Before now my mum had mentioned getting online but then lost interest when the one thing she was interested in disappeared, such as checking the state of play in the Vuelta cycling race as it was not on her TV. Setting someone up on the internet is not cheap and I knew she would insist on paying. You have to organise broadband to the property, buy a device and then spend time in training them. If mum lost interest after a couple of days of trying, it would all be a waste of effort. But she had been constant in mentioning this for a couple of months.

Another reason to get Mum online is so she can stay in touch more easily {am I really sure I want this?!?}. Her hearing is not as good as it was and phone calls are a ‘dedicated, binary activity’. What do I mean by that? Well, when you are on the phone, you have to keep the conversation going and you are doing nothing else, this is your only chance to communicate – dedicated. And when you are not on the phone you are not in contact – Binary (all or nothing).

I think those of us in the technology industry or who grew up in the last… 4 decades maybe take this for granted, but with email, texts, messenger, whatsapp etc you can throw a message or two at people when the need occurs to you, and leave them for the person to pick up. It is a more relaxed way of communicating and, in many ways, more reliable. At present if mum needs me to come over and change light bulbs she needs to call me in the evening. She won’t call me during the day, she is convinced nothing short of death is important enough to call during the day! So she also needs to remember to call and mum is getting worse for that. If she is online she can send me a message when she notices the bulb in hall has blown.

The next step is to assess the capabilities of the person you are helping.

I’ve introduced a few other people (mother-in-law, brother to some degree, relatives of friends) to computers and the internet over the years and the size of the challenge is very much dictated by their skills. I think you need to be honest about how much and how soon people can learn, especially if they are older or have learning needs. It’s great to be surprised by them doing better than you expected, but if they do worse then it can be demoralising for both parties.

My mother-in-law was a retired science teacher, interested in a dozen things, confident, and self-motivated. When she asked me to help her get on the internet I knew it was not going to be too hard.  But something I did not consider is that she had never typed at all (which surprised me, but there you go), so the keyboard was an initial, surprise challenge to the task. Just think about it, you have to explain the “enter” key, the “delete” key, “shift” key, special symbols… But the Mother-in-law was used to using equipment and took to it well. It did mean that the first session was almost totally about introducing her to the keyboard and just a few basics on turning the machine on and off and using email. After that I went on in later sessions to show her the basics of Windows, email, web browsing and she was soon teaching herself. She got a couple of “computes for dummies” and went through them.

Learning skills deteriorate as you age – but each individual is different. Be realistic.

My mother had also never used a typewriter – but she is also not good with technology. Getting her to understand how to use a video player was a task way back when.  It is not that she is no good with mechanical things or controlling them, she was a sewing machinist all her career – but she never moved from a simple sewing machine with just a dozen manually selected stitch patterns to ones which you can program or that have a lot of controls. This might be mean to say, but she struggled with an electronic cat-flap when we installed one for her! {Well, we installed it for the cats to be honest, we do not make Mum enter and exit the house on her hands and knees through a small hole in the door}. My mum has also never had (or wanted) a mobile phone, let alone a smart phone. Apps, widgets, icons, touch screens are all things she has never used.  We were going to have to keep it very, very simple. Mum also lacks focus and retention of details. Lots of repetition would be needed to learn, and only a few things at a time.

Third Question – What hardware?

This is a major consideration. A few years ago if you wanted internet access and email the choice was simply “Mac or PC” and probably came down to what you personally preferred and felt most comfortable supporting.

I realised from the very start that my mum would never cope with a Windows PC or a Mac. I know some people are so Mac-fanboy that they will insist it is “so easy anyone could use them” but no, Macs can have issues and there is a lot of stuff to initially learn to get going. And, like PC’s, they DO go wrong and have issues.

Choice made – will it be the correct one?

I did initially investigate if I could make a Windows PC work for my mum. I can sort out most issues on a PC and so it would be easier for me to support her. You can set Windows up to be simpler for an older person. I was more than happy setting up other older people with a PC in the past, as I’ve mentioned. Another big advantage with a PC would be I could set it up so I could remote access it and help. I live 2.5 hours from Mum, remote access would be a major boon. In another situation I think I would go down that route, set up a Windows laptop, reduce what was available on it, put on the things I felt they would want initially and ensure I had full access to the machine. I could then do interactive “show and tell” sessions. Of course, you have to consider privacy if you have full access to someone’s machine. But I felt I was trying to come up with a solution that was more easy for me rather than more easy for the person I was helping.

My final factor in my decision on what to go for was “the internet”. There is bad stuff on the internet (I don’t mean content so much, what my Mum looks at is up to her and I am under no illusions that when someone gets old they do not become a child to protect. I don’t understand why some people seem to think old people are sweet and innocent! Old people used to be young, wild, risk-taking and randy. They’ve lived a life and learnt about the world and they know what they do and do not like). What bothers me about the internet is viruses, spyware, downloads that screw your system over. No matter how much I would explain to my mum, there was a good chance she would end up clicking on something and downloading some crap that messed up the system or stole her details. Machines that are not Windows PCs suffer from this a lot less.

For a while my mum said she wanted an Alexa or something similar. Something she could ask about Lonnie Donegan’s greatest hits (this is a totally true example). But talking to her she also wanted email and BBC news and sport. Also, I’ve seen people using an Alexa and getting it to understand & do what you want is pretty hit & miss, I could see that really frustrating my Mum. Also I don’t like the damned, nasty, spying, uncontrolled bloody things – they listen all the time and I don’t think it is at all clear what gets send back to the manufacturer, how it is processed, how they use it for sales & marketing.

So, for my mum a tablet was the way to go. It is simpler, much more like using a phone (you know, the mobile phone she has never had!) and has no complication of separate components. Plus it is smaller. I decided on an iPad because:

    • The three people she is most likely to be in contact with already have an iPad mini or iPhone,
    • They are simple. Simple-ish. Well, not too complicated.
    • I felt it was big enough for her to see things on it but not so big as to be in the way.
    • The interface is pretty well designed and swish.
    • They are relatively unaffected by viruses and malware (not impervious though)
    • It will survive being dropped on the carpeted floor of her house many, many, many times.
    • You can’t harm them by just typing things and running apps. {Hmm, I’ll come back to that in a later post…}
    • If she really hated it, I could make use of a new iPad 🙂

The biggest drawback to an iPad is I cannot get remote access. I’ve had a play with one remote viewing tool but it is too complex for Mum to do her part of things, at least initially. If anyone has any suggestions for dead simple remote access to iPads (and I don’t mind paying for such a service) please let me know. I have access to all her passwords and accounts, at least until she is happy taking control, so I can do anything to get access.

I did not make the decision on her hardware on my own though. Having thought through all the above myself, the next time I visited Mum I took an iPad mini and an iPhone and I asked her what she thought she wanted. We talked about Alexas and PCs too. She did not want a PC, she hated the home computer my father had had (it made funny noises in the corner and disturbed her watching “Eastenders”). Even a laptop was too big – her table in the living room must remain dedicated to her jigsaws! Mum felt an iPhone was too small for her. I won’t say I did not lead the conversation a little, but if she had been adamant she wanted just a phone or a laptop, I’d have tried to make it happen.

Decision made, it will be a standard iPad.

Are we all set?

No, not quite. There is one last thing before starting down this route. Getting advice from others on how to do this (which might be why you are reading this). As well as looking around on the internet a little I tweeted out to my community within I.T. to ask for simple advice. After all, many of us are of an age where we have had to deal with helping our older relatives get online. And I got quite a lot of good advice. I love it when the community helps.

A lot of the advice was on how to set up the device. However, I think it best to cover the setting up of the device under a dedicated post. That will be next.

Friday Philosophy – Size is Relative February 15, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Friday Philosophy, Hardware.
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The below is a USB memory stick, a 64GB USB memory stick which I bought this week for about 10€/$. I think the first USB memory stick I bought was 8MB (1/8000 the capacity) and cost me twice as much.

Almost an entry level USB memory stick these days

This is a cheap, almost entry level USB memory stick now – you can get 0.5TB ones for around €50. I know, I know, they keep getting larger. As does the on-board memory of computers, disc/SSD size, and network speed. (Though compute speed seems to be stalling and has dropped below Moore’s law, even taking into account the constant rise in core count). But come on, think about what you can store on 64GB. Think back a few years to some of the large systems you worked on 10 years ago and how vast you might have thought the data was.

What made me sit back a little is that I’ve worked with VLDBs (Very Large DataBases) for most of my career, the first one being in about 1992/3. And that was a pretty big one for it’s time, it was the largest database Oracle admitted to working on in the UK back then I think. You guessed it – this little USB memory stick would hold the whole database, plus some to spare. What did the VLDB hold? All the patient activity information for a large UK hospital – so all patients who had ever been to the hospital, all their inpatient and outpatient stays, waiting list, a growing list of lab results (blood tests, x-rays)… The kit to run this took up the space of a large lorry/shipping container. And another shipping container of kit to cool it.

What makes a database a VLDB? Well, This old post here from 2009 probably still covers it, but put simply it is a database where simply the size of it gives you problems to solve – how to back it up, how to migrate it, how to access the data within it in a timely manner. It is not just about raw volume, it also depends on the software you are using and the hardware. Back in the mid 2000’s we had two types of VLDB where I worked:

  • Anything above 100GB or so on MySQL was a VLDB as the database technology struggled
  • Anything above 2TB on Oracle was a VLDB as we had trouble getting enough kit to handle the IO requirements and memory for the SGA.

That latter issue was interesting. There was kit that could run 2TB Oracle database with ease back then, but it cost millions. That was our whole IT budget, so we had to design a system using what were really beefed-up PCs and RAC. It worked. But we had to plan and design it very carefully.

So size in I.T. is not just about the absolute volume. It is also to do with what you need to do with the data and what hardware is available to you to solve your volume problems.

Size in I.T. is not absolute – It is relative to your processing requirements and the hardware available to you

That USB stick could hold a whole hospital system, possibly even now if you did not store images or DNA information. But with a single port running at a maximum of 200MB/s and, I don’t know, maybe 2,000 IOPS (read – writes can suck for USB memory sticks), could it support a whole hospital system? Maybe just, I think those figures would have been OK for a large storage array in 1993! But in reality, what with today’s chatty application design and larger user base, probably not. You would have to solve some pretty serious VLDB-type issues.

Security would also be an issue – it’s real easy to walk off with a little USB Memory stick! Some sort of data encryption would be needed… 🙂

Learning About Oracle in Belgium February 11, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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It’s always so good to see a user community growing. Last week was the first ever technical conference for obug (or is it OBUG) – the Oracle Benelux User Group. It was an excellent couple of days, packed with a fantastic range of presenting talent and an enthusiastic audience. I was honoured to be asked to be one of the presenters.

A smorgasbord of talking
technical talent

The event was held in a cinema, which lends itself well to a conference. Riga Dev Days use a cinema also and it works because every seat in the room has a great view of the screen. the screen is large, the projector is (of course) pretty good, and if you want sound it is top quality sound. The icing on the cake is that the seats are padded and comfortable. Poor seating is a real pain (literally) at an event where you are sitting most of the day. One potential drawback of a cinema is ensuring you have areas for catering and coffee, but the chosen venue was able to provide that as well.

Belgium Speakers

I have to tip my hat in deep admiration to Philippe Fierens, Pieter Van Puymbroeck, and Janny Ekelson for the organisation of the event and how well they looked after all the speakers. I don’t think most people have any idea how much hard work, stress and energy is involved in organising these things. I certainly didn’t until I started helping helping organise conferences for the UK Oracle User Group and we have the support of staff who have done this a dozen times. These guys were doing the whole thing and doing it for the first time. Well done!

As this was obug’s first technical conference, Pieter & Philippe followed the example of the Polish User Group when they organised their first conference – they went and asked lots of speakers they knew if they would present. (That’s a nice thing about User Groups too, you learn how to run your own group better). It helps that they are both accomplished presenters themselves and part of the speaker circuit. It’s an odd thing, if you ask one us attention-seeking, self-opinionated, egotistical speakers to present – we are inclined to say yes :-). (I should point out, some speakers are not egotistical or self opinionated. Some). I did hear the odd muttering about a call for papers not happening but, if I was organising my first conference, I would not want the hassle and risk of C4P. I would be pestering my friends and contacts in the same way.

It was a very sociable conference. I mean, we were in Belgium which is renowned for beer and chocolate, it would have been wrong not to partake in them. I’m of the opinion that the social side of user groups is as important as the presentations and workshops. There seems to be a strong correlation to me between those who socialise during a conference and those that get the most out of it. You can learn a lot by spending time with people who have suffered the same issues with tech as you, or who know more about some aspect of Oracle. I got into an interesting chat about potentially pre-checking the second table in a join before you bother scanning the first table, as a cheap – if -rare – optimisation. And I met a guy who’s partner was thinking about making hats, just like my wife does. Oh, and the obligatory discussion about making bread.

As well as the excellent talks and socialising there was also the access to Oracle product managers and experts. There were several at the conference, a couple of whom who I had never met or only briefly. I can’t tell you how much it can help to be able to contact the person in charge of SQL Developer or Exadata and ask “can you find me someone I can chat to about ‘Blargh'”.

There was one final highlight of obug. We had the classic “4 I.T. experts clustered around a laptop that simply won’t run the presentation”. It’s one of those eternal truths of working in the industry that, no matter how good you are in your chosen field, presentations make it all break and you can’t fix it quickly :-). We got there.

It was an excellent conference and I really, *really* hope they do it again next year.

{Oh, I should add – I do not know who took the photo of Roger, Flora, Frits and Ricardo, I stole it off the whatsapp stream we speakers used. Thank you to whoever and let me know if you want crediting}

OUG Scotland – Why to Come & Survival Guide June 12, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, UKOUG, Uncategorized, User Groups.
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The UKOUG’s Scottish conference is on the 21st June in the centre of Edinburgh, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, not far from Edinburgh Castle in the centre of the city.

Picture from viator.com, who do tours etc

 

The Event

There is a six-stream agenda covering Database, Apex & Development, Platform & Services, Coud Apps, EBS Apps tech, and Business Analytics/systems & EPM, so pretty much the whole breadth of Oracle Tech, Apps and BI. We have a keynote by Oracle’s Caroline Apsey on the Bloodhound Project, the UK-based group trying to smash the world land-speed record with a 1,000mph rocket car – and solve lots of engineering challenges on the way. And uses the Oracle Cloud. I’ll be sure to see that one.

With 6 all-day streams there are a lot of presentations to choose from, but as a taste of what is on offer I’ll mention Jonathan Lewis talking about stats, Heli Helskyaho explaining the basics of machine learning, and from Oracle we have Grant Ronald on AI-driven chatbots, Hilary Farrell on the new features of APEX 18.1, and Keith Laker on JSON & SQL. The talks are a nice mixture of end-user experiences, recognised experts and Oracle themselves. UKOUG is independent of Oracle so although we are very happy to have Oracle support us, we have talks that are not just what Oracle are currently pushing. This is what I love about user group meetings, you get the whole story.

As a member of the UKOUG this event is free, counting as one of your SIG places. If you have run out of SIG places, you can buy an extra one at £85 – or upgrade your membership of course 🙂

If you are not a member you can pay £170 to attend the event, which is pretty cheap for a day of Oracle conference when compare to many other events of the same size around Europe. However, if you become a bronze member of the UKOUG – which comes with a SIG place, so you can come to the event – that will only cost you £165! Contact the UKOUG office for any help.

(note, all prices do not include VAT, which is 20%. A UK company can usually claim this back).

 

Social

I’m sure there will be a good few people travelling up the day before the event so there is a social being organised. This will be in the Shakespeare Pub from 19:00, which is not far at all from the Sheraton hotel. I’m afraid that you will have to buy your own drinks etc, but I’ll be buying a round at some point.

I have to run away back home before the event itself ends, but there is a social event in the hotel after the presentations, in the exhibition area, starting at 17:25.

 

Edinburgh

Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities in the UK – and actually in the world. I’ll be turning up Wednesday afternoon so I can have a wander about the city before joining the meetup the evening before the conference and, if I had the time, I’d be going up sooner or coming back later. If you have time, a wander up Royal Mile to the Esplanade gives fine views over the city. Having looked at the nest of roads and alleys of the old town in front of the castle, it is only a few minutes to the New Town with it’s contrasting, rectangularly laid out, Victorian grandeur. In the old town I love the camera obscura just off the Esplanade, the  Dynamic Earth museum at the bottom of the Royal Mile/Holyrood road and, if I have a couple of hours, I’ll wander up Arthur’s seat – a small “mountain” (the remains of an ancient volcano),180+meters of ascent in the centre of Edinburgh. Views are spectacular. Unless it rains.

Getting There

Train

The venue is about a mile from Waverley train station in the centre of Edinburgh, half a mile or so from Haymarket. Intercity services go to Waverley.

It is not as expensive or as far away to get to Edinburgh from London as you might think. At the time of writing trains from London Kings Cross are 4-5 hours from about £42 each way. And the route is gorgeous, running up the East coast with views out to sea. Sit on the right side of the train on the way up! To get travel at that cost you do need to pick your exact train and book ASAP. You will end up at Waverley station right in the centre of Edinburgh.

Travel from other cities in the UK will be similar, but cheaper. Apart from Birmingham maybe. I don’t know why but there seems to be a “tax” on leaving Birmingham!

Getting to the Sheraton from Waverley is still easy, there are buses and trams. If you have time, you come out of Waverley, cross North Bridge, go up the Royal Mile and down Johnston Terrace. It’s a one mile walk and you can take in the view from the Castle Esplanade on the way.

Tram

If you are heading to the Sheraton hotel by tram, you should get off at West End stop, take Canning Street then bear left onto Rutland Square. Walk past the horse statue and across the footbridge to turn left on Exchange Square. The hotel entrance is on the right.

Car

Even though I live in the South of England, if I had a day to do it I’d drive up to Edinburgh and stop off at places along the way. If you are local-ish to Edinburgh and the trains do not work for you, I’m told it may be best to head for the multi-storey carparks at Castle Terrace or Semple Street. But driving into Edinburgh can be a bit of a pain.

Plane.

I’ll be coming in by plane as I live very close to Stansted Airport. It is costing me £21 each way with Ryanair (Ack!) and there are several flights a day to chose from. You can also fly from Luton (£48), Gatwick (£60) or Birmingham (£70).

The Edinburgh tram system now runs out to the airport so getting in by tram is quick and easy, in shiny, modern trams. If my memory of the roads is still accurate, a taxi will take a lot longer, as well as being more expensive.

 

 

I hope some of you can join me at this great event in this lovely city.

Friday Philosophy – Despair of the Dyslexic Developer and Your Help Please June 1, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life.
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Like a surprisingly large number of people, I’m dyslexic. I’ve mentioned this before, describing how I found out I was dyslexic and also how I think it is sometimes used as an odd sort-of badge of distinction. I am mildly dyslexic, the letters do not try to “merge or run away” from my eye, if I hit a large word I am unfamiliar with I can visually chop it up and get through it. But that is just me. So, today, I want to ask you all, if you are a dyslexic developer or know one, are there any steps you have taken to reduce the impact?

I should mention, neither Jim or Richard are dyslexic as far as I know!

A recent, slightly jokey, conversation on twitter reminded me of the issues I have had in typing the wrong thing (over and over and over again – my usual example is how often I have tried to “shitdwon” an oracle instance). And that in turn reminded me of a more serious conversation I had when at the OUG Ireland conference back in March.

As a developer, I sometimes struggle to spot spelling mistakes or use of the wrong (or missing) punctuation in my code. As my friend JimTheWhyGuy said in the twitter conversation, spotting you had spelt UDPATE wrong. I was telling the audience that I was something of a slow developer, partly due to dyslexia. I can stare at code for ages, especially if I am using a new construct to me, not understanding why I am getting an error. It is often not a syntax problem but a spelling one. I had real problems with the word “partitioning” (and still do) when I started using that feature. – it is a little long and has almost-repeated sections in the middle and I “spin” in the middle if I read it or try to write it. It’s a little too long for my wrists to learn to automatically tap it out.

After the talk a lady came over and asked me if I had any advice on how to reduce the impact of dyslexia when writing code. She’d been diagnosed at school and so had grown up knowing she was dyslexic. (I was not diagnosed as a child, which oddly enough I am still glad about – as I learnt to cope with it in my own way. But I am NOT glad I am dyslexic). I do not know what support and advice she had been given through school, but it was obviously still something that impacted things. All I could come up with were a couple of tricks I use.

One is to copy text into MS Word and see if it highlights anything. You have to teach your version of MS Word (*other word processors with spell checkers are available) that the normal syntax words are real, but all the punctuation and special characters get in the way. Where it does help a lot is reducing the number of errors in specifications & documentation I produce and, now, articles I write. But as I know most of you who come by here have already realised – spelling errors that give another correct word are not picked up by a lot of spell checkers, such as this WordPress site. My blogs are full of missing words, wrong words and other crap.

The other major advance is the use of, Software Development Tools (SDTs – and YES, I spelt SDT wrong first time around writing this!) or Interactive Development Environments (IDEs). These highlight syntax errors (so highlighting typos), allow auto-completion of command words and provide common code constructs. They help, but I’ve never been that good at getting the best out of them. I use SQL*Developer more than the others and it does help.

The final other thing is that I just factor in that it’s going to take me more time to write or read stuff. Like many dyslexics, there is nothing wrong with my comprehension (I went off the scale for reading age when I was 12) but it takes me longer and is more effort.

Looking around on the web about this, there is a lot of stuff, the above point about IDEs being a main one. One common thing is to use different fonts to help stop letters skipping about or moving, but I don’t have that sort of dyslexia so I’ve never looked into that. I was going to review the topic of dyslexic developers more before putting this article together, but reading it all was taking me too long! That and I found the constant “It gave me an advantage” to be bloody annoying.

So, knowing a few of you out there are also dyslexic to some degree or another, have you any tips to share? If you have something to share but do not want to be identified, contact me directly.

I’d really appreciate it, if not for me then for if ever anyone else asks me how I cope as a dyslexic developer.

My main opt-out of course was to move into performance. It’s somehow more “pictorial” in my mind and you write less code…

Riga & Romania, Zagreb & Zurich: It Sounds Rockstar but Really it’s Not May 10, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, Presenting, Private Life, User Groups.
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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month or two trying to plan how to navigate a set of visits to the Eastern side of Europe. This might sound a little “My Glamorous Lifestyle” but, as my friend Tim Hall (he who is “Oracle-Base”) has documented in his posts under “my glamorous lifestyle”, doing the Oracle talk circuit often entails lots of hours in airports & stations, travelling with cheap, basic airlines, and sometimes a lot of stress. It is not the “Airport lounge and first class service” some people think it is. Anyway…

I’m visiting cities in the orange zone

All three venues are at pretty much the same longitude, about 25 degrees (that is to say, the same distance “East” of the UK). The first trip is to Riga in Latvia, where I am presenting at Riga Dev Days 2018. This is my first time at Riga Dev Days and in fact my first time in Latvia. Sue has never visited Latvia before so is joining me for a long weekend prior to the conference – they have a millinery (hat) museum in Riga! (If you do not know, my wife makes some very nice hats)

The last trip is to Romania, to present at a the Romanian Oracle User Group meeting. I was asked if I would consider this by Mirela Ardelean at the UKOUG conference last December and my response was “Hell yes! I’ve never been to Romania before and I love being asked! Besides, I don’t think Sue has been to Romania yet…” So, another weekend as a tourist with my wife before a speaking engagement. Bucharest is pretty much directly South of Riga.

I’ve had these two in my calendar for a while and, though the trip to Romania was a little fluid for a while, I knew I could do it easily – there are cheap, direct flights to both from London Stansted airport, which is just a few miles over the fields from my home.

Riga hat museum 🙂

And then things changed. I became UKOUG President elect (and, a lot sooner than I expected, full president) and there is a meeting of European Oracle user groups in Zagreb, Croatia, in a date between the two user group events I was doing. I felt I needed to be there – I think all the European user groups have stuff to learn from each other and the UKOUG board supported this position.

I now had a three-week period with large chunks “over there”. I looked at flights, times, costs, hotels… It was not working. Getting home to the UK in that period with at least 24 hours at home was going to be very, very hard. I looked to see if train transport or even a hire car would help. No. But carrying enough personal stuff to last three weeks was also hard work. Even if I did weird things like popped into other countries by train or travelled at antisocial hours, the cost was making my eyes water. Each trip itself was OK if based on a simple “UK and out/return” basis. But together, it did not work. Moving between each country was not a smooth process and going home to the UK was even worse…

Then Sue made a suggestion. Don’t go “home” – go to see your wife – via Zurich!

That worked!

In the middle of all these trips I can pop back to Zurich and by train to Basel, and see Mrs Widlake. And wash my dirty clothes. It seems crazy, but adding another leg to what was already a frenetic travel plan made it all doable. So now I am going Stansted-Riga-Zurich-Basel-Zurich-Zagreb-Belgrade-Bucharest-Stansted.

Bucharest

Why do I do all of this? Because I love what I do as a vocation (UKOUG, presenting, the Oracle Community) and I love what I do as a Husband (she currently works abroad, I go visit, she visits back, and we meet up in random countries across Europe). For both I travel cheap as I am either spending the salary of my wife or the funds of a User Group. Both are limited and I try to keep costs down. Especially on the latter.

I really wanted to fit in a trip to Bulgaria as well, to go to the BOUG spring conference, but I really just could not make that work as well. That will have to be next year, if they will still accept me.

I already know I will be knackered by the end of this tour, but that’s OK – I will have time to recover. That would be 48 hours before I go to Valencia for a holiday “with the boys”. Followed 48 hours later by a trip to Scotland to be UKOUG President at the Scottish UKOUG conference.

I might take July off to sleep….

Free Conference (*) in May! May 4, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Knowledge, UKOUG.
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How do you fancy going to a full-day, five stream conference, for free? With a great agenda including Pete Finnigan talking on the hot topic of GDPR; Chris Saxon, Nigel Bayliss and Grant Ronald giving us the latest low-down on optimizer, 18C database features for developers and AI powered apps? Stalwarts of the Oracle community like Robin Moffat, Zahid Anwar and Andrew Clarke giving their real-world view?

Well, if you are a member of the UKOUG you can – and even if you are not a member, there is a way! All levels of UKOUG membership, even bronze, allow you to attend at least one SIG (Special Interest Group) meeting – and the Northern Technology Summit is classed as a SIG, even though it is as large as some smaller conferences. The 5 streams cover Database, RAC, Systems, APEX, and Development (I know, APEX is part of development – but it gets a whole stream to fit in the large range of speakers, who are mostly end users with real stories to tell). You can see the full agenda here.

Park Plaza. Leeds.

The summit is being held in Leeds, at the Park Plazza hotel, on the 16th of May. The Park Plaza is so close to Leeds train station that you could probably hit it with a catapult from the entrance. It is also about 2 minutes from where the M621 (a spur off the M1) ends in the city centre. You can sign up to the event by clicking here.

Is Leeds far away? No. Trains from Kings Cross take only 2 hours and you can get there and back for £50 or less. Check out Trainline.com and similar websites. Of course, coming in from Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle etc is even quicker and cheaper (except maybe Brum, for reasons I cannot fathom) Even Edinburgh is less than 3 hours away.

SO you are not a UKOUG member – You can still come, and still come for free as I said – well, sort of. The cost of a SIG for a non-member is £170 plus VAT, which is pretty cheap for a whole-day event full of technical content and an absolute steal for a 5-stream mini-conference. But if you become a Bronze member of the UKOUG for five pounds less, i.e. £165, you get a SIG place – so you can come to the Northern Technology summit. The UKOUG have waived the usual joining fee of £50 to ensure it is cheaper to become a bronze member than simply pay for this event. And, if you become a higher level member, (silver, gold, platinum) the UKOUG will still waive the joining fee. You can see full details of the offer here

As well as the excellent agenda we will be having some fun. We are having a meet-up the night before in Leeds, at Foley’s Tap House where we have reserved an area. This is one of my favourite pubs in Leeds, I seem to end up in it for a pint or two whenever I visit the city. There are already over half a dozen of us going and I’ll buy a round. The park plaza hotel is just next to the latest shopping centre in Leeds. If you have never visited the city before, or did so a long time ago, it’s become a very vibrant city centre over the last 10 years or so. I suspect after the event some of us will end up in the Scarborough hotel opposite the train station before we wander home.

So, sign up and get yourself over to a whole-day, 5-stream conference full of both the official information from Oracle on 10 topics and end-user/partner opinions on 25 more.

Friday Philosophy – If I Was a Computer, I Might Be An IBM System 360 April 20, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life, working.
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So today I turn 50. I spent a few minutes looking up what your typical computer looked like then and I decided the IBM System/360 was about right. It was a business machine. Personal computers did not exist then as, well, it was almost the dark ages…

IBM system/360, phot by Dave Ross

{Note, it has been pointed out to me that I should say “If I were a computer”. Seems that even at my age I still have things still to learn properly… I’ll leave it as is to remind myself…}.

Technology changes and we who work with it change. With tech, after a while any individual part (say a specific computer) becomes obsolete and we throw it away. The technology itself changes and we stop using the parts that are superceeded. I don’t remember the last time I used any sort of floppy disc or a Zip Drive. Ironically we still often use a floppy disc icon to identify the Save button.

But us? Do we who work with I.T. become obsolete? Yes. We do so when we stop changing with the times (or “stop working”, but this is not an “I’m old and considering my mortality” type post, you will be relieved to know). I think that if you lose your passion to keep learning something new in computing and/or programming, it’s time to move out of the arena; as, worryingly soon, you are going to become like those old systems that never get updates and you know will be thrown out if they develop a serious flaw or just become too expensive to keep on the payroll – err, I mean plugged in.

I nearly lost interest about 8,10 years ago. I think it was partly that I found myself doing the same things over & over again and having the same stupid arguments (sorry, “discussions”) about how not doing things correctly was going to just make everyone’s life harder in the long run. I don’t mean doing things the same, I mean doing the things that make a good system – ensuring it fits the business need, that it is tested before it gets released, and you do this crazy thing called design. This time it was not that I needed to alter along with the tech, I needed to alter myself a little. I finally realised that, although it was getting worse, the I.T. world has always been a bit like that and part of the trick to this business is simply walking away from places that are too bad and looking for those who are a bit better. I’m lucky to be able to do that moving about (don’t get me wrong, I did have to put effort into it and I think that is where some people go wrong, they seem to almost expect an external agent to make things better for them) but then I’m 50 and still in the business. I’ve seen lots of people simply leave the industry when they could not affect that change.

However, doing a bit of the introverted-navel-gazing that comes with Significant Birthdays, I find it interesting that at 20, 25, 30, 35,… 42 (very significant that one) things have always been changing for me.

When I was born, computers filled a large room. And were yellow.

At 20 I was studying Genetics & Zoology at college and thought I would be a lab scientist. A career in I.T. was not even a consideration.
By 25 I’d taken up computing and I had fallen into this company called Oracle and I reckoned I would be with them for a good while, building systems with Forms, ReportWriter. PL/SQL and whatever came next. Oracle would not last for ever…
When I was 30 I was self employed, touting my services to various companies and mostly doing systems design and performance work.
Come 35 and I was back full-time employed (that was a surprise) working in science organisation (even more of a surprise) using my degree to some, well, degree (an utter surprise). And presenting at Oracle user group conferences.
At 40 I was self-employed again, but now totally focused on performance and and Oracle RDBMS Subject Matter Expert (someone who knows a bit about most of it and most of a bit of it).
42. 42 is a great age. You are the answer to everything…
At 45 I was retired. Except when I was not. OK, I had become a Consultant, doing short jobs for different clients. And doing all this User Group stuff. Me! Antisocial, miserable, slightly-autistic me!
Now at 50, I have to confess I am not keeping on top of the technical details of my chosen sphere the way I probably should, if my career is still in this area. But I’m not doing bad and my “job” is now even more as a presenter and a member of the User Group community. I need new skills for that.

So it keeps changing. Sometimes I chose the change and sometimes changes just dropped on me. But I’ll look at the options as they come up. And if no options are coming up and I am not happy in my job, I go look for options. I won’t say I always choose the best option but, heck, it’s worked OK so far.

I wonder what I’ll be doing at 55 and 60? I just hope I am not stuck in a museum with a “do not touch” sign next to me, like all the remaining IBM System/360s