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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.

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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}