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Friday Philosophy – Early Mistakes Uncorrected Means Poor Final Systems August 13, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, Friday Philosophy.
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4 comments

A few days ago I fitted a sink (hand basin) in my garage. Bear with me, this IS related to I.T.

It’s maybe is not so clear from the pictures, but that sink is at an angle (see the spirit level in the second shot, that bubble is way over from being in the centre), leaning back towards the wall on the left. And the splash back is also not straight, it is a good 5 degrees from the vertical. I’m pretty good at DIY – putting up shelves, building cupboards, fixing furniture, building the odd bit of wall, erecting & insulating sheds (which I take power and lighting down to)… And I am very, very meticulous about things like getting things straight and level. As I progressed with the job of putting up this sink and reflected on the process, it so reminds me of several application development projects I’ve been involved in (or was brought in to help crowbar back into shape)

Where Did I Go Wrong?

I’ll add some pictures to the bottom of this blog, but for now I’ll just describe what happened. When I offered up the sink to the wall I realised that the pipework (put in by competent builders but with no real consideration of my planned improvements) was exactly where the sink should go. And I also realised that even if the sink was put higher (way too high for me) or lower (well to low for a normal heighted person) the pipework would still be an issue. Also, the back wall is not quite vertical and the two walls are not quite at 90 degrees. This sort of thing is not unusual in any building (though slightly vexing in something built only 12 years ago) and to me it’s like the not-quite-perfect situation most application developments start at. You might not be using the best database for the solution, you might have to use a computer language that is not the best but you have staff skilled in it. There will be bizarre parts of the application you are replacing that you have to keep as the end users have got used to them – or even built business processes around and no one wants to change those now.

Good developers and systems engineers can work around such issues. A good DIYer can take into account badly placed pipes and wonky walls. I could have cut out and replaced the pipework – but it would have been a lot of work and I am not very good at plumbing (which is why I use push-fit plumbing: less neat & more expensive, but dead easy & quick). This would be like changing those slightly crazy business practices forced by the old system for ones that would benefit the business eventually, but it’s a lot of effort to change. As for the wonky walls, sorting that out would be like re-skilling or replacing my whole development team to move to better technology – Possible, but not going to happen.

The pragmatic solution was to mount the sink on wooden battens and make the battens thick enough to avoid the pipework and allow me to correct for the wonky walls. A cheap, pragmatic solution to the imperfect starting conditions.

Only, I messed up. I spent hours first doing the extra plumbing work to get an isolation valve beyond where the sink & splashbacks would be (so the water could be turned off for maintenance or leaks), and a feed for the hot water unit to come. Then I failed to plane off the battens for the sink properly and they had to come off and be messed with several times. When it came time to mount the sink, which goes on two metal pegs, I screwed one of them in too high. Bloody hell.

From this point on – I was doomed. I should have taken it off the wall and tried again

I was tired, annoyed. To fix the peg I would have to replace the batten. I did not want to take that sodding batten off the wall and replace it (it had been the hard one to make). It was also the end of the day. So I did a “bodge job” – which means a quick and poor quality alteration to get you past a problem. I packed out the space between one mounting peg and a guessed proper height for the sink. I replaced proper planning and good development with something you throw together at the end of an Agile Sprint, so I could meet my objectives and go home.

The next morning I realised the sink was more than a little uneven – but I decided to continue. And that was it, I had messed up the whole job. In my head I thought I could modify the upright battens, get a little leeway with the tiling and grouting and make up for the “bodge job”. I won’t bore you with the full details but I was so utterly wrong. What would have been two totally square and vertical battens for one splashback and a pair of slightly trimmed for the other turned into endless alterations and re-working, especially as towards what should have been the end of the job, it was obvious the tiles were going to look awful (good tiling is all about straight, parallel, horizontal, well squared lines – they magnify imperfections, of which I now had many) so more reworking was required.

If I had fixed the sink mounts first thing that morning, I think I would have finished the job in that same morning, not one and a half days later.

It’s Not The Starting Conditions, It’s The Cutting Corners

The more I have thought about that sink, the more it echoes what I’ve seen in the world of computer application development.

Many times, when the development of an application has gone wrong, I hear people blame the starting conditions. “We had to use Java Struts” or “The analytics team demanded they could query anything” or “We had to make the system talk to the old warehouse system on Informix” or whatever. I doubt these starting conditions were really a big problem, you knew about them and your design should have taken them into account. A good designer will plan around them, a good developer will code in an interface, a good DBA will add in the required indexes.

Not properly planning the system or not prototyping the solution will invariably lead to disaster. In my sink scenario, that would have been the case if I had not used my experience and thought about the long term and decided to try to attach the sink to the plasterboard walls directly, just under the pipework. I’d never have got the tiles on and the sink would have fallen off the wall very soon. I’m not saying you don’t see this failure to plan upfront in application development, it has sadly become more common. Too many places think “Agile” or similar is just hacking the system together and fixing what is wrong. That is, to use a coarse term, just bollocks. Agile only works well (in my experience) when done on top of a very good design, created by skilled people. It’s not easy.

However, the most common cause of issues I have witnessed, by a long way, is that of “bodging a solution” – and again it is very strongly associated in my experience with “agile” done wrong, or even worse the “develop to fail – and then fix quickly” mentality. Yes, you will get something that works. Very quickly. And it will probably be an “uneven sink”. It will do the job (hold water, let people register for an event) but as soon as you try and extend the system, it gets harder and harder and harder. And you spend more and more time working through that technical debt you inflicted on yourself. And the end result will be very much sub-optimal. OK, a simple thing will be fine when put together like this (a shelf to hold photographs, a simple calendar app) but a complicated system like a hospital patient administration system or a fraud detection application, a whole bathroom refurbishment… It’s going to be a mess. I’ve seen and suffered from this cascade of crap so many times over the years.

The whole idea of things like sprints, where you are put under tremendous pressure to just make your bit work, causes a lot of bodging of things. Yes, it does, I’ve seen it. I’m sure if things like code review, pair development, and periods of planning are put into Agile (like they are supposed to be) the bodges could be un-bodged. But I simply don’t see this. And the whole “fail fast and fix” idea seems to me to absolutely guarantee a system covered in duct tape and almost unmaintainable. All for the sake of get it done NOW.

I learnt many years ago in I.T. that it is far more efficient if you fix the mistakes when you first see them and fix them well. Always build on a stable base and keep it solid. Otherwise, as you progress, the pain just builds and builds and builds. This latest DIY experience just hammered it home.

The sink I put up does work. None of the pipework leaks, the splashbacks do not have gaps to let water in, the tiles are aligned (mostly), they are high enough to catch splashes. I know I can put the water heater above it… but it will be higher than I would want and if I do not make it lean to the left, it will make the sink look even more skew whiff. But by the end I put in twice the effort (if not more) than I needed to in order to have a functional sink – and it looks weird.

Do not bodge the beginning of a project, make it right and save yourself from endless pain later on!

For the interested, a pictorial progress of the job.

Friday Philosophy – My First Foray Into I.T November 13, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

This is the first computer I ever used. The actual one. It is a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K. It was at the heart of a long, terrible family feud – the source of much angst, anger, and even fist fights. Blood was spilt over this machine. Literally!

Picture of a Spectrum home computer

The actual first computer I ever used

Anyone who lived in the UK in the early 1980’s and is currently about half a century old will recognise this box with the grey, rubber (sometimes called “dead flesh”) keyboard. It was the model that came out after the Sinclair ZX81, which is itself a classic of early home computers, and sometimes the ZX Spectrum was called the ZX82. The Spectrum could put colour on the screen (up to 8 different colours at a time!), had a resolution of 256*192 pixels, the Z80A CPU ran at 3.5MHz, and it could make a sound. A beep, basically (for a wide variation of too few hertz to hear to too many hertz to hear and all tones in between, and of any duration – but it was still just a beep).

The Spectrum was initially a rival in the UK for the Commodore VIC 20, BBC Micro, Atari 400 and, later, the Commodore 64 (C64). They all had their advantages, the Spectrum’s was it was cheap! Even the more expensive 48K version (as opposed to the basic 16K) was cheaper than most rivals. Sinclair Research even tried to make out it was superior to it’s rivals as it was simpler and had fewer chips inside it. That was pure marketing BS of course. But the Spectrum and the C64 were probably the most common home computers in the UK in the early 80’s and they remainder popular even when more capable machines came out. They might not have been the best machines technically, but they both ended up having a huge number of games you could play on them, and that’s what counted. In my local computer games shop most games were for the Spectrum, then the C64, and all other machines got lumped together in a corner at the back.

The Spectrum was the first computer in the Widlake household. My dad agreed to buy it for my older brother Simon, who made a strong argument that it was an educational tool – and the early advertising material for the machine made a lot of it’s suitability as a such, with lots of worthy software for doing graphs and learning computer languages. About the only game available for it on release was chess. Dad was of the opinion Simon was the genius in the family – Simon was going to go to University! (At the time no one in the family had ever gone into higher education, only about 5% of people in the U.K. did then. As it turned out, all three of us kids went into higher education). So Dad felt it was worth spending the money, as he felt computers were going to become something. He wasn’t wrong.

But before Dad agreed to get Simon the Spectrum, he made Simon agree it was something the whole family was to have access to. He was to share it with myself and Steve, the eldest. Simon agreed.

Spectrum with games and tape recorder

The spectrum needed a tape record and a TV to be used

So the Spectrum arrived. Back then, home computers almost never came with everything needed to use them. The Spectrum, like several rival computers, needed a cassette tape record to save and load programs from tapes, and a TV on which to show the image. Simon had his own tape recorder and he was of the firm belief that, except when Dad wanted to watch the news, he could use the family TV whenever he wanted. As he was a genius after all.

He quickly lost the TV argument, the last thing our parents wanted was to lose the power of distraction that the TV provided for the other two kids – especially me as I watched a lot of TV and was a right PIA when I wasn’t. Steve did not watch a lot of TV but as he wanted nothing to do with the computer, it would have been really unfair on him to not get to see the few things he wanted.

However, Simon had a back-up plan. I had a portable black & white TV (so much for those 8 colours) and Simon was older & bigger than me. So he took possession of my TV. I complained to the court of Mum & Dad but the Tyrant justified his acquisition of the resource on the grounds that he was going to have to share his Spectrum, a far more valuable resource, with me – so it was only fair?!? “Yes” I agreed, but only when I was not using MY TV for MY watching of what ever (probably crap) I was wanting to watch. The court came down on the side of the Tyrant, but with caveat of the plaintive upheld. Tyrant could use the TV when Plaintive was not watching it. It turned out that the reality of the situation was that Simon was still bigger than me and to my considerable surprise “I didn’t want to watch anything” whenever Simon wanted to use his – err, sorry, “our” – Spectrum.

The next blow to the plans of Tyrant bigger brother was that it turned out his tape deck (the one in the picture) was crap. Most games would fail to load from it. But my tape recorder worked just fine for this purpose, it was a really quite nice JVC model… So, yes, you guessed it, another possession of mine was now to be treated as his – sorry, “our” – possession, still on the basis of shared access to the Spectrum.

So Simon used my stuff as and when he wanted, but did he share? Well, sort of…

Sinclair User Magazine

Those of us of the correct vintage who got into early home computers would buy magazines like (in our case) “Your Spectrum” or “Sinclair User”. Inside there would be long code listings of programs. Simon “let me” read the text of the code out to him to help him type it in more easily. Or, if he was in a really good mood, he would let me type the code in on my own – whilst he was doing something else (like seeing his friends or watching the colour TV or picking on the cat). If I finished typing it in I was not allowed to play it until he got back. Yeah, like I paid any attention to THAT rule…

These games you laboriously typed in often had bugs in them, especially if they had a lot of code. Some were down to entering the wrong code in, more were down to the actual code really being wrong – quality control was non-existent. And, to give him his due, Simon was really very good at finding and fixing the bugs. Once there was a flight simulator in the magazine, spread over a couple of issues. I think it later got developed further and become “Psion Flight Simulator”. But the version in the magazine did not work properly. Simon found and fixed the bugs and even got them published in a later copy of the magazine. It taught us both that software could be wrong and that it could be fixed. I did fix some of the games myself, especially if I had been left typing it in and got it finished. And sometimes Under Orders from the Tyrant (who was out setting light to papers in people’s front doors or something…)

But I was not allowed to play with the computer myself without permission, and certainly not if he was out. Apparently I was old enough to enter code for him unattended but not to load up “Meteor Alert” or “Ant Attack” and have fun. You’d think from this I was maybe 8 or 10, but I was actually about 14 and more than old enough to recognise hypocrisy and injustice. I would say that’s what older siblings are primarily for, to teach you about these philosophies. Not by saying “this is something you should not do, oh younger brother of mine” but by amply demonstrating for real what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such bullying and unfair treatment. But my oldest brother felt no need to deliver such life lessons, so I could be wrong.

Simon would let me play “with him”. This usually took the form of him playing the game and, once he lost, letting me play until I lost – and then we would swap again. Sounds fair? Not really, as a lot of the time he would be playing on his own or with his friends and I was not invited. He would be using “our” TV and “our” tape recorder but it was still His computer and he was not letting me join in. So given my lack of practice and that I was younger and not so good at computer games as him, when he did let me join in his go would last 20 minutes and mine would last 2 minutes. Basically, he liked to be beating someone. I was better than him at a couple of games, one being “Attic Attack”, as I had learned the layout. We never played Attic Attack. Oh, he did play Attic Attack. He played it on his own, trying to get better, good enough to beat me…

I could beat the Tyrant at Attic Attack

After maybe a year, 18 months, things came to a head. Simon was never going to play fair, in his mind it really was his Spectrum and also now his TV and his tape recorder. After all, as he kept telling me, his computer was the more expensive item. Only, in reality, it was less expensive than my contribution combined. I started playing on the Spectrum when he was not in, as far as I was concerned I’d put more into this pot than he had and I was not going to accept this shit. I could not use it against his will when he was there but once he was out, I damned well was going to get some of my fair share. As you can guess, this did not go down well with him when he found out and the Tyrant did what all bullying, older brothers did and he physically asserted his authority. He’d hit me. I was not really pleased about that, so when he’d go out I would absolutely bloody well would play on it if I wanted to or not, out of spite & defiance (and also to keep my edge in Attic Attack) – and it would repeat. It came to a head when he made my nose bleed – and it dripped on the computer. That was, of course, my fault… “If you’ve damaged the Spectrum I’ll kill you!” Oh, I’m so sorry for bleeding on things after you hit me. Maybe that should teach you something…

It was now warfare.  Screw you, I said, you’ve never shared as agreed, keep your Spectrum, it’s useless without my bits. I banned him from using my equipment. A ban which he now ignored of course. I went to the court of Mum & Dad, but not only was Simon “the genius” but he was, back in reality, a lying & manipulative sod and he made out he was sharing and I was being a spoilt child and I was told I had to share as he was (!!!!). So I took things into my own hands – and I started hiding the cables to my tape recorder and taking the plug off my TV. Yes, I physically removed the plug from the cable and hid it. He tried to work around my sabotage, one day I came home from somewhere to find he had plugged the Spectrum into the family TV and he’d got hold of a spare power cable for my tape recorder and he was using it, despite me banning him from it, playing games with his mates.

I went utterly, lost-the-plot nuts. I demanded my stuff back and an apology or something or let me play too and he was having none of it. So I tried to take my tape recorded back and he tried to stop me, but I was so mad I got hold of it (I think I was finally getting strong enough to fight back a bit) and, shouting something like “and you used it to load that game, so I’m taking THAT as well!” I kicked the power plug out the Spectrum. Game gone, no tape player to load one up, games afternoon with his friends was over and there was nothing he could do about it. He went BERZERK, trying to wrench the tape drive back off me and hitting me but I was so furious I held my own and I think I even kicked his computer again. He was straight off to Mum saying I was trying to break his computer. And this time, the Court of Mum & Dad finally realised Simon was being a little shit. He could not deny he had used my things, even though I had told him he could not, and he could not claim I attacked him first (his usual stance), as his mates backed me up and said Simon had hit me first. Yeah, his mates dobbed him in it!  I think they found it all hilarious.

This led to a full judicial review and this time the voice of the Plaintive was heard. I might have been a little sod but I had never tried to break stuff before and I utterly refused to accept it when The Tyrant lied that he shared at all – why would I be this mad and and even taking the plug off my TV? Simon had not helped himself in other ways as he’d been caught bullying me by Mum recently and been in trouble at school. Timing was on my side. He was told to play fairly or else… have his precious Spectrum removed. Dad would monitor.

Amstrad CPC 464

This was my Amstrad, I bought it, Simon was not using it.

After that, it got a bit more equal. I did get some time on the Spectrum myself (though I did sometimes have to get enforcement from the judiciary) and I did not just play games. I had typed in a lot of programs for Simon and fixed a few of them, so I slowly learnt how to program. I wrote a couple of my own simple games and put in stuff from magazines I wanted to try but Simon had no interest in.

But it never did really completely end. He could no longer stop me using the Spectrum. But if I was using it and Simon decided he wanted it, he would just bully me, or tell dad I was stopping him “learning” (I am not so sure what you learn from playing “Jet Set Willy”). That Spectrum came, for me, to represent what a selfish, lying, bullying, devious shit my older brother was. I swore one day the Spectrum would be mine.

And then it all changed, I got my own computer, an Amstrad CPC464. I bought it with my own money I earnt from months of back-breaking fruit-picking work (Simon was “too good” to do manual labour, so he had no money). It had not been bought by Mum and Dad, it was in no way a shared resource, it was totally mine. And guess what I said to him when he asked (well, demanded) to use it?

Yes, he could Fuck Right Off. He had his Spectrum.

And if he tried his old tricks of hitting me, it would be a more equal fight (he was still taller and older than me but manual labour had made me a hell of a lot stronger), so he decided against that. He could keep his crappy Spectrum.

The irony was that, even though my Amstrad was a much more advanced and capable piece of kit, the Spectrum and it’s vast library of games was still the best option for fun.

Well, the Spectrum is now mine. I picked it up from Mum’s house this week. Simon passed away many years ago, so it’s been sitting in a drawer for almost 2 decades. Being a Friday Philosophy I guess I should now tell you what the Spectrum now means to me, the healing process, what we can learn from this? How family, in the end, is more important than mere possessions? Stuff like that?

Well, I can.

I learnt that Simon was always a bullying, nasty, selfish, self serving sod and he got no better as he got older. So there.

And the Spectrum is now mine I guess.

But I don’t have a TV with the right socket to plug it into, and I know already – that tape drive won’t load games…

Friday Philosophy – Is The Problem The Small Things? August 7, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, off-topic, rant, User Groups.
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6 comments

Something has been bothering me for a while. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s been depressing me. It’s you. Well, many of you.

Well, it’s not MY problem!

What do I mean? Well I’ll give you an example. A week or so ago I went out in the car to get some shopping. A few minutes into the journey, as I go around a gentle bend, I see there is a car coming towards me – on my side of the road. I had to brake to give it space to get back over and I see it has swerved to avoid a branch in the road. As you can see in the picture, it’s not a huge branch, it covers less than one lane. I’m past it now so I go on to the shops and get my stuff.

30 minutes later I’m coming back. And I’m thinking to myself “I bet that branch is still there.” And it is. I can see it from maybe 300 meters back. The two cars in front of me barely slow down and they swerve past it. An oncoming vehicle that *I* can see coming, let alone the two cars in front of me, has to slow down for the swervers like I did. That slight bend means you get a much better warning of the obstacle from the side of the road it is on and as it is on your side, it’s really your responsibility so slow or even briefly stop, but the people in front of me just went for it. They did not care.

I did not swerve. I slowed down. And I put on my hazard lights, and stopped about 20 meters back from the branch. I double checked that no car has appeared behind me and I got out the car. In 20 seconds (including taking the snap), I’ve moved the branch off the road with no danger at all and I’m back to my car.

I know, you would have done the same.

Only no. No, you would not have.

Some of you would like to think you would have stopped and moved the obstacle.

I suspect most of you would claim, if asked, that you would have stopped and moved the branch.

And of course all of you would have slowed to avoid inconveniencing others.

But reality shows that nearly all of you would not.

As I left the scene, I was wondering how many people would have passed that branch in that 30 minutes I knew for sure this small branch had been an obstacle on the road. I’m going to let people going the other way off, as they would have to do a u-turn to come back to it, so how many people would have had to swerve past it?I know that road well, it would have been hmm, 4 or 5 cars a minute going past in one direction – certainly more than 3 cars, less than 10. So well over a hundred drivers would have seen that branch from a distance, most would have been able to safely slow and stop – and yet not one of them had. I have no idea how long the branch had been there, it was not too beaten up so maybe not long, but it could have been a couple of hours. It was easy to avoid – especially if you swerved with little concern for any on-coming traffic…

It turns out I’m the one in a hundred.

Are you thinking “well, it’s not my job to move branches of a road!”

So who’s job is it? And if you could label it as someone’s job (let’s go for someone in the “highways agency”) how do they get to know it needs doing? I don’t know about you but I see dozens of highways agency maintenance people on every journey I do, just cruising around looking for things that need doing. {sarcasm}.

When was the last time you saw something that needed doing in a public place and took the time to think about who should be told, try to contact them, get told to contact someone else, find out it’s not their job but are asked to ring Dave, who you do ring and he says thanks (before making a note to think about it, whilst probably muttering “this is not my job, I’ve got major roadworks to look after”). Hell, it’s easier to stop and move the branch.

Generally in life, in so many situations, I am constantly wondering why someone has not done X (or has done Y). Why don’t you reach for the jar in the shop the old lady can’t quite reach? Why don’t you hold the door? Why did you drop that litter when the bin is JUST THERE! That person  in front of you buying a parking ticket can’t find 10p in their purse to make the correct change? You have loads of 10p pieces… some in your hand already.

This is what is depressing me. Even though nearly everyone likes to think they are the nice person who will do a little for the common good, the reality is that most people won’t when it comes to it – but most people think we all should, and you tell yourselves you do the little things. You are telling yourself now, aren’t you? You are trying to think of the little things you have done for the common good. If you can think of a half dozen in the last month then you really are one of the good guys/gals. If you can only come up with a few…and actually most of them were ages ago… well, sorry but you are the problem.

The strange thing is that, having just insulted you all, as a group you lot are much more likely to be in the 1% than normal. Even though out of the general public not even 1 in 100 people would put in a little effort to move that branch, out of the people reading this, I’d say 10% would. Because I spend a lot of time in the Oracle user community, packed with people who give up their time, knowledge, even their holidays, to speak at conferences, help organise meetings, answer on forums, write blogs, answer questions on twitter, and all that stuff. Many of you reading this are active members of the User Community doing not just small things but often large things for the community. That’s why the community works.

To the rest of you, instead of liking to think you would move the branch or claiming you would (as everyone wants to be thought of as the nice guy/gal) just occasionally move the branch. Or pick that piece of litter up. Or do something small that cost you so little but it just would be nice if someone did it.

No one will thank you.

But you will know you did it. And you are becoming no longer part of the problem but part of the solution. I’m not asking you to give 10% of your salary to charity or give up an important part of your life, just do a bit of the small stuff.

If more of us do it, we will have a better world. If someone had moved that branch soon after it fell, I would not have had to  avoid some swerving dickhead, and the person I saw later would have not had to avoid people who could not even be bothered to slow down or stop briefly. And, in the worst case, that needless accident need not have happened. It really is as simple as spending 1 minute moving a branch.

Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. It’s really, really, really easy.

 

Friday Philosophy: The Intersecting Worlds Around Oracle April 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, humour, User Groups.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

Some of you may have noticed something about the Oracle Community: How certain other aspects of human nature, factors, and outside activities are unusually common.  An abiding love of the works of Douglas Adams (If you have never read “The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy” you should question if you are right for this community – and if you have read it/seen the series/watched the film and disliked it, I’m afraid you have to leave now); Lego was probably an important part of your childhood (and quite possibly your adulthood, though some “project” this fixation on to their kids). A lot of the most talented people, especially presenters, are called “Martin” or similar :-}.

Three Different Worlds Meet

There are two other groups of people that are large within the Oracle community and that I fit into.

  1. Oracle people who have a thing about cats. A positive thing, not those weird people who don’t like cats. It seems to me a lot of people in the Oracle community are happy to serve our feline overlords. This can polarise the community though, so introduce the topic of cats carefully. If the other person mentions how evil or unfriendly cats are, put them on The List Of The Damned and move on to something else.
  2. Making bread, especially of the sourdough variety. This is a growing passion I’ve noticed (quite literally, given the careful tendering of starter mixtures and also expanding waistlines). It seems to be especially common with technical Oracle people. More often than not, when I get together with a flange of Oracle Professionals (or is it a whoop or a herd?) the topic of baking bread will come up. Unlike technical topics, such as what is the fastest way to get a count of all the rows in a table, baking topics are rarely contentious and lead to fights. If you want to put spelt wheat in you mix, that’s just fine.

Mrs Widlake and I were talking about this last night (one of the problems with all this social isolation business is that Mrs Widlake is being forced to spend a lot of time with me – after 27 years of marriage idle conversation was already a challenge for us and now with over a month together all the time, we are getting desperate for topics). She asked how many of my Oracle friends liked both cats AND baking bread?

It struck me that it seemed to be very, very few. Unusually few. I think this is something that needs to be investigated.  This pattern would suggest that bread makers are cat haters. But in my non-Oracle world, this is not the case. The best people are, of course,  Ailurophiles and many of my feline-fixated friends are also bakers of bread. Just not in the Oracle world.

What makes Oracle people so weird?

Does anyone have any ideas? And have you noticed any other common areas of interest (excluding computers of course, that’s just obvious)?

A few that spring to mind are:

  • Terry Pratchett and the Discworld
  • Running
  • Weird science
  • XKCD
  • The Far Side
  • Star bloody Wars.

Let me know. Or don’t.

And for all of you who don’t like cats…

Meow

Friday Philosophy – Concentrating and Keeping Calm. April 3, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in biology, COVID-19, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life, science.
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I was talking with a friend this week (via a webcam of course) about how he had been looking & looking at some misbehaving code for days. His team mates had looked too. It was not working and logically it should work. None of them could work it out. The problem turned out to be a small but obvious mistake.

My guesses for UK cases & deaths. Do Not Trust

This of course happens to us all occasionally, but we both agreed that, at the moment, we have the attention spans of a goldfish and are as easily distracted as a dog in squirrel country. I asked around a few other friends and it seems pretty much universal. All of us are making cups of tea and then taking the milk into the lounge & putting the cup of tea in the fridge. Or walking into the kitchen and asking who got the bread out to make lunch. It was you. The cat is wondering why I open the pouch of cat food and then leave it on the worktop and go do my email for 20 minutes. She’s getting annoyed.

Why are we all failing to function? Because we are all worried. This is one of the things anxiety does to us.

The whole COVID-19 thing is stressful – the feeling of being trapped inside, concern for friends and family, the ever growing numbers of infected & dying. I actually think if you are not at all worried then you are either:

  • Not understanding the situation
  • In denial
  • A total sociopath
  • Someone who should not be allowed out alone
  • Have reached a level of Zen calm usually only attainable by old oriental masters/mistresses

I’m by my nature often in camp 3 above, but even I am worried about this and I know it is making me tetchy and less able to focus. I’m struggling to keep my mind on things. Except on COVID-19. I tend to handle things I find unnerving by studying them and I probably spend about 3 or 4 hours a day looking at the latest information and scientific output on COVID-19. However, I note more things to “look at later” than I actually look at, as I am trying to manage my stress.

After an hour I make myself get up, go trim some roses, play a computer game, read a book. Anything to distract me. I’ve even started talking to the other person in the house and my wife is finding that particularly annoying. Sue seems easily annoyed and quite distracted at the moment. I wonder why?

Another way I cope is I talk with people about topics that are causing me stress. If I can’t talk, I write. Thus I wrote this Friday Philosophy – think of yourself as my counsellor.

I’ve seen a lot of social media “memes” about how long ago the 1st of March feels like, when we first started worrying about this. It seems like months ago, yes? To me it seems like a year. I started worrying about this a good while before the 1st March. I think the worry started about early/mid-February. Why? Because I’m a genius of course. {Note, this is called British self-deprecating sarcasm – I’m not a genius!}. No, the reason I picked up on all of this early was that chance primed me to.

I have a background in biology and some of the job roles I have held over my career have been in healthcare and the biological sciences. One role last year was working with a small biotech company working on immunology. So I take an interest in this sort of thing, it’s “my bag”. I was also pretty ill in December with Influenza (and yes, it WAS influenza, type A – I am not “the first case of COVID-19 in the UK”). So I was convalescing at home and took a specific interest in a new illness spreading through China that was influenza-like… And was worrying the hell out of the Chinese authorities who were coming down on it in a way we have not seen before, even with SARS and MERS.

My play spreadsheet.  I should leave this to the experts really

I have to confess, I initially suspected (wrongly, I hasten to add) that this new disease had escaped from a lab. The way it spread, that it seemed to be ‘flu-like, the rapid response by the authorities. I don’t doubt research into modifying diseases goes on – by the UK, China, USA, the Vatican, by every country with a biotech industry. I know we have the tools to directly mess with genomes, I did it myself, crudely, 30 years ago and I know people now who do it now, with considerable accuracy, for medical and other altruistic reasons. However, genetically engineering an organism leaves traces and when COVID-19 was sequenced there was no sign of this and it could be tracked to similar, previously known samples. I might even know some of the people who sequenced it and checked. But, anyway, that suspicion also made me watch.

The rate of spread in Wuhan was as shocking as the authority’s response and then through February the scientific analyses started appearing. The R(0) number (infection rate) and the high case fatality rate were both high. I’m not an epidemiologist but I had been taught the basics of it and I knew what was coming. No, that’s not right, I suspected what was coming, and I was worried. It was when the number of countries with cases started to increase that I felt I knew what was coming. By the end of February I was sure that unless something huge happened to change it, 2-3% of people, everywhere, would be killed. This was going to be like Spanish ‘flu only quicker (as we all travel so much). I became “The Voice Of Doom”.

On 2nd March I recommended to our CEO that UKOUG cancelled our Ireland event (people & organisations were pulling out so it was making it financially untenable anyway, but my major concern was that this was going to explode in the population). Thankfully the rest of the board agreed. I created my tracking spreadsheet about the 5th March. So far it’s been depressingly good at predicting where we are about a week in advance, and not bad for 10 days. I leave it to the experts for anything beyond that. All so depressing so far.

But Something Huge has happened. Governments did take it seriously. Well, most of them. And those who took it seriously soonest and hardest have fared best. The social lock-downs and preparation work that is going on in the UK is going to reduce the impact down dramatically and, more importantly, give us time to try and find solutions. But it still worries me. And I think they could have done it sooner. But most of the world is taking this very seriously – as it is very serious.

Part of me wants to keep watching how COVID-19 develops, and maybe writing more articles on it. I’ve had some really nice feedback on the first two and I want to do a post on where we might go in the coming months and why. But part of me wants to stop as it is making me very anxious and I’m sick of losing my cups of tea, or being stared at hard by the cat, and the wife asking me what the hell am I doing with the spanner and tin of peas.

I can’t easily listen to the government announcements each day as it is obvious, if you look at the scientific data and what medical professionals are saying, that they are simply not being candid. It’s all “we can beat this in the next few weeks” and “we will get you testing kits this month that are utterly reliable” despite the fact that’s going to need a scientific miracle to do that, let alone develop a reliable vaccine. I understand we need to keep positive but I think bullshitting the population now is only going to make telling them anything they will believe in 2 months even harder. In 6 months time when there is still no reliable vaccine and so many people have been wrongly diagnosed and the first few countries have had this rip through them almost uncontrolled, the lack of candid honesty will come back to roost. I worry about that a lot.

So I’m worried and I’m worried I’m going to be worried for months and months and months.

But for now I’m going to go for my daily (local) walk along a path I know will be almost empty of people and relax.

 

* Note, the graph and the spreadsheet are just “decoration”. They are my wild guesses on what may happen and have no reliability at all. Just saying

 

 

 

Friday Philosophy – Presenting Sex January 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Presenting.
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These slides are from the first ever presentation I did. And yes, the presentation was at work.

The Evolution Of Sex

My first real job after college was as a trainee analyst programmer for the National Health Service and, as part of the “graduate training program”, we attended a short course on presentation skills. As you would expect, we all had to do a presentation at the end. As most of us had never had a job before and we were dull with no interesting hobbies, most of the presentations I could see being put together around me were a little… boring. I decided to try something different.

If you think the photographs with this article are a little poor with odd reflections, that is because the original images are printed on transparent acetate sheets and were displayed by putting them on an overhead projector – a large box-thing with a blindingly bright light that shone through the acetate sheet and cast the image onto a screen or wall via a mirror/lens bit. Laptops had not been invented back then and I’m not even sure a PC (if you could afford a PC 386SX) could drive a projector. This was all manual – you had to change sheets by hand. At least you never had problems with connecting the overhead projector to the acetate sheet, you simply put the sheet on upside down and back-to-front and had to re position it 3 times before you got it right. This is important, I could not quickly flick between images.

When I put up my first sheet, with the cute little couple holding hands, our tutor screeched and said to one of the other delegates “Oh God! I thought you were kidding when you said what he was presenting on!”. Before I could even take this opening image off the projector sh had stepped forward and told me I could not present this.

“Why not?” I asked, “we are all adults!”. She refused to let me swap to my first proper slide, “This is not the sort of topic that is suitable at work.”

Stand off.

“Well, what do you think I am going to talk about?”. Our tutor was now quite flustered. “I think we all know what you are presenting on – and I shudder to think what the next slide is going to be of!” (or something like that, this was a long time ago). I had no choice. I got her to come closer and look at my next couple of slides…

Her relief was visible. She could immediately see the next slides were not based on “The Joy of Sex” or similar publications and after she’d looked at each of my acetate sheets carefully (just to make sure) I was allowed to continue.


Of course, this had somewhat diluted the tension & expectation that had been building up, but I felt I had milked the initial surprise as much as I was going to be able to. I moved onto the next slide and most of the audience was disappointed by the lack of limbs, bodies and appendages to be seen. As you can see to the left, the next slide was an odd set of little diagram of dots & letters and what many of us would now recognise as a sort-of family tree diagram. As some of you know, my degree had been in genetics (and zoology but that is bye-the-bye).

There is a very interesting thing about sex, as in sexual reproduction. What is the point? Well, apart from the immediate pleasure for animals like us that seem to enjoy the initial act, why do we mix the genomes of two organisms to produce new offspring? It is not mandatory, many organisms (especially plants and bacteria) employ asexual reproduction. All the children are effectively clones of the adult. There is no finding a mate or the need for pollen to arrive, the actual process biologically is a lot simpler & more reliable, and you don’t need males running around using up resources for, let’s face it, a pretty small contribution to the effort. Asexual reproduction is a lot quicker, simpler, needs less energy. A species that does away with sex can out-compete sexy competition.

 

My little talk was all about that, about why you have male and female, why mixing the genes from two individuals and, over time, across the gene pool of your species, is beneficial. I won’t bore you with the details here.

That first presentation of mine went down very well and it was remembered by everyone there. A lot of people (who had not even been there for the premier of that talk) mentioned it to me when I left the company. It made an impression on me too – if you can grab people’s attention at the start of a presentation, it really helps make it a success.

And, of course, as anyone in marketing will tell you – Sex Sells.

In this case, even the lack of sex.

Friday Philosophy – Community Means So Much December 27, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life, User Groups.
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There have been a few things in the last month that have really brought home to me how much I personally receive from the Community. In my case, my Community is primarily the Oracle User Community – The end users who come together to share knowledge, the Oracle employees who support this, and the companies that support the end users. For most of you reading this, you are part of the Oracle User Community, but most of you will be (I hope) in other communities too through your other interests, be they religious, music, hobbies, sports, charities etc.

My community. I even like some of them 😃

At the start of this month (December 2019) I was at UKOUG’s Techfest2019, our annual December conference which is now focused just on Tech. As “El Presidente” of UKOUG (an unofficial modification of the official title of President, dropped on me by friends with a similar sense of humour as myself). I represent the whole of our membership, be they tech, business applications, or data analytics. But my background is Oracle Technology and so I naturally know more people in that sphere. And I’ve known some of them for over 15 years. There was close to 500 people at the conference on a couple of days and I recognised probably 2/3 of these people, and knew half enough to swap pleasantries. More importantly, a couple of dozen of those people have become good friends.

Conferences, to me, epitomise the community. We exchange knowledge, we learn, but we also have fun and we socialise in a way that I feel you simply can’t via social media. I like nothing more than meeting someone in the flesh that I have only known on-line, having a chat or a coffee or a beer or even a meal. It can really help make that connection that moves acquaintance to friendship (we’ll skip over those rarer occasions when you meet in the flesh and realise they are simply not your cup of tea!).

UKOUG conferences have become a little weird for me over the last few years, due I think to my roles in helping organise parts of the event and now being UKOUG president. I get a lot of positive feedback and personal moral support from people. I’d goes as far as to say I receive genuine affection from some people. I’m told how much they enjoy the event, how much better the coffee is, and sometimes what is not so good about the event (which I need to know), but always in a constructive manner. And people take the piss out of me. Oddly enough, especially with men, you know you are liked when you get good-natured abuse. I get a lot of abuse. In my head it is 95% good-natured 😃.

You had to be there for it to make *any* sense

The downside is I just can’t spend time with all the people I want to spend some time with. I’m getting better at moving about and trying to chat with as many people as I can, but I can only sit down and have a coffee or beer and socially catch up with so many people in the time I have. And not all my time is my own, I have to be President and do things. On that note, I apologise for any mental health issues caused by me taking my clothes off on stage this year…

The care of the community was really brought home to me after Techfest19, when I came down with ‘flu which then ganged up with secondary lung infections and put me in hospital for over a week. I only posted to Facebook (briefly) during this period (I did not want to shout it out over Twitter, which is like talking to the world). For me Facebook is friends & family. Even so, I got so many notes of concern and good wishes. And when I did put up a blog post when I was getting better, I got another burst of support and concern – and that was really nice. If I was not involved in a community, I would not have got that.

But there was another aspect of that show of affection by community that surprised me. My wife Sue is in her own community, that of millinery & hat making. There is not a lot of crossover between that world and the Oracle world! Sue had had the same ‘flu as me but without the extra “fun” I had, and she was having to try and help me in hospital as she struggled to recover herself. And her millinery community gave her so much support and care, which spilled out to include me.  And as Sue has a bit of a foot in the Oracle community also (she has presented at a UKOUG event in her own technical right and has joined me at conferences and met some of my Oracle friends), some of my community reached out to her to check how I was – and how she was coping. That was lovely.

Another aspect of community is the sharing of technical help. I’m a member of the OakTable network and as well as sharing our knowledge with the wider community (we are pretty much all presenters, bloggers, explainers), we help each other. None of us knows the whole Oracle stack or the related tech. During December there were several threads from people you would know as experts going “guys & gals, I’m confused by this” or “I’m seeing X and I suspect Y but I’m just not able to prove it”. And each time people stepped in and helped. Even the big Oracle names need help from the community. So you see, it does not matter if you are brand new to a technical area or lauded as the God of Tuning, everyone at all levels learns from the community.

The Oracle ACEs at Techfest19, core to supporting the Oracle user community

I’m not happy with a lot of things going on in the world at the moment. The UK is becoming more nationalistic, more jingoistic, fundamentally more tribal and distrusting of “them” – foreigners. I hate it. Our right-wing, Conservative government is milking this, encouraging this attitude. You also see it in the US & Trump with his MAGA and his talk of beating other countries with trade embargoes or military might. I know other European countries are seeing a rise in the worst aspects of nationalism and tribal distrust or even hate of “not our tribe”. It really upsets me and makes me worried about where our nations are going.

I think none-tribal communities like the Oracle one, the Millinery one, like most hobby ones, can help dispel this. It’s harder to dislike people from other parts of the world when you engage with them and know, on a personal level, they are the same as “us”, whatever “us” is.

And on my own personal level? I get out of my community five times what I put in.  This month I have received in plenty.

I’d encourage you all to get more involved in your communities and consider joining new ones.  And if you get the chance to physically meet members of your community you only know through screen & smart phone, put the effort in to do so. It can convert acquaintances into real friends and I think most of us would benefit from more friends.

I’m not sure I’ll post again this year, so Happy New Year everyone. And thank you.

 

Philosophy – Treating Illness As A Performance Issue December 24, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Private Life.
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Firstly, I’m on the mend. This is not a post about “oh woe is me, I am so ill”. But I have been rather ill.  I’ll just give you the highlights: The highs of UKOUG Techfest19 at the start of the month were followed very quickly by me developing full-blown influenza (Type A). After about 5 days of being ill in bed I realised I was fighting for breath just laying there. I analysed the problem and came to the conclusion “something else is very wrong and paracetamol is not the answer”. I was taken into hospital and put on increasingly powerful ventilating machines until they could get enough oxygen into me to keep me (sort of) functioning. I’d developed secondary infections & pneumonia, seriously reducing my lungs’ capacity to exchange oxygen & carbon dioxide. {Update – no, I was not an early, uncrecognised COVID-19 case. If that was so my type of influenza would have almost certainly come up as unknown – the two viruses are quite different}.

Wearing this thing was like being up a hill in a force 8 gale!

A normal oxygen (O2) blood saturation level is 100. Below 90 is a cause for concern. A constant level below 85% is medically deeply worrying as 80% and less is harmful to several organs and confusion/unconsciousness are likely. Below 75% and you are almost certainly unconscious. I do know that when I first got to hospital they could not get me up to 85% and they could not understand how I could still talk and be (mostly) rational. I went from nasal O2 to a face mask to a machine that blew damp, warm O2 up my nose and finally a pressurised face mask. Next step was sedation and full mechanical ventilation – but they did not want to do that. My blood O2 became my main metric and I followed it like a hawk.

So I’m in hospital, very unwell (but not dying {update – at least they didn’t tell me at the time. They told Sue I was seriously ill and would probably be put into a medical coma} ), under excellent care. And I’m almost, but not quite, totally incapacitated. To me it was a bit like I was a computer system with a serious deficiency of CPU power. Or a toy robot with failing batteries. Energy conservation is paramount. So what do you do in this extreme situation? Turn off everything you don’t need turned on, and save energy for things you have to do.

Turning things off was relatively easy. After all, I was connected to a load of monitoring technology and breathing kit so I was not going wandering about. I didn’t move much. If I needed to sit up I was not going to use those stomach muscles, the bed was powered and would move me about. If I wanted something from the table besides me (like a drink) I’d relax, breath deep, get my Blood O2 up –  and then get it. A little rest and then I’d e.g drink or look at the phone.

Some things I had to do (or insisted on doing) and I realised how much energy they took:

Having a poo

It takes a lot more energy to have a poo than you think. I was just about mobile so I was allowed to look after my toilet needs. They would bring me a commode, position it so I could get there still attached to the ventilator keeping me going, remove some of the monitoring (but not all, heart monitor and blood 02 had to stay on) and get me ready to swap to the commode. And then leave me alone for 10 mins. I think at first they hung about by the door listening for a thud, and I had a call button. Getting onto the commode was OK (breath-breath-breath, move, pant for a minute like you just sprinted 100m… relax), but the actual job itself uses more abdominal muscles than you probably every realised. Tiring.

All the monitoring kit was on one arm. The one I normally use to “tidy up” with. Using the other hand was very odd. And again, tiring, I had to take it in stages!

My PICC line. patch in armpit, line along vein almost to my heart.

Post event I would need to rest and let the blood O2 lift back above 90% and then I could shuffle back to the bed and press my button. The nurse would come in, congratulate me, and attach any removed monitoring. I’d lay there and wait for the O2 to get back above 90% and the bloody monitoring machine would stop pinging.

For 3 days this was the hardest thing I did, it was my main exercise…

Eating

Actually chewing & swallowing was easy. But to do that you have to get the food into your mouth. Holding your arms up to eat is hard work! I took to cutting up what I had (if it needed cutting up), having a rest, then eating with one arm, mostly balanced on the table with brief bouts of effort to ferry morsels to my mouth. I was incapable of lifting a pint. Even more incredible – I had no desire to lift a pint!

I’d have a little rest after eating and I found I had to listen carefully to my body about how much to eat. Anything more than about what you would feed a cat in one sitting, and I would lay there, 2 or 3 hours later, conscious of the need to move that food out my stomach and into my gut. Who knew the mechanical side of digesting needed effort.

Washing

You can’t have a shower if you are attached to breathing machines. And I was not able to leave my room anyway as I was an infection risk to other patients (I had ‘flu remember). Plus, at first, no way could I do all that waving arms, applying shower gel and the rest of the business. So it was washing with a bowl, cloths, and lots of towels. If I took it steady I could do this myself, except my back and, oddly enough, my legs. lifting them up was exhausting! Nice nurses did those bits.

Weeing

I’m a man, weeing was not an issue. They give you an endless supply of little bottles with a hole towards the top. So long as you tuck the relevant part into the hole (having sat up using the bed) you just “let go” and pressure does the rest. No energy. The first time is worrying – “what if I miss, what if I fill the bottle”. The bottles are designed to be bigger than a human bladder.

This pushed warm, O2 laden air into my lungs and Was My Friend

However, if you do what I did and then drop the bottle of wee on yourself, do not attempt to sort it out! I did, I stared trying to use a towel and get out the wet spot and I nearly went unconscious as my O2 plummeted from the effort.

What you do do is call the nurse and say “Nurse, I just poured my own wee over myself and I’m wet”. Nurse will remove your wee-covered clothing (a hospital smock), un-plumb you from some machines, move you to a chair, plumb you back in, and then clean up the bed, bedding, floor etc. They don’t either laugh at you or grumble. You just sit there feeling like a pillock.

Nurse will then ask how much you had wee’d. Why? I’m on a high dependency ward, they measure everything. A key thing is fluid in (via saline drips and drinks) and fluid out – blood taken for observations and weeing. I knew I was getting better when the weeing increased compared to drinking. This is because my lungs had swollen with fluid and, as they recovered, they released the fluid. A pair of swollen lungs hold a lot of fluid!

It had been a good wee, I guessed 350ml. It certainly was enough to make me and the bed very wet.

Coughing

Having a good cough (which I did a lot of, of course, what with all the lung issues) would send my blood oxygen plummeting. Again, lots of abdominal muscles and the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle between your lungs and stomach) are used in coughing. If I could, I would build up to a good cough, conserving my strength and getting my O2 up in preparation for a real good go. But if it caught me by surprise, it could drop the blood O2 dramatically. But the good thing was, coughing helped expand the lungs and I recovered quickly and was “better” for half an hour.

Thinking

At rest, your brain uses about 20% of your total energy. This is true even for stupid people like Donald Trump :-). Biologically it’s very interesting that humans have such large brains and put so much energy into it – far more than any other animal (in relation to body size). Our brains makes us different to all other animals, ie “intelligent”, but at a significant energy and nutrients cost.

If my blood O2 dropped too low I would start shutting down. This is why people with breathing difficulties pass out, once blood O2 goes below a certain level, your higher brain functions stop to reduce demand and protect the rest, unconsciousness comes quickly.

Thinking was hard. I’ve never been one for just sitting there “thinking of nothing” but I did an awful lot of that in hospital. It was my brain saving energy.

Socialising was a real drain. I could do the 2 or 3 mins with the nurses or docs when they came to do observations (oh, so many observations in a high dependency ward!) or put drugs in me, take out my bood (Oi! I wanted that blood! I was using it to ship the small amount of O2 I can absorb!). I had to be really on my game when the docs popped in once or twice a day as this was my opportunity to try and ask smart questions like “so we have a diagnosis, what is the prognosis?”. Don’t worry what it means, medics live by it so asking them makes them think you know some of the secrets… Docs don’t tend to tell you much in my experience, unless you can ask pertinent questions and show you understand the answers. They seem to think ignorance (on the part of the patient) is bliss. If I knew when the docs were going to be in, I’d try and have a pre-visit snooze so I was at the top of my game.

Where it was hard was dealing with Mrs Widlake. Mrs Widlake was wonderful, she would ask me what I wanted and the next day she would bring it in, let me know what was going on, if people had been in touch, who was annoying her. And kept me company. It was very important to me.  But after about 1/2 an hour I would start shutting down, the thinking (and talking) reduced my low energy levels. We worked out a solution. She would come in, give me my new book and the bizarre, random items I asked for and chat to me. After 1/2 an hour she would go have a cup of tea in the visitor’s room whilst I zoned out, then came back for more chat. Resource management and time sharing! Sue did not want to leave me alone but after a few days we both accepted that a daily visit in sections, kept to maybe 3 hours, made the best use of the resources available. It was a bit like my batch processing window!

My Nemesis – The Evil pin-Ping-PING machine!

Monitoring

So I was managing my resources and finding out which ones took effort. But like any good system, you need monitoring, real-time feedback. And boy was I monitored! I was on a high dependency/close observation ward. Every hour, every single damned hour all night too, they would come and do blood pressure, record my heart rate and O2, measure my wee, what I had eaten, temperature etc, steal blood.

But the main thing was the machines I was attached up to. They constantly monitored. And pinged. Oh god, did they all bloody Ping. If a chest sensor fell off or I sat on the connector, that machine would ping. If a drip (drug or fluids) ran out, it would Ping. Breathing machine ran out of water? Ping Ping Ping! The ventilator had to up pressure or I moved too much (I duuno why) – Ping Ping Ping.

But the worst, my nemesis (and also my KPI) was the blood O2 monitor. If I dropped below X, usually 86 or 88, it pinged & pinged & pinged. If I dropped below 85 it would up the volume and multi-ping: “ping-Ping-PING! ping-Ping-PING! ping-Ping-PING!”. You could not even cheat it by taking the monitor off, as then it went ping-bloody-crazy. All those tasks I mentioned above that took effort? They all made this blasted machine ping or ping-Ping-PING!

The one biggest challenge to me during my stay was not boredom, not pain (I was lucky, no pain other than what they inflicted on me putting in drains etc, or headaches due to low O2), not fear – it was trying not to go crazy due to the the pinging. I did everything I could to stop the pinging. The only time I really lost it with the nurses was one night as I improved and they changed the warning levels up to 90 and every time, every time I started to fall asleep it bloody ping-Ping-PING’d. I told the nurse to turn the levels back down else I would rip the damn thing off the wall. She said she could not, as she was not qualified to make the decision. “Well find someone who can as, if it does not let me sleep, I will lose my shit”.  It’s the only time I swore at any of the people looking after me. It got turned down.

This is exactly like having OEM monitoring a database and alerting on a KPI such as CPU usage when usage spikes and is actually OK. Just endless, endless false alarms. What the damn things should have done (in my opinion, for me) was only Ping if I was below a limit for over a minute, or went down to critical. Then it should go absolutely crazy.

And it was not just my machines. Other people in the ward had their own pinging machines. They. All. Pinged.

I’m back home now and recovering. I can breath unaided and slowly, slowly I am able to do more without running out of breath. Like have a shower or make my own cup of tea. Give me a month (I’ve been told it’ll take a month) and I should be back to sort-of normal. I won’t be running marathons or using the axe in the garden for a while. I’m still treating myself like an under-resourced computer and dolling out effort where best used. But each day another core comes on line and I can expand the extra effort. I think it’s called getting better.

Friday Philosophy – Computer Magazines & Women (Not) In I.T November 29, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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I often get into discussions about Women In IT (#WIT), even more so in the last 4 or 5 years with my growing involvement in organising and being at conferences. There is no doubting that the I.T industry is generally blighted by a lack of women and other minorities (and I don’t like referring to women as “minorities” as there are more women in the UK than men). Ours is mostly a white, male, middle-class and (especially in the Oracle sphere) “middle aged” world.

Is this part of the problem?

I’ve never been happy with the ratio of men to women in the IT workplace – and I started my career in the UK National Health Service, where the ratio of men to women in technical roles seemed more like 80:20. In all companies since, the ratio I would estimate as been 10-15% women. And I haven’t seen it changing much. And I’m afraid to say, to a certain degree, I have almost given up on trying to correct this imbalance in our current workforce. Note, current workforce.

Why? Well, I’ve tried for years to increase the ratio of women in technical areas or at least to increase female representation. That is, make women more visible:

  • When I’ve hired new staff I’ve given female candidates an extra half point in my head – and part of me hates doing it because it’s sexist, the very thing that is the problem. But the small wrong done to try and right a larger wrong.
  • When allocating pay increases I looked out for imbalance (is Sarah doing the same role as Dave to the same level, but being paid less? Let’s fix that).
  • When I have input to paper selection for conferences, “minorities” get an extra half point. But only half. They have to be good at presenting/have an interesting abstract.
  • When it comes to promotion, it is utterly on merit. I don’t care what’s in your underwear, the colour you are, what clothes you wear that are dictated by religion. If your work is deserving of promotion and I can promote, I promote. No positive or negative discrimination. I take this stance as I know people do not want to be promoted “just because” of filling a quota. Further, if it is perceived that this is happening, it creates a bad backlash.

But, really, it’s had little impact. The problem I keep hitting is that there are simply far fewer women in I.T. We can all try and skew things in the way that I (and many others) do or strive for more women in visible positions to act as role models, which I think is an important thing for our industry to do.

But we can’t magically create more women in I.T. Specifically, we can’t create women who have been doing the job for a long time and so are more likely to be skilled and willing to present. We can only work with what we have. One result of the skewing is a relatively small number of women are constantly asked to present and invariable sit on #WIT panels. We see the same people over and over again.

What we can do is encourage a more mixed group of young people coming into the industry. It won’t help much with something like the database world, or at least the database user community, as you see few young people of any type coming in – we need to fix that as well and I applaud things like the German user group #NextGen efforts – databases do not attract young people, It’s Not Cool. But that’s a whole other topic for another day.

In discussing all this, many times, over the years the idea that we need to go back to pre-work people (that would be kids and teenagers then) and encourage everyone – irrespective of gender,sexuality, ethnicity etc etc etc – to do IT, Science, Art, domestic science, whatever they want and ignore the stereotypes of old – is pretty much agreed to be A Good Thing.

All of this is great but it left me with a question. How did we get into this mess in the first place? Why are there so few women in IT between the ages of 35 and retirement? In the early days a lot of women were in IT compared to the average number of women in scientific areas generally. When I was at school (1980’s) they introduce Computer Studies into the curriculum and there were as many girls as boys in my class. Ability was equally spread. The number of women taking IT at college was admittedly terribly low when I went, but colleges did a lot to encourage women and the numbers were rising. And then stopped. Why? What was stopping girls continuing with computers? Well, a year or two ago I read an article (I think in print as I struggled to find similar online – but if you find one let me know) about the computer press back in the 90’s. And it stuck a chord with me.

The article argued that part (not all, but maybe a big part) of the problem was the computer magazines of the time. I’ve picked on “PC Format” as it was a magazine I bought often and knew, but others were similar. PC Format seemed to me to nearly always have a sexualised image of a woman on the cover, like the one at the top of this article. This was especially true if the image was a bit “science fiction”, say a ray-traced image to promote graphics cards. The image would invariably be of a woman with a, frankly, quite striking and often physiologically unlikely figure. Inside the magazine adverts were liberally decorated with nubile women leaning forward provocatively or with striking make-up & hair and yet wearing nerd glasses. You know, the sort of look you NEVER saw in real life. This was not a style or fashion magazine, it was not an “adult” magazine, it was about mother boards, CPUs, games, programming and general tech.

The covers I found online for this article are not as bad as many I remember (and perhaps I should not be using the worst anyway), but you get the idea. And it was not just PC Format, but that particular publication seemed to style itself as more a lifestyle magazine than just Tech or just Games. Games magazines also had a fair amount of “Dungeons & Dragons” images of women wearing clothes you would freeze to death in and be totally unsuitable for a bit of sword fighting. Why all the women?

When I read the article about this sexism I remembered a letter that had been published in, probably, PC Format. That and the response utterly summed it up. The letter asked why the magazine kept using sexy images of women on the front of a computer magazine. It wasn’t very Women’s Lib. The answer by the magazine was basically “If we put a sexy picture of a woman on the front it sells more. The more copies we sell the more money we make. We are simply giving you what you want; it’s not our problem, it’s actually yours”.

At the time I liked that letter as it said “you the public are in the wrong” and I rather liked stuff that put two fingers up at the majority and I mentally supported the magazine’s position. Looking back now, what strikes me is the abject shirking of responsibility and blatant putting profit before morality. Which I think is the biggest blight on society. Now I’m angry that the magazine just shrugged it’s shoulders and kept on.

When you added the magazines to the depictions of women in science fiction films & TV, and then once you were in the industry the use of booth babes and that nearly all women in sales & PR looked more like models than average (which still is true today) then the whole message was “women – you can be OK in IT if you are able to look like and act like this”. It’s not very inclusive.

The odd thing is, If you look further back at the old Sinclair User or Commodore User magazines, they had nothing like the same level of sexualised imagery of women on the front – they mostly had screen shots of the games in them or art work based on the games. The sexism grew through the end of the 80’s and into the 90’s I think.

So what is my point? We see less of this stuff these days, isn’t it more historical? Well, I think we need to keep an eye on history as it informs. I think it also explains (partly) the lack of mature women in I.T and that it’s almost impossible to change now. But also, it’s not so much “don’t repeat the mistakes of the past”  but “what mistakes are we currently making that in 20 years will be as obvious as that old mistake”. It’s not avoiding the same mistakes but similar ones.

I’ve been talking to Abigail Giles-Haigh recently about her presenting at our (UKOUG’s) #WIT event at Techfest 2019.  Abi is an expert on Artificial Intelligence and we were chatting about the dangers of training systems on historic data, as they can perpetuate historical bias. Also, any system we train now can bake in current bias. It might not even be conscious bias, it can be a bias due to an absence of training data. Some face recognition systems struggle to recognise people with dark skin tones for example. It’s not beyond reason that if we were training AI systems back in the 90’s as to what makes a computer magazine popular, it might have picked up on not just the sexualised lady images but also other aspects of an overtly male-oriented magazine, such as the type of adverts or the language used. Adjustements in light of the data would be made, sales would have gone up even further, and locked in the white-male bias. Only now it would be AI driving it and would we question the underlying, unconscious biases? I do think it’s a danger.

I think it’s going to continue to be a real struggle to encourage more non-white-male-old people into the industry, especially if we try and change the mature workforce. I’m not going to stop trying but I honestly don’t think we can make much difference to the here-and-now.

But we can work more to remove bias for the in-coming generation. And for that we need role models. From the current generation.

 

Friday Philosophy – Jerks, Plain & Simple November 15, 2019

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

A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on social media by someone who had just encountered a jerk. You know, someone who is an arrogant, bullying, self-important cockwomble (*).

This is a cockwomble, made by Susan Widlake

The offended party had tweeted a link to the thread where the abuse had happened and I went and took a look. It’s not really that important in what manner the jerk was being a jerk, though in this case they were asking for free help that the original poster was giving, and when they did not get as much help as they felt entitled to, they became abusive to the person helping. Sadly, nothing new there.

But what did make me pause was that the original tweet that linked to this tale of the toss-pot ended with the line “Welcome to my world as a woman in I.T.” And I paused – but not for the obvious reason.

I went back and checked the thread to make sure I was right, that I had not missed anything. I hadn’t, not that I could see on the thread anyway.

At no point in this woman’s dealings with this jerk had anything been said about sex, gender, male, female, anything. This person asking for help was undoubtedly not a nice person, the speed with which they swapped from “please help me” through “You have to do more for me” and then on to a tirade of abuse was rapid. And it was nasty abuse – but none of it was sexist.

The woman had made a point that they received this sort of treatment because of their gender – but there was no sign of gender being part of this at all.  And that bothered me. It bothered me for three reasons.

  • I keep coming across people who immediately assume that if someone treats them badly, is offensive, does not like them, or is in any way a jerk towards them, it is because of whatever minority group they are part of. Sometimes sadly that is the case. However, in others it is not – but the offended person has stopped being able to discern that difference. At times I’ve suffered from bullying and being ignored in my own little way but I realized that I was being over sensitive and sometimes I was being ignored just because the person ignoring me ignored pretty much everyone, or was derogatory to everyone. It was nothing to do with my height.
  • Maybe because of that first point, where any issue is perceived as being due to an “..ism”, some people have developed an attitude that all people not in their minority group are against them. For example, I regularly come across the attitude of “all men are….”. I’ve been told to my face that all men think that women are not as good at programming as men. Well, you’re wrong. Not all men think like that. I told the person in question I did not hold that opinion and the reply was something like “well you’re about the only exception then!”. They were determined to hold a point of view in which it was not that there are still some sexist men about – but that all men were sexist, and rabidly so. That’s pretty annoying and it risks making people not want to help fight your corner.
  • I’ve had people say to me “I can’t say anything about X doing this wrong as I’ll only get accused of …ism” – and It’s occasionally been a worry for me. This can lead to a backlash where people get away with poor work or bad behaviour as no one wants to be labelled with an “…ism”

What worries me about this “cry wolf” scenario and the attitudes of “they are all going to be out to get you” is that it actually perpetuates the very thing we need to stand against. When I come across someone who is constantly, always citing all their interpersonal problems as being due to the minority they associate themselves with, I confess I thinking to myself “well, perhaps I’ll be a little wary of you, you seem to have issues here”. It’s like a chap I met who was adamant that every boss he had ever had was “a moron”. He’d had a lot of bosses and he could not accept that maybe, just maybe, at times perhaps the boss was not the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely should challenge behaviour that treats a group of people as inferior, just for being part of that group. We should not condone any “..ism”. We should all ask ourselves if we are being unconsciously prejudiced and, if so, work to stop that. But we should be wary of citing bigotry as a knee-jerk reaction or falling into the error of challenging sexism, racism etc with exactly the same attitude but just from the other side of the fence.

And I think part of this is recognising that sometimes, often, jerks are just jerks. There is no …ism. Let’s just call them out for being jerks. And if there is an …ism, we call them out for being absolute, utter jerks.

 

(*) cockwomble is a term that seems to be becoming more universally recognised. It just means someone who is a bit of an idiot, someone you don’t want to spend any more time with that you need. A Womble is a creature from UK kids TV in the 70’s and 80’s. They are made-up animals that wander around Wimbledon Common (a large park in London), tidying it up and making things out of the rubbish they find. Sue made this cockwomble out of a beany-bag womble and a beany-bag cockerel.