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Friday Philosophy – Antisocial Social Media and Sociopaths September 25, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Twitter.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

Twice, on consecutive days a week or so back, I realised that someone I knew on Twitter but did not know in real life… was someone I knew in real life. But I’d never made the connection! With one person it was not that their real name was missing from their twitter profile, it was just my brain had linked all I knew about them to their handle. In the other case, as far as I can see there is nothing to link their slightly obscure handle to their physical persona, despite the fact they are tweeting quite often about Oracle and also present at conferences. So that was simply not playing fair to hide their real identity in that way and I feel slightly aggrieved.

I’ve also had the experience of meeting someone in the flesh who treats me like an old friend, is being nice to me {possibly some sales-person-type I should back away from, I initially wonder?} but also knows a fair bit about me {Oh no! Creepy-stalker-type! Must-run must-run must-run} – before it dawns on me that this is actually Randolph Toddlepoddle who I have known online for 5 years, comments on my blog and I respond. But I’ve never met. And who is now wondering why I am being so unfriendly, am backing slowly away from them with a fixed grin on my face and scanning for exits. This has actually happened to me several times now. Thankfully only once with each person (I think – names & faces are not my forte}.

XKCD comic 741

I have a relationship with you lot? {shudder!}

The result is that I am sure that for some people I have two utterly separate relationships with them – the online one and the in-the-flesh one. (According to xkcd comic 741 I have a relationship with you as you read my blog. When can I meet the parents?).

Another aspect of social media I feel is a little tricky for me, personally, is keeping track of what people have said to me and things I’ve said I’ll do. I have a poor memory, I can barely remember conversations last week. With email I can file them away and find them later (mostly I just file them away and wonder why my email directory is so massive). But with Twitter and Facebook comments? OK, so you can search but it is slow and it is not great. Only today (as I type) I remember being given some advice by my friend Brendan about writing articles. I went and checked my email ( under “friends/Brendan” or maybe “ora600/articles”, I can’t remember). Nope. Could I have put it elsewhere in my email store of information and event? Nope, no where in my email I could find. Ahh, it was a twitter conversation. Damn. Now I need to step back and find it…

Maybe there is an app to tie all this stuff together for me but I would have to find it and learn it and the vendor will get bored or go bust in 2 years and I’ll lose the lot then. I’d rather mow the lawn.

Then there is the much-commented-on aspect of online comments where some people seem to sign up to a service or follow someone, just so they can be snide or criticise. No, this is not the usual rant about these phalluses (phalli?), It’s more that I don’t read user comments on the BBC web site much anymore as it lowers my already pretty sociopathic outlook on the human race (don’t get me wrong, many individual humans are wonderful animals – but as a pack they are a nasty and destructive species). It’s not that there are nasty or thoughtless people who put these comments up, we learnt there are people like that in the school playground (or even in the classroom – Mr Jenkins, you know who you are). It’s just that seeing what people can put on social media reminds me more about how dysfunctional people can be than meeting people in the flesh does. Being able to have some control over people you meet in the flesh means real people don’t tend to enhance my sociopathic tendencies as much as social media.

I follow a couple of “humorous” twitter accounts. They put the same stuff up all the time, sometimes it’s obviously fake and they “borrow” from each other like crazy. But it’s just a few tweets and if I find the repetitive nature of it or their take on humour gives me less amusement than annoyance, I can always do that “unfollow” thing. I am not in any way being forced to be exposed to it. I don’t have to start commenting all the time about “you got this from redit!!!” or “You spelt that wrong you moron” or “That’s not funny, I can tell it’s a paper bag on a baby”. I made the mistake a couple of weeks back of responding to one saying “Dude, thanks for pointing out the totally obvious, it had CLEAR passed me by”. Yeah, I told you I had sociopathic leanings – I went and did what they had done to annoy me, there was no need for me to read the comments if I knew it would annoy me.

Of course, I could just stop joining in; close my twitter account, delete the blog, remove my inconsequential presence on facebook. But then, I’m now in all these relationships (sometimes two or three times with the same person). How can I break up with so many people? :-)

Friday Philosophy – The Issue of Exceptions in your Mailing Lists September 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: ,
1 comment so far

A couple of days ago I got the below email about the next UKOUG Database Server SIG being full. That’s great to see! A full user group meeting. If I still wanted to attend, I could be added to the waiting list:

ScreenHunter_42 Sep. 14 11.25

It made me smile as, guess what, I was already due to be there. I was the last speaker on the agenda! It was going to be awkward if I failed to get from the waiting list to an actual place at the event, it could be a very quiet session…

As I said, it made me smile – I’m not having a go at the UKOUG over this. Because, as I’m sure many of you are aware due to the day job, removing people from a mailing list who are no longer going to be interested is not always easy (I know, it should be easy, but it just seems not to be). Anyone registered for an event should be on an exclude list for the event. But only for that event. And for that to occur you have to make sure that all speakers and committee are registered (as committee and speakers can be very poor at actually registering!).

Sales and promotion communications are one thing and, let’s face it, in the scheme of things damned unimportant – except to the company doing the sales. If you sell clothes and you mess up on your communications to me, I’ll have a poorer opinion of your company and I don’t mind having that poor opinion. I won’t buy your clothes, no skin off my nose. As a recent example on a personal level, my mother was having a new door and window fitted. She was contacted by a company that replaced a couple of her windows the year before and as the service was fine then and she knew she had to have the door replaced, she said yes. But then she got called by them again a month later asking if she wanted any more windows or doors – “But I just ordered from you, have you lost the order?”. They apologised and said it would not happen again. But it did, a couple of times – including the day before the new door was to be fitted, whilst she was waiting for a call about the exact time for the work the next day. A lesson in How to Confuse A Little Old Lady. The end result is, she won’t use that company again. Especially as the new door seems to have a fault they won’t come and fix. Maybe the inability to take a current client off the pester-list should have warned us off them.

But there are other communications where the need to take care of the exclusions or keep the lists timely are far, far more important. People get really upset if the hospital sends a reminder for a checkup to their father – who died last month, in that hospital. In that situation people are so sensitive that they can’t just accept it as an administrative cock-up. It is now seen as an affront to their dead relative’s memory and a sign the hospital do not care.

An even worse situation than the above is if the hospital wrongly records you as dead. It happens and it happens “quite often” as it is very hard to keep individual, accurate records on people who keep going and changing names, addresses and have the same name and date of birth as other people. I know this as I once had to write the software to do all the test cancellations and notifications required internally in a hospital that occur when someone dies. And I also had to write the software to undo all of that when someone realised the wrong person had been recorded as dead. {The functions were initially called “kill patient” and “resurrect patient” – They got renamed pretty damned quick when people outside the medical staff saw them. Medics have a dark sense of humour that most other people don’t!}. It happens and when you see how many people in a large hospital system have very similar details, you can appreciate why. I bet that right not, somewhere in the UK, is a hospital with two people of the same name & date of birth as inpatients and at least one has a chance of not surviving the experience.

As for sets of duplicate records as no one realised Sarah Twoddypottle is the same person as Sarah Poddytwoddle who came into A&E 4 years ago and neither knew their NHS number… 20 years ago I could have done a PhD on the topic of duplicate patient records, the situation was so bad – and not at all helped by people wanting “privacy” ie no joining up of national medical records. I digress.

People get similarly upset about money (some more so than medical!) – any attempt to offer someone a loan who is already in debt and won’t be accepted for a loan causes all sorts of anger and annoyance. It’s all seen as personal by the wronged customer when in fact it is just an impersonal business function. No, they don’t care about you Mr Postlethwaite, but they don’t not care about you either. You are just one of a million customers. Level of care for the individual is not part of the equation.

I’ll finish on an interesting one. Companies that offer gambling services have to abide by some strict rules about who they can promote their services to or even allow to use their services. To try and halt the horrendous increase in people gambling away money they don’t have there are strict legal rules about self-exclusion and cooling off periods. If you get into serious debt due to gambling you can state you are an addict and it was partly the fault of the company you gambled with. So they must not encourage you any more. At least not for 6 months. {NB I am not a lawyer, I may have the exact details wrong, but the gist is right}. After the time period they are allowed to advertise to the person again as it would be wrong and immoral (???) to exclude them forever. Besides, they are a good source of revenue…

It’s important to get your communications correct, timely and exclusion-aware. And just consider in what situations people might be especially sensitive to what they see as an impersonal system not caring about them or their nearest and dearest. Most people find it hard to accept that such mistakes are not personal, even when they are blatantly impersonal.

Friday Philosophy – If You are reading this You are probably Pretty Smart September 11, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Knowledge.
Tags: , , ,

I bet I can predict a few things about you. And I mean You, the person reading this on my Blog right now.

At senior school (when you were aged between 11 and 16-ish) you were at the top of your classes. At least most of them. You were in the top few in your year for most science subjects and probably Maths too.

And you were not bad at any of your subjects once you had a choice over them, but there was at least one subject you were glad to get rid of as you were poor at it. But if you think back, I bet you were simply *almost average* at it, there were as many kids or more worse at it than you then there were better than you at it. You were just not as stand-out good as you were in other subjects. Come on, I’m right aren’t I? Even your poor subjects you were OK at compared to all the other kids.

You almost certainly went to college and, if you are under 35, you did to study a STEM subject – Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths. If you are 40-50 you did not study computing but you ended up working in it anyway. 35-40? You either studied computing, thought about it or took options in your course that had a major element of computer programming.

However, you were probably not quite the smartest kid in your year at school.

What makes me think this? Because I can mind-read(*)?

No, I think this simply due to the fact that you work in corporate IT or something very similar. You use your brain to solve issues or get tasks done. I think that the generally high level of intelligence is a more common trait in IT than the other thing I can probably predict about you – you don’t feel you are a people person, not really. Using myself as an example; I present at conferences, I have run training courses and I usually have something to say in a large group or discussion; I even partly run London Oracle Beers, a social Oracle user group. But I can’t make small-talk with people I don’t know and I am uncomfortable meeting new people.

We have to be intelligent to make a career in IT and most of us were probably drawn, at least in part, towards computers and software as we could work on it on our own and the computer did not have any feelings to dent or make any social demands on us. However, many (most) people are social nervous and so I think the more defining trait of people in IT is that they are intelligent – and intelligent in the way that IQ tests measure intelligence: A mixture of learnt patterns and various problem solving/logic/deduction skills. If you have had your IQ tested I am sure you are 120+. I would not be at all surprised if you score 130+. But you still have a little way to go to beat… my wife.

You probably were not the smartest kid in your year at school as the smartest kid either went into medicine/vet school, academia, law or crime – something more way-out-there.

So what point am I making? None really. It’s more just an observation. Though I do think you should occasionally take time to say a prayer of thanks to Pythagoras (or whoever you think is listening) and remind yourself how lucky you are. Most of your intelligence is inherited and the smaller (but not insignificant part) is due to schooling and your own efforts (note, I’m talking intelligence, not what you know – the two are different but aid each other). Your brains were given to your by your parents and grandparents, no matter how hard that can sometimes be to believe :-). I was on a PL/SQL course with Steven Feuerstein about 10 years ago and he took a minute or two to passionately state how lucky all of us on the course were to have our brains, to be making our living by thinking and not back-breaking toil or dull manual work. It was a sentiment I whole-heatedly agree with. I actually love spending time digging a ditch or chopping down trees but I would hate having to do it every day for a living.

Of course, intelligence of the IQ type is not everything and it does not make you a better person. I’m sure we have all known some very smart assholes and some wonderful people who can’t think themselves out of a damp paper bag. Some people have average IQ and yet have talents most of use would struggle with, like making a violin sound anything but bloody awful. I’ve known academics with an IQ somewhere Way Up There but who had about as much common sense as a pigeon. I have come across a few examples of intelligence bigotry in my time too. I know one guy in an academic institute who tried to insist that the highest grade you could achieve and the top of your salary band be dictated by your best academic qualification. No one without some sort of degree should get above level 5, No one with less than a 2(i) allowed in grade four and to get to grade 2 a PhD was needed. He was a very smart asshole. I’ve known a couple of people without a degree in this business of IT and both of the ones I’m thinking of right now are very, very good at what they do.

So be grateful for that brain of yours and just remember that most people are not as intelligent as you, so show patience in explaining and working with them. And if you are not patient, you could well be an intelligent asshole. You might need to learn to not be like that.

(*) Just as an aside, deducing things about groups of people and, in fact, traits most people have is not hard. It’s called cold reading. It’s what mediums, mind readers, psychics and other intelligent assholes use to hoodwink people. Part of it is things you can guess at given one piece of information or even none. I can deduce things about you because you work in IT. I know you feel you’ve never reached your potential and you have more to give as *almost everyone does*. No one wants to be seen to be selfish but we all know we are, at least at times. Even Mother Theresa thought so at times. The other aspect to it is reading body language and empathy, which is why I can’t make a living as a psychic. I just don’t get people….

Just thinking on this aside for a second, maybe mediums and psychics could get less abusive jobs as data analysts? Deducing things about people based on averages and correlation is Big Data Business right now.

(Update – thanks to the person who quietly contacted me to point out my spelling error/poor grammar with “patience” and “patient” – in my section in intelligent assholes too! He showed real patience with me)

Friday Philosophy – On “Being the Expert” September 4, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in contracting, Friday Philosophy, performance.
Tags: , ,

Working as a recognised expert at something is a little…strange, I find.

I had an assignment this week to go visit a client, have a look at a performance issue and find out the root cause. I was also to at least come up with suggested resolutions with the ideal aim of giving them a proven fix they could implement. All to be done in two to three days. This is pretty standard fayre when you are putting yourself forward as some sort of expert in something. And it is not always an easy thing to do – for more reasons than you might expect.

When it comes to the core service you are providing you are certainly expected to know your stuff and if you are there as the expert and you don’t? Well, any pain you now suffer is self-inflicted so I have no sympathy. You might think actually being an expert is the hard part – the knowing all that stuff, remembering it, the ability to answer all the questions or look at an issue and in 5 minutes say “It’s because the CLOB settings are wrong”. ie matching the expectations of almost God-like knowledge and ability. But it is not. If you can listen to what their problem is, understand it and then explain something to them that they did not know before, it will be fine. What the client needs is to feel progress is being made. An immediate and inspired solution may occasionally be possible but on the occasions I have pulled that off, the client usually just feels uncomfortable, like they missed the obvious. Because they did. If I sort out the issue straight away that they have had for 3 weeks and that the in-house expert has looked at there is only really two possible reasons
(a) it is simple and they missed it.
(b) they ignored their expert.

The option of (c) my genius is sadly just a dream.

What I find more tricky is when they just accept what I say, when they treat everything I say as correct. Even if I say “it might be this” there can be an assumption I am being modest and it really is what I suggest. I’d like them to only believe me once there is some proof. Most of my time on such assignments is me sat at the SQL prompt trying to back up what I think is the issue/solution. Even when I have evidence, I know I could just be seeing what I want to see. I want some proof and I want them to challenge it.

There is also sometimes a tendency for the rest of the staff to regarded you as some sort of a weirdo, someone Not Like Them. After all, if you are an expert in Oracle Performance you must spend all your time looking at explain plans and 10046 traces and not doing normal people stuff. I have to say, I had a really nice (and in some ways quite worrying) complement a few years back. I was at a client site for a couple of months, plowing though what seemed like endless layers of bad code/design/decisions to make things run better. One lunch time I headed out to find some lunch with a couple of the developers. One of them turned to me and said something like “You know, I’m really glad you joined us. You’re just a normal bloke and not one of those freaky tuning experts!” He really thought all Oracle Performance people would be strange – and strange in the already bizarre context of all the other people that inhabit our profession. I wonder who else he had met?

You can also run into resentment – occasionally irrationally (fear of challenge? envy? just psychotic people?) but also for real reasons. I sort-of alluded to it earlier. You get listened to when you are “Being the Expert”. Even though you may say what Sarah had already pointed out last month, you get listened to. Sarah is not going to be happy about that. Sarah is going to be especially annoyed and resentful if she told Me, the expert, about the point I raised. In these situations I try and emulate what a friend of mine taught me about 10 years ago on “Being The Expert”. One of your jobs as an external consultant should be to tell the client to listen to their staff if their staff are getting things right. What the real problem is could well be that the client is not using the resources it already has. And you were, after all, hired to solve their problem.

The final thing I find strange that I’ll mention is this. As the expert I am constantly anxious I am going to be “found out”. I mean, right now, I am doing my final report on this assignment. I know I identified several issues, I backed them up with evidence, I moved the client forward. I found out things that they had not known. I taught some of the staff new stuff. I stressed that I will not have found everything as it was only 3 days with no access to the live system… But I worry that in 3 weeks I’ll hear that none of what I suggested worked and that the REAL issue was something I utterly missed and when they corrected that, the run time went down by a factor of a thousand. And I failed them.

I just worry about that. Because I am “Being the Expert”

Friday Philosophy – Building for the Future August 14, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,

I started my Oracle working life as a builder – a Forms & Reports Builder (briefly on SQL*Forms V2.3 but thankfully within a month or two we moved up to SQL*Forms V3, SQL*reportwriter V1.1 and SQL*Menu 5 – who remembers SQL*Menu?). Why were we called Builders? I guess as you could get a long way with those tools by drawing screens, utilising the (pretty much new) RI in the underlying Oracle V7 to enforce simple business rules and adding very simple triggers – theoretically not writing much in the way of code. It was deemed to be more like constructing stuff out of bits I guess. But SQL*Forms V3 had PL/SQL V1 built in and on that project we used it a *lot*.

I had been an “Analyst Programmer” for 3 years before then and I’ve continued to be a developer/programmer/constructor-of-code on and off over the intervening couple of decades. I’m still a developer at times. But sometimes I still think of it as being a “builder” as, if you do it write {sorry, little word-play joke there} you are using bits of existing stuff and code designs/patterns you know work well and constructing your system. The novel part, the bit or bits that have never been done before (at least by me), the “architecting” of those units into something interestingly different or the use of improved programming features or techniques vary from almost-none to a few percent. That is the part which I have always considered true “Software Development”.

So am I by implication denigrating the fine and long-standing occupation of traditional builders? You know, men and women who know what a piece of two-by-four is and put up houses that stay put up? No. Look at the below.

This is part of my neighbour Paul’s house. He is a builder and the black part in the centre with the peaked roof is an extension he added a few years back, by knocking his garage down. The garage was one of three, my two were where the garage doors you can see are and to the left. So he added in his two-story extension, with kitchen below and a very nice en-suite bedroom above, between his house and my ratty, asbestos-riddle garages. Pretty neat. A few years later he knocked down my garages and built me a new one with a study on top (without the asbestos!) and it all looks like it was built with his extension. Good eh? But wait, there is more. You will have noticed the red highlight. What is that white thing?

Closer in - did he forget some plumbing?

Closer in – did he forget some plumbing?

This pipe goes clean through the house

This pipe goes clean through the house

When I noticed that white bit after Paul had finished his extension I figured he had planned more plumbing than he put in. I kept quiet. Then, when he had built my new garage and study, I could not help ask him about the odd plumbing outlet. So he opened it. And it goes through the dividing wall all the way through to the other side of the house. Why?

“Well Martin, putting in cables and pipes and s**t into an existing house that go from one side to the other, especially when there is another building next door, as a real pain in the a**e. It does my ‘ead in. So when a build something that is not detached, I put in a pipe all the way through. Now if I need to run a cable from one side of the house to the other, I have my pipe and I know it is straight, clean, and sloping every so slightly downwards”. Why downwards? “Water Martin. You don’t want water sitting in that pipe!”.

I’ve noticed this about builders. When I’ve had work done that is good, there is at least one person on the team who thinks not just about how to erect or do what needs to be done today, they do indeed think about what you will need after the build is done, or in a few years. Such as hanging doors so they do not smack into the cupboards you will put in next… *sigh*. Paul is the thinking guy in his little team. I suspect one of the others is pretty smart too.

But isn’t this what the architect is for? To think about living with the building? Well, despite the 7 years plus needed to become a true architect (as that term really means, not as some stolen label for software designers with too much ego) I’ve had builders spot the pragmatic needs a couple of times that the architect missed.

And as I think we would all agree, a good software developer always has an eye on future maintenance and modification of the software they develop. And they want to create something that fits in the existing system and looks right. So just like my builder neighbour does.

I’m not a software architect. I’m a code builder. And I’m proud of it.

Friday Philosophy – Being Rejected by the Prom Queen July 13, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting, Tech15.
Tags: , ,

If you follow me on twitter (and if you are on twitter, why would you *not* follow me :-) See Twitter tag on right of page -> ) you will know what the title is all about. I posted the below on my twitter feed a few weeks ago:

Submitting to speak at #OOW15 is like asking out prom queens. You live in hope – but expect rejection :-)

{BTW if prom queens are not your thing and you would rather be asking out the captain of the football/ice hockey/chess team, the vampire slayer or whatever, just substitute as you see fit.}

I’ve not submitted to Oracle Open World for years – in fact, I’ve never submitted papers to OOW. Of the two times I have spoken at the conference, once was at the request of an Oracle product manager as the “friendly customer” in his talk {I did 75% of the talking and was not even mentioned on the agenda!} and the other I was actually presenting back at Redwood Shores at an Oracle Life Science conference running parallel to OOW. Both were a decade ago. But this year I decided to give it a shot and put forward 3 talks – all technical but intro talks, which I thought they would like as it would be a nice balance to much of the content, which is either deep technical stuff or, more often, “how great is Oracle” presentations on the latest stuff. And for 2015, endless fluffy Clouds.

I know it is hard to get accepted at OOW and, despite my personal, utter conviction that my talks would be brilliant and wow the audience, I had no great hopes. I was up against the Oracle-Presenting-Equivalent of the Sports Jocks and children-of-the-fabulously-wealthy at college. But for a short & wonderful period, I actually thought she was going to say “yes”!!! You see, lots of my friends who had also “asked out the prom queen” were tweeting that they had been rejected. But I had not, no email in my inbox saying that whilst I was cute, we were not right for each other. In fact, when the odd tweet went out from people saying that one or two of their talks had been rejected but not all, I started to think I was going to slam-dunk the whole affair and get all 3 talks in! What would be the equivalent of that with the Prom Queen? Probably stuff her dad would not be happy about.

But no, I’d forgotten I’d submitted under my ORA600 email address and when I remembered, I found the email waiting there. All three rejected. No dancing with the Prom Queen for me. *sigh*. It was like she’d not only turned me down but rung up my mum to refuse my offer of a date, rather than tell me direct. I would not have found it so hard to take if only, for that short while, I thought I was going to get a “yes”.

I suppose it is only fair. I’ve been on the panel of people choosing the content for the database part of the UK Oracle User Group Tech15 conference in Birmingham. Notification for acceptance or rejection of submitted papers to that event went out just a day or two before the OOW notifications and I knew some of my friends were going to be disappointed. I worried about that a little, they knew I had been involved in the choice and so was partly responsible for them not being selected. {I really hope that the person who told me to stay on holiday in Montenegro as they knew where I lived was kidding….}.

OOW15 and UKOUG Tech15 actually had a common issue I believe – less physical space for talks. I’ve been told that the Moscone centre has been overhauled and some space is still not ready. For Tech15 we are sharing space with Apps again so do not have as much room as we would ideally like. However, the main issue (again for both events) is just the number of good presentations by good speakers that we get. If we had space for 6 concurrent database streams at the same time (we do have space for 4 or 3, depending on the day) we would still have more than enough good talks – and the delegates would have to be picking between maybe 3 or 4 talks out of the 6 that they personally would like to see – and feeling they were missing out no matter what.

I’ll say more at a later date about how we actually pick the talks (the post is half written) but the take home message for anyone rejected from UKOUG Tech15 this year is:
(a) The competition was strong.
(b) You have a known target for your anger (Look, it really is 90% decided by the judging scores!!!)
(b) You can take comfort schadenfreude in the knowledge that I (and several other committee members) have suffered exactly the same disappointment as you. Maybe worse for me – for a while I was convinced the haughty little minx was going to say yes….

If you got rejected by OOW15 then I think the important things to keep in mind are:
(a) It’s all just Sales Pitch & Company flag waving & cloud-cloud-cloud and you never really liked that prom queen anyway. {Me? Bitter?}
(b) There is a stellar line up of people who have also been rejected. Try checking out the twitter tag #TeamRejectedByOracleOpenWorld {quick nod to Tim Hall for coming up with a such a funny idea}.
(c) At least you put in for it. The one way to be sure you won’t get something is to not try.

Oh well, there is always next year. If my ego has recovered by then. I quite fancy the new captain of the chess team…

Computers are Logical. Software is Not July 3, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, future.
Tags: , ,

We’ve all heard it before. Computers are totally logical, they do exactly what they are told. After all, Central Processing Units (CPUs) are built out of fundamental units called Logic Gates. With perhaps the exception when a stray cosmic ray gets lucky, the circuits in a computer chip and memory act in a totally logical and predicted manner.

And of course, anything built on top of computers will be utterly logical as well. All those robots that companies are designing & building to clean our houses, do our manual labour and fight our wars are going to be logical, follow the rules given and be sensible.

But they are not. As Software is not logical. Often, it is infuriatingly illogical and confusing. Which makes you worry about the “domestic servant” robots that companies are developing, the planned “disaster scene recovery” robots they keep telling us are coming and especially the “Killer Robots” -sorry, “Defense Robots” – that the military are beavering away at.

This XKCD cartoon very much refelects some recent experiences I have had with consumer software:

XKCD - Haunted Computer

XKCD – Haunted Computer

I’d say that, unless an algorithm is about as simple as a Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit conversion program, it will have a bug or will mess up with out-of-range values. Just think back to when you wrote your Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit program (we all have, haven’t we?) back at school or on your home computer or you first week on the college course. What happened if you input a temperature of -1000C, an impossible temperature? I bet it either fell over or gave a just-as-impossible Fahrenheit value. Logical but stupid.

I worked on a financial system a few years back that, as one very small but significant part of what it did, showed you your average spend on things over 3 years. It took several weeks to explain to the program manager and his minions that their averaging code was wrong. Utterly, hopelessly and tragically wrong. First, it calculated and displayed the value to several decimal places – To thousandths of a penny. Secondly, it did not take into account the actual period over which you had spent your money. If you had opened your account 1 year ago, it still calculated the value over 3 years. As for taking into account months, weeks and days of the year, don’t make me laugh. You might be able to forgive this except the same team had also written the code to archive off data once it was 3 years old – in whole years. So there would only be between 2 and 3 years of data and only 3 whole years for, theoretically, 1 day. But no, they had hard-coded the “divide by 3 years”.

We have all experienced endless issues with computers or peripherals that will work one day, not work properly the next and then go back to working. Firmware and Operating Systems are just software really, with the same flaws as the stuff we write and fix in our working lives day after day. There will be a twisted reason buried deep somewhere why the printer will not work on Thursdays, but it won’t be a sensible reason.

All the software out there is more or less illogical and broken. The less broken gets used and we learn it’s idiocies. The worst gets canned or labelled “Windows 8” and forced on us.

Crazy (illogical) Killer Robot

Crazy (but logical) Killer Robot

I know some people worry about the inexorable rise of the machines, Terminator Style maybe, or perhaps benign but a lot smarter than us (as they are logical and compute really, really fast) and we become their pets. But I am not concerned. The idiot humans who write the software will mess it up massively. Oh, some of these things will do terrible harm but they will not take over – they will run out of bullets or power or stop working on Thursday. Not until we can build the first computer that is smart enough to write sensible software itself and immediately replaces itself with something that CAN write a Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit conversion program that does not mess up. It will then start coding like a human developer with 1 night to get the system live, a stack of angry managers and an endless supply of Jack Daniels & coffee – only with no errors. With luck it will very soon write the perfect computer game and distract itself long enough for us to turn the damned thing off.

Friday Philosophy – At What Point Can You Claim a Skill? June 26, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge.
Tags: , ,

I’ve just installed Oracle 12C on my laptop {I know, why only now?}. I went for the option to have a Container database with a pluggable database within it. {It is easy and free to install Oracle on your own home machine – so long as it is for personal use only and you are singed up to OTN (which is also free) }.

12C with pluggable databases (PDBs) is a little different to the last few versions of Oracle as it introduces this whole concept of the Container database that holds portions of the data dictionary and, within that, what we used to think of as Oracle instances plugged in underneath it. It is not *quite* like that – but this post is not about the technical aspects of Oracle 12C multitentant databases. And you will see why.

Whenever something I know well has changed more than a bit, I tend to hit this wall of “Whoa! it’s all changed!”. It isn’t all changed, but sometimes some of the fundamentals, the basics are different. For the last 15 years, once I have my database up and running I will have created my test users and some objects within 10 minutes and be playing away. Not this time. How do you create a user in a multi-tenant DB? How do I tell Oracle to create my users in that PDB? Hang on, how do I even check what I called my PDB? My ignorance is huge.

I popped over to Tim Hall’s site, OracleBase and the section on creating users under multi-tenant Oracle, scanned Bryn Llewellyn’s White Paper on it. A few google searches as well and soon I was there. My standard test to make sure the DB is alive, “select sysdate from dual” – only I altered it to show the PDB:

select SYSDATE from Dual

select SYSDATE from Dual

So I am logged into my working PDB on 12C, I have selected sysdate from DUAL, created my new user. I have used Oracle 12C and multitentant.

Next step?

Update CV to claim 12C expert and experience of Multi-tenant Oracle Database

This is of course a joke on my part.

Sadly, some people would actually do this.

It is something that has always annoyed me and often seems rife in the I.T. industry – people claiming skills or even expertise in something they have barely touched, let alone understood. And often about a thousand miles away from any legitimate claim to Expert. I chortle whenever I see a CV from someone with only 2 or 3 years’ experience of Oracle but list 20 areas they are expert in. Before I throw the CV in the bin.

Maybe part of the issue is that I.T. moves so fast and people feel they need to be seen to be on top of the changes to be worth employing or being listened to. Well, it’s nice to be leading edge – for much of my career I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to the latest version of Oracle either as soon as it is out or even before (beta programs). But much more important is to have some integrity. Claiming to be an expert when you are not is incredibly dangerous as anyone who really does know the subject is going to suss you out in no time at all. And you will be exposed as a fraud and a liar. Gaining any respect after that is going to be really hard work, and so it should be.

Sadly, you do get the situation where people get away with this sort of deceit, usually by managing to deceive non-technical management but annoying the real technicians around them. Many of us have suffered from this.

This issue of claiming a skill before you had was very common with Exadata when it came out. Lots of people, it seemed, read the white papers, looked at some blogs and maybe saw a couple of talks – and then started talking to people about Exadata as though they knew it inside out. I actually saw a “professional” presentation like this at a conference, on Exadata, where it was soon clear that the presenter had probably never got as far as “select sysdate from dual;” on an exadata box (not that there is any difference for that statement :-) ). I could not help but interrupt and query a statement that was utterly untrue and at that point the presenter checked his “facts” with a more senior member of his company in the crowd. To his shame, the senior member of staff repeated the error of claiming knowledge he also did not have to back the presenter up. Every time I come across that company now, I think of that.

So when can you claim a skill? If you look at my screen shot you will see that I failed to actually log into my PDB database with my new user – #fail. Of course I can’t claim these skills based on reading some information, seeing some talks and all of an hour’s practical experience.

I think you can only claim a skill once you can tell for sure if someone else also has that skill. Or more significantly, tell when they are claiming a skill they lack. Personally, I tend towards not claiming a skill if I doubt my abilities. Don’t worry, my huge ego balances that British self-doubt quite well :-)

I used to give introductory talks on Exadata as I got so tired of the poor information I saw being given on the subject. Also, all the best talks were soon about the details of smart scans, the storage cells and patching. Not much for newbies. Interestingly, even as an intro talk, most times I did the talk I learnt something new in discussions at or after the talk. But I’ve retired that talk now. Why? Well Exadata has moved forward 2 versions since I last used it and 3 since I used it in anger. I could no longer tell you if something someone claimed for V5 of Exadata was true or not. So I am no longer skilled in Exadata.

Only claim skills you have.
Distrust those who claim skills they lack.
Try to teach those who seek your skills – you will only get better for it.

Friday Philosophy – Friday Afternoon Phone June 19, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life.
Tags: , ,

{<<my earlier attempts to sort out my phone}
{Update on my trip to the Apple Store >>}

There used to be a phrase in the car industry in the UK (I don’t know about elsewhere) a “Friday Afternoon Car“. This is a car which is unusually unreliable, as it was built on Friday afternoon when the workers were tired, the weekend was coming and, heck, they might have been to the pub at lunch. It is occasionally used just to describe something that is a bit crap and unreliable.

I have a Friday Afternoon Phone it would seem. I am fast becoming quite disillusioned with it. You may remember my post about my sitting on said phone to make it work again. It’s an iPhone 5, I bought it as I was finally persuaded that it would be more useful to have a smart phone than the “temporary” cheap Samsung I had bought about 2 years prior to then – as an emergency replacement for my previous web-enabled phone that committed suicide with a jar of pickled onions (it’s a long, hardly believable story). I expected the Samsung to keep me going for a month or two but it was so simple and reliable it just stayed in use for over 2 years.

Your Honour, allow me to present item A and item B

Your Honour, allow me to present evidence item A and item B

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Phone A. . . . . . . . . . . . Phone B
Cost. . . . . . . . . . .£400 or so . . . . . . . . . £15 with a free £10 pay-as-you-go top up.
Battery . . . . . . . . New, 8-12 hours. . . . . .New, a week
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Now, 4-5 hours. . . . . . Now, a week!
Reliability . . . . . . Breaks every update . . .No issues ever
Making calls. . . . .6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9/10
Receiving calls . . .4/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9/10
Plays Angry Birds. Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .No
Taking pictures . . 9/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0/10
Helps me up a . . . Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No
Connection to web 6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Are you kidding? But I’m mostly sat at a computer anyway
Impresses friends. No. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yes, for all the wrong reasons :-)

{There must be a better way to line up text in this wordpress theme!!!}

The Web Enabled Phone that Does not Like to Connect
In some ways the iPhone has been really good. The screen (at the time I bought it) was very good, apps run nice and fast, way too much software is available for it and it can hold a lot of pictures and videos before running out of space. Its size also suits me. But phone and web reception has always been a bit poor and its ability to hold onto a wireless connection seems to be especially questionable – as soon as a few other devices are contending for a router with my iPhone, my iPhone seems to give up its hold on the connection and sulk. I’ve had this in several places in several countries. I’m the only one up? Phone connects fine. 2 others wake up and connect? I’m off the network. I’ve also often been in a busy place (conference, sports event) and everyone else seems to be on the net but my phone just pretends.

Battery Blues
And of course, there is the issue of the battery becoming very poor. It runs on a full charge for only a few hours and if it gets cold it has a tendency to act like a squirrel and hibernate. I now carry around the spare battery pack my wife got given by her work for her work phone use abroad. The good news is, having been put on to it by Neil Chandler, I am now aware my phone has been recalled for a battery replacement. What I am a little irked about is that Apple have my details and the serial number of the phone but have never contacted me directly to let me know. OK, it is not a car (it’s just like a car – a Friday Afternoon Car) so I am unlikely to die as a result of the fault, but if they know it has a fault and it did cost a good whack of cash to buy, they should be being moral and contacting me.

Upsetting Upgrades
But the thing that utterly hacks me off is how it does not handle upgrading to the next version of iOS. I had an upgrade early on in my relationship with the phone and it blew everything off the phone. Not a big issue then as I had not had it long. But it made me cautious about upgrading. About this time last year the phone was insisting it must be upgraded and things were getting flaky (I suspect software manufacturers do this on purpose – I’ve noticed my PC running Windows can start acting odd when an update is due). Before doing anything, I backed it up. Or tried to. The first attempt said it worked but it was too swift to have backed up anything, let alone back up my photos. After then it just refused to back up. But the phone utterly refused to allow me access to the photos from my PC – it should do of course but no, nothing would pries those images out of the phone. I was particularly concerned as I had lots of snaps from a friend’s wedding. Said friend eventually helped me out by pushing all my photos to an iCloud account (It’s Just A Server On The Net) in a way he could access. I then updated the phone and, yep it failed. And locked the phone and I had to factory reset and lost all the photos. It had also lied about uploading the pictures to the net (which it took hours to not do) so they had gone for good. Grrrrr.

So this time when it started getting dodgy I managed to save all my photos (Huzzah!), backed it up, ran through the update – and it failed and locked up the phone. *sigh!!!!*. Only, this time it won’t respond even after a factory reset. My iTunes is up-to-date, it could see the phone OK at the start of the update (because I was doing it via iTunes!) but now it won’t see the phone and once I try, guess what, iTunes also locks up. So the phone is useless. I can’t help wonder if the battery issue and the failure to ever upgrade smoothly are linked somehow (by eg it being rubbish).

So I pop along to the kitchen drawer with the odds n’ sods in and pull out the old Samsung & charger and plug it in. 20 minutes later, I have a working phone. Turns out I have no credit on it anymore but I can sort that out. It even gets reception in the kitchen (I have to lean out the window of the back bedroom to get the iPhone to pick up a reliable signal at home).

Oh No! I have to Contact Apple!
Now the real fun starts. I contact my local Apple shop. Only I don’t, I access a damned annoying voice system that smugly announces “I understand full sentences” and immediately knows who I am and what my device is and when it was bought (as Apple have my details including home phone) – and it was over 2 years ago and it wants me to agree to a paid support package to go further. Of course it won’t give me options to speak to a human or understand “full sentences” even when I shout “battery issue recall” and “your update killed my phone!” plus various permutations at it. It also did not understand the sentence “I want to speak to a person”.

I eventually trick it by pretending that I will buy a support package. Huzzah, a human to talk to. Said human is helpful, pleasant, a bit hard to understand (usual call center woes of background noise and she has the microphone clipped to her socks). I explain that the phone has a recall on it and I just want that sorted and a proper reset. She’s not sure I can have this without a support package {after all, her job is to sell me some support and I am breaking her script} but she says the battery might be replaced under the recall (she has all my details, she can see the iPhone serial number, she could check!). “So I can drop it off at the store?”.

I expect “yes”. I get “no”. I have to organise an appointment. A 10 minute slot. Why? I want to drop off some kit for you to repair and I’ll come back another day. I am not making an appointment to see a doctor to discuss my piles. No, I have to have an appointment. On Monday at 10:10 or “plrbsburhpcshlurp” as the mike once once slips down the sock. OK, 10:10 Monday, she’s getting tired of me saying “please repeat that”. Then she says what sounded like “and the repair may cost up to £210 if there is a hardware fault”. WHAT?!? I don’t fully understand what she says next – but she understands I am not going to pay £210 to fix a device that has a known fault and has been screwed over again by their software update, so she backs off to “they can look at the device and advise me”.

It’ll be interesting to see how it goes on Monday. At 10:10 am. If they try and charge me hundreds of pounds to reset the damned thing or tell me (after I’ve checked) that they won’t replace the dying battery, I can imagine me becoming one of those ranting, incoherent people you see on YouTube. If they want anything more than the cost of an evening in the pub to get it working, I think it will become a shiny, expensive paperweight.

Meanwhile, welcome back Reliable Samsung Phone. You still seem to make calls just fine. Still not able to play Angry Birds though.

Friday Philosophy – Flippin’ Technology June 5, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Perceptions, rant.
Tags: , ,

Sometimes I think I would have been a Luddite or a member of other groups who have trashed new technology in frustration. Some days, I can just scream at it. You would think having worked in Information Technology for so long would make me more of a fan, but it actually makes me worse – as I know there is no need for there to be so much wrong with the electronic dross we all have to deal with day-to-day. And if I, someone who has used (heck, even programmed) computers for 3 decades, have trouble with these damned things, how frustrating must “normal” people find it?

Tesco Challenge - original on RevK Rant's blog

Tesco Challenge – original on RevK Rant’s blog

Take this morning’s source-for-a-rant. Self checkouts in supermarkets. I had popped into Tesco to get the weekend’s rations of baked beans, wine and cat food and there were large queues for all manned (though, I should more correctly say, mostly womanned) tills. And almost no queue for the self-service ones. We all know why almost no queue for the self-service ones, most of us hate them. But I had to get back home for a UKOUG conference call and there was very little chance the three-people-deep queues would be negotiated in time, so I manned up and went to one of the vacant screens.

Have I mentioned I’ve been using computers since before Wayne Rooney, Keira Knightley or Michael Phelps were born? So I have some affinity and experience to navigating screens of information. But, like all of theses devices, using them is painful. Given they are designed to be used by everyone including idiots, why is the “UX” so low? Why does the important information appear at different spots in the screen at different times? Why does there seem to be no button to press for a simple, key-word triggered guide (“How to weigh Veg?” Oh, look up there, press the correct icon, look down there and press another and then finally click over here to say “yes I really did ask you to weigh some bananas” – that would be nice). Why does the Waitrose one make me swipe my card to pull up my scanned items but insist I shove the card up the slot to pay? Plus all the times you have to get some human to come over and confirm you are over 18 (I need to be 18 to buy expanding foam?!?) or don’t look suicidal. I’m not being funny but the age check is just not needed, if I am using a credit card it can know I am 18 or over (you cannot you have a UK credit card under 18, partly as you are not allowed to sign up for a credit agreement below that age and if I am using someone else’s credit card, me buying a bottle of wine is the least of the potential issues). To give them their due, at least our local Tesco (unlike many other stores I have used around here) have someone on hand to constantly swipe, press, tap and harass the machines into playing correctly.

I can’t believe how badly these self service checkouts work. I can’t believe the companies have not tested them extensively with real people (I know, they claim to, but then I’ve seen “user system testing” in big banks and it is shockingly poor). How can they think such terrible systems are good for business? That people still insist on queuing for checkouts with real people rather than use them must tell the companies something! Why can’t these systems be better designed. Why are they so painful to use? It can’t be me. Maybe it is me….

Next rant. My internet & email supplier. Hi BT. BT, you are crap at running your internet & email service. I’ll only mention in passing the regular episodes of slow internet, the times mail seems to struggle to keep moving, the harassing emails to buy more allowance as I am reaching my limit…for the prior month (“HI BT, I think I might pop back in time and download 15 films last March, can I have more allowance for than as I’d used over half my limit”) – but I am going to complain over the fact that for the last 5 weeks now, each weekend you stop accepting valid connection requests from my Laptop – but allow them from my iPhone. So my account/pwd is working fine. But no, from the PC you tell me I have to validate my account. So I log on to the web site and as soon as I put in my details you tell me I have to change my password as there has been too many failed attempts at access my account? Well, if they failed, I chose a decent password maybe? Trying to force me to change it is likely to make me change it to something simpler maybe? Especially as this is the fourth time this month… but then, usually the system fails to actually process my password change and just hangs. My iPhone still keeps working with the old details and, usually by the next day, the errors have gone and I can access my mail with my old details with a real machine again too. My conclusion has been that it’s their software screwing up. Each. And. Every. Weekend.

It’s got worse, it now fouls up some workdays too. And I made an interesting discovery. When I log in to the web site to validate myself, if I put in a password of “scr3wy0uBT” – it accepts it and puts me into the Change Your Password screen exactly the same as before. No, my password is not “scr3wy0uBT” {it rejected it when I tried…}. So top security there. Whatever is happening, it’s just…..pants {UK phrase, it means “utterly rubbish”. Pants are not trousers, they are undergarments, you strange Americans.}

What is BT doing wrong to have this problem keep happening? Is this a good “UX” experience for me and all the other people who seem to have similar issues? Is it so hard to sort this out?

What was the third rant? Oh yes. Windows 8. Too many people before me have vented spleen and given pieces of their mind on Windows 8 for me to be able to add any more to the pile, but what I cannot fathom is, as soon as they got the almighty ass-kicking that they did for ballsing up the Start Button/Menu, why did they not in the next version just put it straight back as it was?. Or put out and advertise a simple “patch” to put back what millions of people were screaming they wanted back? All I can think is someone’s ego was too large to wave their hands in the air and say “Oh boy, did we make a dog’s dinner of that – let us help improve your “UX” and our reputation by fixing that straight away”.

Final rant. Games. Computer Games. I like running around shooting things. It gets rids of some of the IT-In-Daily-Life anger. But I am not very good at it and my broadband connection is slow and a bit laggy, so I am not interested in running around shooting things with friends. The same broadband issues mean I also don’t want to spend 4 hours downloading a game, I want to buy it in a floppy disc…..I mean CD…. Errr, DVD… and play it. So I went to this place called a “shop” and I bought a game on media in a box and checked the packaging. No where did it state I have to have an internet connection. I get the DVD out (hmm, there are actually three), put it in the machine and 30 mins later the software is loaded. And now it FORCES me to register with some crapola online gaming site to register my copy (like, if I had a bootleg version that would not be the first bit they strip out) and that takes an hour to download it’s own shitty software. That done, it will let me fire up the game – that immediately bombs out to download the latest patch (which I think it the crapola online site’s version) and that takes two hours as it is obviously much, much more than a patch. I suspect it is the whole damned game again. This is not a “UX” I wanted and, you can bet, next time I buy a game, crapola online gaming company is one thing I will be looking to avoid. It does not help that said game won’t fire up without logging into said game site or making me watch a minute of adverts about who wrote the game on who’s graphics card using what game engine. Thankfully a few minutes on the net explained how I could avoid all of that. But why do I have to take steps to stop these companies annoying me and, this is the bit that confuses me, what makes these companies think I’ll be impressed by being repeatedly exposed to their adds that I don’t want to see? I’ll just despise them a little bit more each time.

I just don’t get it. The number one thing any IT system needs to achieve is User Acceptance (as I have said before, if you check the link). Why do so many large companies miss this and inflict on the world a seriously sub-standard experience of IT and technology? If someone like me who has driven a screen, a keyboard and a mouse for 3 decades, understands some of the limits to IT and must have at least some brains in his skull, if I get endlessly caught out, befuddled and simply screaming-out-loud-frustrated by crap IT, how is my poor old mum (and everyone’s poor old parents) supposed to cope?

I’m going to become a Lumberjack. Chainsaws do not have screens and keyboards.

No I.T. Hassles Here

No I.T. Hassles Here


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