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UKOUG Tech16 Day 0 – Car and Curry Chaos! December 5, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in conference, humour, off-topic, Private Life, UKOUG.
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1 comment so far

This year I decided to come to Birmingham a little early for UKOUG Tech16, coming up on the Saturday. I drove up to Lichfield (15 miles North of Brum – which explains the touch of Brummie in my accent) in the morning to see my mum. Once we had discussed her various ailments and prejudices for a few hours and I’d unblocked her vacuum cleaner I set off into Birmingham to get to Jury’s hotel for 18:00. I was sure the shoppers would be pouring out of the city centre by then and it would be quietening down.

How wrong can you be! The A38 into the centre of the city was a crawl for the last 5 miles, with lots of random lane changes by people confused by the delights of inner-city town-bad-planning – or just frustrated enough to be attempting a freestyle game of “dodgem cars”. I know a sneaky way to get over to the back roads behind Broad Street and my hotel -but either the recent road changes have removed it or the density of traffic hid it from me, so I had to follow the herd.

When I finally got to the hotel – the car park was coned off. And there were dozens of cars circling the area trying to find anywhere to park, avoiding the hoards of revellers set on drunken debauchery who would lurch into the road at irregular intervals (usually going ” Wayheeeyyyy!” or “Heeheheheheheeeehehehee”). I put the car where I felt it would not receive a ticket in the near future and checked into the hotel. “Can you let me into the car park”. No. “I’m here for days!” Go park somewhere else. “Where?” I dunno, over that way somewhere. *sigh*

I decided to check out the car park on foot. There were 2 spaces on the top floor! So I got the car, whipped around to the entrance -and found some git in a blue car already removing the cones to sneak in. I tried to follow but the attendant came over and stopped me. “But I know there are spaces, I checked!”. He’d actually seen me do this and told me to try and take a ticket. It refused to give me one. It was not that the car park was physically full but the tech would not issue a ticket if it thought it was full. I started to back out and he stopped me. “Just wait – someone will leave soon” and he put the cones behind my car. Within 5 mins he was proved right, I got a ticket and went to one of my identified spots. Which was still empty. The blue car had been abandoned in an odd place…
I was very thankful to the attendant who had been so nice to me.

After that fiasco I dropped my stuff in my room and met Dave Roberts & Brendan Tierney in the Jury’s bar for a couple of relaxing pints. Relaaaaaxxxxx. Dave knew of a massive, £4M curry house that had just opened, about 2 mins up the road. It was 3 levels of basement. We decided to give it a go!

The establishment itself had curtains up at the doors -all away across the doors. You could not see in. Was it open? We approached the doors and it was opened for us. Inside was a swish reception area and three people to great us. 3? We asked for a table for 3. And they did that bloody annoying thing all posh restaurants that are up their own arse do.

“Does Sir have a reservation?”
“No”.
Pause, hard stare at us and in a cold voice “I will check if there is space for you….sir” (no capitals in ‘Sir’ anymore).

This check considered of him wandering away for 5 seconds, coming back and saying “I think we can fit you in”. We were led down an odd tubular corridor, down through one floor that was obviously not yet in use, another floor that looked fully kitted out for diners and to the lowest floor with maybe 70, 80 tables in it. And less than 1/4 occupied. Veeeery full! So why the snotty attitude you tits?

So we sat down and quite soon one of the waitresses came over (there seemed to be about 1 for every 2 occupied tables) and she took a drinks order. She was not sure what beers they had but ho hum, the menu had them in. Then another of the under-utilised staff came and took our food order. Everything we asked for, she would look dazed and say “I really need to get used to these names” and we would have to point at the item in the menu. They were highly unusual items of Indian cuisine – such as a Lamb Korai or Chicken Tikka…. Hmmmm.

We chatted and sipped our beer. And chatted. And sipped. And chatted some more about ?how long? – and watched the table next to us get a bit short with waiting staff and the “man in charge” had to come over and appease them. And then he came over to us and asked if everything was OK. Brendan was a stare “We ordered almost an hour ago so shall we just settle for the beers or are we likely to get any food soon?”.

Withing 5 minutes we had our starers. The waitress came over and asked who was having the chicken and I said yes – and she gave me the fish. To be fair it was hard to tell as, like many up-market restaurants they were creating an “atmosphere” by keeping it too dark to clearly make out items on the table. But the added interest was that every couple of minutes or so the lighting would raise a little, only to dim again the next minute.

The starters were very nice, to be fair, and once we had swapped them around we enjoyed them. And the mains came soon after. Mine was too salty but other than that nice enough. But certainly not as nice as the price indicated it would be.

We ate the food and left, pausing on the way out to point out to each other the dust and poor finish in certain areas🙂 It had been an entertaining evening but not for any of the reasons the restaurant would want is to remember it for.

We retired to the bar in Jury’s and enjoyed a couple of drinks with some other early arrivals before retiring at a reasonably sensible hour. Day zero was over and I felt ready for Super Sunday and the rest of the conference.

For tradition’s sake I left my cashmere jumper in the bar. I do it every year.

Friday Philosophy – Hello….?Dave? December 2, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, UKOUG.
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8 comments

In 2 days time the UKOUG Tech16 conference starts. I love this conference, I’ve been to all but 1 one of them in the last 15 years – but I am not going to go on about why I like it so much again.

Gratuitous Minion Picture

Gratuitous Minion Picture

I’m going to tell you one reason I don’t like it. Names! Names of people I know. Names of people I have known for years and who I’ve seen and spent time with at many of the UKOUG Tech conferences. Yes, I have mentioned before that I am terrible with names (and all memory task to be frank) and I know others have the same problem. But for me, the annual UKOUG conference is particularly bad – and I’ve even started developing some anxiety about it.

Why is UKOUG Tech particularly bad for me?

  1. I’ve been going to it for so long I know many, many people there from prior conferences, some of whom I have met a dozen times now, had meals with, got drunk with… Let’s stop there.
  2. There are a lot of people there who I meet at other UKOUG events and other conferences. We have a LOT of speakers at this conference and I must know 75% of the database ones and half the others.
  3. As I present every year at UKOUG and now help organise the event, lots of people recognise me – but I don’t really recognise them!

That last point is an interesting one, it’s similar to when people who work in television met “the public”. Sometimes those members of the public assume they know the television personality – as they see them on TV so often. So when I present or chair a session people see me and are reminded who I am (I usually admit my name when I present). I might have spent time chatting to them so I DO know them – but with my memory and the fact that I do not have a regular reminder of their name, in my head they are either Dave or Sarah (if I can’t remember your name, mentally those are the names I give you. I can usually determine gender…).

One example is John Lancashire. I’ve known John for years & years, we get on really well. We always catch up with where we are in our jobs, what odd things have happened in our lives and the like. We had a chat on Facebook a couple of days ago and plan to meet up again this year at the conference. Only whenever I meet him for some reason I want to call him Richard or Patrick and I have to run through the counties of Northern England to try to remember his last name to trigger his correct first name. All the time I’m internally screaming “He knows I’ve forgotten his name! He knows, He’ll be offended!”.  Women seem to get particularly miffed if you get their name wrong. Maybe that is why, as a young man, I was utterly incapable of “chatting women up”. Name anxiety kind of makes you nervous.

So the name thing is particularly bad for me at UKOUG and part of the reason for this post is as an up-front excuse and to say “sorry!!!”

But the other reason for it is – I am not alone in this. Lots of us struggle with names and those who don’t probably can’t understand why we do – we just do!

So it would be really nice, everyone, if you could wear your badge so your name is easy to see. So not on your belt, not in your pocket and please try and not locate it near your groin or your breasts, as it unnerves people when I stare at them in those locations. I have to confess that I am a repeat offender for having my badge down by my crotch as, well, I’m short and the lanyards are long. I have to remember to shorten it. (The lanyard, not the crotch).

One thing I forgot to ask the UKOUG to do this year is do what the Bulgarian User Group do – make sure the name is on both sides of the badge. That really helps and the UKOUG ones seem to always spin to the none-name side.

So if I meet you at a conference and I look panicked, it’s probably name-anxiety. And if I call you Dave or Sarah you know exactly why. What’s bad is when I meet a Dave and call them Patrick.

Friday Philosophy – 3rd Normal Form, 3rd Normal People November 25, 2016

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

I was at a wedding a few months ago and one of the guests was wearing a pair of bear ears (I think – they might have been raccoon ears, they were not exactly anatomically correct). What made it a little unusual was that the guest was an adult and something like 2 meters tall (6’4″ in real units). So they were rather noticeable. But that was it. No tail, no strange mannerisms, just being there and chatting to people, wearing ears.

This is not the person, these are not the ears - but you get the idea

This is not the person, these are not the ears – but you get the idea

Later on in the day, at the afternoon reception, someone came up to me and said “what do you make of the person in the ears?”. Their whole tone said the rest of what they were indicating, which was they thought this was very odd and laughable. I looked at them for a few seconds and said “well, they took the ears off during the wedding service – but I guess you kept all that metal in your face?”.

The person making the comment had their hair dyed several primary colours and, as I indicated, had several studs in their face, a nose ring, a lip ring and a couple of other pieces of shiny stainless steel in strategic places. They were very much taken aback by my reply and went away.

For the first few minutes after the encounter I was really annoyed that someone who had so obviously decided to make a “statement” with how they appeared could be looking to share a laugh about another person who was doing similar – but in a different way. And in a less permanent way than the detractor had. I always get annoyed by people who seem to me to want to have their “thing” but be derisory about those who do their different “thing”.

Is this any less "odd" than the ears? (NB stock photo again)

Is this any less “odd” than the ears?
(NB stock photo again)

But thinking about it, there could be other factors at play. This be-metalled person may well be surrounded by people in their social circles where body piercing & extreme hairstyles are the norm. What we see as normal is very much influenced by what our peers think of as normal, even if the wider society we are in does not think of our clan’s actions as normal. You see this with each generation of youth (I’m thinking about 10 years) who have cohorts wearing daft things or take on mannerisms most of us regards as bizarre. Like trouser around your bum hole being held up by one hand whilst shuffling forward swaying from side to side. But in their world it is cool & normal and either not strange or being “strangely cool” to follow that trend. {With that particular fashion I could only see it being very inconvenient, limiting in movement and likely to lead to high washing machine use and constant danger of falling on your face, but ho-hum}. It also struck me that the detractor might have been looking for an opening to just talk about it as they were themselves a closet furry – though their demeanour was one of utter derision.

When I was in college there were various groups: The Goths; the small number of punks; the heavy metal crew (or crews, some groups seemed to really dislike other groups); the desperately dull & miserable “Smiths” fans; emos were just starting; and by far the largest group, the “I’m different” group. All of them striving to be individuals and yet all so very much the same. They were the ones with the face metal, wild hair, grungy clothes and extremely dismissive attitude. I often thought I was a member of the smallest, most exclusive club, the “normals”. No fashion sense {or care}, no desire for a tattoo, boring hair. Oh, I’m sorry, I was a nerd even then🙂

The thing is, everyone is not-normal in some way. Not always as obviously as in the cases I have talked about above, where it is defined by attire, adornment or alteration. But if you spend time talking to and getting to know someone there is always something not-normal there. Almost none of us are 3rd normal form.

It took me a long, long time to realise this and be less scathing of people who do permanent physical things to themselves on a whim (I just do not understand why you would have tattoos or major body piercing where it is “for life” unless you do something almost as extreme to put things back). My saying “on a whim” is itself scathing and shows a lack of appreciation why people do such things. OK, it is not for me but that’s simply my opinion, it’s wrong of me to make a judgement call on people who make a different decision on these things. After all my utter lack of fashion sense or willingness to improve/change my looks will strike some people as very odd.

So, if someone looks different, they look different. And if it is a different you have never seen before (ie actually, honestly, really different) they could be a very interesting person to talk to. Or they could be not, you don’t know. But if you have changed any aspect of your own appearance, be it a tattoo, a chunk of iron-carbon-chromium through soft tissue, a pair of raccoon ears or just dying your hair, then they are fundamentally the same as you. And if they look normal. Well, there really are very few real “normal” people. Their not-normal is yet to be discovered. Now you have to chat to them to find it.

How much are a pair of raccoon ears? I might get a pair and a tail for the next UKOUG conference.

Gary Larson, making the complete, exact opposite to my point :-)

Gary Larson, making the complete, exact opposite to my point🙂

Nice Social Media Profile Picture! Oh… Err… September 30, 2016

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

A few (months/weeks/days/hours)* ago I saw a friend request on Facebook. I looked at their profile which indicated that they were kind-of in my technical arena and the profile picture made me think “Wow – that’s an attractive person!” and I was about to click on the accept button.

And stopped.

I only friend people on Facebook who I know. By that I mean I have either met in real life and liked or have had a LOT of contact with through social media and liked. People who, if they were delayed at Stansted airport at midnight and needed a place to sleep, I’d be happy to go pick them up and bring them home to stay in my spare room.

This person did not pass this criterion. I was going to add them to one of my social media cohorts based on a superficial, image-based reaction, based on a pretty weak “they mention Oracle and DBA in the profile” and a much stronger “that’s a nice looking lady”. Whether this is Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever – it struck me that if I am adding people based on looks then that is the wrong reason and is “appearanceist”. When I link to someone on LinkedIn it is supposed to be all about “are they in my area of I.T.” not how hot they are. But I do notice that attractive people, especially ladies, seem to get a lot more followers. That made me think about the whole tricky subject of whether we are allowed anymore to comment on someone’s looks, what is sexism, how some people get ahead by being attractive or even get held back by it.

I could now write a long, meandering, and probably pretty much worthless analysis of sexism in IT and how social interaction should be different to professional interaction. But I will keep my point brief. I’ll just state three thoughts and three brief paragraphs:

1) How often do we socially link to someone based on their physical image?
2) Is this wrong?
3) How often do we attempt to improve the physical appearance of our own online profile picture?

I am guilty of 3. I have Rosacea – a long-term reddening of the facial skin a bit like teenage acne. I don’t really like it so I use an older image of myself for my profile picture. I know that many people use a photo of themselves from when they were younger (sometimes a lot younger) or one taken by a professional photographer to show themselves in the best (and let us be frank, atypically flattering) light. i.e. a picture to make us look more handsome/attractive than we really are.

If we all accept that, especially on a professional level, we should all be judged on what we do & who we are as opposed to our physical appearance – why are we so careful of our own online physical appearance?

If we falsely manipulate our own online physical image have we any moral basis for criticising anyone who uses their good looks to gain exposure, acceptance or advantage? No matter how subtle or blatant it is.

So my premise is, if you manage your own image you have to accept others doing so and, to some extent at least, lose the right to object to anyone making judgements based simply on physical appearance. Can I now feel justified in only hiring women who I personally find attractive ? (I don’t find many men attractive, sorry guys).

I’m sure many of you feel that combing your hair, putting on nice cloths and perhaps using a touch of make-up is absolutely nothing like using a salon hair stylist, most of Max Factor’s product line and slightly revealing clothing to get a job. But where on that spectrum is OK, where isn’t and how are you making that judgement call?

A final thought. I did not link to the person who sent me the Facebook request as they were, in my opinion, attractive and I would be doing so for the wrong reasons. Was that morally strong or morally weak? In this case I would like to feel the former as I use Facebook only for established friends. If this was in, say, LinkedIn which I use totally on a professional level, if I did not link to that person as I felt I was doing so partially influenced on their looks… That’s a very interesting take on positive/negative discrimination. Especially if their image turned out to be old…

(*) I get so few Facebook friend requests that if I stated when I saw this one, the person I think is attractive might realise who she is and then I would be very British Reserved uncomfortable around her🙂

Friday Philosophy: Be A Hero – OR Be The Best August 26, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, working.
Tags: , , ,
19 comments

There is a crisis! The database is not responding, the apps can’t work and the business is suffering. Management are doing what management are there for – panicking and demanding “Someone Do Something!!!”.

Step forward a DBA who logs into the server, checks the alert logs, spots what is wrong and fixes it. The database starts processing requests, the applications are all working fine and the business is back on track. What a hero!

The Mantra of the DBA Hero

The Mantra of the DBA Hero

Such situations are not just the preserve of the database and the DBA of course. You get the hero System Administrators who step in and sort out the lack of storage space at 3am. Or the programmers who look at the code that has been running slow for weeks, that others have not been able to fix, and make it run in 5 minutes rather than 5 hours. All heroes who then bask in the gratitude of management and colleagues. Thank goodness for the Hero Developer/DBA/Sys Admin or whatever. You even get articles and advice on how to be The Hero in some quarters. I’ve even seen job ads like “Are YOU our next Developer Hero?!?”.

Only, 9 times out of 10, whatever was wrong should never have occurred. Yes, there are always going to be hard-to-predict failures or unavoidable catastrophes. But the majority of situations I have seen when the database goes seriously wrong, a critical program messes up badly, or a server goes offline, it is down to something that could and should have been spotted before hand – or never set up in the poor manner that it has been. These are things like Archive Redo log areas filling up, an “innocuous” network tweak taking out a major connection or a data processing program that goes wrong if it is run with no data to process. Just a little bit of thought or testing will avoid these sorts of issues.

As you get better at your role, and I mean really, truly better and not just older, you learn about better ways to do things. Either you make mistakes yourself and have to fix them (the best way to learn, even though it does not often feel like it), correcting something someone else did poorly or you read about how to set up systems to be more fault tolerant. You become more experienced with the tools and you grab hold of any new features that are going to make the systems run better. I’d hope we also all learn skills and working practices that help avoid disasters, such as proper testing methodologies (something that we seem to get less and less time & resource for) and proactive rather than reactive monitoring of our systems. If I am owning a database and it unexpectedly runs out of space for the data files or archive redo – I failed. The database did not, I did – as I know how to set up checks for those things.

The best technicians (in my opinion) that I have worked with are all like this. They don’t monitor for things that have gone wrong so much as monitoring for things that are going wrong. Every week or month they will change something that was OK – but it could be better, more resilient. The end result is a much quieter life and a substantially better service provided to the business.

But that’s where the rub is. That’s where things become unfair. When you are being the Best DBA or the Best Developer, things just work without a fuss. There are no disasters that impact the business and thus no need for The Hero. The systems run smooth & fast and management figure you are probably not doing that much. Heck, you seem to be spending all your time tinkering rather than fixing stuff! They often don’t get that the “tinkering” is what stops the disasters and the need for Heroes. That can lead to a lack of appreciation for what you are doing and it is extremely hard to see someone get praise for fixing an issue that they should never have let happen and even getting a pay rise and you get just a “yeah, thanks for, like, keeping the lights on I guess”.

I had this in spades in one role. I turned up and the critical databases would all be going down once or twice a week. People just accepted it. I worked on the problems, got my team together (and trained them!) and improved the service. For a couple of years I was a card-carrying member of the cape and spandex pants club. I was a Hero. We provided more services and incidents became very rare. And then they decided I was not doing enough. No problems were occurring so what did they need me for? After I calmed down from that (it took a few months) I decided I agreed with them and left. But I left behind a fantastic team and rock-solid systems. {It actually took me years to stop resenting the way they handled it, to be fair, but I never stopped being proud of what I did and that team}.

blowing you own trumpet can help - a little

blowing you own trumpet can help – a little

So what do you do when you are being the best you can and not the hero and, as a result, you are fading into the woodwork? Well, I advise people to do several things, some of which you can see from a slide (taken from my “disasters” presentation) shown to the left. Record the number of incidents and how they go down as you improve things. Document improved up-time and better performance (which might be the same response time under higher workloads). Generally blow your own trumpet. However, it never seems to be enough to counteract the prestige people get from being the hero. It’s not “Right” but it just seems to be the way it is. I know some people take the other approach, which is to actually let (or even create?) disasters in which they can be heroes. After all, this is your career.

One fix is to just move on. After all, in the situation I described above I had actually completed my job – I had been hired to put in place a professional service and I did. So it would have been best if we had all been grown up and decided it was job done and time for me to move on. As a contractor/consultant this is a lot easier to do. Turn up at a client, be a hero for a while and then do your real job of making the systems solid. And then move on.

But not everyone has that luxury to move on. There may be few opportunities where you live or you would lose other aspects to your job that are very important (good child care is one example I have seen). Or moving roles might be something that gives you a lot of stress. So if you are “stuck” in your role and you are doing the best that you can, it is massively demoralising to fade into the woodwork as a result. What is the reward for all your work – pride and less interrupted nights are good but not getting the credit you deserve is hard.

But in the end I think you have a choice. Be a Hero or be The Best You Can Be. I have to aim for the latter, I can’t knowingly allow disasters without trying to at least warn management it could happen. And if you decide to be the best you can be perhaps you have to accept that, unless your management is very unusual, it may well mean less respect than you deserve. But *you* will know. I suppose it is a pride thing.

Are you a Hero? Or are you Simply The Best!

Friday Philosophy – Database Performance is In My Jeans February 5, 2016

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

Database performance is in my jeans. Not my genes, I really do mean my jeans – an old pair of denim trousers. I look at my tatty attire keeping my legs warm and it reminds me of Oracle database performance.

comfortable, baggy, old, DW jeans

comfortable, baggy, old, DW jeans

You can buy jeans in a range of styles & sizes. Just as you can set up your database in a number of standard ways. When you create a database with the install wizard or the DBCA (database configuration assistant) you get to pick from a few options. OLTP databases are like skinny, butt-tight jeans that fashionably young things might wear. I’m more of a Data Warehouse type. I like lose, baggy jeans with lots of space. However, no matter how good the initial setup, performance will degrade. Your jeans will get stretched, stained, more baggy and generally tatty. But you also get used to the performance of your database, it’s oddities and how to live with them. Your baggy, saggy jeans become comfortable.

I'm a dab-hand at doing turn-ups and SQL tuning

I’m a dab-hand at doing turn-ups and SQL tuning

Of course, you probably need to alter your database somewhat to suit you performance requirements. You could go to a tailor to get them done (pay a consultant) and make your jeans a top-notch fit but it’s expensive. Or ask the shop to alter them when you buy them (get some oracle consultancy as part of the purchase deal, to do a pretty average job of changing things). Or, if your requirements are specific (I can never get trousers with a leg length to suit me for some odd reason) and you have your have some skills (I can drive a sewing machine and, if needed and I have time, I can hand-sew) then you can tailor your jeans to your needs yourself. Little changes like this are like a bit of SQL tuning. Hand sewing is messing about with trace files.

You fix one performance bottle neck only to find the next one

You fix one performance bottle neck only to find the next one

Of course, over time more major performance issues will occur and the cracks will show. Well, tears. Bits of the system will give way and you’ll have to patch them. Sometimes the patch is a bit of an obvious cludge, but heck it does the job. The other option is to just live with the gaping knee, which is like not fixing your performance issue and just letting your knee get cold. My business requirements don’t allow for this, I need my knee covered and protected from the brambles and spiky stuff around the garden. And just like performance tuning, you fix one performance problem only to reveal the next point of weakness. The point of most stress in my jeans are the knees, what with all the gardening, crawling through hedges, kneeling in the dirt and grovelling to the wife. I patched that big tear across the knee – and within 2 weeks a new one started, just a little lower. You fix your critical batch load that is doing too much physical IO and now your problem is redo generation in the next step! I did not fix my performance bottle neck, I just moved it down the damned leg!

All those little tears needed a lot of fixing

All those little tears needed a lot of fixing

Many of us get tears in the knee of our jeans, it’s a common performance problem. But some performance problems are more esoteric. Not many people have had to patch the bottom of their jeans due to doing battle with barbed wire (and losing). I could do with self-healing jeans to match the self healing leg. I suppose with the latest dynamic performance tricks in the optimiser, we sort-of have self healing databases. I tried patching it with just the sewing machine but the damage was too great and so a swatch of fabric behind the area and a craze of zig-zag stitch is holding it all together. Maybe that’s like using row-level-security to allow different customer to see just their set of data. It works but it was a tad over-engineered.

Of course, over the years the requirements for your database and it’s performance are likely to vary and you might need to do more than a bit of sql tuning or tweaking of indexes. The sewing machine can’t fix all the problems with my tatty old jeans, especially as the workload first grew, shrank, and grew again. I needed a new performance enhancement tool. A belt. It’s stopped them falling down around my knees and also stopped them from cutting off the blood to my legs, depending on how well I’ve done at archiving off excess calories I no longer need.

Addition of a Modifiable Girth Control device

Addition of a Modifiable Girth Control device

The sad thing is, despite all my hard work, I think I’ll have to pension off these jeans soon. Just like computer system I’ve looked after for a while, I know where I am with them and I’ll miss them when I do a hardware refresh.

So there you go. How many of you thought that you could be reading about a tatty pair of jeans this week? I’m good to you lot.

Friday Philosophy – If Only I Was As Good a Programmer As I Thought I Was Aged 22 January 29, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Programming, Uncategorized.
Tags: , ,
6 comments

I saw a tweet that made me smile a few days ago:

programmer quote

Like many of you, I started out my working life in IT as a computer programmer. Like some of you, I still am a computer programmer from time to time. I don’t think I’ve had a year of my working life when I did not do either some application development programming or some database infrastructure programming. I am constantly writing small (or not so small) SQL or PL/SQL programs to do what I do in Oracle.

I started programming in school, I did an “O” level in computer studies (the exams we sat in the UK aged 16, up until 1988!), and I was pretty good at the programming as compared to my fellow class mates. My first “real” program played Noughts and Crosses (tic-tac-toe to our American cousins and maybe others) and version 2 was unbeatable. Which at the time I thought was pretty cool.
but Wikipedia now tells me is pretty easy🙂. I also remember someone in the year above me unrolling some huge printout of the role-playing game he was writing (you know, the old textual “you have walked into a room where there is a lion, a bar of soap and a chandelier, what do you want to do?” sort of thing) and telling me I would never be able to do it. I just looked at the code and thought: Why have you hard-coded every decision and used all those GOTOs? Some sort of loop and a data block to look up question, answers and consequences would be much smaller and easy to extend? I don’t think he liked me voicing that opinion…

I did not do any programming of any consequence as part of my college course but after that I started work as a computer programmer (sorry “analyst programmer”) in the National Health Service. Again, I seemed better at it than most of those around me, fixing bugs that others had given up on and coding the tricky stuff no one else wanted to touch. And after a year or so, I was convinced I was a programming god!

I wasn’t of course. Part of it was my juvenile, naive ego and the other part was that, fundamentally, many of those around me were bad programmers. Anybody decent either did not join in the first place or got a better job elsewhere that paid more than the NHS did. I eventually did that myself and joined Oracle. Where I realised that (a) SQL confused the hell out of me and (b) when I started using PL/SQL there were plenty of people around me who were better at traditional programming than I.

I think it took me about a year to feel I was damned good at both of them. Guess what? I was wrong. I was simply competent. But after a year or two more I did two things that, for me, finally did make me into a good programmer:

  • I went contracting so I worked in a lot of places, saw a lot more examples of good and bad code and I met a lot more programmers.
  • I think I hit mental puberty and woke up to the fact that I needed to listen and learn more.

Since then, I think my own opinion of my coding skills has generally dropped year on year, even though I would like to think I continue to get better at actually constructing computer programs and suites of programs.

So yes, I wish I was as good a programmer now as I thought I was aged 22. And after 25 years at it (actually, pretty much 35 years at it on and off!) just like Rich Rogers (or is it John D Cook? I can’t quite decide if it is a quotation or not) I think I am finally getting moderately good at writing programs. If I continue to follow this trend, on my 65th birthday I will be convinced I can’t program for toffee and yet will finally be a Good Programmer.

I wonder if  anyone would still employ me to do it by then?

The IT Blight of Working During Holidays December 24, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in humour, on-call, Private Life, working.
Tags: ,
6 comments

I’ve been thinking today about those people in IT who are going to have to either work or be on call during the festive period. Twitter has become a lot more quiet today and most of the activity is not-work-related. My blog traffic is now a trickle and there is a general feeling of doing more family, non-work things for a couple of days, which I think is good for all of us from time to time. Maybe more times than current working culture and practices allow for.

The endless daily grind - even at Christmas

The endless daily grind – even at Christmas

But in the IT industry, especially if you are an administration-type (DBA, Sys Admin, Network Admin, stuff like that) there is often a need to do work at this time as systems are quiet or can even be shut down. Some places do release and upgrade work over the quiet period, so developers and designers can be pulled into festive-season work too. Even if you are the sort of organisation that has a code freeze for Christmas/New Year, there will be a rota of people who need to either monitor systems or respond if something goes “Bang!”. Those of us “blessed” with those roles will be on the on-call rota, tasked with at the least staying sober and often with monitoring duties. For some people in some organisations, you know you will in fact have an endless stream of “why in the heck am I having to do this” tasks to do.

I’ve done my share and I feel for those who are made to work over this time who really would rather not. In fact, I’ve done more than my share. Actually, A lot more than my share. You see, I do not have children – my wife and I established very early on in our relationship that producing new versions of me was a damned bad idea, even if new versions were leavened with her better characteristics {and if they got her worst ones along with mine, ohhhhh terrible consequences}. So as someone with no children there has always been more pressure on me to take more than my 1/number-in-team share of the Christmas, New Year, Easter, Bank Holiday etc work. I’ve also come under pressure not to take time off during school holidays, to cover for those who need to do so for the sake of fitting in with the kids. Now, I don’t want to go away on holiday when everywhere is covered in kids as kids are too self-centered, noisy and annoying (ie very like me) for me to put up with. But I would like occasionally to have a week off, in the summer, to sit in the garden. But the biggest pressure has always been over taking more of the Christmas work. Because, I am told, it is important family time – it’s for the kids

I get that, I do. But then, if you have kids they are actually your fault. You did things to have them. Trust me, I’ve got a degree in biology, I know where kids come from🙂. At the start of my working career I was fine to take on more of the work/monitoring/staying sober duties. But as the status of not-having-kids lasts a lot longer than having-young-kids (or more recently, with people my age, young-grand-kids) it had been a constant expectation of me for about 20 years – until I stopped playing. I stopped on the grounds, after 2 decades, that I had Done My Bit. I threw my toys out my pram and said I deserved my share of time off at Christmas (to pick said toys up, of course). I solved the problem more recently by trying to be unemployed at such times.

Anyway, forgive the rant, I feel better now. But my extra-Christmas-Duties have made me realise more how much of a pain it is to have to work when most people are enjoying themselves. So I feel for those that are having to do it and do not want to. I truly know how it is and all I can say is “thank you for doing your bit”. Especially if you have done it despite having young kids. And especially if you have had to do it for 20+ years to cover for all those damned work-shy parents (joke!).

The ironic thing is that this year I will be working over Christmas. But I don’t mind as it is my choice. And I am doing so in warm sunshine, with a glass of wine, and in fact I can stop whenever I like. That is the joy of writing over doing stuff people need to be done now.

Merry Christmas everyone, especially to the unwilling workers.

Miserable Dark Days of Winter Relieved by Data December 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in humour, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: ,
2 comments

This post is all about my fascination with short day times and hits on my blog on the topic, it is not even to do with why the day time is so short in the UK, Europe & US right now. This is nothing to do with Oracle databases or working in IT – go elsewhere and look at eg XKCD or Dilbert now if that is your thing…

I’ve blogged a few times at this time of year about the oddity of when evenings start drawing out being around a week before the shortest day, and even about how I have become fascinated by how popular this off-topic post has become. Worry not, I shall not go over that date-discrepancy material again or how we in the Northern Hemisphere wrongly think our winter is when we are furthest from the sun {when in reality it is when we are closest!}. If you want to know all that stuff I updated this post to cover the details for 2015.

Fundamentally, when I worked every day, every week in the City I just hated having to travel to work in the dark, sit in a dull room all day and then drag my backside home in the dark. It was hammered home to me how much I hated it one year when I worked in a huge open-office environment where I sat in the center of the building – on the ground floor of a 10-story-building. I stared out into the “Light Well” in the center of the building. There was no “Light”. Even at midday on a day blessed with cloudless sunshine, there was no real light. What we got was a grey illumination over the plastic bags, scraggy weeds and dead pigeons that littered the ground at the bottom of this light *pit*. I used to escape into the light at lunch time but such was the culture of the office that actually taking a lunch break was a sign of weakness and lack of dedication. Screw ’em, I took my lunch time as I remembered being human once…

HIts on my “evenings Drawing out” blog

HIts on my “evenings Drawing out” blog

During that particular job, someone in the team left. They had found the tunnel and they dug like crazy and got beyond the perimeter fence. So a desk came up two “deeper in” the mine. But, and this was the crucial thing, it looked out in the direction of a real, stuck-to-the-outside-of-the-building window. I had moved my stuff onto his desk and my chair in his place before the smell of his daily burrito had faded at all. My boss at the time was not happy – “Why have you moved?”. “Well, the space came up”. “Did I say you could move?!?”
“Put it this way, I can now see if it is still daylight and maybe make out if it is raining or not. I could move back, but then I could start randomly killing my work colleagues – What do you prefer?”. He shut up.

I think I have established that I do not like the lack of daylight that Winter brings and I do not even live that far North. My friends in Scotland, Norway, Finland and a host of other would countries would scoff at my distress. But I do now have a distraction. Even as we approach and pass the day on which evenings draw out, drop down to the dismal point when the daytime is shortest (today, if you read this on the day of publication) and slowly start to pull out of the pit of winter, I watch with fascination the number of hits on my obscure web pages on the topic. My blog is all about Oracle tech and IT angst. It is not about astronomy, astrology (spit) or astrophysics. I have done 4 posts on this in 5 years and just one gets a low-but-steady trickle of google hits. And as we pass through the darkest section of the year, I watch the hits and stats on that page. As a world-wide thing it is irrelevant, as a percentage of my site hits it is a not-considerable-but-not-quite-insignificant post either. But I watch it as it distracts me from the winters’ gloom. I love the fact that there is a “june” peak when those in the Southern hemisphere find it and a larger “December” peak when the Northern hemisphere stumble across a post on a nerd’s blog site that tells them what they want to know – when it starts to get lighter.

Anyway, today (shortest day this year, December 22nd) I escape. I’m going to Madeira. It is pleasantly warm and gets 10 hours of daylight compared to 7.5 in the UK. I’ll take that. But I’ll keep watching the post all the way through December and in to January, maybe into February, as the hits on the post decrease and the evening daylight increases.

It’s a bit early, but Happy New Year everyone🙂

Friday Philosophy – Inspirational Tweets: Why Do They Annoy Me so Much? December 11, 2015

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

A few weeks ago I saw this on the Twit Sphere:

A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.

Wow. Deep. Meaningful. Let me follow that twitter account.

No. Let me not. I looked at the account and it was just an endless stream of “Inspirational Tweets” and very little comment or content. For some reason I can’t quite understand, this sort of thing gets on my nerves. No, that’s is not strong enough. It makes me unreasonably bad-tempered and angry. The first draft I wrote on this topic was a ranting diatribe of swear-words and invective {I love that word} that was completely beyond acceptable.

So I’ve been wondering, why do twitter accounts that put out lots of Inspirational Tweets annoy me so much? We have all seen them. In fact I have a couple of friends I follow on twitter who at times put out half a dozen Inspirational Tweets a day. I have to sometimes mute or “unfollow” them for a while. I think part of it is that if an account puts out half a dozen Inspirational Tweets a day, they can’t really mean them very much can they? If I had a set of short phrases that summed up important aspects of my life, such as “Always be nice to cats” then I can’t help but feel that they should be few in number and really mean something to me. They can’t really mean something to me if I have 200 of them.

Another reason is that so many of these Inspirational Tweets are actually just trite such as “when you listen, it’s amazing what you can learn” or even asinine such as “I love dramatically looking out windows on public transportation”. Yes, that is a real one. Of course, most of us put out some stupid tweets and we all have different tastes or interpretations of what is worth saying.

So I am not sure why I find them annoying – but I do. If you put out such tweets and I follow you & then unfollow you, follow you etc or I seem to go quiet (you might be on temporary mute) then just ignore it. I think it’s more my problem than yours. But you have annoyed me.

Why? Why follow me?

Why? Why follow me?

As a secondary rant of the day, I get really annoyed with these fake accounts that follow you or like a tweet of yours but having no connection to your world. Some of course are just another way of advertising something (usually soft porn it would seem – I usually spot them from the start as the account picture is some young women who can’t stop buying clothes 2 sizes too small and describes themselves as “bisexual and always follows back”…Yeah, I’m convinced). But recently I’ve had a lot of follows or likes from accounts, again apparently from young ladies, but now there are often two of them in the picture. Their tweet streams are just an endless flow of retweets, “clever” lines, the inspirational ones of course and nothing, not a thing where there is a conversation with someone else. But no soft porn. I can’t work out what these ones are actually aimed at. They don’t seem to be selling or promoting a specific thing, though they often have some films or makeup adverts retweeted, but if this is what they are selling, the content is drowned out by the stupid stuff and they are missing their audience. I’m pretty sure the content is generated though as I looked at a couple of them and the same quotes and “humorous” utterances seemed to make appearances across accounts.

If anyone could tell me if this is some type of advertising or it really is some attempt by teenage girls to increase they number of twitter friends just as a “look how many followers I have” (though I thought twitter was more an older persons thing) then I’m curious to know. It’s got to be sales, hasn’t it?

Perhaps I should stop worrying about these things and either mute or block them as them come up. Oh, I do🙂