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Friday Philosophy – My Introduction To Programming Way Back When March 13, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in history, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: ,

One fortunate thing about me is my age. Or rather, how old I was in the 1980’s. I was at school in the 80’s, I did my ‘O’ Levels (taken at age 16) in 1984. One of my ‘O’ levels was in Computer Studies. This was before Windows and Excel and Word and all that office software, before the internet was in existence (TCP/IP was only standardized in 1982!) and phones were all tethered to the wall with a cable. What were we taught in Computer Studies? Programming. That and a bit about hardware, but mostly it was programming.

This beast had  about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

This beast had about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

In the first year of my two-year course we had just two computers to use between us, both RM 380Z’s I think, so we wrote out our programs by hand and worked through them logically to try and get them as good as we could before our turn came to put them into the computer and run them. This was of course painful, but our programs initially really were of the terrible simple “take in the temperature in Centigrade and convert it to Fahrenheit” scale of things, before we went all crazy with power and wrote a program that would ask you which way you wanted to do the conversion. We all had a 5-1/4 inch floppy to store our programs on but were told to take great care of it as they would not be handing out more! Needless to say, it was not long before most of us were turning up at the “computer room” (the schoolroom with the two machines and the broken lock) at lunch times and after school in order to get more time on the machines. The only problem was that in our first year of ‘O’ level we had to contend with the older kids from the year above us and they did not like us oiks turning up to use “their” computers. At least we were introduced early to a key concept of a career in IT – working outside and beyond the standard office hours.

For some of my class mates, they had other options. The early 80’s were also when home computers burst onto the scene and some friends had ZX81s, Vic 20s, Acorn Atoms, Dragons or, gasp, commodore 64s. My older brother had a ZX Spectrum, with the 48K ram pack.

My brother's spectrum, access denied to little me

My brother’s spectrum, access denied to little me

However, the Spectrum was not available to me as my miserable bastard of a brother would not let me near it. You might think this was reasonable as he was the older brother and it was his computer. But it was plugged into my portable TV and my cassette tape recorder. This was what you had to do with these early home computers as almost none came with a “monitor” and most with no storage device. Certainly no internal hard disc! When you turned off the computer, whatever program you were running immediately evaporated out of memory and you had to load it up from tape next time you turned the computer on – given that you had saved it to tape first. Games came on cassette tapes so before you could play, you had to load it. For. 10. minutes. I think one person had access to a machine that could use our precious single 5-1/4″ floppy but he was not happy as that computer was rubbish for games.

{For anyone reading this who is less than 35 years old, before downloads we had CD’s, which you know about. Before CDs we had vinyl records, which you may or may not know about as they became cool for a while again. Before CDs we also had cassette tapes, which you may not know about, which were about the same size as a credit card but about 1.5* as thick as an iPhone. You could record between 30 (C30) minutes and 2 hours (C120) of music onto them, over and over again, and they would fit in your pocket. But then the tape would either eventually stretch (especially if it was a C120) leading to very waily, odd playback, or your cassette player would “eat” the tape and you would spend 30 minutes with scissors and tweezers pulling it out of the machine. Ahhhh, the memories.}

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

Where was I? Oh yes. My brother used my TV and my cassette player which, together, had cost more than his computer. He felt he could just use my stuff as he wanted but I could not use his computer. If I was watching my TV when he wanted to use his spectrum, he would get really obnoxious and aggressive until I “agreed” he could use it. But I was never allowed to use his spectrum (well, not when he was around to know, anyway). You might pick up that this could have led to a little bit of sibling angst and an ongoing feud that continued into adulthood? Too damned right!

RS 480z - we had SIXTEEN of them, and a shared disc

RS 480z – we had SIXTEEN of them, and a shared disc

Getting back to the main thread, unlike most of my class mates I was limited to using the two computers at school. However, when I came back to school after the summer break between my fist and second year of doing my ‘O’ levels I came back to find they had finished building the dedicated computer room. It had air conditioning, a working lock on the door, about 16 RS-480Z computers and a smell something like melted plastic, new carpet and nail varnish – which never went. There was also some sort of shared storage, I think it was another 480z with a hard disc in it that all the other machines could see. So we all had a machine to use during lessons, the ability to save and load the programs all the time and programming really did become the thing we did. Due to the afore mentioned brother issues I still ended up doing some programming at lunch times and after school, fighting off the oiks from the year below…

My first real program that I remember doing, which I felt was more than a glorified calculator or pathetic painting of a house in lines and boxes, was a program that played Naughts and Crosses, or Tic-Tac-Toe as our US friends would (in my opinion, crazily) say. I don’t recall how long it took but I do remember my teacher telling me I was maybe being a bit “optimistic” when I said I wanted the computer to play rather than just letting two humans play against each other. I got it to work. Go Me!

As I said, I can’t really remember much more about what programs I wrote, it is a long time ago and my memory is poor. But I do remember that most of the course was about understanding programming and hardware, such as it was back then. As the years went by into the 90’s and 2000’2 I’m told the programming side first reduced and then almost {if not totally} disappeared to be replaced with being taught how to use computers and packages. ie Windows, Excel, Word and the like. So I grew up and was at the “right” age when home computers came along and schools in the UK taught at least some of us to program.

I still have one of these somewhere...

I still have one of these somewhere…

I got a ‘B’ in the final exam, which was OK. So that set me on the road to programming and my career? Well, no. After my ‘O’ level, I did buy my own computer, an Amstrad CPC 464 (maybe not a great decision!) and I did do a bit of assembler and programming, but mostly to try and hack into the games I was playing. By now I was doing my science ‘A’ levels, there was no option of an ‘A’ level in computing and no computing element to my ‘A’ levels. Then I went on to college to study biology, where computers were not really used much outside of the computer science department. There was a terrible programming course I went on as part of the Zoology half of my degree but it taught us less than my ‘O’ level and computers were just not a part of the Genetics half of the degree I did – which looking back at it, stuns me. We used to work out the general size and layout of plasmid genomes (bits of bacteria) by hand on paper. I got sick of doing it and wrote a program on my CPC 464 to do it and, for a few weeks, academic life was easy. My tutor got really mad when he found out I had written a program to do it. I don’t know why and I don’t think he could tell me why, he just felt I was cheating. Oh well.

Of course, once I left college life took another turn and I landed back in the world of computers {back then they would take people with no programming skills but good logic/maths and train you from zero}. But I already knew how to program and that gave me a bit of help in my first job. I could spend more time than my colleagues could worrying about how to be an adult rather than how to start programming. I might be able to program, I’m still struggling with being an adult.

Update – as Niall points out in his comment, things are now improving at schools AND colleges. What originally prompted this was a discussion I had with a friend who had just finished his computing course at college. The course was about computer games. And had involved no programming elements at all, it was all about design, marketing, testing, running a business… I was stunned. I then made some comment about at least he would have learnt about programming at school, but no, he had not. I was stunned again. But he knew that it was coming back – as covered so well by Niall.

I suspect the Raspberry Pi has helped too, though most people I know who have bought one are, well, mid-40’s people who did programming at school…

Friday Philosophy – Want to Get On in Business? Don’t Start from Down Here February 13, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: , ,

I had a manager a few years ago, a lady. She was good at her job, knew the tech and we got on well. And she would take the piss out of me constantly about my height. One day, another member of the team suddenly said “Hey! Leave him alone! He might actually be sensitive about it and it’s wrong you should be bullying him like this”. My boss replied “Oh come on, he’s not sensitive about it! He takes the Mickey out of himself all the time!”

“Besides… He’s too short to do anything about it.”

It was bloody funny and I think all of us laughed at that – but my defender had a point. I might joke about my height and most of the time I’m fine about it, but day after day of comments and jokes? And other stuff? Crouch down here beside me for 5 minutes and I’ll show you the view…

I am small. If you have not met me, I stand five foot and two and a half inches (158.5cm) tall in my socks. Don’t forget the half inch, it’s important. I have no medical condition, no dwarfism, no biochemical challenges, nothing is wrong to make me small. My parents were small, my grandparents were small, my brothers are similar to me. I’m just small. All of me is in proportion, with one notable exception.

My Ego – That’s huge.

The Three Martins at UKOUG Tech14

The Three Martins at UKOUG Tech14

I should not complain too much. I have all my limbs and senses, everything physical works well, my brain does a pretty good job {despite a few quirks}, I have friends and a wife and I’ve done OK in my career. Actually, no. Let the positive be positive and the negative be negative – I’ve done well in my career.

But it is a Bit Shit Being a Short Man.

As my friends and colleagues are aware, I sometimes make a lot of being small. I am often the first to mention it and I can sure as hell make fun of myself about it. However, it is a defence mechanism. Don’t even think of taking the piss out of me for being small as, hey, I’m already doing it and I can do it a lot better than you – I have almost 4 decades of practice {anybody remember the nose-jokes scene by Steve Martin in Roxanne?}. If I am willing to joke about being small I rather effectively remove the ability for someone else to do so to abuse me about it and also give them permission to mention it. I’ve taken away most of the potential for someone to be directly negative about my height unless they are willing to be very, very pointed and very obviously unpleasant. Since leaving my early 20’s, very few people have been willing or inclined to do that, so it is an effective strategy. But for those who know me well, it becomes annoying. I’m constantly taking steps to establish this defence and as a result I tend to harp on about my height. Some suggest I stop doing it as it is boring and unnecessary. I should not put myself down. {Down!}. They may be right, but it is a defence mechanism that has served me well and I guess I err on the side of over-emphasising it. So I’m sorry if it bugs some of you, but allow me my oddities please.

But there is one area where humour does not help and it is an area where I probably get the most discrimination since leaving school (where the old standards of being hit, pinned down, thrown or similarly physically messed with were more popular – oh, for the sweet innocence of childhood).

As a Small Male I am often not listened to or taken seriously by people – especially management. Management is full of Alpha Males {actually, in IT mostly it’s beta males, all the Real Men are in finance, sales or other crime}. This is true even when I am a fellow manager. I can’t number the times I have been in a meeting, said something and the conversation has continued as if everyone had just taken a moment to look out the window, rather than listening to someone contributing. Many times I’ve had that galling experience of an idea I put forward being ignored until someone else, someone… more tall… says the same thing and then it is a great idea. Or of being talked over by an Alpha Male. Repeatedly. Early on I made the mistake of challenging this head-on a few times and the response was either simple denial or, worse, condescension. “Oh don’t be so sensitive Martin” or “Of course we value your input, don’t be so silly and just grow up”. Yes, I’ve had that.

I suspect most women reading this will be recognising these issues and saying “Yep, welcome to my world”. For a long time I’ve felt there is a parallel between being a small male in a working environment, especially in management, and being a women. Don’t get me wrong, small men don’t get the constant other hassles women get. I don’t get looked up {err… looked down in my case?} , I never feel like I am being hit on {or maybe I am just missing it, I’m terribly naïve}, no one has come up to me in a conference and said “my friend likes you, will you come and talk to him” {my wife has had this – she said it was like being back to school parties but with an extra element of Creepie}. But I often get ignored and my input to discussions gets downgraded. I’ve watched this happen to female colleagues year after year, it is a real issue. Some men will listen politely to women but it is simply listening politely – before they mentally rewind the meeting to before the “delightful lady said something” and continue with the proper matter in hand. They do exactly the same to my input. I’m not an alpha male, I’m a child, it’s nice that they let me be there and join in.

But unlike sexual or most other forms of discrimination I also have no real recourse to… Anything. There is of course no legal position on heightism. There is also no social pressure on or condemnation of heightism. In fact , if anything it’s the opposite. “You silly little man”, “Grow up” and a whole catalogue of insults with the word “little” or “small” or “tiny” thrown in for emphasis. There are plenty of sitcoms where the small guy is the dweeb or the butt of the jokes. Not many films where the action hero is played by someone like Danny DeVito. And if the actor is small, efforts are taken to hide that (how many of you are thinking Tom Cruise? – who is all of 4 inches below average! He’s not small!!! He’s in the normal 60-70%!). If I challenge the attitude directly it rarely goes well, especially if I am angry. Apparently, there are few things funnier than a small bloke jumping up and down with a red face squeeking “Take me Seriously!!!”. It’s also very tiring. I have to jump quite high to be seen past the desk. And suggesting I am acting like a child is just more damned height discrimination you… dickhead.

Even when people are trying to be nice to short men they often just continue the discrimination without noticing, thinking it’s some sort of complement. Think about it, how often when someone small is being praised do they say something like “He may only be small but inside there is a giant” or “Dave may not be the tallest guy but, in respect of {blah}, he towers above us”. They are still saying short is bad and tall is good! You would not say of someone who’s fat “Derek may be obese but inside he has the physique of a Greek God”. And you would certainly not ever, ever say “Mike may be black but inside there is a white guy trying to get out”!!!

Do you think I’m making too much about this? I am being overly sensitive to a problem that does not really exist? Well, stay crouched with me and do a quick web search on the correlation between height and pay, height and political success, height and business success {NB three different links, just to “google.uk” really}. Again, women will recognise all this. And of course, I don’t have issues with my height all the time. Many people listen to me, I have managed to function as a manager and sometimes when I make a side reference to it, people will stop and go “oh. Yes, I see what you mean”. But it is a constant background bloody maddening annoyance.

Interestingly, I mentioned this all to a friend a while back when we were discussing the hard time women and ethnic minorities can have and at first I think he just listened politely. A couple of months later we were chatting again and he said something like “you know, I’ve been thinking about what you said. I’ve never had a short manager, most senior people I come across are at least average or tall. The small men I come across are technicians”.

So thanks for crouching down here with me for a few minutes to take in the view, you better stand up again before your knees give you hell.

There is nothing I can really do about the above, it’s just a fact of life that heightism is there and at least it is not a type of discrimination that is aggressive of hateful, unlike the serious ones that society does or is starting to tackle. But I just wanted to mention it, to get it off my chest. It’s been weighing me down.

Remember that half inch of height I said was important? Well, it is but not maybe in the way you might think. When I was personally hung up about my height, especially when I was in my teens {and actually just into my 20’s} and still growing, then every half inch of height was significant as it was me “improving”. When I stuck at 5’2.5” the .5 was important as it pushed me into the normal 5th-95th percentile for height – or it did if you were looking at a graph from a pretty old encyclopaedia, like I was. Average height has risen by a couple of inches in the last 50 years and varies from country to country and I’m not even close to the normal range now. It’s really mean of you guys to have moved the goal posts by growing even more. But the 0.5 inch took on a new significance in my late-20’s as I stopped worrying about it or mentioning it if anyone asked my height. I’m small, that’s not going to change and it’s fine. I mention the half more now than I did then, as it makes me smile when I say “5 foot 2…and a half”.

iTunes 12.1 skips after recent update February 9, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in off-topic.
Tags: ,

iTunes started skipping on my PC after a recent update (end of Jan 2015). It is version 12.1 of iTunes.

iTunes skips when using Chrome, mostly.

That’s enough search-friendly lines to help the web crawlers get here. Apologies to my normal visitors, this is obviously nothing to do with Oracle databases, development or my usual ramblings. Go read something else unless you landed here looking for help with skipping iTunes playback.

iTunes on my laptop wanted to update a few days ago so I let it. Next time I fired iTunes up, I was annoyed to discover that a track I had recently uploaded, from a compilation CD I have of 60’s classics, was poor quality and skipping. Except that the next few tracks also skipped a little, old favorites I knew were fine. I did a quick web search but most of the references were 4 or 5 years old. The skipping was getting worse so I shut down iTunes and used a…. CD player.

A few days later I was working on the machine and wanted some music to ease the task in hand, fired up iTunes and it was soon skipping again. I then fired up a few extra Chrome windows (for unrelated reasons) and the skipping got a lot worse. I shut down Chrome and the skipping stopped. A bit of testing revealed that iTunes did not skip for me on an, admittedly, lightly loaded machine – but did when Chrome was up and running. Anything constantly updating in Chrome (Twitter feed or live sports update) made it worse.

My machine is quite powerful, it’s an MSi gaming machine with an Intel i7-4700 processor, 8GB of memory and a dual SSD/HDD with the OS and applications sitting on the SSD. It’s not lack of grunt that was causing the issue but something crap in what iTunes is doing.

I found a solution – This apple.com discussion – which itself links to this download for a 64-bit version of iTunes 12.1 supporting “older video cards”. My video card is not that old in the scheme of things, being a GeForce GTX 765M which was a pretty reasonable card 12 months ago.

After I downloaded the alternative version of iTunes and let it install, the skipping seems to have stopped. I’ve tested having a dozen Chrome tabs open with a couple of them being interactive and my chosen 80’s music selection was skip-free.

I hope that helps people. If you came here for the iTunes hint, don’t look at the rest of the blog, you will be sadly disappointed :-)

The BBC has “Stolen” my Interesting Shortest Day Facts December 21, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in off-topic.

Today, the 21st December 2014, is the “shortest day” in the Western Hemisphere this year, the day in which the period of daylight is shortest (it’s the 22nd if the last Leap Year is more than 2 years ago).

I’ve blogged before about how the evenings start drawing out BEFORE the shortest day and, despite it not being an Oracle technical post and was also one of my first posts {when almost no one came by}, it gets a modest but interesting number of hits. If you look at the below graphs (sorry, it’s not as clear as it could be unless you click on the image), you will see there is a burst of hits at the end of the year and a smaller rise in interest at the middle of the year.


These hits are all via search engines, mostly on the phrase “Evenings drawing out”. Obviously there is a correlation with people both in the Northern (for the December hits) and Southern (for the June hits) hemispheres getting sick of the longer periods of dark and googling about when it will start to change. And finding this strangely relevant post on what is otherwise a nerdy IT site.

{Isn’t this an example of what all the IT blather about Big Data and the cloud is about? Finding patterns in search engine data etc? My blog is not exactly Big Data though :-) }

Well, The BBC is probably going to steal my thunder, this year at least, as they have done an article on the phenomena, though concentrating more on the mornings continuing to get darker after the “shortest day”. It’s not a very good article in one respect, though, as it has the phrase “perceived a curious development” as though this mismatch between the shortest day and mornings/evenings getting later is a recent change. I’m pretty sure that the tilt of our planet and it’s orbit around the sun has not changed enough in my lifetime to alter this situation! In fact, I checked – evenings started drawing out on around the 13th December 50 years ago, exactly the same as this year and exactly the same as is expected in 50 years too. It does describe well, however, how it is our shifting clock (due to the longer day length around now) that causes the shift.

Another little oddity about shortest day and our planet is in respect of when you think the earth is furthest from the sun. Most of us in the Northern hemisphere assume it is on the shortest day, because it is colder and darker. But it is not. we are actually nearest to the sun, at “perihelion”, on the 3rd Jan. So not even “shortest day” but just after :-).

Why is “Dave Unknown” Trying to Social Media With Me? November 21, 2014

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

I know some people share my opinion on this and others totally disagree – but I fail to appreciate why people I have never met, spoken with or care about want to Social Media with me. If we have not met but there is a high probability we share unusual interests then OK, perhaps – but the fact that we both can spell Oracle or know what a gene is does not count as unusual shared interests. Maybe I am just too old to “get it” or just too grumpy to appreciate their efforts.

I’m not the biggest fan of Social Media but I don’t actively dislike it either. I mean, I’m blogging so that means I have some appreciation for it. I have a Twitter account and sometimes I Twit. But not a lot. I don’t have time or inclination to log on every day and see what people have seen that they think is funny/odd/outrageous/titillating on the web, which airport they are currently being bored in or what publication/talk/blog post of theirs they want to big up. Or what cereal they have just eaten {really? Some of you think this would interest anyone?} But occasionally I hang out there and swap twit twaddle and follow links and maybe even put up my own links to my fabulous blog utterings. But I don’t follow people I don’t in some way know or have a reason to be interested in {and I don’t include seeing them on TV as my being interested in them – I followed a couple of people on twitter early on that I thought would be interesting, based on their Popular Culture output. And very quickly decided I’d stand a better chance of continuing to like them if I was not being informed of all the dross that crossed their minds when they had not rehearsed their material}.

For me, the main Social Media thing that baffles and slightly annoys me is LinkedIn Wannabes. Why are you contacting me if I don’t know you and you don’t know me? I don’t know 7.039 billion people. OK, you know some Oracle – so do probably 0.7039 million people (wow, what a worrying thought) that I also don’t know. It’s not personal that I have no interest in being LinkedIn with you, it’s the opposite. I impersonally don’t feel a need to link with you.

Do I want to link in with Dave in Denver CO, USA who is a Java developer? I’ve nothing against you, Dave, but I’m highly unlikely to meet you and we probably have little to talk about, especially as I almost never communicate with people via LinkedIn {and I don’t know anyone who does really communicate via LinkedIn}. I struggle to keep up with people I have met in the flesh or I absolutely know I have shared interests with, so random LinkedIn Wannabes, no chance. If I met you in person I’d probably like to have a chat and I might even buy you a beer, and perhaps we would become friends and I’d welcome your LinkedIn invite with open keyboard. But frankly, until you’re drinking that Carlsberg I just got from the bar for you, you are one in 7.039 billion unknown people to me.

So am I being unfriendly? Well, when I get a LinkedIn request I almost always check out the person. Is it someone I have worked with or met at a conference and it might be nice to maintain some sort of vague contact with? Occasionally it is. Once it a blue moon it turns out to be someone I actually know (or know of) quite well and I feel daft that I did not recognise them. Sometimes it is someone I don’t know but they know 15 people I do (hopefully mostly the ones I like  :-) ) and I can see they share strong work interests with me.  I link in. But most of the time I don’t know them and *they have over 500 contacts*. 

Over 500 contacts? Really? Really? And you know all these people? No, you don’t Dave. You are just collecting stamps. I’m as important to you as that. So now, though I know nothing much about you, I know I am unimportant to you, I’m just a stamp. I definitely do NOT want to be LinkedIn with you.

Occasionally it is worse. I’m not a stamp, I’m a little bit of potential collateral, a maybe-bit-of-income for them. The person is a recruitment consultant or a salesperson or a company representative who has figured out that for every 200 hundred people they bother they get a lead. So they contact thousands of us. Well, you can really stuff your invite up where the sun does not shine.

But most of the time it is stamp collecting. This seems very common with our South Asian friends. I don’t know why, maybe it is a cultural thing, maybe the universities there tell their students that this is a good way to progress (I can’t see that it is but I’m happy to be corrected if I am wrong), I don’t know – but 75% of LinkedIn invites I get from people with 500+ contacts are from that part of the world.

I’ve noticed one key thing about LinkedIn stamp collecting (or potential-collateral) invites – none of them have bothered to change the standard invite text.

Hi M

I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinedIn

– Dave Unknown

Hint – if you really want to link with me, change the text to something, anything and I mean *anything* else. Try

Oi, Martin

I’ve met you and you smell of fish and your jokes are pathetic. Link in to me else I will throw things at you next time you present

– Dave Unknown

That’ll get my attention.

What kicked of this diatribe by me? It was when we got the below at work:linkedin_who


It really tickled me. This person is so desperately stamp collecting that they are trying to link to Admin in Technical Services. Of course I removed names to protect the guilty but, really, Ramzan “the import/export professional” – I think you should take a bit more care in your stamp collecting efforts.

SBC June 26, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in humour, off-topic, rant.
Tags: , ,
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When I was about 14 or 15 years old I had this idea that I could create a company selling stuff and make a fair amount of money at it, very easily. What prompted these thoughts were advertisements that attempted to persuade you to buy things that were not at all special or unusual or even good, but the ads claimed that they were in fact fantastic and desirable and having them would significantly improve your life. Often the ads were for really quite rubbish things. It was blatantly obvious that, whilst no factual lies were uttered, the promise of the sun always shining, the big smile on your face, the family joy (with mandatory cute dog) and the inner glow that comes from the product were ludicrous. The product was not going to do that, the whole underlying premise of these adverts were ludicrous lies.

In particular, I was struck by breakfast cereal advertisements.

When I was a kid I had most of the main brands and I can tell you, a bland product based on flattened corn, puffed wheat, mashed wheat, wheat in long strands woven into a small hard cushion, abused oats or any other tortured grain was fine to stop you feeling hungry before being booted out the house to walk to school – but it was not actually adding to the joy in my life. They were OK. Actually, without the sugar and the milk they were a bit shitty. And I knew they were cheap.

This summed up many products – not at all exciting, nothing special, in fact a bit crap. But they did the job and they were cheap.

So why not sell them as such? would people not prefer the honesty of a product and advertisement that fundamentally said “buy this because it is shitty but cheap”? I would have, I would have loved the base honesty of the proposition and not having to wonder why grey-brown food that tasted only slightly better than cat litter was not making me smile and the sun shine. (I was fine about not having the dog though.)

So I was going to create a company called SBC Limited that made basic, cheap stuff that you had to have and that it was ludicrous that anyone was telling you it would improve your life. Shitty But Cheap Limited. Breakfast Cereal would be one of the products for sure.

Role forward about 10 years and I created my first company, as most computer contractors in the UK do, back in 1995. Guess what I was going to call it? Yep, SBC Limited. But my wife took a firm stance (and by this I mean she set her feet a good foot and a half apart, the better to give her purchase as she slapped sense into me) and said I could not do this, as I would be incapable of not telling potential clients what SBC limited stood for.

Of course, I now realise that my outlook on things and sense of humor is not universally shared and, sadly, there are a lot of dull people who are swayed by those facile advertisements. My company to sell fundamentally bland but cheap morning foods would probably have failed. That and the Swiss Banking Corporation or SBC Telecomm or, more likely as I reside in the UK, the Scottish Borders Council might have got in touch to object.

But imagine my joy today when I was sent a potential job by SBC Recruitment!

And the icing on the cake was the job was for an APEX developer with HTML 5 proficiency. No mention of those skills on my CV, my CV makes it pretty clear that I am a DBA-type, so a fairly shitty attempt by the agency to fill the needs of the client. So presumably the recruitment company pretty much matches my intention for a company called SBC…


(* Note to lawyers, SBC Recruitment could be the best agency in the country, this post is humorous. But I really was not at all suitable for the job, very poor targeting).

Friday Philosophy – The Passing of Nelson Mandela December 6, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

As this is a blog on the technical aspects of the Oracle RDBMS and management in IT, it is not really the correct place to pass comment on the passing of a political figure, let alone touch on the politics of race and discrimination.

But I don’t care, it’s my blog and I can do what I want.

I’m partly saddened by the death of Nelson Mandela even though I never met him as I think he was one of those rare things – a politician who was actually a good person who was trying to right wrongs. Thus I think humanity has lost a very good human. But he had been suffering from very poor health for a long time and maybe he would have been happy for it to come to an end. I do not know of course.

I do know that tonight’s next glass of wine will be lifted to him, even though I never met him and know less about him than really I probably should. Personally I think I agree with his politics but only in that fairly nebulous “we should all get on and act as a community” left wing type of stuff.

What I am finding interesting is watching the media output on the death of Nelson Mandela, the rounds of significant people queuing up to praise him and the footage I am seeing of people in South Africa who seem to be more celebrating his life than suffering in mourning. I’m a bit cynical about the world leaders and politicians but rather affirmed by the SA nationals saying “Let us celebrate this person”. That agrees with my philosophy on life.

Any time I check the web to see if I am being mentioned (something I do every few months, mostly just due to narcissism but also to see if anyone has mentioned me and I should say thanks) I will come across Brian Widlake, who is a journalist who got to be about the last person to interview Nelson Mandela {and one of if not the first to do so for television} before his incarceration and when Mandela made a comment that maybe peaceful methods of protest were not going to be enough. So I am constantly reminded of Nelson Mandela.

I’m actually named after a similar person, Martin Luther King. It must have been my Father’s doing as my mother, as she creeps up on senility, is showing a level of casual racism that bugs the hell out of me.

Anyway, I started by saying this is not the place to pass comment on politics and I am not really going to as I have no position of authority or knowledge to do so. But I do have a fair knowledge of genetics and biology, what with it being the subject I was trained in at University.

Racism is rather knocked into a cocked hat (from a biological perspective) when you understand genetics. We are all one species with really very, very minor differences between us all and, if you go back just a few thousand grandparents, well we all had the same “grand” mother – and at a similar point maybe one grandfather too but that is harder to track. However, as humans are all so very, very similar genetically/biologically, how come some people are so fundamentally good and some people are fundamentally not and most of us bob around in the middle somewhere? It’s a complex question and though I think I understand some of the factors, I *really* am not going there. I’ll just have another glass of wine and ponder them.

Maybe in my “retirement” I will stop being a moderately successful geek and become a really very poor philosopher.

The Three Tenners- OUGN 2013 April 26, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, off-topic, Presenting, Private Life.
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Seeing as I did a blog post about looking forward to my second Norwegian Oracle User Group spring meeting, I suppose I should say how it went.

Given the circumstances, it went well and I enjoyed the conference far more than I would have enjoyed being home for those days. Part of the enjoyment was the reformation of the Martin Cluster as mentioned in my last blog. A small part of that was the slightly childish humour I found in those situations when people introduce themselves when they meet at such meetings. I’d be chatting to Mr Nash, Mr Bach and usually one or two others and when a new person came along and asked names, the three of us would take it in turns to say “hi, I’m Martin” – “I’m Martin” – “I’m Martin too”. It was like a poor take on the “I’m Brian” pastiche of the Spartacus movie. Most people smiled.

At the Speakers Meal on the first night Bryn Llewelyn suddenly said something like “Well, let’s take a picture of the Three Martins – it’s almost like the Three Tennors!” It had to be done, I dug out three ten pound notes so we could have a picture of the Three Tenners. If only the idiot on the right had held his the same way around as the other two…

The Martins doing a terrible "Three Tenners" joke

The Martins doing a terrible “Three Tenners” joke

Thanks to Bryn for the picture.

So, why did I say the event went well despite the circumstances? Because I was ill thoughout the event :-(.

I met up with some friends in London on Tuesday night before the conference, as I could not get into London and across to Heathrow in time for my flight in the morning. So I had to stay over. I know, you are all thinking I drank waaaay too many beers and was hung over the next day! I could not argue that I did not have several beers that night but it was more the 4 hours sleep and long walk that I blamed for how I felt. At the end of the evening I went out to Heathrow and I got directed to the wrong Premier Inn there {I was very specific about it being T5, I knew there were two hotels} and it took a while to get to this wrong hotel. Or rather half a mile past it. I new what side of the road the hotel was on (online maps with street view are so helpful) but it did not appear {as I am in the wrong place} and the bus driver who was going to give me the nod did so a stop or two too late. So I walked waaay back – and get told “Other Premier Inn sir”. OK, can you get me there “No, get a bus”. It’s midnight, the last bus was not so helpful. Shuttle bus? “No sir” Taxi? “Get the bus sir”. Sigh, not helpful. Well, that is what you should expect when you use budget hotels I guess. How far is it? “About 2 miles Sir”. I walked. It turned out to be over 3.

So when I met Martin Bach at the airport next day, I blamed the beer, long walks and lack of sleep. But as the day progressed I felt worse and worse and worse. Tuesday night might not have helped but this was more. We got to the venue and after lunch I did my talk on Row Level Security and masking data (which was packed, to my amazement) then checked into the hotel and went to bed. Thus I missed all other sessions. I managed the Speakers Meal (and it was jolly good, thank you OUGN) and then had a good night’s sleep. It did not help. The next day was a blur, half of it I was asleep but I did manage my second presentation, on Disasters oddly enough. Afterwards I went back to my cabin and only got up briefly to see about trying to eat some food, but the rough sea quickly made me decide not to bother. I managed two other sessions other than my own. One was a Martin talking (a very good one on making practical use of virtualisation) and the other was the Keynote by Cary Millsap, who did a talk that was more about life than Oracle. I had missed this talk at the UKOUG conference but had heard about it, so I was keen to see it. It was the highlight of the conference for me. I’ll probably do a Friday Philosophy on it “soon” but the main message was that Cary feels life always changes and it seems best when you are doing something to progress from a bad place to a better one, rather than ‘enjoying’ the better place. It’s a philosophy I have a lot of time for.

The last day was similar except that I seemed to perk up a bit in the afternoon and I finally got to see one or two more sessions. I did my final one, on “an introduction to tuning” and it was awful. I had a lot of material to cover and I knew I could pile though it on a good day, but this was a bad day and I simply could not keep my thread or progress through the material rapidly. *sigh*. At least there were not too many people there to witness the car crash. I’ll be interested to see how poor the ratings on my talks are.

So all in all I should count the event as a bit of a disaster. But I managed to honour my presenting duties and, despite spending half the time laying down in the dark, I had some fantastic conversations with people in the two evenings I managed to be awake. Oh, and thank you to the people who organised for them to play Happy Birthday to me in the Piano Bar at midnight on Friday (45 now), I might have been a bit quiet about it but I did appreciate that. It sums up half of what I like about the OUGN spring conference. I missed the first half, the excellent talks you get from what both years has been a very good speaker line-up, but the other is that everyone is around in the lunchtimes and evenings and you get to chat, find out other stuff, make new friends and just spend time with lots of people who are interested in some of the things you are, ie Oracle.

After the conference I did stay on in Oslo for a few day, my wife had come out to join me for my birthday weekend. We enjoyed the weekend but she kept on saying “you look dreadful” or “are you sure you are up to going out?” and “stop coughing you annoying bloody bas….” :-) I’m still coughing now and feel pretty rough, a week on.

I’ll be sure to try and be there next year. I hope I feel better by then!

Friday Philosophy – Work Inside Life August 24, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
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I know, the usual phrase is “Life Outside Work” but I like to think that, no matter how much we may like our jobs, our overall life is the key thing.

I was prompted to write today’s Friday Philosophy when I was reading Neil Chandler’s blog a few days ago and saw that he had posted about his up-coming {and now in progress} Banger Rally. He and some mates are doing something very cool in their spare time, taking part in a rally from, basically, Calais in France to Naples in Italy, in a “banger”. This is a UK (and wider?) term for an old, tired, worn out car. The most they could spend on the car was £250 and it has to go over some pretty extreme mountain passes. I presume it also has to carry the set of 4 people involved too, so not a lot of weight there then, Neil :-). You can follow their progress at this blog. I was in a pub in Leeds with Neil when he was considering one car for this rally.

I can’t claim that I do anything as striking as Neil’s current jaunt when not working, but I do like to spend some time doing things that are nothing to do with IT at all. For me, this tends to be physical tasks like cutting down trees with my chainsaw. Or building structures in the garden with wood (OK, half-building them – I constructed the below platform and another out into our pond maybe 18 months ago, both still have no balustrade around them and there is a 45cm gap between the bank and the pond platform – NEXT weekend I’ll maybe finish one. Maybe.)

Another garden task recently was building our wood-fired, mud-constructed pizza oven. My wife and I went on a 1-day course to learn how to make a mud-based pizza oven and then spent, ohhhh, about 10 days over 8 weeks building one! We dug a big hole in the garden to get some clean clay (we live in an area that is on top of clay), stole some straw from the horse that lives at the bottom of our garden (long story), bought some sand (because nicking it from beaches is both illegal and bad form) and mixed up our first batch of clay-sand-straw. Add in some old bricks and we got started. It took about 30 lots of mixture, a few alterations to the ratios as we went, but we ended up with this monster.

If you are wondering what the white stuff on the oven is, some ants decided to build their nest in the oven, between the layers I guess (you build the inner oven first and then add several extra mud layers to give insulation and a larger thermal mass, so that the oven stays warm longer).

Like anything, if we did it a second time we would probably make a much better job of it as we learnt so much from the first attempt. One of them was to invite friends with young children over to see us during the build. Kids love the idea of treading the mud mix and you can get a suprising amount of work out of a single ten-year-old (and very insistent I get the age right) German girl if they are allowed to get very muddy.

I found the whole process very relaxing (but very tiring) as you do not need to use too much brain power, slapping the mud mixture on the outside is deeply cathartic and you end up with something useful. Well, slightly useful.

Having built it we then had to learn how to fire it. As an ex-boy-scout I thought this would be easy. Getting the fire going is not too hard, you need to keep it burning well for about an hour to heat up the oven and, one big tip, don’t use any damp wood or wood that “spits” (like willow). Having a burning log explode and shower your almost-ready pizza with charcoal embers can lead to angry garden scenes and considerable bad language.

We can just about get a 9″ pizza in there. The pizza in this shot is actually about 6″. The oven was designed to take a 12″ pizza but, errm, I forgot to allow enough space to one side to push the fire into as well.

Another major thing to keep in mind? That arch! You can’t put anything in the oven that is larger than that hole. More importantly, you can’t get anything out that won’t easily come back through that hole. Sticking your arm inside to jiggle things about is also tricky as it gets up to around 300C! {for US readers – about a millon F}

As you can see, the results are anything but professional! And, compared to nipping down to the shops to buy a pizza and just slamming it into the kitchen oven, it takes a lot, lot longer. But you can drink beer or enjoy a bottle of win and sit in the garden whilst getting the mud oven fired and hot. Last weekend we had friends over and the ladies made the pizzas, I cooked them and the other gentlemen helped us work through the beer collection and ate. As for taste? Fantastic.

My wife is far more artistic than I and she makes decorative cakes, sews and now even makes hats when not auditing IT systems (Have you ever been involved in an IT audit and the person knows how to make lists and check them – but can’t plug in a PC? Well, Sue was once a DBA and also a Unix Sys Admin, so when she audits you, she finds what you are hiding!). As such, maybe as an industry we should encourage her hat-making

So what, if anything is the point of this Friday Philosophy, other than to show off my pizza oven and my wife’s hats?

Well, I see this outside work activity as important in the workplace as well, especially if you are having to manage people. Firstly, it is important, I feel, for us all to do something we really enjoy to relax and re-energize (and this can be “computers” for IT people, but as I get older I notice more of my friends who were utterly technology-focused in their 20’s are now moving more towards non-IT hobbies).

Secondly, what people do in their spare time can tell you a lot about the person and what keeps them happy. If they have hobbies that are artistic and their IT job is very regimented, it could indicate they would be happier with some more less rigid task in the mix, say some design work. If they have NO outside hobbies, you are probably working the poor dears a little too hard!

Thirdly, and I have seen this for real, you may have a person or a team that is not performing well in the office – but it turns out a lot of them do interesting and challenging things at home. Someone who can motivate themselves to be a part-time fireman or has the dedication to train each day for a sport has skills and energy. Why, as their manager, am I not seeing much of these traits in the office? Because they are not happy and/or motivated. So I have an issue to sort out. I don’t manage people at present, but I still find it interesting what people do and achieve outside the office as it can indicate that they have talents and skills not being seen in the workplace.

I wonder how I can introduce my chain-saw skills into performance tuning?

Friday Philosophy – New Game: Phone Zombies! (You Too can Play) August 17, 2012

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

I’m spending a lot more time in Central London at the moment due to current work commitments. A few weeks ago I was having a quiet stroll through the streets and had what I can only describe as an odd moment:

I looked around and found I was being converged upon by 5 or 6 people walking slowly and aimlessly towards me – all from different angles, all only vaguely aware of their surroundings, all looking like they were making straight for me. I instantly thought of one of the scenes from “Shaun of the Dead” {A cracking film, go hire it tonight}.

They were all on their smart phones of course, intent on the little glowing screens of whatever it was they could not drag their eyes from – despite them also trying to navigate a busy city landscape. As some of you know, I have a bit of a “hate-mild dislike-grudging acceptance” relationships with Smart Phones.

I was so struck by this scene that I nearly did not move in time, but finally I did step to one side as I watched them do this quite wonderful, little, shuffling-dance around each other. I think only one of them actually looked up properly, the others all did that micro-glance; frown; direction shift; re-engage-with-screen procedure that is becoming so common. As a species we must be somehow pre-designed to cope with this as none of them actually bumped into each other – but it took several micro-glance manoeuvres for some of them to make it through.

This has resulted in a new game I can’t stop playing as I make my way through London:

Phone Zombies – How many people can I see at any time who are effectively lobotomised by their personal electronic device?

I have a few rules:

  • I has to be an electronic device – phones, smart phones, crackberries, tablets, electronic books etc.
  • Real books and papers do not count.
  • They must be upright (so no sitting).
  • If they are moving they count.
  • If they are stopped in the middle of the path they count.
  • If they have put themselves in a doorway or some other sensible place they do not count.
  • Unless, even though they have done that, they are still e.g. blocking ingress and egress from the doorway.
  • A bonus point if they micro-glance manoeuvre.
  • 5 bonus points if contact is made with another person in the time I am watching.
  • 10 bonus points for contact with something inanimate {only once to date}.
  • 20 points if they go “uuurrrgggghhh” and have blood on them. {no one has got 20 bonus points yet, but I live in hope}

I think my best so far is about 14, but that is because two phone-zombies both walked into each other. Classic.


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