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Friday Philosophy – Improving Your Working Life July 14, 2017

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

If I got you all to write down the top 5 things that make working bearable, and then got you to make a list of the top 5 things that make working enjoyable, I have a suspicion there will be one thing high on the “Enjoyable” list that may not even be on the “Bearable” list:

Being in a good team.

This one thing can make a real difference to your working life. I know this is true for me and it’s something I’ve heard other people say a lot. The team you are in can make up for a lot of negative things about any given job. I’ve found myself in roles where I am unsuitable for the task, or under a ridiculously high workload, even being paid much less than I know I am worth. But if I have been in a good team, working with people I like (well, at least some of them!) it makes it all a lot better. A lot, lot better. Think about the jobs or roles you have most enjoyed in your life. In any of them did you not like the team you were in?

Unfortunately in most teams there are people like Miserable Kevin, who does nothing but complain and slag everyone off. Or Oddly Quiet Katrina who is about as much fun to be with as eating a jar of pickled frogs.

You might expect me to now suggest you leave any team you do not like being in – but that is impractical advice for most people and impossible for many. And in fact I think there is a much, much better option:

Don’t change which team you are in – Change the team you are in.

You may think that it’s the responsibility of the team leader or maybe “management” to create a good team, perhaps by punishing or getting rid of Kevin and Katrina. And to a certain extent you are right. But most team leaders got the job for reasons other than their soft skills (the ones that allow them to understand and work with people – Heck, most of us in I.T. are there at least partially as we do not like other bloody people!). But actually, anyone in the team can change the team into somewhere more pleasant to be. I’m willing to bet that if you have worked in teams that are fun and satisfying to be in, the person or people who made it that way were not the team leader. Or at least not limited to the team leader.

Be warned, I am not claiming it is easy to change a team and it can take a while. But I think anyone can improve their team, if they put in a little effort. And you can do it in small, easy steps.

It helps if you know or learn a little about how different people think, a little bit of pop-psychology can go a long way (all those management training courses I once went on helped me a lot in this) but in essence you just need to help people to talk, relax, interact and get to know each other a little better. Try to see things from their side, consider why they are being objectionable or difficult. And be nice to people. Not in a creepy way, but just try to not lose your temper at someone who is being annoying, do not join in with the weekly team moan about Kevin behind his back. I’m not saying you should not disapprove if someone is being an arse, but you can make it clear you are not happy with them without being antagonistic or retaliating. Just one person doing this can make a big difference. I know, I’ve done it.

Another thing to do is try to include people more. If you and another team member are discussing an issue, maybe ask Oddly Quiet Katrina what they think. If you can find a common interest with someone you don’t know well in the team, try to talk to them about it. I don’t mean do what one bloke I know did – come in the office, ask how your weekend went and then look stunned with boredom when you told him – He had no real interest, he was playing a role, and doing it badly. If you are going to try and draw someone out a little, it really helps to be interested in what they say.

Once thing I have found helps significantly in creating a better team is suggesting the occasional coffee, go to lunch together (especially if it means going out the office to get something, even if only a sandwich) or have an after work pint. {I’ve previously mentioned this as Team Ice-Cream}. It really helps if you know at least 1 other person who will join in; and you are not trying to get everyone there. You just let people know, go and have the coffee or drink and let whoever wishes to join in. Sometimes there will be someone who will refuse to join in but, heck, the last thing you want to do is try and make it “enforced team fun” – as that never works well. I’ve done this in 3 or 4 roles now and after a few weeks (and it can take weeks and months) most of the team was coming along most of the time. And the intra-team bitching had plummeted. I even saw people help each other without being told to!

One thing to mention – don’t be too enthusiastic and gung-ho about it. Don’t come in first thing and cry “Hi team! How’s it all going! Hi-Fives! Who’s for a pint after work!?”. This will make you into Psychotic Barry. No one trusts Psychotic Barry.

The key principle is to be a bit more friendly and inclusive without people really noticing you are doing it. Keep it all low key.

Why should *you* be the person to put in the effort? Well, think of it selfishly. It will be nicer for you if being at work is less bloody awful. Also, it’s a skill you can use everywhere! Each time you change team, you can see if you can improve the new team a bit and see if you can do it more effectively. You can use it in social situations too. Maybe even the wider family, but if you try that and it all goes horribly wrong, don’t sue me.

Another reason to do it? Many people who know me in the flesh may be surprised to know that I’m not naturally very good in a crowd. I got a lot better at it, and more comfortable with people in general, by trying to improve the team.

So go change your team. It’s actually easier than you think and, heck, what have you to lose but some wasted effort and a couple of quiet evenings in a pub on your own (or maybe worst case scenario, just you and Psychotic Barry)? At least you will know that you gave it a go, it is now definitely the team leader’s problem.

One final word of warning. That bloke over there who is a militant vegan, self-appointed know-er of all and despises all contractors on philosophical principles? Don’t expect to get anywhere with him and don’t try too hard. Some people need professional help!

Friday Philosophy – Robots Rising & Tech Taking Over? July 7, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, future, Perceptions.
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7 comments

Today I saw some cracking photographs of a lighthouse. How many of us have at some point wondered if it might be nice to be a lighthouse keeper? The solitude, the scenery, the stoic fortitude in the face of the storm – quite literally. (Thank you Brendan Tierney for the photo I’ve stolen from him).

No one lives here anymore

It’s an odd job lighthouse keeper, it holds a special place in Western culture and literature. A job to be held by those a little apart from society and yet with a dedication to the betterment of mankind. I suspect a lot of people in I.T. (and the wider community) find a resonance in that, as so many of us are a little bit apart and yet intelligent & care.

Well, you can’t be a lighthouse keeper anymore. At least, in the UK you can’t. Check out This web site about UK lighthouses and lighthouse keeping. That job, that vocation, was handed over to automated I.T. systems a few years ago, effectively handed to robots & technology. You might think you know where I am going with this, and initially you will be right, but bear with me.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last 2 or 3 years about the increasing use of technology and robotics to do tasks that we humans have been doing. An obvious one is autonomous driving vehicles, where The I.T. smarts and sensors are leaping along incredibly fast. I am in a long-running “argument” with a friend about when fully autonomous vehicles will be a reality on public roads. He says under 5 years, I think it is more (I started saying more than 5 years to him in 2016, so, giving some leeway, I say not before December 2021 will we see fully autonomous vehicles driving from a town centre to another town centre, sharing lanes with human drivers – specific enough Neil?). But self-driving vehicles will be safer than humans “soon”, and cheaper than employing humans, so companies will swap to it. That will end a lot of employment.

I know others have pointed this out and it is not as if history isn’t almost a continuous tale of technology assisting or replacing human effort. Tolpuddle martyrs, dark satanic mills and all that. Industrialisation of farming has put a lot of farm labours out of work but we could not feed the current mass of humanity without it. People move on to new tasks.

But the difference now is not that we are handing jobs to a slightly better automated system where we still need some human control, we are removing the human element. And we are doing this in a lot of areas in a very short space of time. Factories are becoming far more automated, we order our goods online and huge conveyor robotic systems are being built to do the packing, with fewer people involved and lower long-term costs.

But it’s not just physical tasks that are being automated. Genetic algorithms, neural nets, deep data and machine learning is starting to replace tasks that have needed human interaction. Chatbots are getting smarter, to the point where they are used by companies as first-line support {often laughably poorly at present, but it is getting better – and Oracle do have an interest as was covered in Oracle Scene recently {sorry, that link might not work for long}. Expert systems have been developed that can judge simple court cases such as parking fines and beat humans at spotting pre-cancerous cells in tissue samples.

Oracle and the Bots

We now see expert computer systems breaking a lot of barriers and doing things that until now have been deemed uniquely human cerebral tasks. Computers won at playing chess 10+ years ago, they triumphed in “Go” last year and now they can win at versions of Poker where you are not sure of the data and have to read the play of your opponent – in effect second guess a human. Currently all these systems are very expensive, highly focused and specific to a task, built on huge data sets and using fine-tuned sets of algorithms, to do one task. We have nothing as generally capable as a 5 year old child or even a dog.

Only, we keep building systems that are better and better at specific tasks.

So why do I say this bothers me but not in the way you would expect? It’s because I keep seeing “thought leaders” present the same denial of these impacts on us in I.T. of the systems we as an industry are developing, platitudes that we are a special case and will be OK. Several times over the last couple of years I see some utter pillock in a suit from upper management telling a crowd of I.T. experts that we will be just fine as we are smart and we can stop doing the easy tasks and concentrate on the harder ones, use our brains more.

This is balls for two reasons. Firstly:

What about everyone who is below smart?

Most of us in I.T. are not only above average intelligence (probably IQs of 125 and upwards), we are surrounded by similar smart people. Our life partners are generally above normal intelligence, we work in teams who are above-average smart, we probably mostly socialise with generally intelligent people (as a raft of psychological studies show, we gravitate to those at a similar IQ to ourselves, irrespective of where we are on the scale). Even the end users we abuse tend to be above average intelligence. I suspect that most of us somehow don’t “get” that well over 60% of people are not only less intelligent than we are but they have few options if our society passes the jobs they can do to computers and robots. And they are not that likely to be philosophical about having no point to their lives and being poorer. They’re probably going to be very angry, very poor and pretty pissed off with smart-arses who say that “we are OK” – and there are a lot, lot more of them than us.

And that leads to the second reason it is balls.

The smart work will also be doable by Tech

As I’ve said already, we can already create technological systems that can beat us at specific cerebral tasks and there is going to be a small and smaller pool of work for highly-intelligent workers. Let’s face it, a lot of what we do now in I.T. is drudge and boring, there is not really that much smart work needed doing, even in this industry stacked by us smart people. And doing work that really needs you to be smart is tiring (well, I find it tiring!). And our work in I.T. tends to be logic-based and what are computers good at? We will just have a breathing space before our work is also more cheaply done by computers.

I’m annoyed as I think those of use who are involved in this revolution are being told a deluded lie that we will be OK if it pans out like I have just said. Those extra 25+ IQ points are not going to keep us special for very long.

So if computers can drive the taxis & lorries, manage the steel works and build the cars, derive the best drug treatment and give the perfect injection (yep, theoretically a robot already wins on that) what do we as humans do?

Only a few people can be “utterly human” – artists, poets and philosophers. And we do not need 7 billion of them anyway.

We could try and legislate against it, tax robots hard. But those who make a lot of money already run the “free market economy” and will continue to do so. If Robots and computer programs do tasks more cheaply, companies that uses robots will rise to the top of any monetary-based society, i.e. a capitalist society. What will change what has been in place for 100+ years? I can’t see the currently rich and powerful objecting to working methods that increase their wealth. Even if it means more and more poorer people.

Some argue for a basic living wage to keep us all alive – fed, warm and basic healthcare whilst machines do the work. That would give us that often cited nirvana of being free to do “what we want”. But if you have no job, what do you do? Again, for those of us with high IQ we can maybe come up with things to do. Maybe. I seem to be relatively happy being semi-retired, but I’ve done a lot of stuff and had my time of striving to achieve. And still do. But how about those who are IQ 100 and below? I suspect entertaining yourself is not as easy. I think anger, resentment and the feeling of being disenfranchised is just going to continue increasing. I think it’s why the UK is leaving Europe and why the US has an egotistical man-child as president. More and more normal people are unhappy with their lot and see no good future – so they vote for a change. ANY change. Even if it is crazy change.

I know, not a very happy Friday Philosophy. Will someone please tell me it will all be OK? And I mean OK for everyone, not just us “smart” people.

Friday Philosophy – How I Took The Step Up from Thought Leader to Paradigm Architect. January 6, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
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9 comments

I’m sure you have come across the term “Thought Leader” before. You probably first came across it recently, in the last couple of years, and it is growing in occurrence. I’m always impressed by someone who describes themselves as a Thought Leader, I think it tells you a lot about the qualities of the person (*). At times I feel that I am also a Thought Leader – However, I recently decided to set myself the higher ambition of expanding my vision and becoming a Paradigm Architect. And I think I can tell you how you can do the same and also become a Paradigm Architect yourself.

What my mind's eye sees when I see "thought leader"

What my mind’s eye sees when I see “thought leader”

First, you need to really understand what a Paradigm Architect is. Such a person architects paradigms. You become one by sticking the title next to your name and then thinking of a woolly way of describing what it means. So: “a paradigm is the overall concept or co-dependent ecology of rules in respect of a knowledge arena, and I architect new paradigms for business and technology”. So, that’s me! Pretty bloody cool I think. And you still have no clear idea what I mean by “Paradigm Architect” – but it sounds so clever, doesn’t it?

Are you convinced? Hopefully you are not. I’m really hoping you are actually thinking “what the heck is Martin on about now?”.

OK, I’m obviously not a fan of the term Thought Leader. So what set me off on this little rant about the term? Someone recently followed me on Twitter and when I looked at their profile they self-described as a Thought Leader (I always look at the profiles of people who follow me, there are not so many a day that it is a burden and I like to block any young ladies who are “too poor to afford enough clothing”, those pushing some service I have no interest in or is in some other way following thousands of people simply in order to get more followers). I don’t see what the term “Thought Leader” really means. Oh, I get that some people can be thought of as visionary, leading the way, thinking of things not thought of before: someone to admire and follow, a beacon of enlightenment in the grey, confusing fog of our ever-changing world.

Well, I am a thought leader. I thought that now we have powerful, battery-driven hedge trimmers I could trim the tall hedge hedge at the bottom of my garden by using one whilst on a pogo stick. I’m pretty sure not many others have come up with that idea. I expect you all to give it a go now that I have led you there. Any medical bills that ensue are your own responsibility.

What I really think when I see someone self-identify as a Thought Leader (or a visionary, or a genius or some other similar label) is “you arrogant sod”. I am not impressed at all, at least not in a good way. As far as I am concerned you will now have to not only demonstrate to me some qualities or achievements that are to be admired, but they better be damned impressive. Better than I would expect from a normal genius. You went and put the high-jump bar at 2 meters, let’s see you bloody well clear it first time.

I put out a quick tweet out about what I thought when I saw this person’s profile:

Why is it I don’t trust anyone who self-describes as a “thought leader”?
I’m more trusting of someone who self-describes as a “smart arse”

I was struck by how popular that tweet was. I was particularly struck that some of the people who liked it were people who I admire for having moulded the way we think about Oracle Tech or have in some other way helped a lot of us to think clearer about things. But I have never seen any of them describe themselves in any way like “Thought Leader” or “Genius” or “F**King Awsome”. In fact, when I do see people blowing their trumpet with some such phase (such as “Code Ninga”, “10X Programmer” or “code Source Jedi Knight”) I just see in my head someone standing there, legs spread apart, hand on hips and chest thrust out. nodding at their own glory going “Yeah! It’s me! I’m F**ing Awesome!”

Piet de Visser told me:

we have an expression that translates to “Digital Self Inflation”… (internet drama queens, thought leaders…)

Now you can see what I really meant at the start when I said I’m always impressed by someone who describes themselves as a Thought Leader, I think it tells you a lot about the qualities of the person. The impression is not good and I think it tells me the person has an ego which is so large it’s starting to make my ego seem almost reasonable. That is why I think I am sometimes a “Thought Leader” – occasionally I can be tiresomely big-headed. I do it less now but sometimes, especially when alcohol has turned off some of the filters, I can be somewhat arrogant. I sequenced the human genome, don’t you know! (I did not, I just designed systems to hold some of the data).

Another point raised on the twitter thread was that these terms are much better if expressed about someone, not by them. Mathias Magnusson put it well:

‘I think “thought leader” is one of those things that only matters when someone says it about someone else.’

Personally I still do not like that actual phrase, I think it’s just a tad asinine, but if someone was to say to me “Sarah is great, she is a real thought leader” I’d know they thought Sarah was pretty good (unless I knew the commentor also did not like the term πŸ™‚ )

Now I know and understand that there is a cultural difference here. In the USA, blowing your own trumpet is seen as normal and in fact sometimes expected. It’s not seen as anything like as arrogant, or arrogance is just accepted more in the USA. I’ve never really been able to make up my mind which of those two is the largest factor. At the Bulgarian autumn conference last year, one of the organisers brought up this point of how we Europeans describe ourselves and how the American presenters did. Rob Lockard did a fine job of explaining how he felt that in the USA you have to state who you are, what you have achieved, and what recognition you have had. If you don’t, your audience (or potential employer) thinks “well, if this guy does not think they are any good, why should I?”. The British Reserved approach of almost apologising for our achievements does not cut it. It was also interesting that the Bulgarian lady thought the British were slightly amusing in our often abject apologetic nature whenever we mention that we might not be utterly useless.

But I come back to my point about people who I think have shown us the way and yet are not at all arrogant. Some of those leading people who liked the twitter comment are American. I’ve had discussions with some American friends about this over the years and I’ve found that many of them do not like this “in your face, I’m so awesome” attitude. So I don’t now if the US cultural difference on this is all over the US or all through their society. It still leaves me somewhat confused.

I guess there is a balance between stating who you are and what you have achieved and, once you know the cultural differences, you might want to modify your approach. I am far more bullish about my achievements when I introduce myself at an American user group than I am in the UK. In Europe I actually play up the self effacing Brit, as it usually gets a smile to break the ice.

But whatever your culture, I don’t think coming across as arrogant is ever going to really impress people. Better I think to stand quietly by what you have done and, if you are blessed, others might describe you in glowing terms. That, to my mind, is way more important. But not as important is simply being a nice person. Or at least not too much of an asshole.

I’ll leave the last word to Leo Tolstoy.
leo

Friday Philosophy – Genial Greetings & Festive Fun December 23, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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2 comments

For many of us, today will be the last working day before the Christmas Break (unless you live in one of the many places that don’t celebrate Christmas, in which case ignore this post). So Merry Christmas everyone and Happy New Year!

My brother's "Christmas Card" to us this year

My brother’s “Christmas Card” to us this year

These good wishes are especially directed at those who have to be on call or actually working over the holiday period. It’s one of those blights of working in I.T. that there always needs to be a bunch of DBAs, Sys Admins, Network guys and others who can be called upon when the 7*24*365 systems we keep running decide to play up as soon as we stop looking at them. As I said this time last year, as I’ve never had kids I’ve ended up doing more than my fair share of holiday cover – but not anymore. So if you are one of those on duty over the next week or so, I hope the damned systems stay quiet for you!

As you’ve hopefully noticed over the years, I’m a stunningly intelligent person with a thorough understanding of people and I think I have the totally correct attitude towards Christmas. Traditionally it’s the time to gather together with family & friends – to play games you hate, argue about what TV you are not going to watch and see how many old family injustices you can resurrect and have a damned good argument about. Only these days I opt out of that and I see people before or after Christmas – as at Christmas nothing is open so you can’t escape to go and do interesting things or look at stuff with them (you argue less when you are at the Zoo or wandering around a castle). If you can’t take the tedium at home anymore during Christmas, the only option for going out is to go buy a sofa… or something similar

My brother and I particularly enjoy exchanging Christmas cards. To the left is our idea of a good Christmas card. No tinsel, no robins, not a Christmas tree to be seen and absolutely no sappy Christmas poems or messages. Bah Humbug πŸ™‚

But I like to believe I think long and hard about Christmas presents. One year I’d noticed something that had been annoying my wife during the year so I addressed that problem with a Christmas gift. I bought her a new ironing board. The old one had been getting hard to put up. Ahhh, you should have seen the look on her face when she unwrapped it…

And we still have the ironing board!

And we still have the ironing board!

A couple of years later I really splashed out and got her a new set of top-of-the-range non-stick pans. Again, the reaction had to be seen to be believed… I can’t recommend enough buying your partner domestic items for the household.

My mother joins in by going into those shops that sell candles, ornaments and nick-knacks. She picks the worst one and buys it for me. I’ve had a “gnome sat on a mushroom” that was so hideous the cat would not go near it. It had the added appeal that, once it had been hidden behind a bush in the garden for a year, the cheap plastic perished from sunlight and crumbled into the soil. It’s what you want from a garden ornament…
A couple of years ago was the best from my Mum, it was a candle holder made of wood but that looked exactly like, well, a “present” a dog might leave you. Only once it had been sprayed with lacquer and polished. I was a little hurt when Sue suggested it might look good in the garage. In a box.

I can’t work out why but a few years ago my wife suggested we stop buying each other presents. Now we just spend time together, enjoying each other’s company. But she’s thoughtful, she insists I go and see my Brother for a few days over New Year. In Wales. Not at home. Every year.

Being serious, However you decide to spend Christmas, I hope you have a great time.

Friday Philosophy – Is a “Free Lunch” Only Ever a Mirage? Look Closer! December 16, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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3 comments

Nearly all of us have heard (or even used) the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and we know what it means – if something of value is provided for no up-front cost, you are paying for it in some other way. According to the Wikipedia entry for it the phrase could have originated from US bars that offered a free meal with a drink, but the meal was salty and so made you want to drink more. Now you know why some up-market bars offer free salty nibbles, it’s so they can sell you more beer and the extra profit is more than peanuts.

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

I recently saw a post in a discussion thread I was watching about business interaction which said “well, I think this is OK as there is no such thing as a free lunch”. It made me pause because I realised that there are free lunches.

Why? Because the person writing it, I know I could unexpectedly land in the airport near them (say we got diverted) at late-0’Clock, call them and say “could you please come and pick me up – and I’m hungry and I have nowhere to stay”. OK, it’s not lunch, it’s probably dinner or tea or supper. But I know I could do that and they would get me and feed me and make sure I was OK. Why? Because they are a friend. I’d get my free lunch and a free bed for the night – well, maybe a sofa with the dogs but, hey, am I picky? If things similarly went wrong the next month too, I feel I could again make the call and all I would get is some light-hearted banter about “this is becoming a habit!”.

The key difference is that business is not friendship. Business is all about making more money than you spend and if your company has shareholders, they generally want as big a dividend as possible. Making money does not match giving things away for free! Unless it is a short-term cost to prompt a larger eventual profit. Any business that does not aim to maximise profit is probably going to be less successful than a similar company in the same sector and will probably eventually fail {I know, there are rare exceptions to this}. I would argue that if your friendships are based on expectation of getting more out than you put in, you are living your life with the wrong philosophy!

You could argue that with friendship there is an expectation of reciprocation – if my friend landed at Stansted Airport and needed a bed and a meal and they let me know, they would get it. Heck, if they landed in Leeds airport (about 3 hours drive from here) they would probably still get it {if I was not too drunk to drive}. But no matter which of us had been the provider of the free lunch, I don’t think either of us would be walking around with a mental tally in our head saying something like “I need to get some payback from that guy – my next flight over there, I ain’t booking a hotel”.

I’ll give you another recent example. Another friend and I do a lot conferences, often in the same place. He is more organised than I and he has at times sorted out planes and hotels and just told me what I need to do, where to go and what I owe him. I pay him. Or I don’t and I pay for a meal or buy us beers or whatever it is we decide to do. We keep a rough tally. Hang on, didn’t I just suggest that friends don’t keep a tally? Well, we do. A rough tally. And the reason we both keep it is as we don’t want to take more than we give back – which is very different from ensuring we take back at least as much as we give. But the most interesting part of this is that last month, after I paid for a meal, I asked him what the balance was as I had lost track. He just looked at me and said “I have no idea – is it even?”. Who knows. Who cares? Part of me worries a little that I am in debt but I think he worries the same. In the end it is moot. Neither of us is counting anymore.

I’m sure we have all had the odd friend who does seem to take more than they ever give back (that Andy, never buys his round in the pub!) and if it is too extreme you might come to the conclusion that this is not a friend but a free-loader – and quietly drop them. But some people either just never think about it or might be a lot less well off than you and simply not want to admit it. And in the whole friendship scheme of things, reciprocation of favours should only ever be a part of it I think.

So in business I think the “no such thing as a free lunch” is pretty much a true state of affairs. In friendships, I’d like to think it is certainly not true. Friendship should not be like a business. If any of your friendships are, maybe they are more ‘mutual arrangements’.

“Hi, meet my mutual arrangement Dave. I’m currently up three beers on him, so he’s buying”.

So I think you can have a free lunch. They are provided by friends. I’ll be popping over to your place for one soon πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

Friday Philosophy – Your Experience can Keep You Ignorant November 18, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, Perceptions, performance, SQL.
Tags: , , , ,
12 comments

This week I was in an excellent presentation by Kerry Osborne about Outlines, SQL profiles, SQL patches and SQL Baselines. I’ve used three of those features in anger but when I looked at SQL Patches I just could not understand why you would use them – they looked to me like a very limited version of SQL Profiles.

There is a prize for spotting Kerry without a baseball cap

There is a prize for spotting Kerry without a baseball cap

So I asked Kerry about it during his presentation (he had been encouraging us to ask questions and I was curious). The answer? They are almost identical in how they are used and the impact they have but, yes, they are more limited. You can only enter one line of hints (I think it can be more than one hint but I have not checked {update, see comment by Jonathan Lewis – it is 500 characters of hints you can add, so you can comprehensively hint most statements}) with a SQL Patch. But, and this is the crucial bit, they can be used without the tuning pack and can be used on Standard Edition. Which makes them very useful if you are limited to using a version of SE or have not paid for the extra cost tuning pack option on Enterprise Edition. Kerry told me the first part about no cost and Kamil Stawiarski the part about being available on SE.

That’s a really useful thing to know. Why did I not know it? Because nearly all my experience of performance work has been for clients who have Oracle Enterprise Edition and the tuning pack. Most companies who are willing to hire someone to do Oracle Performance work have paid for Oracle Enterprise Edition and usually for many of the options. A company who is saving money by having SE is far less likely to have the money to hire external consultants (more the pity, as I would really like to spend time working for smaller companies where you can usually get more done!)

My experience, or rather lack of it, had blinded me to the possible uses of an Oracle performance feature. I wonder how much other stuff I don’t know or appreciate about an area I claim to be knowledgeable and skilled in – because my experience is mostly for clients with a very full Oracle tool set? How true is this in all sorts of areas of my technical and personal life? Quite a lot I suspect. That can be a little dis-spiriting.

But mulling this over later that evening (with beer of course) four things occurred to me:

  • If someone claims skills in an area but does not know things you do, it could well be simply down to their personal experience to date. It does not mean you know more, it means you know different stuff.
  • How much does someone have to not know before you decide they are not the expert they claim?
  • Do we partial experts keep ourselves slightly ignorant by not asking questions – as we fear that second point?
  • I felt I did the right thing in asking a question about something I felt I should know – but did not. As now I know the answer (and two people at least got to show they know more than me).

I know I have said this before, as many others have. The more you know, the more you realise what you do not know. You just have to keep asking and remember that, we are all ignorant about something until someone tells us about it.

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 πŸ™‚

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!