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

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

Friday Philosophy – I Am An Exadata Expert August 10, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Exadata, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,

(Can I feel the angry fuming and dagger looks coming from certain quarters now?)

I am an Exadata Expert.

I must be! – I have logged onto an Exadata quarter rack and selected sysdate from Dual.

The pity is that, from some of the email threads and conversations I have had with people over the last 12 months, this is more real-world experience than some people I have heard of who are offering consultancy services. It’s also more experience than some people I have actually met, who have extolled their knowledge of Exadata – which is based solely on the presentations by Oracle sales people looking at the data sheets from 10,000 feet up and claiming it will solve world hunger.

Heck, hang the modesty – I am actually an Exadata Guru!

This must be true as I have presented on Exadata and it was a damned fine, technical presentation based on real-world experience and I have even debated, in public, the pros and cons of point releases of exadata. Touching base with reality once more, I did an intro talk “the first 5 things you need to know about Exadata” and the “debate” was asking Julian Dyke if he had considered the impact of serial direct IO on a performane issue he had seen and he had not only done so but looked into the issue far more than I – so he was able to correct me.

But joking aside –  I really am a true consulting demi-god when it comes to Exadata

I have years of experience across a wide range of Exadata platforms. That would be 0.5 years and I’ve worked intensively on just one system and am in a team now with some people who are proper experts. So a range of two. Yes, tongue is still firmly in cheek.

This situation always happens with the latest-greatest from Oracle (and obviously all other popular computing technologies). People feel the need to claim knowledge they do not have. Sometimes it is to try and get consultancy sales or employment, sometimes it is because they don’t want to be seen to be behind the times and sometimes it is because they are just deluded. The deluded have seen some presentations, a few blog posts and maybe even got the book and read the first few chapters and are honeslty convinced in their own minds that they now know enough to make effective use of the technology, teach {or, more usually, preach} others and so proclaim on it. {See Dunning Kruger effect, the certainty of idiots}. I’m certainly not arguing against going to presentations, reading blogs and books and learning, just don’t make the mistake of thinking theoretical, second-hand knowledge equates to expert.

With Exadata this situation is made worse as the kit is expensive and much of what makes it unusual cannot be replicated on a laptop, so you cannot as an individual set up a test system and play with it. Real world experince is required. This is growing but is still limited. So the bullshit to real skills quotient remains very, very high.

If you are looking for help or expertise with Exadata, how do you spot the people with real knowledge from the vocal but uninformed? Who do you turn to? {NB don’t call me – I’m busy for 6 months and I really am not an expert – as yet}. If your knowledge to date is based on sales presentations and tidbits from the net which may or may not be based on a depth of experience, it is going to be hard to spot. When I was still without real world experience I had an unfair advantage in that I saw email threads between my fellow OakTable members and of course some of those guys and gals really are experts. But I think I was still hoodwinked by the odd individual on the web or presenting and, I can tell you, though this background knowledge really helped – when I DID work on my first exadata system, I soon realised I did not understand a lot about the subtulties and not-so-subtulties of using a system where massively improved IO was available under key conditions. I had to put a lot of time and effort and testing to move from informed idoit to informed, partially experienced semi-idiot.

I know this issue of the non-expert proclaiming their skills really frustrates some people who do know their stuff for real and it is of course very annoying if you take someone’s advice (or even hire them) only to find their advice to be poor. Let’s face it, is is simple lying at best and potentially criminal mis-selling.

I guess the only way is for peopel needing help to seek the help of someone who has already proven themselves to be honest about their skills or can demonstrate a real-world level experience and success. I would suggest the real experts should do that most difficult task of pointing out the mistakes of the false prophets, but it is very tricky to do without looking like a smartarse or coming over as a big head or jealous.

I’ll finish on one thing. Last year I said how I thought maybe I should do more blog posts about things I did not know much about, and be honest about it and explore the process of learning. I did actualy draft out about 3 posts on such a topic but never pushed them out as I was way too busy to complete them… That and, being candid, I really did not want to look like an idiot. After all, this Oracle lark is what puts beer in my hand, hat fabric on my wife’s millinary worktop and food in my cat’s bowl. The topic was….? Correct, Exadata. Maybe I should dust them off and put them out for you all to laugh at.

Friday Philosophy – The Abuse of Favours March 30, 2012

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

You probably all recognise this situation:

Dave needs something doing that he can’t do himself – let’s say it is creating an API for the file management package. It isn’t your job to do but it is something you can do. Dave is blocked until the API is created.

So, being a nice person, you tell Dave you will see what you can do for him over the next couple of days.

So why is it that what Dave hears is “Dave, I love you more than life itself, I am dedicated to this task and I WILL complete it before the end of tomorrow. My other tasks, emergency production issues and the untimely demise of my cat are all secondary to this endeavour.”.

You see, 24 hours later, Dave is at your desk “When will this be done?! I’m blocked until I get this!!!”. If he’s the guy I had recently his next step is to slap his fist into his palm as he utters, almost shouts “I NEED this!”.

No. No you don’t need it. What you need is for that slap to be in your face, followed by “wake up! You don’t go shouting at the guy digging you out the hole!”.

I find this particularly unacceptable when the favour is to be fixing some mess that Dave created, or doing something Dave told his boss he had finished last week. Of course, those are the exactly situations where Dave is most likely to get upset, as he is in real trouble and most likely to commit that ultimate Favour sin:-

Dave to Boss “I Didn’t get my task done as Martin promised to create the API and he hasn’t. I’d be there now if I only did it myself”.

If you are thinking “Hmmm, I think I might have been ‘Dave’ recently” then Shame On You and go beg forgiveness. Of course, if you were ‘Dave’ you may well be the sort of sod who will twist the situation around in your head so it was not your fault anyway. Grrr, bad Dave.

For a while I gave up doing work favours as I got sick of the situation above playing out. Then I started doing favours again but being a bore about saying repeatedly, up front, that this was a favour, it was only if I had time, not to rely on me and, if it is that important, go ask someone else. Yeah, sounds really grumpy doesn’t it? That gave me a reputation for not being a Team Player (which is code for “mug”).

Now I have a rule system. As soon as someone starts getting demanding about the favour, I immediately challenge it. If they get shouty they lose their favour rights. No more favours for you until the requisite number of beers have been bought. It’s three.

Of course, you see this scene played out on help forums all the time. Initial message is nearly always in upper case text speak “PLS HLP ME, IS URGNT! CN U TELL ME HOW 2 DO MY JOB – THNX!!!” and soon degrades into helfull person asking for details of the exact person and Mr Shouty demanding more and more help. I don’t help. After all, this guy is never going to buy me a beer.

OUGN 2012 First Day – First Panic March 21, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, Perceptions, Private Life.
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I’m not really one for blogging about conferences – I mean who cares what someone else saw being presented? But this is the first time I have stopped moving long enough (and been in contact with the internet world) to blog and my brain is too fried to do a technical one.

The journey here was very smooth and the train from the airport to central Oslo makes the ratty, tatty, confined coaches of the UK look as awful as they really are. So I arrive in the central station and decide I will need some local Kroner to pay the taxi to the hotel. So I find an ATM, put in the card and ask for money. Card refused. Huh? But I rang my bank at the weekend and let them know there would be transactions from a foreign country (after some issues a couple of years back my wife always lets the bank know when she will be away and she made me do the same). I tried another ATM from a different company. Refused. OK, damned bank, I’ll use my other card. Refused. Errrr…… In a foreign country, no idea really where I am, not got any local currency. Not looking good.

I wander into Oslo looking for a real, proper bank. Most Norwegians speak perfect English, maybe if I still have problems I can go in and ask. Find bank, go to ATM, about to ask for money….Notice the figures being suggested on this ATM are a lot smaller than the last place. Yes, I had my mental decimal place in the wrong location and I had been asking for almost £1,000 rather than £100. No wonder the request got refused (I keep my daily limit low, it stops be buying too much rubbish on any given day).

So, I head off to the event, get there for Lunch and have a great afternoon. My presentation on IOTS went well and, as I said yesterday, I think I’ll put it to sleep for a while now.

I saw Harald Van Breederode talk about Oracle Database Smart Flash Cache before I did my slot and I always like to hear Harald talk. It was good as ever, but I found myself not so much interested in the idea of using SSD-type storage as an extra “slow SGA” extension (as opposed to a “fast storage” extension) but more that in 3 or 4 years, memory-based storage will be the default and a whole swathe of my knowledge will once more become redundant. I mean, how important will it be to keep physical reads down via things like IOTs once physical reads are relatively cheap? You won’t really care much about expanding your SGA with a secondary cache when you have 4TB of main memory and 100,000 IPS (inputs per second, we will have to see how much faster Output can be made with memory-based storage).

This highlights one of the things I really like about conferences, meetings and chatting to fellow techies in the pub. The actual main topic or point might well be interesting but the secondary thoughts and ideas can be just as striking. I was talking to Uwe Hesse after the talks had finished and part of that was about learning new stuff and training courses. It made me realise that it is way too long since I ran any training courses. I love running training courses.

OK, I’ve had a rest, back to socialising with fellow OUGN 2012 attendees.

The Most Brilliant Science Graphic I Have Ever Seen January 5, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in biology, Perceptions.
Tags: ,

The below link takes you to an absolutely fantastic interactive demonstration of the relative size of everything. Everything. Stop reading this and go look at it, when it finishes loading, move the blue blob at the bottom of the screen left and right.

The Relative_scale_of_everything

The raw web link is:


The web page says scale_of_the_universe but it should be relative_scale_of_everything_in_the_universe. Did you go look at it? NO!?! If it’s because you have seen it before then fair enough – otherwise stop reading this stupid blog and Look At It! NOW! GO ON!!!

Yes, I do think it is good.

I have to thank Neil Chandler for his tweet about this web page which led me to look at it. Neil and I talked about relative sizes of things in the pub towards the end of last year, in one of the Oracle London Beers sessions. I think it was Neil himself who suggested we should convert MB, GB and TB into time to get a real feel for the size of data we are talking about, you know, when we chuck the phrases GB and TB around with abandon. Think of 1KB as a second. A small amount of time for what is now regarded as a small amount of data – This blog so far is around 1.2kb of letters. Given this scale:

1KB = 1 second. About the time it takes to blink 5, possibly 6 times, as fast as you can.
1MB = Just under 17 minutes. Time enough to cook fish fingers and chips from scratch.
1GB = 11 and a half days. 1KB->1GB is 1 second -> 1.5 weeks.
1TB = Just under 32 years. Yes, from birth to old enough to see your first returning computer fad.
1PB = pretty much all of known human history, cave paintings and Egyptian pyramids excepting, as the Phoenicians invented writing about 1150BC ago.

The wonderful thing about the web page this blog is about is that you can scan in and out and see the relative sizes of things, step by step, nice and slowly. Like how small our sun is compared to proper big ones and how the Earth is maybe not quite as small compared to Saturn as you thought. At the other end of the scale, how small a HIV virus is and how it compares to the pits in a CD and the tiniest of transistors on a silicon chip. I’m particularly struck by the size of DNA compared to a human red blood cell, as in how relatively large DNA is. Red blood cells are pretty big cells and yet all human cells (except, ahem, red blood cells) have 3.2 billion letters of DNA in each and every one of them. That’s some packaging, as cells have a lot of other stuff in there too.
{NB, do remember that the zooming in and out is logarithmic and not linear, so things that are close to each other in the graphic are more different than first appears, especially when the image becomes large and in effect covers a wide part of the screen}

Down at the sub-atomic scale there are a fair number of gaps, where one graphic is pretty much off the scale before the next one resolves from a dot to anything discernable, but that is what it’s like down that end of things. Besides. It’s so small it’s hard to “look around” as there is nothing small enough (like, lightwaves went by several orders of magnitude ago) to look around with.

My one criticism? It’s a shame Blue Whale did not make it into the show :-)

I actually had flashbacks looking at this web page. I remember, back in the mid-70’s I think, going to the cinema. Back then, you still had ‘B’ shows, a short film, cartoon or something before the main event. I no longer have a clue what the main event was, but the ‘B’ movie fascinated me. I think it started with a boy fishing next to a pond and it zoomed in to a mosquito on his arm, then into the skin and through the layers of tissue to blood vessels, to a blood cell… you get the idea, eventually to an atom. Some of the “zooming in” where it swapped between real footage was poor but it was 1970 or so and we knew no better. It then quickly zoomed back out to the boy, then to an aerial view of the field, out to birds-eye… satellite-like…the earth… solar system… I think it stopped at milky way. I wish I knew what that documentary was called or how to find it on the web…

{Update, see comments. Someone links to the film. I know I looked for this film a few years back and I did have a quick look again before I posted this message. I did not immediately find it but someone else did, in 10 seconds via Google. Shows how rubbish I am at using web searches…}

Friday Philosophy – When Things Feel Wrong October 28, 2011

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

I got pinged by someone else missing the Friday Philosophy today {BTW, Good news, the technical blogs start again on Monday}, so…

Take a look at the below. It is a rather pleasant spot of countryside on Sao Migel in the Azores, where the area in the foreground has been converted into a bit of a garden to take advantage of the natural beauty.

Nice, isn’t it? Sorry the sun is not shining, but there you go. This waterfall just across the road from a set of water mills and waterfalls at Achada, which is one of the tourist spots that features often in brochures for Sao Miguel. But look at the scene again. Does anything strike you as odd about that waterfall? I could not put my finger on what it was, I just knew it looked odd. (Graham, if you don’t spot this immediately you owe me a pint).

There was a path heading up the valley to one side of the waterfall, one of a network meandering through the gardens, and I went up it. After a short while there was a smaller path heading up the hill more directly. It looked maintained but too steep to be a “wandering around enjoying the scenary” path. So I went up that. At the top of this path was a structure, a concrete “block house” It hummed and it gurgled. There was another path heading back the way I came, towards the waterfall. I followed along it and I found the top of the waterfall…

Yes, the waterfall was a fake. It was coming out of this huge concrete trough fed by a large pipe which went back to the humming, gurgling concrete block house. Returning back down to the bottom of the waterfall I could put my finger on what was odd about that waterfall. There is a valley to the left. OK, that is not so odd, the water could be coming from high land to the right of the valley and draining into the valley at this point. Except there is another valley to the right of the waterfall as well. Both had small streams running through them. This waterfall could only be natural if there was a perfectly formed, shallow middle valley heading up to the hills between the other two valleys and the only point where the water could escape was at the confluence of the lower two valleys. There was also a lot more water coming down this waterfall than was coming down the two valleys.

What has this got to do with Oracle and databases? Well, have you ever been in the position where you look at the output from a system and it just does not “feel right”? I sometimes refer to something I call DBA Intuition. There is also Developer Intuition and there is certainly Tester Intuition. All are where you are not sure why but it just looks or feels wrong (or, you just get a feeling for what a problem is or what the solution might be, all I class as DBA intuition, but I digress).

As an example, you are tasked to look at one of those terrible BI-type reports that consist of two pages of SQL and they want to know why it takes so long to run. Before you dive into the code, you look at the result of the report and you just think “That seems like an awfully large number of people responding to that advertising campaign” or “I can’t believe 10 percent of our income comes from selling baby diapers”.

Usually when I have dug into the actual report or part of the system that feels wrong I find out one of two things. That I had no idea that part of that business really worked that way, or, that the report is utter garbage. Somewhere in that report there a missing table or a logic flaw {nested AND and OR statements are a good place to look}. This of course has the advantage that there is no need for me to tune the report until someone can tell me WHAT the report is supposed to be identifying.

DBA Intuition is, I think, basically a gut feeling you develop in response to experience. I suppose I have more “tuning intuition” these days, I look at how fast some SQL is coming back and the volume of data and I think “seems reasonable actually” or “something is very inefficient here”. I’ve noticed that good system testers have this intuitive knack of just asking the new system to do things in a way or order that does not match the original intention.

So, I encourage you to trust your intuition. If some part of the system feels wrong, go and root around in the system undergrowth; climb up to the top of the data waterfall {OK, I’ll stop with the bad IT metaphors) and see what you find.

Incidentally, after I found the pump house we walked the other way up the valley, following the pipe and the pleasant gardens. It took maybe 20 minutes but we found the "real source" of the fake waterfall, which was a very nice, natural waterfall sitting in the very bottom of a pleasant valley – just where a waterfall should be. It just took a little more effort to get to it. I'm sure there is some moral story in there but I'm damned if I can work it out :-)

Friday Philosophy – Should I Be a Twit? October 21, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,

Something I have been pondering for a while now is should I join in with the “happening crowd” and sign up to Twitter? I know, I’m two or three years behind the times on this, but more and more people who I like have signed up – even Doug Burns now uses twitter and he used to be negative about it in the same way as I. I’ve asked a few of these friends what they think.

I’ve always resisted the whole micro-blogging world, probably due to the comments made by people about how much dross is tweeted and what a time sink it can be, something the people I asked all mentioned. And partly, being candid, because I know one of my faults is to shoot my mouth off before engaging my brain, especially if annoyed. If it takes 20 seconds to do a tweet, I shudder to think some of the things I might have put out there in the heat of the moment or when in the pub. Pub talk is fine, so long as it is kept in the pub. With a blog, it takes me so long to write them I tend to calm down before sending, if I am angry.

Also, tweets are not my style. I don’t know if you have noticed but I can be a little verbose {this means I spout several sentences where 5 words would do}. Can I be succinct enough to say anything anyone else would want to read?

That’s the writing of tweets, what about the following? I could just be a passive follower. But how many? This is part of the advice given to me by Neil Chandler and also Doug, to only follow a few people so that you do not just drown in an endless feed of stuff. I guess that anything good gets re-tweeted and so you see stuff not just by those you follow but the best bits of what they follow? Neil also suggested that part of what makes twitter work is joining in, don’t just be passive.

Something about Twitter that does bug me a lot, and this is just part of the whole texting/smartphone/constant communication thing of modern life, is when people you are spending social time with just sit staring at their bloody phone. I just find that really rude and I also think it’s a bit depressing when you see three or four people in the pub or restaurant, all staring at their smartphones and not communicating with each other. You might as well stay in bed. Alone. {Oh good grief what a terrible thought! Do couples who do social media now just sit in bed with their phones in front of them, ignoring their supposed love of their life?}

But of course there are advantages to Twitter. There is a lot of interesting stuff that goes on only in the twitter world and some of the tweets I have seen have been hilarious. It’s far more lightweight than blogging, something you can do in a quiet moment. Though Doug suggests this is why you get so much dross about travelling, people catch up on twitter when bored and also tweet then. Niall Litchfield made a very interesting point to me in that it allows you to keep up on a large range of topics and see new ideas and thoughts more. I like that. In fact, Niall sent me an excellent list of reasons for and against, which I’ll {almost} finish on.

From Niall:


Reasons for :

– I get vicarious updates from a large number of sources on a large number of subjects. (Oracle,SQL,Science,Politics)
– It can suit my short and acerbic style from time to time.
– More people are doing it
– It indirectly promotes me (albeit with a somewhat misleading image)
– I find stuff I wouldn’t otherwise have found
– I have engaged with product managers I probably wouldn’t have done

Reasons not:
– time wasting
– addictive
– it promotes me in a misleading way
– it can annoy others

I like it because I’m an information junkie and like to keep abreast of stuff in several areas. It can be a colossal waste of time and irritate immensely.


I think I might well give it a go and that leads to my last thought. If I am going to enter the world of twitter, I am going to have to get a new phone. My current one is so basic that it does little more than just make and receive calls. But a single charge lasts a week.

Friday Philosophy – The One Absolute Requirement for System Success October 14, 2011

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

Alternative title “The lady from Patient Admin – she says YEEESSSS!!!!!!”

What must you always achieve for an IT system to be a success?

  • Bug free? Never happens.
  • Within budget/time frame? That would be nice.
  • Includes critical business functionality? Please define critical.
  • Secure? Well, it’s important for many systems but then it is often lacking (even when it is important).
  • That it is to specification? Well we all know that’s wrong.

There is only one thing that an IT system must always achieve to be a success.

User Acceptance.

For an individual system other considerations may well be very important, but the user acceptance is, I think, non-negotiable.

The user must get enough out of using the system for it to be worth their while, otherwise at best they will resent using it and at worst… Well, at worst they will use it but will put in any old rubbish to fulfill the dictate that it be used. You would be better off if they did not use the system at all. Here are a couple of examples from my working past.

In the first one, I was involved in extending a hospital management system so that it kept track of the expected departure times for patients, allowing a predication of when beds would become available and calculation of expected occupancy rates. Yes, this was a while ago (maybe 1990) and on an a system that was old then. The information was needed by someone with the title “bed nurse” {or something similar} so that they could better prepare for bringing patients in and keeping a higher bed usage ratio. This was to make the hospital more efficient? No, it was to satisfy a politically demanded report to the NHS executive. Oh, the overall intention was to increase efficiency but the report soon became more important than the idea. So, we added columns in tables and field on screens and prompts for the ward staff to fill in the information. And they didn’t. The nurses were busy, they were pretty demoralized due to having recently been used by the government as a way to control public sector pay and they had nursing duties to do. They were not going to waste a couple of minutes trying to check when Mrs Jenkins was going to be sent home when Mrs Leonard needed a bed pan. The nursing staff were given a hospital-wide telling off, this information had to be entered. They put in the data – but guessed wildly. The design was fine, the report was logically accurate, only the correct staff could run it, but No User Acceptance and thus a failure.

So I added something else. It was a very crude screen that showed a “diagram” of the ward – Down the left and right side of a VT220 screen you saw little oblong boxes with a bed number, name in it, a consultant’s initials, a medical speciality code and the arrival and departure datetime. This was some information we already had plus the new information we wanted and something quite basic, limited and slow to draw. But it was useful to the ward staff. They could find any patient, they knew who to call if there was an emergency {not the actual consultant of course, but their secretary}, they could check when they were leaving, they could see what time someone was expected. From anywhere where there was a terminal, not just the entrance to the ward, they could see all this information. They used it.  They put in the expected departure time {sobering thought, this might not be expected leaving alive} and the bed nurse could plan and the report could be run.

Second example, different hospital. We were putting together a system to schedule outpatient clinics. We knew what we were doing, it’s pretty simple. You have some people (a consultant and probably a senior house officer), a period for the clinic (3 or 4 hours) and a set of people to see, say 40.  Give some flexibility in slot lengths (some people need 5 minutes, some 15) and allow the patients to be booked in. Check for and stop double booking. We did not go and ask the patient admin staff, we knocked up the design and the screens and asked them to test. After all, I was very experienced now, I’d been doing these systems for 3 years… They very quickly came back to us and said it was rubbish. Oh dear.

We went and saw them. I think it was a couple of us programmers, our development manager, the hospital liaison for the project and the patient admin staff. “What’s the problem?” There were a few but the main one was that you could not double book a slot. Why would you want to? Do two patients really want to be consulted at the same time with the same doctor?.
“Err, maybe, it might happen, can we just be able to double book?” OK, we could maybe alter things to allow two patients to be seen at the same time… The patient admin staff are not looking happy. The hospital liaison is looking confused – “You can’t do that! Patient confidentiality can’t be broken!” he says. It got worse. “We need to book all the patients into the first slot, with the consultant, so the letters go out to them saying come to see Mr Winders at 1pm”. The admin staff are now looking very shifty.

If any of you have worked in the health service you are probably way ahead of me. The admin staff needed to book all the patients in at this first slot so that they would all turn up, the consultant would see the two or three he was interested in – and then go and play golf. The SHO would then plough through the rest of the patients for the following three or four hours. If you have ever had to turn up at the start of a consultancy session and sat there for three hours, now you know why. You see, back then, the consultant was only a very small step away from deity level (and I leave it to you to decide if it was a step up or down). What they said went and if they wanted to go and play golf or store 200 medical records in the boot of their car or refuse to speak to “that stupid idiot in renal medicine” then you worked around it. {I’m assured that things are a lot better now, but I’d love to know how it really is}.

We had designed a sensible system, the users needed a non-sensible {to our mind} system. Even the NHS liaison chap had never appreciated exactly how much the consultants abused the system, he thought they just booked the people s(he) wanted at the start of the session, but no. The consultant decided that day who was interesting and as a result every patient had to be there at the start.

I count myself lucky that I learnt from direct experience so soon in my working life that (a) you have to deliver what the user will accept and (b) the only way to know what they want is to show them the system and talk with them.

{For those of you who do not understand the alternative title at the top, it is all about an old DelMOnte fruit juice advert which became a bit of a catchphrase at the time}

{And are you happy now Dom? :-) }

Friday Philosophy – Human Tuning Issues September 23, 2011

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

Oracle Tuning is all about technical stuff. It’s perhaps the most detail-focused and technical aspect of Oracle Administration there is. Explain Plans, Statistics, the CBO, database design, Physical implementation, the impact of initialisation variables, subquery factoring, sql profiles, pipeline functions,… To really get to grips with things you need to do some work with 10046 and 10053 traces, block dumps, looking at latching and queueing…

But I realised a good few years ago that there is another, very important aspect and one that is very often overlooked. People and their perception. The longer I am on an individual site, the more significant the People side of my role is likely to become.

Here is a little story for you. You’ll probably recognise it, it’s one that has been told (in many guises) before, by several people – it’s almost an IT Urban Myth.

When I was but a youth, not long out of college, I got a job with Oracle UK (who had a nice, blue logo back then) as a developer on a complex and large hospital system. We used Pyramid hardware if I remember correctly. When the servers were put in place, only half the memory boards and half the CPU boards were initiated. We went live with the system like that. Six months later, the users had seen the system was running quite a bit slower than before and started complaining. An engineer came in and initiated those other CPU boards and Memory boards. Things went faster and all the users were happy. OK, they did not throw a party but they stopped complaining. Some even smiled.

I told you that you would recognise the story. Of course, I’m now going to go on about the dishonest vendor and what was paid for this outrageous “tuning work”. But I’m not. This hobbling of the new system was done on purpose and it was done at the request of “us”, the application developers. Not the hardware supplier. It was done because some smart chap knew that as more people used the system and more parts of it were rolled out, things would slow down and people would complain. So some hardware was held in reserve so that the whole system could have a performance boost once workload had ramped up and people would be happy. Of course, the system was now only as fast as if it had been using all the hardware from day one – but the key difference was that rather than having unhappy users as things “were slower than 6 months ago”, everything was performing faster than it had done just a week or two ago, and users were happy due to the recent improvement in response time. Same end point from a performance perspective, much happy end point for the users.

Another aspect of this Human side of Tuning is unstable performance. People get really unhappy about varying response times. You get this sometimes with Parallel Query when you allow Oracle to reduce the number of parallel threads used depending on the workload on the server {there are other causes of the phenomena such as clashes with when stats are gathered or just random variation in data volumes}. So sometimes a report comes back in 30 minutes, sometimes it comes back in 2 hours. If you go from many parallel threads to single threaded execution it might be 4 hours. That really upsets people. In this situation you probably need to look at if you can fix the degree of parallelism that gives a response time that is good enough for business reasons and can always be achieved. OK, you might be able to get that report out quicker 2 days out of 5, but you won’t have a user who is happy on 3 days and ecstatic with joy on the 2 days the report is early. You will have a user who is really annoyed 3 days and grumbling about “what about yesterday!” on the other 2 days.

Of course this applies to screens as well. If humans are going to be using what I am tuning and would be aware of changes in performance (ie the total run time is above about 0.2 seconds) I try to aim for stable and good performance, not “outright fastest but might vary” performance. Because we are all basically grumpy creatures. We accept what we think cannot be changed but if we see something could be better, we want it!

People are happiest with consistency. So long as performance is good enough to satisfy the business requirements, generally speaking you just want to strive to maintain that level of performance. {There is one strong counter-argument in that ALL work on the system takes resource, so reducing a very common query or update by 75% frees up general resource to aid the whole system}.

One other aspect of Human Tuning I’ll mention is one that UI developers tend to be very attuned to. Users want to see something happening. Like a little icon or a message saying “processing” followed soon by another saying “verifying” or something like that. It does not matter what the messages are {though spinning hour glasses are no longer acceptable}, they just like to see that stuff is happening. So, if a screen can’t be made to come back in less than a small number of seconds, stick up a message or two as it progresses. Better still, give them some information up front whilst the system scrapes the rest together. It won’t be faster, it might even be slower over all, but if the users are happier, that is fine. Of course, Oracle CBO implements this sort of idea when you specify “first_n_rows” as the optimizer goal as opposed to “all_rows”. You want to get some data onto an interactive screen as soon as possible, for the users to look at, rather than aim for the fastest overall response time.

After all, the defining criteria of IT system success is that the users “are happy” -ie accept the system.

This has an interesting impact on my technical work as a tuning “expert”. I might not tune up a troublesome report or SQL statement as much as I possibly can. I had a recent example of this where I had to make some batch work run faster. I identified 3 or 4 things I could try and using 2 of them I got it to comfortably run in the window it had to run in {I’m being slightly inaccurate, it was now not the slowest step and upper management focused elsewhere}. There was a third step I was pretty sure would also help. It would have taken a little more testing and implementing and it was not needed right now. I documented it and let the client know about it, that there was more that could be got. But hold it in reserve because you have other things to do and, heck, it’s fast enough. {I should make it clear that the system as a whole was not stressed at all, so we did not need to reduce system load to aid all other things running}. In six months the step in the batch might not be fast enough or, more significantly, might once more be the slowest step and the target for a random management demand for improvement – in which case take the time to test and implement item 3. (For those curious people, it was to replace a single merge statement with an insert and an update, both of which could use different indexes).

I said it earlier. Often you do not want absolute performance. You want good-enough, stable performance. That makes people happy.

Friday Philosophy – Dyslexia Defence League August 19, 2011

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

NB This post has nothing to do with Oracle or even technology really. It’s just some thoughts about one aspect of my life.

I know I’ve mentioned this once before, though it was in an early blog post when I had a readership of about 8, but I am mildly dyslexic. If you want to know how I found out I was dyslexic then check out the original post. I’m quite fond of that post, as a non-technical one, though almost no one read it.

The thing is, I now cringe slightly when I say I am Dyslexic. I’ve sat on this post for weeks, wondering if I should post it. You see, it seems to me that dyslexia, along with some other oddities of perception, have over the last few years almost become a thing to be proud of. A banner to wave to show how great you are. “Hey, look at me, I am this good even though I have Dyslexia” or even “I am great because I have dyslexia”. Maybe I am just a little sensitive about it but it seems to me that more and more people make a thing about it. If I am being candid, I feel a little proud that I did OK academically despite it {I should point out there is no proven link between dyslexia and IQ but in exams you get marked down for spelling and slow reading speed means it takes longer to, well, read stuff!} and in the past I have been very open about mentioning it. Hey, this is my second blog on dyslexia!

However, I’ve had it suggested to me in the past that I use it as a defense for being lazy – Can I prove I am dyslexic? Does it really impact me that much? Well, actually no I cannot prove it and has it impacted me? Not a great deal I guess as I can read pretty much anything {I did say it was mild. Scientific papers and anything with very long words can be a challenge, but isn’t that true of everyone?}. My reading speed is about 120,150 words a minute. Average is about 250wpm. My wife seems to read at about 500wpm :-)

Also, don’t get me wrong, I fully appreciate that looking at a challenge you have and taking the benefits from it that you can is a very healthy attitude. If I remember right it was Oliver Sacks in one of his books (“the man who mistook his wife for a hat” maybe) who describes a man with sever Tourette’s syndrome {which is more often all about physical ticks and uncontrolled motions rather than the famous “swearing” aspect of it} who could somehow take advantage of his physical manifestations in his jazz drumming. He could just make it flow for him. But when he took treatment to control the physical issues, his jazz drumming suffered. He really wanted the benefit of the drugs for day-to-day life but keep the Tourettes for jazz. So he took the drugs during the week and came off just before the weekends when he played. Neat.

Does Dyslexia help me? I think I am more of a diagrams and pictures person than a text person because of my dyslexia and I think I maybe look at things a little differently to most people at times – because of the differences in how I perceive. That can help me see things that maybe others have missed? Maybe an advantage. I’ll take that.

Also, in my case at least, dyslexia is not an issue for me comprehending or constructing written prose. I think I write some good stuff at times.

But I don’t want to be dyslexic. Frankly, it p122es me off.

I’ll give you an example. I did a blog post a few weeks back and it had some script examples in it. I had nearly finished it when I realised I had constantly spelt one word utterly wrong. The spell checker picked it up. But just before I posted it, I realised I had also got my column aliases utterly wrong. I have a little set of rules for generating table and column aliases, it is not complex, but in my head the leading letters of a word are not always, well, the leading letters. I had to alter my scripts and then re-run them all as I knew if I tried to unpick the spelling mistakes manually I would mess it up, I’ve been there before. It took me hours. I can really do without wasting that time. {Update, since originally drafting this post the same situation with another technical post has occurred}. Then there is the embarrassment of doing something like spelling the name of a column wrong when you design and build a database. I did that in a V8 database when renaming columns was still not a simple task {was it really Oracle 9 release 2 before column rename was introduced?}. The database went live and accrued a lot of data before anyone made an issue of it. It then kept getting mentioned and I had to keep explaining.

I don’t see Dyslexia as a badge of honour and every time I see someone being proud of it (or to my odd mind it seems they are proud of it) or suggesting they are better than average for overcoming it (again, maybe it is just my perception), I just feel uncomfortable. I think all and everyone of us has something we have had to overcome to be “normal”.

Yet, on reading that above paragraph back, it is simply insulting to people who have fought and striven to overcome severe dyslexia or other issues with perception or communication. I certainly do not mean that (and I apologise unreservedly to anyone who is now fuming at me because of my callousness).

Maybe that is my issue with the whole topic – I am not uncomfortable with the notion of being proud to have overcome something like dyslexia and I admire people who cope with other conditions which make it harder for them to get by in our culture, but I just can’t see why you would be proud of the condition or want to use it as a bragging right.

I guess I want to be able to just acknowledge my dyslexia, point out it is no big deal in my case but it is why I spell like a 10 year old. It is as significant as the fact I’m scared of heights. I guess I cringe a little when I say it as I don’t want to be seen to be making excuses and I certainly do not feel, that in my case at least. I have won through against the odds. Maybe I’ve been a little hard-done-by occasionally but haven’t we all?


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