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Friday Philosophy – Why I Volunteer for User Groups May 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Presenting, Private Life, UKOUG.
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I’ve just noticed a new page about me popping up on the UKOUG web site – It’s in the section about volunteer case studies, alongside people like Joel Goodman, Simon Haslam, Carl Dudley, Jason Arneil, Brendan Tierney and others who have been stupid good enough to give time and effort to the UKOUG.
{You can get to the page by going to the UKOUG home page (www.ukoug.org) and clicking the Membership or Member Activities tab and Case Studies & Testimonials under that and finally Volunteer Case Studies. Phew. Or follow the link I gave at the start and click on the other names.}

I’m not sure how long I’ve been up on there but only a couple of days I think.

Anyway, Why DO I volunteer for user groups?

The little bio covers most of it but I thought I would put some words here on my blog too. I volunteer because, fundamentally, I am a socialist (with a small ‘S’) – I feel that we are all better off if we all help each other. I’ve been helped by people in my career (presenting stuff I don’t know, giving advice), I guess I feel that I should return that favor. Many of the people who have (and continue) to help me stand nothing to gain personally by helping me. In fact, one or two have helped me when, strictly speaking, they are helping create a rival for work opportunities. I try to do the same to those around me. I know, it sounds a bit “Disney film teaching the kids to do right” goody-two-shoes, but that is the core of it. And there are some other aspects to it too…

Why do I volunteer for the UKOUG specifically? Because they are THE main user group in my geographic area and provide the most support to the Oracle user community here in the UK. Most of the people involved in the UKOUG are just nice people too. But I also support and volunteer for smaller user groups, mostly by either promoting their meetings, going to them or presenting. I started presenting at the main UKOUG conference back when Dido, Eminem and Christina Aguilera where in their hey-days. I also went to the RDBMS and similar SIGs and before long I was presenting at them and then got sucked into chairing one of them – the Management and Infrastructure SIG. I’ve been slowly sucked in more & more as the years role by.

That has led on to me presenting at other user groups in different countries. Actually, I used to do quite a bit of presenting abroad (mostly the US) around 10 years ago, but that was part of the role I had at the time and my employer paid the bills. No employer to pay the bills now, but then as it is my time I try to make presenting abroad also a chance to have a short holiday, I try to take a day or two one side or the other of the event to look around. And actually, it is nice spending time with other people who present at or attend user group meetings.

Another part of it is I just like presenting. This is not quite so Disney Nice Guy, there is an aspect that is more selfish, that standing up, being listened to and telling people stuff that maybe they don’t know makes me feel better about myself. Better about myself? OK, I’ll let that stand for now but it is more that it makes me feel I am achieving something and having an impact. That I am useful. Fundamentally it is still a desire to help and presenting does not scare me (I know it is scary for a lot of people, but then a lot of people are not scared of heights and I am – it all balances out). But with a slice of “look at me!!!” thrown in.

There are also rewards for the effort. I’ve got to know a lot more people as a result of presenting, blogging (and now tweeting) than I would have had I stayed just one of the audience. For me it has helped me make more friends. As I said above, part of what is now nice about user group meetings for me is meeting friends I’ve made who are also on the speaker circuit and there is inevitable a few drinks in the evening whenever there is a user group. It also gives you more exposure in the community and helps lead to job opportunities – or at least that is the theory. No one has yet offered me a job because they liked my blog post or presentation!

That leads me to the last aspect of volunteering. Some people volunteer primarily for selfish reasons. To get bragging rights, get it on their CV’s, to help them get sales contacts or better jobs. The odd thing is, people who do it for those reasons tend not to last – as volunteering for user groups is a lot of hard work to get those rewards. You can usually spot them as they are the ones who don’t actually do a lot or complain all the time about the coffee being bad (actually, usually the coffee IS bloody terrible) and other things. Don’t get me wrong, some of those rewards do come with the volunteering, but if someone is volunteering primarily to get them, it does not seem to work out for them. Or maybe that is my socialism coming out again :-). Fundamentally, I think volunteering only works if, at the core of it, you want to help other people. Maybe that is why other volunteers are such nice people to hang around with.

Why do you do it? (or not).

Fixing my iPhone with my Backside May 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
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Working with Oracle often involves fixing things – not because of the Oracle software (well, occasionally it is) but because of how it is used or the tech around it. Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometime you can find help on the web and sometimes you just have to sit on the issue for a while. Very, very occasionally, quite literally.

Dreaded "out of battery" icon

Dreaded “out of battery” icon

Last week I was in the English Lake District, a wonderful place to walk the hills & valleys and relax your mind, even as you exhaust your body. I may have been on holiday but I did need to try and keep in touch though – and it was proving difficult. No phone reception at the cottage, the internet was a bit slow and pretty random, my brother’s laptop died – and then my iPhone gave up the ghost. Up on the hills, midday, it powers off and any attempt to use it just shows the “feed me” screen. Oh well, annoying but not fatal.

However, I get back to base, plug it in…and it won’t start. I still get the “battery out of charge” image. I leave it an hour, still the same image. Reset does not help, it is an ex-iPhone, it has ceased to be.

My iPhone is version 5 model, black as opposed to the white one shown (picture stolen from “digitaltrends.com” and trimmed), not that the colour matters! I’ve started having issues with the phone’s battery not lasting so well (as, I think, has everyone with the damned thing) and especially with it’s opinion of how much charge is left being inaccurate. As soon as it gets down to 50% it very rapidly drops to under 20%, starts giving me the warnings about low battery and then hits 1%. And sometimes stays at 1% for a good hour or two, even with me taking the odd picture. And then it will shut off. If it is already down at below 20% and I do something demanding like take a picture with flash or use the torch feature, it just switches off and will only give me the “out of charge” image. But before now, it has charge up fine and, oddly enough, when I put it on to charge it immediately shows say 40-50% charge and may run for a few hours again.

So it seemed the battery was dying and had finally expired. I’m annoyed, with the unreliable internet that phone was the only verbal way to keep in touch with my wife, and for that contact I had to leave the cottage and go up the road 200 meters (thankfully, in the direction of a nice pub).

But then I got thinking about my iPhone and it’s symptoms. It’s opinion of it’s charge would drop off quickly, sudden drain had a tendency to kill it and I had noticed it lasting less well if it was cold (one night a couple of months ago it went from 75% to dead in 10, 15 mins when I was in a freezing cold car with, ironically, a dead battery). I strongly suspect the phone detects it’s level of charge by monitoring the amperage drop, or possibly the voltage drop, as the charge is used. And older rechargeable batteries tend to drop in amperage. And so do cold batteries {oddly, fully charged batteries can have a slightly higher voltage as the internal resistance is less, I understand}.

Perhaps my battery is just not kicking out enough amperage for the phone to be able to either run on it or “believe” it can run on it. The damn thing has been charging for 2 or 3 hours now and still is dead. So, let’s warm it up. Nothing too extreme, no putting it in the oven or on top of a radiator. Body temperature should do – We used to do this on scout camps with torches that were almost exhausted. So I took it out of it’s case (I have a stupid, bulky case) so that it’s metal case is uncovered and I, yep, sat on it. And drank some wine and talked balls with my brother.

15 minutes later, it fires up and recons it is 70% charged. Huzzah, it is not dead!

Since then I have kept it out it’s case, well charged and, frankly, warm. If I am out it is in my trouser pocket against my thigh. I know I need to do something more long-term but right now it’s working.

I tend to solve a lot of my IT/Oracle issues like this. I think about the system before the critical issue, was there anything already going awry, what other symptoms were there and can I think of a logical or scientific cause for such a pattern. I can’t remember any other case where chemisty has been the answer to a technology issue I’m having (though a few where physics did, like the limits on IO speed or network latency that simply cannot be exceeded), but maybe others have?

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

Posted by mwidlake in history, off-topic, Private Life.
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8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

My brother's spectrum, access denied to little me

My brother’s spectrum, access denied to little me

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

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

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still have one of these somewhere...

I still have one of these somewhere…

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, off-topic, Private Life.
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{If you landed here from “Support for the short” (wow, a whole 4 hits in 48 hours so far) and like the output of that site, I suggest you go back there. Nothing for you here I’m afraid.}

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

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

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

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

My Ego – That’s huge.

The Three Martins at UKOUG Tech14

The Three Martins at UKOUG Tech14

I should not complain too much. I have all my limbs and senses, everything physical works well, my brain does a pretty good job {despite a few quirks}, I have friends and a wife and I’ve done OK in my career. Actually, no. Let the positive be positive and the negative be negative – My wife is smart, attractive and extremely capable and I’ve done well in my career. I present internationally, I’m recognised by my peers and I’ve been asked to be involved in some great projects.

But it is a Bit Shit Being a Short Man.

As my friends and colleagues are aware, I sometimes make a joke of being small. I can be the first to mention it and I can sure as hell make fun of myself about it if I so decide. However, it is a defense mechanism. Don’t even think of taking the piss out of me for being small as, hey, I’m already doing it and I can do it a lot better than you – I have almost 4 decades of practice {anybody remember the nose-jokes scene by Steve Martin in Roxanne? Go check the link, it’s one of his funniest scenes}. If I am willing to joke about being small I rather effectively remove the ability for someone else to do so to abuse me about it and also give them permission to mention it. My boss above was not being attacking in her jokes as I’d shown I was not sensitive. I’ve taken away most of the potential for someone to be directly negative about my height unless they are willing to be very, very pointed and very obviously unpleasant. Since leaving my early 20’s, very few people have been willing or inclined to do that, so it is an effective strategy.

But for those who know me well, it sometimes becomes annoying. I’m constantly taking steps to establish this defense and as a result I occasionally harp on about my height. Some suggest I stop doing it as it is boring and unnecessary. I should not put myself down. {Down!}. They may be right, but it is a defense mechanism that has served me well and I guess I err on the side of over-emphasising it. So I’m sorry if it bugs some of you, but allow me my oddities please.

{*sigh* – update. Nearly everyone who has commented to me about this blog post (in person, on twitter, or on this blog) have been positive, nice, said they had never considered the accepted & pervasive impact of heightism. Some even apologised for it. Apart from a few short-centered groups who got angry, mostly as they assumed I used humour in a “I’m wearing a big red nose and doing funny mimes” way. No. My humour is not sycophantic. I use irony (like sarcasm but more passive-aggressive, unlike sarcasm which is just aggressive), perspective, even science. If you are short and don’t like that I ever find things funny, like not being able to reach the car mags as they tend to be up the top with the other “bloke” magazines, then sorry – I’m not trying to offend you. I don’t demand you handle things the same as I do. But in return I have no time for anyone who tells me I am wrong to laugh at things.}

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think I’m making too much about this? I am being overly sensitive to a problem that does not really exist? Well, stay crouched with me and do a quick web search on the correlation between height and pay, height and political success, height and business success {NB three different links, just to “google.uk” really}. Again, women will recognise all this.

And of course, I don’t have issues with my height all the time. Many people listen to me, especially if I am talking as a technical expert as opposed to a manager. I have managed to function well as a manager and sometimes when I make a side reference to it, people will stop and go “oh. Yes, I see what you mean”. But it is a constant background bloody maddening annoyance.

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

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

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

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

Friday Philosophy – my Funniest “PC Support” Call in Years December 19, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
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Those of us who work in IT often find ourselves being called by friends and relatives to help with issues they have with their home computer. No matter what branch of IT we work in, it’s IT {they figure} so of course we can fix their PC problems. It’s like any scientist can probably explain what the Higgs Boson really is and reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.

Mothers and other elderly relatives are probably the most baffling when it comes to such requests, but this week I had a wonderful call-out from one of my neighbours.

The neighour in question is a slightly dotty, jolly posh but well meaning Lady (we live in the cheap house around here, she lives at the other end of things).

“Oh Martin, it’s AWE-full! My computer is full of p3nises and other horrible things!!! Please help me get rid of all the p3nises!!!”

Ahhh… I wonder what sites she’s been looking at…must be a virus or something. “It’s OK Tabitha, I’ll pop down now and have a look for you” I say. “Oh, that is so decent of you, your such a helpful young man!” {Young?!?}

So I tell my wife I’ve off over to Tabitha’s to help her with p3nises – and leave her sniggering on the sofa. When I arrive Tabitha opens the door and exclaims, quite loudly “oh thank you for coming to help me with these p3nises and things!”. Thanks, Tabitha, I’m sure John and Elaine could hear that.

It takes ages to get to the bottom of what her issue is as she is talking non-stop, wandering off track and saying how they must think she’s a man as they want her to buy certain drugs and she keeps describing the p3nises and naked people “doing very rude things” she has seen – and each time I try and do anything on her tablet she’ll suddenly lean over and tap on any icons or links. It’s like a Pavlovian response. This could be the root of all her IT woes…

It turns out her virus scanner is running (I set her up with that), up to date and there seems to be no infection. The problem is simply the spam email she (and we all) get. She has her mail application set to preview and also download any images in the email. And she checks each spam email before deleting each one. I suspect sometimes she checks in detail…

We then have a long and sometimes surreal conversation about why they think she should want to buy viagra, enhancement creams or meet Tanya who is local, fun, vivacious and wants some company. {“Well she sounds like she just wants some friends to me” – “DON’T CLICK ON THAT LINK!!!!”}. At least she knows to never respond to emails about bills, banks, missed messages or vast sums of money – we had that conversation when I helped her sort out the Laptop a year or two back. I did not bring up sex as, well, you don’t talk to nice ladies like Tabitha about sex… Tabitha did ask if she should respond to ask them to just stop sending her these pictures but I assured her it would only get worse if we did. These are not nice people we are dealing with.

We could not sort out better filtering at her mail server end for various reasons so in the end I showed her how to turn off the preview and delete all spam with one click. That mollified her and I was allowed to leave.

There was one small knock-on effect. Now apparently, according to her (other neighbours tell me she has said this) I “am wonderful with p3nises”.

Nice to know.

Thank you for letting me share that one…

If anyone has other tails of enforced PC support which might amuse, please share – T’is the season to be Jolly after all. But please changes names! This is a public blog, Tabitha may never come across my posts but at least she will know she is not called Tabitha.

Time to wake up April 1, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, Private Life, UKOUG, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,
3 comments

This post is nothing more than a line in the sand, really.

After my post on “retiring” in November last year and then the one about working to network, as opposed to working to network just prior to 2013 year end, I have been very, very quiet. Well, I had things outside of Oracle and IT to do and they were more important to me. I’d say I have made a reasonable stab at them. My wife would say I have been a lazy and good-for-nothing so-and-so. If you do not know me, trust my wife. If you do know me, you already know to trust my wife :-) .

I do need to nod my head at a few friends who got in touch when it all went quite after my retirement post and privately checked I was not dying. I’m not, I’m fine, and I was touched by the concern. I do seem to be currently surrounded by people who have died or are dying, but so far no one I married, lived with, am related by blood to or bought (The CAT, you strange people – but she is old and was “odd” last month, I did think for a while it was white-coat time) has hit that particular end-point, but has become a constant background concern. Hmm, sometimes foreground, but still part of the benefit of not working is being able to be there when others need.

However, in my state of not-working, I did a rare check on the calendar this week and saw that 1st April 2014 was approaching – and that is my line in the sand. I had to make a break from working in London (or, rather, commuting in and out of London) and also sort a few non-IT things out in my real life, which I think I have. So I am entering the weird world of Oracle IT once more. Last week I went to the second Oracle Midlands user group meeting and it was very, very good. If you are within 100 miles of Birmingham, google it and get along. The next meeting is 20th May and Christian Antognini is doing a double-header presentation and you will benefit from being there.

The next day I was in a meeting in London about organising the next UKOUG tech conference. This year it will be in Liverpool and a week later than normal. That might sound negative (way out THERE and THAT late?) but the venue is just right for the conference. There is more to do around that area of Liverpool than last year in Manchester or ineed there was for so many comfortable years in central Birmingham {I did start to drift more to locations in central Brum these last 3 or 4 years but it was a real effort to get people to go with me} and a lot of effort is going in to looking at the feedback from prior events to improve this net event in 2014. I am determined to get some of that feedback through. Though I would say that seeing as I am involved :-). I’ll mention some more details later this week or next week, depending on how my non-Oracle life taking it’s demands.

Tomorrow (today?) I am at the next UKOUG AIM SIG – it needs a better title – but it is the old RAC-HA SIG conjoined with my SIG that was about managing Oracle in large, complex or demanding environments, called the AIM SIG – but as it had the word “management” in it, so it scared many IT people away (it was more about *coping* with corporate management than being *about* corporate management). Anyway, we need to re-title it so you buggers realise it is actually a technical SIG aimed at helping us look at at and handle cluster issues and massive-system issues. Yes, it need to be two SIGs again, but the UKOUG is struggling with that, partly as your companies stopped letting you lot come to these meetings. I despair of large corporations, I really do… :-)

So that was a load of fluff about me coming back to the user-based fold and playing a role. I do intend to do some technical posts too, but that take a lot of effort. I have some half written but as I have lost access to the systems I did the real work on {hmmm, some I can still access but, legally, I should not even be TRYing} that make it less-than-easy for me to demonstrate my points with real-world but obfuscated examples. Recreating those examples on play systems is NOT a piece of play-time.

Which leads me on to one odd point I am sure I will come back to:

I’m “retired”.
I do not need to earn.
Do you have an interesting performance/architecture issue with Oracle you are stumped with?
I won’t work for free (after all, some people pay the bills doing this stuff and I DO need to earn enough to go and present/teach and the garden needs my free time). But I am kind of an easy mark at the moment.

Anyway, April 1st and I need to be in Reading for the next AIM SIG so I better finish this off.

So finally….

It’s (worryingly) good to be back.

Martin W

Friday Philosophy – Network to Work or Work to Network? December 20, 2013

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

A couple of months ago my friend Big Dave Roberts blogged about the benefits of networking – as in social/business networking as opposed to using hairy string to connect bits of IT kit together – after we had met for a drink in Birmingham.

His point was that, though he had made a positive effort to network more to help his career (along with several other steps) networking had not in fact, as far as he could tell, helped his career. But he still did it because of the other benefits – meeting diverse people with different experiences and ideas and enjoying it.

By the way, I really do dislike the use of the word “Networking” in the social/business context as it smacks of PR/Sales type people just developing more contacts in order to make more money out of them, somewhat akin to milking cows. IE, in a totally self-centered manner where they really don’t give a hoot about the people they are fawning to. This is what business networking is anyway, isn’t it? I mean, do people really play golf for enjoyment?!? Or just to schmooze and get the contract or a promotion? :-) {Apologies to Carol and Rob, I know you really do enjoy golf. Oh and Neil. I think I just lost some friends…}.

I also made a decision way back in about 2002 to meet more people and build better links in the community. I was having to design some very large databases and there was not a lot of information out there about doing so as most people building VLDBS would not or could not talk about them officially. Then when I went self-employed again in 2007 I once more made a conscious effort to promote myself and network more, in order to help me get more work (in exactly the way I don’t like PR/Sales people doing it!).

I can’t say it helped me much either time. For one thing, despite the presenting and blogging and London Oracle Beers, I’m rather poor in the social skills area. I can come across as a bit of an idiot to my friends, who only let me off as they are friends. I actually find it a little hard to keep a conversation going with someone I do not already know, I can end up either being silent or I just come out with a random and never-ending stream of rubbish. For another, I just can’t fake sincerity. I could never be an actor. If I am not enjoying talking to someone I think it is obvious to them and I fall flat on my face. I can’t make myself laugh at someone’s anecdotes if, to me, they just are not entertaining. And I certainly can’t pretend to like someone who just isn’t someone I get on with. I can manage to be civil to them and work with them but I just can’t make myself spend any social time with them if I don’t have to. I’ll just invent dead Grandmother’s funerals to escape – see, I can’t even come up with convincing reasons to avoid networking with people who I don’t mesh with.

So I stopped networking. I just couldn’t do it.

I am now in the situation where I am aiming to only do only consultancy work and recruitment consultants are useless at getting you short-term consultancy work. Well, most of them are just useless at being human beings, but not many companies go to them to fill short-term needs and the agencies would make less money than they would spend filling the position. So if this is going to pan out for me, I need to get my work from my contacts, my network. Hell, I surely need to start Networking like some sort of crazed PR madman!

Well, I am not. I know it is just not in my nature and I am poor at it.

Something odd struck me about 4 years ago. I realised that half my work was coming about via friends. And when I was getting work via agencies, it seemed that either a friend had mentioned my name to the agent or the person interviewing me knew a friend of mine. Not someone I had networked with, but a proper friend, someone I would go out of my way to share a beer with or a coffee.

What I am going to do is what Big Dave and I have both ended up doing. I am just going to socialise more, for the primary reason of just wanting to socialise. A big part of the presenting and going to conferences is, for me, simply about meeting friends and having some fun. The London Beers is totally about that. I’ve discovered that despite me having no memory for names, an ability to insult people without trying and at times a total lack of comprehension of what is going on in other peoples’ heads, I actually enjoy meeting people. Well, most people. And Dave? I think having more friends does indeed lead to more work, but it takes a long time to pay dividends. Longer than most people (well, I) can fake it for via Networking, and the other benefits are more significant and immediate than the financial ones.

In fact, when my wife and I were talking about my “retiring” and she was asking me what I wanted to do over the next few years, one of them was to keep going to conferences and presenting. But that costs money. “So how are you going to pay for that Martin?” she asked – ” I’m not going back to work to pay for you to swan off to conferences and drink and discuss bloody block buffer latch chains and enjoy yourself!”. Well, I am still going to try and do this mythical consultancy work. Our agreement is that I can go to conferences if I earn enough to pay for it.

So, I am not networking to work. I am working to network.

And in fact the title of this blog is a lie. I am working to socialise. In my experience, for me, Networking fails. I hate Networking. I can’t Network. I can just about manage having some friends. Like Big Dave, Networking has not really got me any work, but being more sociable has allowed me to meet some very nice and/or interesting people and has led to *some* work.

So get out there and socialise more, it’s great. Just don’t Network and don’t play bloody golf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for Bed, said Zebedee November 15, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life, Uncategorized.
Tags: , ,
6 comments

Zebedee has just boinged onto my TV screen on his big-spring lower body and told us all that it is “time for bed”. I concur Zebedee. Good night everyone!

zebedee

For those of you who are not of UK origin and of “a certain age”, Zebedee was a character on the BBC Children’s TV Program The Magic Roundabout. At the end of the program (5 minutes of oddly surreal kids entertainment) more often than not Zebedee would arrive (if not already present as part of the narrative arc) and announce “Time for Bed” and that would be the end of the program. I won’t go into the rest of the details but for those of us who grew up with it, Dougal, Florence, Brian, Zebedee and Ermintrude the cow were large in our childhood. Dylan though was odd… {for anyone wanting a nostalgia trip, try this episode}

Well, for me it is “Time for Bed” children. I started working in IT almost exactly 24 years ago on the 13th November 1989, arriving wearing my new (cheap) suit with (shiny) briefcase clutched in my hand at a (tatty) office block in Bristol owned by the NHS. It housed their regional computer department for the South West of England.
And on the 15th November 2013, I will exit a much plusher office, no suit on, no briefcase, and I will go home and, for many complex reasons, I will “retire”. This does not mean I will stop working in IT and it *may* result in me being a more regular blogger and more of a teacher than I have been for 2 years, but let’s just see, Boys and Girls.

What it does mean is I am stopping doing the 2 hour commute into and out of London every day, wasting my life. It means I am not signing up for 6 months on a single project on the basis of a couple of 30 minute interviews. I am also not signing up for 4 weeks and then finding it becomes six months – as when that happens it is *always* 6 months of misery trying to undo the work of a dedicated hoard of hopeful but under-skilled youngsters being forced to do a job they lack the training for by people who should not be allowed anywhere near management positions (as they see “management” as a way to gauge their importance, polish their egos and garner more cash – rather than as a role that should encompass “nurturing, developing, admonishing and making the most of your team(s)”.). It means I won’t have to play by corporate rules any more, which is good as I am finding it harder and harder and harder to do that without coming home and being really quite mean to my cat, and she does not deserve that as she is friendly and quite forgiving really. Neither does my wife deserve it, but if I am mean to her, she punches me.

What I do hope will happen is that, after a couple of months to get a few things sorted, I will continue to get the odd call I seem to get about once a month where someone would like me to just help out with a specific problem. Occasionally I have been able to say “yes” and it has been interesting and enjoyable, but usually I have been in the middle of one of the situations that resulted in my rant above and have had to say no. If I do get the calls, it will be great. I would like to earn enough so I can still do the conferences and present and meet people and talk about interesting problems and drink beer. If not, I have a lot of other things I want to have a crack at.

So I am not sure what awaits me now. But I am “retired”. I have calculated that from now to my demise I can afford to buy a tin of beans every day until I die. Plus some bread, so beans on toast is possible. That is enough. I did not retire 9 months ago (as was my original plan) so, as a result, now I can afford once a week to buy a very cheap bottle of wine. Something better than Blue Nun. If I get more work, I could step up to beans and cheese on toast. Hmmmm!

A loss from the UK User Community – Graham Gilbert July 17, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life, UKOUG.
Tags: , , ,
4 comments

Last week, as part of organising the AIM and Database Server joint UKOUG SIG tomorrow {which I should have blogged about but just never got around to}, I was made aware of the fact that a man called Graham Gilbert died back in April.

Anyone who has anything to do with the RDBMS parts of the UK Oracle User Group probably knows Graham as he ran the RDBMS SIG for years and years and years. For the rest of you, you missed out as Graham was a Jewel. I can’t say he was a close friend, after all I was not aware he had died, but I was saddened by it – and that is unusual as I am particularly sanguine (callous?) when if comes to death. {For example, on hearing about the death of my own father, who I did actually like and get on with, my immediate and on-going response was “damn, that’s inconvenient”}.

I was saddened as Graham was one of those rare beasts – a person who helped, encouraged and supported people. Everyone who met him seems to have liked him. {If you DID meet him and not like him – I don’t want to talk to you, OK?!} In fact, when I got the first hint of Graham having died, I got in touch with some mutual friends and asked if they had heard anything. The response was a consistent “No – but let me know as Graham … (various citations about how he had encouraged, helped or been kind to them)” followed.

You can see this if you look at {and I really hope this works} this section in the UKOUG 50th Anniversary edition. I could not put better what Patrick Hurley said about Graham gently encouraging people to be part of the community.

As I have said, I did not know Graham well, but I did share a few pints with him after RDBMS SIGs on a couple of occasions. On one such occasion we were discussing the fact that he had run the RDBMS SIG for so long – I was thinking of stepping down from the SIG I was running but no one was showing signs of stepping up if I did. Graham gave a gentle sigh and observed that “many people would like to help – but the day job or the effort or a lack of confidence gets in the way. You just have to encourage them.” So why had he been the RDBMS SIG chair for so long? “Well, I would rather not, but it just seems to fall to me. It needs doing and it is not really a burden, I just don’t want to be seen as making it my empire. I can ask people to present but not take on the whole thing!”. My quotes will be inaccurate but that was the gist of it. He encouraged people to advance themselves or take part but seemed reluctant to burden anyone. I wonder now if he ended up running it for so long as he was just so damned good at it and we wanted to keep him? I bought him a pint (I nearly had to argue with him on that one) as he was being so nice to me and encouraged me to keep doing my SIG so long as punters turned up.

Graham, for me, epitomises the User Group mentality. We help one another and we do it as we want to, well, help each other. I’ve met a fair few ….arseholes… who do user group stuff for the CV or to get recognition or some other personal gain. You can quickly spot them as they want the label but do very little for it, or do loads for 6 months and then drop out the picture when they realise it is not giving them that immediate reward they wanted. I don’t like those people, it’s like people who do stuff for charity and then thrust it down your throat. They did it for themselves, not the recipient. Thankfully I know many people who do the user group stuff because they “just want to help” and many of them never present (as presenting is not their thing) or blog or crow. They just help. I must try and be more appreciative of them.

Well, Graham did his bit quietly and consistently for years and years, because he wanted to help. He helped a lot of us. A round of drinks will be bought tomorrow after the SIG in his honour. It’s the least we can do – and I mean the least.

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