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Preparing A Device for Someone New To I.T. April 26, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life, Uncategorized.
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3 comments

In my previous post I covered what I felt were the main considerations on deciding how to get someone with no real experience of I.T. online, for an example an elderly relative like my mum. In this post I’ll cover setting up the device.  Set-up is actually quite complex and there is a lot of assumed knowledge, like how the keyboard works, what spyware you leave turned on (none!) etc. So I am setting it up for her.  First I’ll just recap the main points on why I decided to use an Apple iPad for my Mum:

Keep the main screen as simple as possible

  • A small tablet – but not too small.
  • Simple, intuitive interface.
  • A Smartphone or iPad mini was too small.
  • PC/laptop ruled out as too complex for her.
  • Apple device as her main potential contacts use Apple devices.
  • A lack of remote access by me was less important than the above considerations.

On of the first things I did was to ask my friends (via Twitter) what they would suggest or had found worked when they had a similar task. Thank you to everyone who replied. If you have further advice, add a comment or contact me and I can update this post. The main suggestions were:

Keep It Simple

Mum has never used a keyboard, never used a smartphone and is not very technically adept. Everything she is learning is almost new to her, from what the enter key does to what an icon is. The closest reference I can use for her is the menu of options on her TV recorder – and she has some pretty bizarre ways of using that (but if it works for her, that’s just fine). So using the device has to be very, very simple. I want the main screen to be simple and non-threatening:

  • Remove every App that is not for something she needs to use (or I need to help).
  • Move any icons I need but she does not (or at least not at first) off the first screen.
  • Be brutal, delete as much as you can –  you can add back anything you later find you need.
  • Only have one app for a given task. Choice in this case is probably just confusion.
  • Include one or two (and only one or two) key things she will want to use.

I’ll just cover some of those bullet points in more detail:

Remove every app not required. My mum has no interest in stocks & shares, in monitoring her health, in maps of where she is (she knows where she is, she does not go anywhere else!). She certainly has no interest in “iTunes Store”, “Photo Booth” or any of the other “free” apps provided by the vendor. They will just be confusing clutter at first.

If there are 2 dozen icons on the screen, Mum will worry about what they all do or what will happen if she clicks the wrong one. And she will click the wrong one. It is a worry we don’t need.

When she first starts, she will struggle to find the right icon – even from a simplified list (and she did). The fewer choices the better.

So I deleted absolutely everything but the half dozen things she needed. If in the coming weeks, months or years she wants anything a deleted apps provides, they can be added back. When she is comfortable with the first lot, I can introduce more.

The very basic “what the buttons do” help sheet

Move Icons I need to the second page. There are some things I need to get the device all set up for her and then tweak it. Two of them are “Settings” and “App Store”. You could argue that “Settings” will have things that Mum might like to change. But she won’t know how and she could mess up things if she changes her settings. So they are moved to the second page – and I told her to leave that page if she ever gets on it! The chances are she will not find the second page of Icons. (I did show her how to get off it, but stressed she call me if in doubt).

I also put a couple of things on the second page that I think she might want to use soon.

Only One Way.  I was advised to provide Mum with e.g. two ways of getting hold of me, in case one fails. Well, no. I do NOT want to have to show her two messaging apps and teach her the differences, I want one method that she can become confident with. It’s part of keeping it simple. Mum will be challenged to learn one interface, if I try and show her a second she will get confused over what works in which app. She can call me on the phone if the new way of communicating is not working, she is happy using a phone (as in just a phone, one that only makes and receives calls).

If Mum decides she does not like the app I choose (e.g. BBC News for, well, news) we can swap later. But right now I pick what I think she will like. And for the sake of simplicity, I chose a set of apps that are from the same provider, so work the same way.

We in the I.T. profession often love that we can swap between programming languages or have 4 or 5 social media apps to choose from. But we live and breath this stuff. This is all new to Mum. When you learnt to drive a  powered vehicle you learnt to drive a car. Or a motorbike. Or maybe even a tractor. You did not learn to use all three at the same time – and also an articulated lorry at the same time!

One or Two things she wants. I got a lot of advice of things to add to make the device fun or interesting, such as games, picture editing, or puzzles. The principle is good – but the reality is you need to think about the person and what they want from the device. And the keeping it simple aspect.

My mum loves jigsaws – but she loves the physical side of them! She has her tables set up, she talks about the manufacture she likes as the pieces fit together so well, she likes to glue together the occasional jigsaw she really likes. Maybe in the future she will look at Jigsaw apps, but right now she wants to keep her physical jigsaws.

What she wants is (1) a way to communicate with me (2) information on cycling and Formula 1 (3) the weather. So I gave her them. Nothing more, I’m keeping it simple. So that is Messenger, BBC sport and BBC weather. BBC news completes her intro to the web.

(Note, I also tried to introduce searching for things on google, but it did not work well – google does not understand “I want to know about him, that cycling chap, the one who’s not got side-burns”. We will come back to google in a month or so).

Make it Big and Bold

I don’t know about you, but the last time I changed my smartphone I got one with a slightly larger screen as I was having to hold the old one further and further away from me so I could focus on it. And I set my new smartphone to have larger Icons.

Add pictures they will like to their social media and the device. Keep personal information to a minimum to protect them.

If you are new to I.T. and you are starting to have issues with vision or hearing, there are options for any device to make it easier to use. Check out the “Ease of Use” or “accessibility” options of the device. Ironically, they are not always the easiest to find. For iPads they are not a main option but under “General”. That’s not very helpful, Apple!

You maybe don’t want to bring up the topic of failing faculties with an older relative – so don’t. Just set up the device to have large icons, big text. and loud messages. Big and Bold.

Also, think of adding pictures and sounds the person will like. I changed the iPad wallpaper for a picture of our cats and when I created her facebook account (hmmm, I’ve not covered that…) I added a background of myself and my brother up some hills and a picture of our last cat as her image. I would have made it a picture of one of her cats but I did not have one. And that will be a nice thing to do with her sometime. The main thrust is use images the person can relate to.

To make the device easier for Mum to use I considered the following:

  • Increase the text size.
  • Increase the icon size.
  • Bold text & increased contrast can help if vision is poor.
  • Set the volume loud and make sure one of the first things you demonstrate is how to increase (and decrease) volume.
  • When you start messaging, send pictures. It’s more interesting.
  • Show them emojis. My mum seemed to really like emojis. Less Tyoing!
  • Put pictures they will like as their wallpaper and social media images.

I think I could have done more in this respect. What I should have done was got pictures from her and scanned them, or looked back in my old photo collection. I could have set the wallpaper to a picture of my Dad (long gone) or of all us kids or something. And any social media you set up for the person, think what pictures you can use for backgrounds and avatars.

 

Reference Material

The online help on tablets etc is pretty good – once you are able to look for it and learn what you can ignore.

For anyone who is really new to technology, reference material is going to need to be a lot more basic.

Keyboards Confuse the Uninitiated

I prepared several sheets of information for my mum, like how to use a keyboard, which I show here. I also did some pictures of the iPad and annotated it – and left space for Mum to add her own notes!

My Mum found these really helpful, especially being able to scribble on them herself (which sometimes was replacing my helpful text with her weird description on what a key did!).

As well as this, I got her one of those “a senior citizen’s guide to the iPad” magazines. They are a good place to go to once the real basics of how to turn the device off and on and how a keyboard works have been learnt. BUT, they have a big drawback – they try and show lots of things in order to address a wide audience, and they usually have a long section at the start about “setting up your device”. I already set it up, Mum does not need it. So, edit the magazine!

I went through the magazine and crossed out in big, thick, black lines the bits she did not need. I also crossed out those sections on an app I had not given her but did a similar thing, and wrote at the start of it “do not read, Mum! Yours works differently!”

 

Random Other Advice

“Tell her not to clean the screen with a brillo pad! :)”
Well, it was a bit of a joke but it leads to a serious point. Explain how to look after the thing. I made the point that she should not get the iPad wet and to dry it immediately if she does spill things on it. And, if she drops it down the loo, take it out immediately, turn it off if it is on and put it somewhere warm – and call me!

“Yes, you can leave it plugged in, it will work for several days between charges. No you can’t damage the screen by tapping it with your finger, but do not use a screwdriver. Hitting it harder will not make it work more.”

We should (and will) get a cover for it so Mum can hold it more easily. Her house is carpeted throughout so dropping it (which she does, but she is close to the ground) is not such an issue.

“tell her how to get rid of Siri when she accidentally starts Siri up.”
I have turned off Siri as much as I can. And this leads on to the general topic of telling the person what they can and should ignore.

I told Mum to ignore prompts she will get (“You have not backed up your device for a week, kittens will die!”) or requests for feedback or surveys; how to shut down advertising boxes; do not respond to anything that ask you to provide information or download anything. And, just because you now have a “computer”, you should still ignore any telephone calls you get offering to help you with your computer problem. They were a hoax before you had a computer, they still are – keep telling them you don’t have a computer.

“Be patient…”
That last one is key. This is all new to them and if you are a regular visitor to my blog you are probably an I.T. expert. It can be very hard for us to understand how new this is for non-I.T. people and we assume knowledge. Like, what the enter key does in different situations and using the shift key (a single press of the shift key is different to a double press – and undoing the ALL CAPS of a double press only take a single press, which my Mum rightly pointed out is not logical!).

My mum really, really did not understand the keyboard very well to start. But touching the screen and dragging things around she took to straight away. I guess different people take to different parts more easily.

Be prepared to be very patient (*) and do not be surprised if some things take them an age to understand and yet other things they seem to get immediately. At some point, probably very early on, they will find out how to do something you don’t know!

(*) as my wife comments (in the comments section) alcohol may be required for post-training de-stress!

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Introducing I.T. to an Elderly Relative February 25, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
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1 comment so far

Introducing an older person to the connected world can be a challenge. So I thought I would describe my recent experiences in introducing my elderly mother to I.T and the internet. Each such situation will be different of course, depending on the prior experience of the person and the skills you believe they have. I’m going to run through what I think are the main initial considerations. I knew from the start it was going to be a particular challenge with my mother, so I think she is a good example. Hopefully, for many the task will be a little easier…

From cheezburger dot com

Firstly, why are we doing this?

Not everyone has to be on the internet and I knew it was going to be stressful for everyone involved, so the first question to ask is “Is it in the best interest of Uncle Bob to go through this?”

For years my mother has shown very little interest in computers or the internet, and at times she has been quite “Oh, those damn things!” about it all. But over the last 2 or 3 years Mum’s started showing an interest. This has nothing to do with the fact that her youngest son’s whole working life has been in I.T., I think she’s simply started to feel she is missing out as there are so many references on TV programs and the newspaper to things on the internet. “Just go to blingy bong for more information!”. And to her, it really is “blingy bong”.

I think it is vital that the person wants to get online – and this is not a one-week wonder.

Before now my mum had mentioned getting online but then lost interest when the one thing she was interested in disappeared, such as checking the state of play in the Vuelta cycling race as it was not on her TV. Setting someone up on the internet is not cheap and I knew she would insist on paying. You have to organise broadband to the property, buy a device and then spend time in training them. If mum lost interest after a couple of days of trying, it would all be a waste of effort. But she had been constant in mentioning this for a couple of months.

Another reason to get Mum online is so she can stay in touch more easily {am I really sure I want this?!?}. Her hearing is not as good as it was and phone calls are a ‘dedicated, binary activity’. What do I mean by that? Well, when you are on the phone, you have to keep the conversation going and you are doing nothing else, this is your only chance to communicate – dedicated. And when you are not on the phone you are not in contact – Binary (all or nothing).

I think those of us in the technology industry or who grew up in the last… 4 decades maybe take this for granted, but with email, texts, messenger, whatsapp etc you can throw a message or two at people when the need occurs to you, and leave them for the person to pick up. It is a more relaxed way of communicating and, in many ways, more reliable. At present if mum needs me to come over and change light bulbs she needs to call me in the evening. She won’t call me during the day, she is convinced nothing short of death is important enough to call during the day! So she also needs to remember to call and mum is getting worse for that. If she is online she can send me a message when she notices the bulb in hall has blown.

The next step is to assess the capabilities of the person you are helping.

I’ve introduced a few other people (mother-in-law, brother to some degree, relatives of friends) to computers and the internet over the years and the size of the challenge is very much dictated by their skills. I think you need to be honest about how much and how soon people can learn, especially if they are older or have learning needs. It’s great to be surprised by them doing better than you expected, but if they do worse then it can be demoralising for both parties.

My mother-in-law was a retired science teacher, interested in a dozen things, confident, and self-motivated. When she asked me to help her get on the internet I knew it was not going to be too hard.  But something I did not consider is that she had never typed at all (which surprised me, but there you go), so the keyboard was an initial, surprise challenge to the task. Just think about it, you have to explain the “enter” key, the “delete” key, “shift” key, special symbols… But the Mother-in-law was used to using equipment and took to it well. It did mean that the first session was almost totally about introducing her to the keyboard and just a few basics on turning the machine on and off and using email. After that I went on in later sessions to show her the basics of Windows, email, web browsing and she was soon teaching herself. She got a couple of “computes for dummies” and went through them.

Learning skills deteriorate as you age – but each individual is different. Be realistic.

My mother had also never used a typewriter – but she is also not good with technology. Getting her to understand how to use a video player was a task way back when.  It is not that she is no good with mechanical things or controlling them, she was a sewing machinist all her career – but she never moved from a simple sewing machine with just a dozen manually selected stitch patterns to ones which you can program or that have a lot of controls. This might be mean to say, but she struggled with an electronic cat-flap when we installed one for her! {Well, we installed it for the cats to be honest, we do not make Mum enter and exit the house on her hands and knees through a small hole in the door}. My mum has also never had (or wanted) a mobile phone, let alone a smart phone. Apps, widgets, icons, touch screens are all things she has never used.  We were going to have to keep it very, very simple. Mum also lacks focus and retention of details. Lots of repetition would be needed to learn, and only a few things at a time.

Third Question – What hardware?

This is a major consideration. A few years ago if you wanted internet access and email the choice was simply “Mac or PC” and probably came down to what you personally preferred and felt most comfortable supporting.

I realised from the very start that my mum would never cope with a Windows PC or a Mac. I know some people are so Mac-fanboy that they will insist it is “so easy anyone could use them” but no, Macs can have issues and there is a lot of stuff to initially learn to get going. And, like PC’s, they DO go wrong and have issues.

Choice made – will it be the correct one?

I did initially investigate if I could make a Windows PC work for my mum. I can sort out most issues on a PC and so it would be easier for me to support her. You can set Windows up to be simpler for an older person. I was more than happy setting up other older people with a PC in the past, as I’ve mentioned. Another big advantage with a PC would be I could set it up so I could remote access it and help. I live 2.5 hours from Mum, remote access would be a major boon. In another situation I think I would go down that route, set up a Windows laptop, reduce what was available on it, put on the things I felt they would want initially and ensure I had full access to the machine. I could then do interactive “show and tell” sessions. Of course, you have to consider privacy if you have full access to someone’s machine. But I felt I was trying to come up with a solution that was more easy for me rather than more easy for the person I was helping.

My final factor in my decision on what to go for was “the internet”. There is bad stuff on the internet (I don’t mean content so much, what my Mum looks at is up to her and I am under no illusions that when someone gets old they do not become a child to protect. I don’t understand why some people seem to think old people are sweet and innocent! Old people used to be young, wild, risk-taking and randy. They’ve lived a life and learnt about the world and they know what they do and do not like). What bothers me about the internet is viruses, spyware, downloads that screw your system over. No matter how much I would explain to my mum, there was a good chance she would end up clicking on something and downloading some crap that messed up the system or stole her details. Machines that are not Windows PCs suffer from this a lot less.

For a while my mum said she wanted an Alexa or something similar. Something she could ask about Lonnie Donegan’s greatest hits (this is a totally true example). But talking to her she also wanted email and BBC news and sport. Also, I’ve seen people using an Alexa and getting it to understand & do what you want is pretty hit & miss, I could see that really frustrating my Mum. Also I don’t like the damned, nasty, spying, uncontrolled bloody things – they listen all the time and I don’t think it is at all clear what gets send back to the manufacturer, how it is processed, how they use it for sales & marketing.

So, for my mum a tablet was the way to go. It is simpler, much more like using a phone (you know, the mobile phone she has never had!) and has no complication of separate components. Plus it is smaller. I decided on an iPad because:

    • The three people she is most likely to be in contact with already have an iPad mini or iPhone,
    • They are simple. Simple-ish. Well, not too complicated.
    • I felt it was big enough for her to see things on it but not so big as to be in the way.
    • The interface is pretty well designed and swish.
    • They are relatively unaffected by viruses and malware (not impervious though)
    • It will survive being dropped on the carpeted floor of her house many, many, many times.
    • You can’t harm them by just typing things and running apps. {Hmm, I’ll come back to that in a later post…}
    • If she really hated it, I could make use of a new iPad 🙂

The biggest drawback to an iPad is I cannot get remote access. I’ve had a play with one remote viewing tool but it is too complex for Mum to do her part of things, at least initially. If anyone has any suggestions for dead simple remote access to iPads (and I don’t mind paying for such a service) please let me know. I have access to all her passwords and accounts, at least until she is happy taking control, so I can do anything to get access.

I did not make the decision on her hardware on my own though. Having thought through all the above myself, the next time I visited Mum I took an iPad mini and an iPhone and I asked her what she thought she wanted. We talked about Alexas and PCs too. She did not want a PC, she hated the home computer my father had had (it made funny noises in the corner and disturbed her watching “Eastenders”). Even a laptop was too big – her table in the living room must remain dedicated to her jigsaws! Mum felt an iPhone was too small for her. I won’t say I did not lead the conversation a little, but if she had been adamant she wanted just a phone or a laptop, I’d have tried to make it happen.

Decision made, it will be a standard iPad.

Are we all set?

No, not quite. There is one last thing before starting down this route. Getting advice from others on how to do this (which might be why you are reading this). As well as looking around on the internet a little I tweeted out to my community within I.T. to ask for simple advice. After all, many of us are of an age where we have had to deal with helping our older relatives get online. And I got quite a lot of good advice. I love it when the community helps.

A lot of the advice was on how to set up the device. However, I think it best to cover the setting up of the device under a dedicated post. That will be next.

Friday Philosophy – Despair of the Dyslexic Developer and Your Help Please June 1, 2018

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

Like a surprisingly large number of people, I’m dyslexic. I’ve mentioned this before, describing how I found out I was dyslexic and also how I think it is sometimes used as an odd sort-of badge of distinction. I am mildly dyslexic, the letters do not try to “merge or run away” from my eye, if I hit a large word I am unfamiliar with I can visually chop it up and get through it. But that is just me. So, today, I want to ask you all, if you are a dyslexic developer or know one, are there any steps you have taken to reduce the impact?

I should mention, neither Jim or Richard are dyslexic as far as I know!

A recent, slightly jokey, conversation on twitter reminded me of the issues I have had in typing the wrong thing (over and over and over again – my usual example is how often I have tried to “shitdwon” an oracle instance). And that in turn reminded me of a more serious conversation I had when at the OUG Ireland conference back in March.

As a developer, I sometimes struggle to spot spelling mistakes or use of the wrong (or missing) punctuation in my code. As my friend JimTheWhyGuy said in the twitter conversation, spotting you had spelt UDPATE wrong. I was telling the audience that I was something of a slow developer, partly due to dyslexia. I can stare at code for ages, especially if I am using a new construct to me, not understanding why I am getting an error. It is often not a syntax problem but a spelling one. I had real problems with the word “partitioning” (and still do) when I started using that feature. – it is a little long and has almost-repeated sections in the middle and I “spin” in the middle if I read it or try to write it. It’s a little too long for my wrists to learn to automatically tap it out.

After the talk a lady came over and asked me if I had any advice on how to reduce the impact of dyslexia when writing code. She’d been diagnosed at school and so had grown up knowing she was dyslexic. (I was not diagnosed as a child, which oddly enough I am still glad about – as I learnt to cope with it in my own way. But I am NOT glad I am dyslexic). I do not know what support and advice she had been given through school, but it was obviously still something that impacted things. All I could come up with were a couple of tricks I use.

One is to copy text into MS Word and see if it highlights anything. You have to teach your version of MS Word (*other word processors with spell checkers are available) that the normal syntax words are real, but all the punctuation and special characters get in the way. Where it does help a lot is reducing the number of errors in specifications & documentation I produce and, now, articles I write. But as I know most of you who come by here have already realised – spelling errors that give another correct word are not picked up by a lot of spell checkers, such as this WordPress site. My blogs are full of missing words, wrong words and other crap.

The other major advance is the use of, Software Development Tools (SDTs – and YES, I spelt SDT wrong first time around writing this!) or Interactive Development Environments (IDEs). These highlight syntax errors (so highlighting typos), allow auto-completion of command words and provide common code constructs. They help, but I’ve never been that good at getting the best out of them. I use SQL*Developer more than the others and it does help.

The final other thing is that I just factor in that it’s going to take me more time to write or read stuff. Like many dyslexics, there is nothing wrong with my comprehension (I went off the scale for reading age when I was 12) but it takes me longer and is more effort.

Looking around on the web about this, there is a lot of stuff, the above point about IDEs being a main one. One common thing is to use different fonts to help stop letters skipping about or moving, but I don’t have that sort of dyslexia so I’ve never looked into that. I was going to review the topic of dyslexic developers more before putting this article together, but reading it all was taking me too long! That and I found the constant “It gave me an advantage” to be bloody annoying.

So, knowing a few of you out there are also dyslexic to some degree or another, have you any tips to share? If you have something to share but do not want to be identified, contact me directly.

I’d really appreciate it, if not for me then for if ever anyone else asks me how I cope as a dyslexic developer.

My main opt-out of course was to move into performance. It’s somehow more “pictorial” in my mind and you write less code…

Riga & Romania, Zagreb & Zurich: It Sounds Rockstar but Really it’s Not May 10, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, Presenting, Private Life, User Groups.
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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month or two trying to plan how to navigate a set of visits to the Eastern side of Europe. This might sound a little “My Glamorous Lifestyle” but, as my friend Tim Hall (he who is “Oracle-Base”) has documented in his posts under “my glamorous lifestyle”, doing the Oracle talk circuit often entails lots of hours in airports & stations, travelling with cheap, basic airlines, and sometimes a lot of stress. It is not the “Airport lounge and first class service” some people think it is. Anyway…

I’m visiting cities in the orange zone

All three venues are at pretty much the same longitude, about 25 degrees (that is to say, the same distance “East” of the UK). The first trip is to Riga in Latvia, where I am presenting at Riga Dev Days 2018. This is my first time at Riga Dev Days and in fact my first time in Latvia. Sue has never visited Latvia before so is joining me for a long weekend prior to the conference – they have a millinery (hat) museum in Riga! (If you do not know, my wife makes some very nice hats)

The last trip is to Romania, to present at a the Romanian Oracle User Group meeting. I was asked if I would consider this by Mirela Ardelean at the UKOUG conference last December and my response was “Hell yes! I’ve never been to Romania before and I love being asked! Besides, I don’t think Sue has been to Romania yet…” So, another weekend as a tourist with my wife before a speaking engagement. Bucharest is pretty much directly South of Riga.

I’ve had these two in my calendar for a while and, though the trip to Romania was a little fluid for a while, I knew I could do it easily – there are cheap, direct flights to both from London Stansted airport, which is just a few miles over the fields from my home.

Riga hat museum 🙂

And then things changed. I became UKOUG President elect (and, a lot sooner than I expected, full president) and there is a meeting of European Oracle user groups in Zagreb, Croatia, in a date between the two user group events I was doing. I felt I needed to be there – I think all the European user groups have stuff to learn from each other and the UKOUG board supported this position.

I now had a three-week period with large chunks “over there”. I looked at flights, times, costs, hotels… It was not working. Getting home to the UK in that period with at least 24 hours at home was going to be very, very hard. I looked to see if train transport or even a hire car would help. No. But carrying enough personal stuff to last three weeks was also hard work. Even if I did weird things like popped into other countries by train or travelled at antisocial hours, the cost was making my eyes water. Each trip itself was OK if based on a simple “UK and out/return” basis. But together, it did not work. Moving between each country was not a smooth process and going home to the UK was even worse…

Then Sue made a suggestion. Don’t go “home” – go to see your wife – via Zurich!

That worked!

In the middle of all these trips I can pop back to Zurich and by train to Basel, and see Mrs Widlake. And wash my dirty clothes. It seems crazy, but adding another leg to what was already a frenetic travel plan made it all doable. So now I am going Stansted-Riga-Zurich-Basel-Zurich-Zagreb-Belgrade-Bucharest-Stansted.

Bucharest

Why do I do all of this? Because I love what I do as a vocation (UKOUG, presenting, the Oracle Community) and I love what I do as a Husband (she currently works abroad, I go visit, she visits back, and we meet up in random countries across Europe). For both I travel cheap as I am either spending the salary of my wife or the funds of a User Group. Both are limited and I try to keep costs down. Especially on the latter.

I really wanted to fit in a trip to Bulgaria as well, to go to the BOUG spring conference, but I really just could not make that work as well. That will have to be next year, if they will still accept me.

I already know I will be knackered by the end of this tour, but that’s OK – I will have time to recover. That would be 48 hours before I go to Valencia for a holiday “with the boys”. Followed 48 hours later by a trip to Scotland to be UKOUG President at the Scottish UKOUG conference.

I might take July off to sleep….

Friday Philosophy – If I Was a Computer, I Might Be An IBM System 360 April 20, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life, working.
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So today I turn 50. I spent a few minutes looking up what your typical computer looked like then and I decided the IBM System/360 was about right. It was a business machine. Personal computers did not exist then as, well, it was almost the dark ages…

IBM system/360, phot by Dave Ross

{Note, it has been pointed out to me that I should say “If I were a computer”. Seems that even at my age I still have things still to learn properly… I’ll leave it as is to remind myself…}.

Technology changes and we who work with it change. With tech, after a while any individual part (say a specific computer) becomes obsolete and we throw it away. The technology itself changes and we stop using the parts that are superceeded. I don’t remember the last time I used any sort of floppy disc or a Zip Drive. Ironically we still often use a floppy disc icon to identify the Save button.

But us? Do we who work with I.T. become obsolete? Yes. We do so when we stop changing with the times (or “stop working”, but this is not an “I’m old and considering my mortality” type post, you will be relieved to know). I think that if you lose your passion to keep learning something new in computing and/or programming, it’s time to move out of the arena; as, worryingly soon, you are going to become like those old systems that never get updates and you know will be thrown out if they develop a serious flaw or just become too expensive to keep on the payroll – err, I mean plugged in.

I nearly lost interest about 8,10 years ago. I think it was partly that I found myself doing the same things over & over again and having the same stupid arguments (sorry, “discussions”) about how not doing things correctly was going to just make everyone’s life harder in the long run. I don’t mean doing things the same, I mean doing the things that make a good system – ensuring it fits the business need, that it is tested before it gets released, and you do this crazy thing called design. This time it was not that I needed to alter along with the tech, I needed to alter myself a little. I finally realised that, although it was getting worse, the I.T. world has always been a bit like that and part of the trick to this business is simply walking away from places that are too bad and looking for those who are a bit better. I’m lucky to be able to do that moving about (don’t get me wrong, I did have to put effort into it and I think that is where some people go wrong, they seem to almost expect an external agent to make things better for them) but then I’m 50 and still in the business. I’ve seen lots of people simply leave the industry when they could not affect that change.

However, doing a bit of the introverted-navel-gazing that comes with Significant Birthdays, I find it interesting that at 20, 25, 30, 35,… 42 (very significant that one) things have always been changing for me.

When I was born, computers filled a large room. And were yellow.

At 20 I was studying Genetics & Zoology at college and thought I would be a lab scientist. A career in I.T. was not even a consideration.
By 25 I’d taken up computing and I had fallen into this company called Oracle and I reckoned I would be with them for a good while, building systems with Forms, ReportWriter. PL/SQL and whatever came next. Oracle would not last for ever…
When I was 30 I was self employed, touting my services to various companies and mostly doing systems design and performance work.
Come 35 and I was back full-time employed (that was a surprise) working in science organisation (even more of a surprise) using my degree to some, well, degree (an utter surprise). And presenting at Oracle user group conferences.
At 40 I was self-employed again, but now totally focused on performance and and Oracle RDBMS Subject Matter Expert (someone who knows a bit about most of it and most of a bit of it).
42. 42 is a great age. You are the answer to everything…
At 45 I was retired. Except when I was not. OK, I had become a Consultant, doing short jobs for different clients. And doing all this User Group stuff. Me! Antisocial, miserable, slightly-autistic me!
Now at 50, I have to confess I am not keeping on top of the technical details of my chosen sphere the way I probably should, if my career is still in this area. But I’m not doing bad and my “job” is now even more as a presenter and a member of the User Group community. I need new skills for that.

So it keeps changing. Sometimes I chose the change and sometimes changes just dropped on me. But I’ll look at the options as they come up. And if no options are coming up and I am not happy in my job, I go look for options. I won’t say I always choose the best option but, heck, it’s worked OK so far.

I wonder what I’ll be doing at 55 and 60? I just hope I am not stuck in a museum with a “do not touch” sign next to me, like all the remaining IBM System/360s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we still have the ironing board!

And we still have the ironing board!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Life – When the Pond Came Inside June 17, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in off-topic, Private Life.
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It's not deep - but it's still unwanted!

It’s not deep – but it’s still unwanted!

This week my plans were thrown into chaos when our house flooded. Before I go any further I should state that everyone is fine, no structural damage was done and we were about as lightly flooded as you can be whilst still being, well, in the situation of having dirty, contaminated water in your home. Let’s just say our garden pond partially relocated into our house but brought with it a strong hint of Septic Tank.

I tweeted about it and my wife put some pictures up on Facebook and so people have been in touch to ask how things are. I don’t have a personal blog as well as this work-based one (and I treat this one as my personal blog anyway) so I’m putting some information and pictures up here. I won’t be mentioning Oracle or Office Politics.

Cup half full or half empty? This one is 3/4 full of rain

Cup half full or half empty? This one is 3/4 full of rain

So, why did our house flood? We live no where near a river. In fact, we live on a large, elevated plateau about 50 meters higher than almost everywhere 3 or 4 miles from here. But we do have a couple of square miles of clay-soil fields a few meters higher than our hamlet, just to the South of us. And the brook in our garden is part of the system that drains it. This has never been a problem in the last 10 years, even when it has rained solidly for a week. However, on Tuesday we had just over 2 inches (about 6 cm) of rain fall in about 30, 35 minutes. That is not a lot in some parts of the world, but in the South East of England, it’s very, very unusual. I’ve never seen rain like it in this country before, at least not lasting more than a few minutes of a “cloud burst”. I knew roughly how much rain had fallen as I had left a cup outside that morning, but one of the neighbours has a weather station and that accurately recorded it As I said, the soil around here is clay and it has been dry, so the rain did not have time to soak into the soil much. It just drained into the ditches and brooks…

There is a pipe down there - and it runs over the grass if it needs to

There is a pipe down there – and it runs over the grass if it needs to

It’s just like a database performance issue – it is not so much the volume of data you process but the speed at which you need to process it. Your physical discs can only write so much data in a minute. If you try and process too much, it all goes wrong.

When it was raining it was so extreme I actually took a couple of pictures and a video – before I was distracted by some water leaking through the roof as a gutter was being overwhelmed. I was really annoyed about the 3 or 4 liters that came in and that I had to mop up. Little did I know what was coming…

After the rain stopped I went and checked the brook and garden – it was fine. There was some standing water across much of the garden and it was flowing off into the brook and away. But then I saw one of the neighbours had a problem. There was water still flowing down the road and the brook on their side of the road was overflowing, it was threatening to get into their house. I went and got a spare sump pump I have but I could not find the attachment to put the pipe on it! By the time I had cobbled something together, the water was in their house. But the pump stopped it getting worse. Huzzah!

It's all starting to look bad...

It’s all starting to look bad…

What I had not noticed was that my brook had been rising fast. I went back to my house to find I had a stream flowing past my front door. I’d never seen that happen before… Oh crap. The brook had filled my pond and it had overflowed one small section, where another neighbour had reduced the bank height whilst building an extension. (No, not on purpose and neither of us had realised it might be an issue). I went and got my pump (which was now redundant at the first house) but it can only shift about 5% of the volume going past the front of the house – It was not a raging torrent like you see on TV when major floods are reported, but it was a strong, steady, increasing volume of water that was creeping up the front of the house. Some spade work helped increase the flow and move the water on it’s way, I figured it would not breach the front door now.

"She'll nay take the strain, Capn!" Brook about to blow?

“She’ll nay take the strain, Capn!” Brook about to blow?

I waded across the torrent (this was the point when the wellington boots become redundant as the water went past them and up to my knees) and checked the back garden, where the brook runs around the house. If it gets too high it normally overflows at one point and along a shallow depression which is there to take such unusual conditions. This was indeed happening – but such was the volume of water, there were pinch-points that have never been an issue before. The large tree you can see on the right is where that photo of the water going into a pipe is. Usually if the volume is too large for the pipe, it flows over the grass in a smooth way. Only this time it had a couple of “rapids” and was backing up towards the pond… And then the pond overflowed along several meters at once and I stopped taking pictures!

The first trickle of doom?

The first trickle of doom?

I now had a similar flow around the back of the house to the front and both were still rising. I could see it breaching our french doors into the lounge, it was almost game over. The first trickle has appeared and I could see the level creeping up

I checked next door and they had already flooded from the front (their house is lower than ours), with about 6 inches in the house. Would they mind if I increased the flow from our back garden to theirs, to try and stop us suffering the same fate? They graciously agreed to this so I set too with a spade and dug a drainage channel. It worked! Hundreds of gallons rushed away and the water level by those doors dropped below the threshold. Huzzah, let’s crack open the wine!

The creeping doom working along the floor (sorry, poor shot)

The creeping doom working along the floor (sorry, poor shot)

Only, why is there a large puddle growing at the other end of the lounge? In the centre of the house? Parts of the house are old, some bits of it go back around 300 years. We have internal walls that were once external walls. The water was coming up through the floor at one of these junctions, it was somehow getting under the house and in through this gap. Game over, I had defended the perimeters but been taken by a sneak attack from below.

Over the next hour or so the water leaked in through that gap and covered most of the lounge and hall carpets. I was able to move most things that could be harmed up off the floor. Another room at the back of the house (the base of a windmill) also flooded, this time through a door that I could not defend – but the floor is 6 inches lower in that room then the rest of the house. Again, I moved as much as I could but Sue lost some bits for making her hats :-(. The water never got more than about 2, 3 inches deep

No carpets and the drying process starts

No carpets and the drying process starts

The really annoying thing is that it was not just flood water with mud and dirt in it. Where I live we have no main sewer. We all have septic tanks or similar devices. When they flood the liquid contents get washed out. There were no signs of excrement floating on the water but the smell is very distinct. This is not water you want soaking into your curtains!

By early evening it was all over. The flow from the fields and down the brooks subsided and the pond level dropped. I pumped out the standing water next to the windmill and the water in the lounge (mostly) drained back down though the floor. I was up until about 2am using a carpet cleaner to suck up the worst of the water in the entrance hall – I knew I had to make that room passable as it links all the ground floor rooms together.

Anyone need some bits of carpet, slightly soiled?

Anyone need some bits of carpet, slightly soiled?

Since then it has been a case of ripping up the carpets and moving the stuff I could not move out of the places that got wet on my own. All carpets are now out of the house, most of it is in a skip. Now we are drying the rooms out and moving stuff again so we can move around the house and “live”. I’m not sure how many times I can empty a bookcase, move it and then fill it again with the books before I decide to stop reading books for the rest of my life 🙂

Our insurance company has been very good and all in all the whole flooding experience has been one of inconvenience than anything serious. I certainly would not like to go through it again and I think I know a couple of things I can do to help prevent it happening again.

So all in all, not a great week – but it’s only “stuff” that has been harmed and, in the great scheme of things, not a disaster. Just incredibly inconvenient. It will all be sorted soon.

IMG_2651

Friday Philosophy – Visiting the Changi Murals by Sue’s Uncle Stan April 29, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
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No tech or management this week – this Friday Philosophy is about something in my home life.

First Mural,. Image from www.rafchangi.com

First Mural,. Image from http://www.rafchangi.com

This week we are in Singapore, our first ever visit. The main reason that we have come here is to look at some pictures painted by Sue’s Uncle Stan. They are also called the Changi Murals. Stanley Warren painted these murals when he was gravely ill in Changi during World War 2. He was a POW, captured with the taking of Singapore by the Japanese. Conditions were extremely poor in the POW camps, and across Singapore as a whole. During the occupation thousands died from disease and malnutrition.

Stanley had been a graphic artist before the war and he did some painting whilst he was in the camp of what he saw. He was a deeply religious man and when people knew he could draw his fellow POWs asked him to draw murals on the walls of a chapel they’d built at Bukit Batok. Not long after, he was so ill with amoebic dysentery that he was moved to the Roberts Barracks hospital in Changi, block 151. I don’t think he was expected to live. Whilst he was there, he heard a choir singing in the local chapel for the hospital and his talking to the padre after that led to a request for him to paint some murals on the walls there.

Stanley had to paint the first mural bit-by-bit, he was too unwell to work for more than a few minutes at the start. They also had to use material stolen or obtained as they could. In the first mural there are some areas of blue – that came from a few cubes of billiard cue chalk. He had so little that it ran out after the second mural. The first mural was completed just in time for Christmas and he was carried back up to the wards and could only hear the service from there, no one knowing if the latest bout of dysentery would kill him or not. But it didn’t. Over the next few months Stanley drew four more murals as his health waxed and waned. The amazing things it that, despite the condition he was in, under a brutal regime with very little hope for survival, his message was all about reconciliation. The figures in the murals are from all races and the messages of reconciliation are constant through the murals.

Stanley Warren

Stanley Warren

You can read more about Stanley and the Murals at the wikipedia link at the top of this blog, at the RAF Changi association page here or in an excellent book about them by Peter W Stubbs, ISBN 981-3065-84-2

Stanley survived his time as a POW in Singapore and with the end of the war he came home. Stanley is actually Sue’s great uncle – his older sister was Sue’s paternal grandmother. After the war he became an art teacher and had a family. As well as being Sue’s great uncle, He also worked in the same school as Sue’s father and she saw a lot of him, so she knew “Uncle Stan” very well. And, of course, she knew all about the murals.

The story of the murals does not stop with the war as, after the war (during the later part of which the murals were painted over with distemper, when it stopped being a chapel) the murals were re-discovered. They became quite well known and there was a search for the original artist. When Stanley was found they asked him to go back and restore them. He was not keen! He’d spent years trying to forget his time and what he had endured as a POW. But eventually he was persuaded and over 20 or so years made three trips back to restore them. He still did not talk about the war much but the Murals are part of the family history. Stanley died in 1992, having lived a pretty long and happy life given where he was during the 1940’s.

Sue has long wanted to see the Changi Murals and, with the lose of her mother 2 years back, this desire to link back to another part of the family has grown stronger. So we organised this trip out to Asia with the key part being to visit Singapore and the Changi Murals.

There is an excellent museum about the history of Singapore during WWII, especially the area of Changi and the locations which were used to hold POWs and enemy civilians, the Changi Museum. It includes the murals. Only, it does not. This is a new museum which was built a few years back and it has a reproduction of the original Block 151 chapel, with all the murals. The reproductions are very accurate we are told and there is a lot of information in the museum – but they are not the originals as drawn by Uncle Stan.

Mural in the museum

Mural in the museum

We only really realised this a couple of weeks before we were heading out to Thailand (our first stop) but we felt it was not a problem as almost every web site that mentioned the murals said you could organise to see the original murals. Only, you can’t really. Someone at some point said you could, and maybe then it was easier, but none of the current articles tells you how to request to see the originals. They don’t even give a clue who to ask. They just repeat this urban myth that you can organise to see the originals. The only exception to this is the Changi Museum web site that lists an email to send a request to – but the email address is no longer valid! (prb@starnet…).

We managed to contact the museum and Dr Francis Li tried to help us, but he could not find out the proper route to make the request at first and then hit the problem we later hit – not much response.

After hours and hours on the net, failing to find out who to ask, I contacted a couple of people who had something to do with the Murals. One of them was Peter Stubbs, who wrote the book on the Changi Murals that I mentioned earlier. Peter was wonderful, he got in touch with people he knew and they looked into it and after a couple of days he had found out the correct group to approach – MINDEF_Feedback_Unit@defence.gov.sg. You email them and you get an automated response that they will answer your question in 3 days. Or 7-14 days. It’s the latter. We waited the 3 days (if you have dealt with government bureaucracy you will know you can’t side step it unless you know HOW to side step it) but time was now running out and I sent follow up emails to MINDEF and Mr Li.

Mindef did not respond. But Mr Li did – to let us know he had also had no response from MINDEF and had gone as far as to ring up – and no one seemed to know about how to see the original murals.

So we were not going to get to see the originals, which was a real shame, but out first full day we did go up to the Changi Museum. It was a very good, little museum. The museum is free. We took the audio tours which cost a few dollars but to be honest all the information is also on the displays. There was a lot of information about the invasion by Japan and what happened and the reproductions of the Murals were impressive. They also had some duplicates of some of the press stories about the murals, from local papers as well as UK ones. There are a lot more press stories than the museum show, we know this as there is a collection of them somewhere in Sue’s Mum’s stuff that we have not found yet.

It was quite emotional for Sue of course, and something well worth us doing. It really brought home to us an inclination of what he and the other POWs had gone through, and yet Stanley did these murals of reconciliation and belief. Of course we don’t really know what it was like, nothing like that has happened to either of us – we just got a peep into that horror.

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The rules of the museum said “No photographs” – but we ignored this. These murals were the work of Sue’s Uncle Stan! (we noticed several other visitors were also ignoring the rule anyway). Most of the pictures are poor, no where as good as others you can find on the net (most from the originals) but they are important to us. I only include a couple in this blog.

If you wonder what the small picture of a man in a hat is, below the mural, it is one of only two we have by Uncle Stan. He painted this when on a school holiday in Spain with Sue’s dad also. We have no idea who the picture is of!

It is a great shame we did not get to see the original murals in the room in which her great uncle Stanley Warren painted them, as part of the chapel that was so important to people in such awful circumstances. After we got back from the museum we finally received a response from MINDEF. It was a simple refusal to consider granting us permission to see the murals as they only allow it for surviving Singapore POWs (there will be very few of them now) and direct family (whatever that limit is). I can’t help but feel that was a little inflexible of them, even a little heartless, and was applying a blind rule without consideration of the specifics of the situation.

When Sue is next going to Singapore, with me or not, I’ll see if I can make them relent and grant access to Sue to see the originals.

Irrespective, we got to see something of Uncle Stan’s murals, and that was worth all the effort.