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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.

IMG_2377

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.

Wednesday Philosophy – A Significant Day (but only to me) April 20, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, history, off-topic, Private Life, working.
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Today is a significant day. Well, to me it is – to the rest of you it’s just a Wednesday in the latter half of April, in the mid 20-10’s. Because we count in 10s (probably due to the number of flexible pointy bits on our front limbs, but that is a much debated argument) we have “magic” numbers of 10, 100, 1000 and multiples thereof. As geeks we also have 2,4,8,16,32 etc. And as nerds (but nerds who appreciate certain literature) we have 42. But today is not significant to me for any of those magic numbers.

Today I have been classed as an adult for twice as long as I was classed a child. 2/3rds of my life ago I hit 16 (which means I hit 48 today) and I was legally responsible for my own crimes, allowed to have sex as I saw fit & get married (which suggests those 2 options were open to me at that point – but if you were a lady and met me back then, neither was likely!) And I was allowed to smoke cigarettes – though the age limit for that has since changed to 18 in the UK. And drink in a pub – so long as someone else bought the booze and I was having a meal.

I could also leave home, get a job, draw benefits or join a group that was legally allowed to shoot at people, or in turn be shot at (armed forces – and yes, I know they do a lot more than that). But, best of all, I could have ridden a moped, a lawn tractor (oh yes, yes, yes!) or flown a glider.

In reality, many of the above still needed parental consent and you truly become an adult in the UK at 18 (so I could write almost the same stuff as this in 6 years’ time too), but back then it felt like you were stepping out of shorts and into long trousers. Except for girls. They tended to step out of skirts and into shorter skirts, if memory serves. (If anyone thinks I’m being sexist, when I was 16 the girls were half a decade more mature than most of us boys and they *did* all start raising their hem lines). And I still wear short trousers when I can get away with it.

At age 16 I also chose what subjects to study for my “A” levels, the exams we do in the UK which help decide what college courses we can go for. I chose all sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) and threw in maths (not “math” mind you – though I’ve never been able to decide which contraction is more silly; we don’t do “Econ” or “Econs” ,”chem” or “Chemy”). I did the physics just so I did not have to do this waste-of-time subject called “general studies”, that no one could tell me was of any use for anything but seemed almost mandatory. No, I never did find out if “gens” ever helped anyone get a job, career, college course or anything. Anyway, it turns out it was a wise move as I was found to be useless at maths at “A” level but pretty good at physics. Who knew? All I knew was I was going to be a surgeon or a scientist. Or maybe a coroner, I quite fancied being a coroner. Well, that worked out as planned, eh? I’ve never put my hands on a living brain, never extracted a dead brain and never tried to work out how a brain works. I’ve just created a few small brain-replacement tools to allow people to use their brains for more interesting stuff.

A key thing about 16 for me was that most of the people who were not academic or decided they would rather try and earn an income rather than sit in school rooms anymore left school at that age, and that included a large swathe of the floor-knuckle-scraping thugs who had made the last couple of years at school such a deep, deep joy for me. A few of the goons stuck around as there was very little work around back then (thank you Margaret) but the worst of them went off to… oh, I don’t know what they did, but as I did not see them generally around I think a lot of them ended up in prison or in factories where they were kept out of society’s way for 8 or 10 hours a day or something happened to them to stop them being arseholes. For me, 16 was when I started to actually enjoy life more.

I’ve changed a lot since I was 16 and of course the world around me has too. The career I’ve ended up having is nothing like I expected I would back then – and has in fact been, to a large extent, using stuff that did not even exist back then. Computers were around, but they were not common. Relational databases were more theoretical than practical and as for the internet & smart phones, you had to look at Sci Fi to see anything like that. Maybe it is a good thing I never planned a career given how much things have changed. I wonder if we should be teaching today’s 16 year olds to not even think about a career but more think of how they can make the most of whatever comes along. ‘cos it’s all gong to change.

I wonder what the next 1/3rd will bring for me and what I’ll be up to when it has become 1/4th.

Friday Philosophy – Struggling To Learn Something? You Still Rock April 1, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, Perceptions, Private Life, working.
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When did you last learn something new about the tech you work with? This week? This month? This year? 2003?

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt.

{This blog is a bit of a personal story about my own recent career; how I fell off the log and managed to climb back on it – just so you know}.

For me it was (as I type) this week. In fact, it was today! It was in an area of “my tech”, stuff that I know back to front and left to right. I’m an expert in it, I’ve been using this area of Oracle’s tech for two decades and I simply “Rock at this stuff!” I mean, I know quite a bit about it (sorry, went all “USA” on you there for a minute). But still, despite all my experience in it and even teaching others about it, I learnt something new today – And thank the heavens I did.

Why am I so happy about learning something that, really, I perhaps should know already?

About 3 years ago I stepped back from the whole Oracle arena. I’d been struggling with the tech for a while and I was really not enjoying most of the roles I took on. Which is odd, as I was able to choose between roles by this point to some extent, and had no problem saying “no” to a job I did not like the look of. I know, it’s a privileged position to be in – but I pretty much feel it was a position I put myself into by working hard, developing my skills and (which may seem counter-intuitive to some) sharing them.

So, I had finished a job I was enjoying (which had become a rarity) and I had taken on a new role… and I was hating it. And I was especially hating learning stuff. And I had no desire to, once more, pour 10% of my learnt skills down the sink (as they had been superseded) and learn 20% of new stuff. Why do I say once more? Because, as the Oracle tech has rolled on, that is what I and all of you in a band around my age has had to do every few years.

Back in the early 90’s I knew how to get Forms and Reports to work in ways many did not. I would edit the source files for these tools, I could use tricks with the triggers to do stuff and I also knew PL/SQL in a way few people at the time did. But my position as a leading expert went out the window as things progressed and everyone (everyone? OK no, but a good fraction of people) caught up – and then exceeded – my skills in those areas. And some tech was retired. But I had moved onto database skills by then and I knew stuff about segment creation and space management that few others worried about. Which Oracle then made redundant and I had to move on again…

I’m not alone in this, most of you reading this (be you 60, 50, 40 or 30) can relate to this and have your own stories of managing skills and moving on as the skill set you knew evolved.

But as I said, around 3 years ago, for me it ended. I hit a wall. I was simply too tired, cynical and… yeah, pissed off, to keep letting go of some skills and learning new ones. I’d had enough and I stopped learning. Within 12 months I was not pissed off- I was screaming inside to get out of the industry. And I did. If you have followed my blog you might be able to see the pattern if you look back over the posts. I certainly can, looking back over them.

In this industry, if you stop learning you “die”. It might take a while, especially if you are just ticking over in a role where nothing changes and no new features are used. But the nearer you are to the bleeding edge of the tech, the faster you fall off that edge. For 24 years I had either tested the next version of Oracle before it was released or been the person telling (whatever company I was at) how to use (or avoid!) the new features of the latest Oracle release. But now I had stopped learning.

I started having chats with some friends about it and most were sympathetic and understanding and, well, nice. But I still had that wall. My career was based on being near, on or beyond the leading edge. I learnt stuff. I moved with the times. And now I did not as I was… tired. Drained.

But then I had a weekend in America skiing and relaxing after a conference in Colorado and I spent a lot of time with a good friend Frits Hoogland and I told him about where I was. He was also sympathetic – but he also said (and this is not a quotation but a general indication of his intent, as I remember it):

“I can’t tell you how to care about it, it’s up to you. But if you are not driven to learn the tech you won’t learn it. I can’t give you that drive – you have to find it for yourself”.

No one else had said that. Frits had summed up the situation and given it to me straight. You don’t learn by passive osmosis, you need to want to learn. And I’d fallen off the learning log and I didn’t know how to get back on it.

I thought on that for about 12 months. I also hid a little from the Oracle sphere and being “an expert”. And you know what? He was totally right. I needed a reason to learn the latest stuff and keep developing and it had to be something I wanted – be it a career, kudos, being the best I could be, putting kids though college (just checked, I never had kids), anything! But it had to be a drive. Because learning all this stuff is hard work.

It took me 12 months to work it out, but eventually I realised what I did and did not like about my working life. I hated commuting, office politics, dealing with people who were in charge but did not know (and had no desire to know) about tech, seeing the same mistakes repeated – All that stuff we all hate. But for me I was no longer able to balance that with the nice bits. Solving problems, making things work faster, creating programs and tools to help people achieve things and… teaching people.

So I took the decision to spend a year or two doing less work (and not earning much) and being more involved in the UKOUG, technical blogging (I’ve not really done so well on that front), writing articles, doing conferences and smaller user groups.. Basically, doing more in the user community. And I have, even to the extent of being involved in a book.

It took a while but I know it worked. How? I started learning again. I don’t mind if it is stuff that maybe I should already know – if I’m learning I’m not just improving but I am being engaged by my job (whatever my “job” is).

If you are in I.T. and you are still learning stuff, I would suggest that over all, everything is fine. Even if the learning part hurts a little – it does seem to get a bit harder each year to put new stuff into that cerebral cortex- you are not stagnating.

If you are in I.T. and not learning stuff, I’d suggest you might want to think about why – and if you should be changing what you do or where you do it. We spend most of our adult lives working, if there is any way you can make that part of your life more satisfying, I really think you should try and do it. Even if, as in my case, it pays a hell of a lot less!

A Book of Friday Philosophies? February 18, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life, publications, writing.
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10 comments

It has been suggested to me by a friend (not a publisher!) that I should do a book of my “Friday Philosophy” posts. I’m not sure. I’d like to know what people think.

If you read my blog but “Friday Philosophy” has somehow passed you by (how could they, most of my posts now are Friday Philosophies!) they are usually posted at the end of the week and deal with the non-technical side of working in IT. They are my thoughts and experiences on management, development paradigms, things that seem to still be wrong after 2 generations of programmers have painfully learnt the same lessons. Some have nothing to do with IT. The occasional one is about my life. Nearly all have an element of humour in them (even if it is only when I am laughing at myself and my own stupidity).

I’ve never really meant them to be more than a bit of light relief for people to read at the end of the week, but also to make people think.

A few older posts that have stood the test of time (ie people still occasionally look at them) are:

Oracle Performance Silver Bullets
CABs – An Expensive Way to Get Nowhere
Do Good DBAs Need PL/SQL Skills?
The Small Issue of Planes, Trains and Coaches
The worst Thing About Contracting
The Worst Person In IT I Have Ever Met
The Best Person in IT I Have Ever Met

The person suggesting I make them into a book says there is simply nothing else like them out there – Books on IT are about, well, IT. Books on management are about making you a better manager and tend to be very earnest about it. My Friday Philosophies sit in a wilderness between the two, a bit of fun but thought provoking (so I am told).

The thing is, I am not sure there is a market for it. After all, if you have never heard of me (and close to 7 billion people have not) why would you buy a book by me about opinions on the IT industry? If you know me you can just search my blog for “Friday Philosophy” and read them all. As far as traffic to my blog is concerned, with a few exceptions, they are one-shot pieces. Friday Philosophies tend to get a bigger immediate hit than technical posts but within a week most of them are hardly looked at again. Several of the technical ones get a steady trickle of hits that far outweighs their initial popularity. I know that people search for specific technical terms and not “opinionated view of smart phones” and that has an impact, but even so…

In theory it should be a lot less painful than the living hell of writing (only a part!) of a technical book. I have a lot of material, I can review & tweak them, add some new ones, wrap the lot up into areas. It should only take a week… A month… Maybe 2 or 3 months.

Also, I would not be looking to make any money on this. As in, even less then the very little you get per hour’s effort for doing a traditional book. I doubt a professional publisher would be interested in it, due to the lack of an obvious audience. But maybe a self-published tomb for a few pounds/dollars?

What does anyone think? A thunderous silence will tell me what I need to know….

It does not help that I am not sure how to pluralise “Friday Philosophy”.

The IT Blight of Working During Holidays December 24, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in humour, on-call, Private Life, working.
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I’ve been thinking today about those people in IT who are going to have to either work or be on call during the festive period. Twitter has become a lot more quiet today and most of the activity is not-work-related. My blog traffic is now a trickle and there is a general feeling of doing more family, non-work things for a couple of days, which I think is good for all of us from time to time. Maybe more times than current working culture and practices allow for.

The endless daily grind - even at Christmas

The endless daily grind – even at Christmas

But in the IT industry, especially if you are an administration-type (DBA, Sys Admin, Network Admin, stuff like that) there is often a need to do work at this time as systems are quiet or can even be shut down. Some places do release and upgrade work over the quiet period, so developers and designers can be pulled into festive-season work too. Even if you are the sort of organisation that has a code freeze for Christmas/New Year, there will be a rota of people who need to either monitor systems or respond if something goes “Bang!”. Those of us “blessed” with those roles will be on the on-call rota, tasked with at the least staying sober and often with monitoring duties. For some people in some organisations, you know you will in fact have an endless stream of “why in the heck am I having to do this” tasks to do.

I’ve done my share and I feel for those who are made to work over this time who really would rather not. In fact, I’ve done more than my share. Actually, A lot more than my share. You see, I do not have children – my wife and I established very early on in our relationship that producing new versions of me was a damned bad idea, even if new versions were leavened with her better characteristics {and if they got her worst ones along with mine, ohhhhh terrible consequences}. So as someone with no children there has always been more pressure on me to take more than my 1/number-in-team share of the Christmas, New Year, Easter, Bank Holiday etc work. I’ve also come under pressure not to take time off during school holidays, to cover for those who need to do so for the sake of fitting in with the kids. Now, I don’t want to go away on holiday when everywhere is covered in kids as kids are too self-centered, noisy and annoying (ie very like me) for me to put up with. But I would like occasionally to have a week off, in the summer, to sit in the garden. But the biggest pressure has always been over taking more of the Christmas work. Because, I am told, it is important family time – it’s for the kids

I get that, I do. But then, if you have kids they are actually your fault. You did things to have them. Trust me, I’ve got a degree in biology, I know where kids come from🙂. At the start of my working career I was fine to take on more of the work/monitoring/staying sober duties. But as the status of not-having-kids lasts a lot longer than having-young-kids (or more recently, with people my age, young-grand-kids) it had been a constant expectation of me for about 20 years – until I stopped playing. I stopped on the grounds, after 2 decades, that I had Done My Bit. I threw my toys out my pram and said I deserved my share of time off at Christmas (to pick said toys up, of course). I solved the problem more recently by trying to be unemployed at such times.

Anyway, forgive the rant, I feel better now. But my extra-Christmas-Duties have made me realise more how much of a pain it is to have to work when most people are enjoying themselves. So I feel for those that are having to do it and do not want to. I truly know how it is and all I can say is “thank you for doing your bit”. Especially if you have done it despite having young kids. And especially if you have had to do it for 20+ years to cover for all those damned work-shy parents (joke!).

The ironic thing is that this year I will be working over Christmas. But I don’t mind as it is my choice. And I am doing so in warm sunshine, with a glass of wine, and in fact I can stop whenever I like. That is the joy of writing over doing stuff people need to be done now.

Merry Christmas everyone, especially to the unwilling workers.

Miserable Dark Days of Winter Relieved by Data December 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in humour, off-topic, Private Life.
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2 comments

This post is all about my fascination with short day times and hits on my blog on the topic, it is not even to do with why the day time is so short in the UK, Europe & US right now. This is nothing to do with Oracle databases or working in IT – go elsewhere and look at eg XKCD or Dilbert now if that is your thing…

I’ve blogged a few times at this time of year about the oddity of when evenings start drawing out being around a week before the shortest day, and even about how I have become fascinated by how popular this off-topic post has become. Worry not, I shall not go over that date-discrepancy material again or how we in the Northern Hemisphere wrongly think our winter is when we are furthest from the sun {when in reality it is when we are closest!}. If you want to know all that stuff I updated this post to cover the details for 2015.

Fundamentally, when I worked every day, every week in the City I just hated having to travel to work in the dark, sit in a dull room all day and then drag my backside home in the dark. It was hammered home to me how much I hated it one year when I worked in a huge open-office environment where I sat in the center of the building – on the ground floor of a 10-story-building. I stared out into the “Light Well” in the center of the building. There was no “Light”. Even at midday on a day blessed with cloudless sunshine, there was no real light. What we got was a grey illumination over the plastic bags, scraggy weeds and dead pigeons that littered the ground at the bottom of this light *pit*. I used to escape into the light at lunch time but such was the culture of the office that actually taking a lunch break was a sign of weakness and lack of dedication. Screw ’em, I took my lunch time as I remembered being human once…

HIts on my “evenings Drawing out” blog

HIts on my “evenings Drawing out” blog

During that particular job, someone in the team left. They had found the tunnel and they dug like crazy and got beyond the perimeter fence. So a desk came up two “deeper in” the mine. But, and this was the crucial thing, it looked out in the direction of a real, stuck-to-the-outside-of-the-building window. I had moved my stuff onto his desk and my chair in his place before the smell of his daily burrito had faded at all. My boss at the time was not happy – “Why have you moved?”. “Well, the space came up”. “Did I say you could move?!?”
“Put it this way, I can now see if it is still daylight and maybe make out if it is raining or not. I could move back, but then I could start randomly killing my work colleagues – What do you prefer?”. He shut up.

I think I have established that I do not like the lack of daylight that Winter brings and I do not even live that far North. My friends in Scotland, Norway, Finland and a host of other would countries would scoff at my distress. But I do now have a distraction. Even as we approach and pass the day on which evenings draw out, drop down to the dismal point when the daytime is shortest (today, if you read this on the day of publication) and slowly start to pull out of the pit of winter, I watch with fascination the number of hits on my obscure web pages on the topic. My blog is all about Oracle tech and IT angst. It is not about astronomy, astrology (spit) or astrophysics. I have done 4 posts on this in 5 years and just one gets a low-but-steady trickle of google hits. And as we pass through the darkest section of the year, I watch the hits and stats on that page. As a world-wide thing it is irrelevant, as a percentage of my site hits it is a not-considerable-but-not-quite-insignificant post either. But I watch it as it distracts me from the winters’ gloom. I love the fact that there is a “june” peak when those in the Southern hemisphere find it and a larger “December” peak when the Northern hemisphere stumble across a post on a nerd’s blog site that tells them what they want to know – when it starts to get lighter.

Anyway, today (shortest day this year, December 22nd) I escape. I’m going to Madeira. It is pleasantly warm and gets 10 hours of daylight compared to 7.5 in the UK. I’ll take that. But I’ll keep watching the post all the way through December and in to January, maybe into February, as the hits on the post decrease and the evening daylight increases.

It’s a bit early, but Happy New Year everyone🙂

Return from The Temple of Apple June 22, 2015

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

I doubt many of you are on tenterhooks as to how I got on with my phone today {after my << rant last Friday}. But I’m going to tell you anyway.

Overall, Apple have gone some way to redeeming themselves.

I got myself down into Cambridge this morning to visit the Apple Store, at my allotted slot of 10:10 {I later witnessed someone attempting to be 15 minutes early for their slot – and they were asked to go and have a coffee and come back. The customer was unimpressed as they had lugged some huge Apple monitor in with them}.

I have to say, walking into the store was somewhat like entering some form of modern temple. The clean lines, the two parallel runs of “desks” with precisely & spaciously laid-out items to worship, lit by discrete banks of lights in the ceiling. Down the center was a clear path to allow you to move deeper into the hallowed space, with a scattering of worshipful believers moving between the icons. And, at the end, a cluster of acolytes in blue tops gathered around and before the “Apple Genius Bar” alter.

I approached the alter…err, service desk… and was very soon approached by an acolyte holding a prayer tablet (iPad mini 3) in front of them. My name was on the list, my time was now. I would be granted an audience. I was directed to a stool to one side to await my turn.

Thankfully, the wait was short and ended when Dave came over, Dave turned out to be a friendly, open and helpful chap who managed to take the edge off what was frankly a bit of an OTT ambiance if you ask me. So far my impression had been that (a) you can see why the kit is so expensive to support this sort of shop frontage and space-to-item ratio, something I had only really come across before in Bose shops & car dealerships and (b) it’s just a shop selling I.T. kit, get over yourselves. Dave (not his real name, I’m afraid I forgot his real name, but he looked like a Dave – and had a great beard) listened to my potted history of the battery woes and upgrade deaths, looked over the phone briefly and then plugged it into one of the banks of MACs. It pulled up the ID of the phone and {Huzzah!!!!} set about blatting everything on it and reloading the OS I think. It took a few minutes (I read my paper magazine – “New Scientist”) and then the phone rebooted…. and put up the Apple icon… and thought about it. I could see Dave thinking “this is taking a bit longer than normal”. Anyway, the thing finally came alive.

We chatted about what the root cause could be as he said he had not heard of anyone having multiple upgrade issues and it just locking like this. He went and asked a more senior acolyte (perhaps already in the priesthood) and his opinion was that it might be a faulty motherboard – in which case all bets were off and I’d have to basically buy a new phone for £200. Dave said I might as well not bother and put the money towards getting a nice, new iPhone 6, as they were only £500 or so. I wonder what the Apple shop staff get paid to think £500 is no big shakes.

Meanwhile, Dave had verified the phone battery was indeed covered by the recall and it would be two hours to complete the work. Was I happy to get that done today? Sure, I’m happy to drink coffee and eat a bun somewhere for 2 hours. So off I went. And came back (witnessing the taking to task of a customer arriving before their time – they did let them leave the monitor behind in the end). My phone was presented back to me, working, and I just had to sign on a tablet. Sorry about using the indelible marker pen, guys. I took a photo of the temple and made a quick test call outside the shop to ensure all was OK – and it was. And apart from the brief suggestion of buying a new iPhone 6, no financial cost had been incurred (except the park & ride in, cost of coffee & bun and a lost morning).

I was soon back home and ready to restore my backup from last week. I plugged in the phone, iTunes recognised it, ran the restore… and the phone is no different – none of my contacts, no change to icons, layout or background, nothing – but now iTunes says it does not recognise the device. Ohhhh shit. Oh, and the photo of the Apple Temple is gone (it was going to be at the start of this update). A couple of hours later and trying many things, I think I know what the issues are and maybe were:

1) The device is just a bit dodgy and sometimes/often the connection with iTunes just ends (I’ve swapped cables, I know it is not that) .
2) It would not restore the backup with “Find My iPhone” running – but due to (1) it usually did not get so far as telling me that. I wonder if updates would fail for the same reason? They were very insistent I turn off the feature before I went into the shop, but of course with a locked up phone I could only do this at the web end.

I turned off the feature on the phone, ran the restore again and this time it completed and left me with a phone that worked and looked like it did a week ago.

So I eventually got the phone restored and it works as well as it did – but hopefully with more battery life. It will be interesting to see if the reception issues are any better. I kind of doubt it. It’s now at iOS 8.3 as well. Deep Joy.

My final conundrum now is that, given that my phone contract that partially paid for the phone in the first place ended a couple of months back, do I stick with this device and hope all is now OK? Or do I spend more money replacing something that is only just over 2 years old? And do I get anything but an iPhone? After all, both my wife’s iPhones have worked OK and they are nice when working. But I’m not a member of the Apple Congregation and have no desire to join.

One thing I do know. I won’t be putting the old Samsung phone I’ve had to fall back on away just yet.

Friday Philosophy – Friday Afternoon Phone June 19, 2015

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

{<<my earlier attempts to sort out my phone}
{Update on my trip to the Apple Store >>}

There used to be a phrase in the car industry in the UK (I don’t know about elsewhere) a “Friday Afternoon Car“. This is a car which is unusually unreliable, as it was built on Friday afternoon when the workers were tired, the weekend was coming and, heck, they might have been to the pub at lunch. It is occasionally used just to describe something that is a bit crap and unreliable.

I have a Friday Afternoon Phone it would seem. I am fast becoming quite disillusioned with it. You may remember my post about my sitting on said phone to make it work again. It’s an iPhone 5, I bought it as I was finally persuaded that it would be more useful to have a smart phone than the “temporary” cheap Samsung I had bought about 2 years prior to then – as an emergency replacement for my previous web-enabled phone that committed suicide with a jar of pickled onions (it’s a long, hardly believable story). I expected the Samsung to keep me going for a month or two but it was so simple and reliable it just stayed in use for over 2 years.

Your Honour, allow me to present item A and item B

Your Honour, allow me to present evidence item A and item B

Comparison:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Phone A. . . . . . . . . . . . Phone B
Cost. . . . . . . . . . .£400 or so . . . . . . . . . £15 with a free £10 pay-as-you-go top up.
Battery . . . . . . . . New, 8-12 hours. . . . . .New, a week
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Now, 4-5 hours. . . . . . Now, a week!
Reliability . . . . . . Breaks every update . . .No issues ever
Making calls. . . . .6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9/10
Receiving calls . . .4/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9/10
Plays Angry Birds. Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .No
Taking pictures . . 9/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0/10
Helps me up a . . . Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No
mountain
Connection to web 6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Are you kidding? But I’m mostly sat at a computer anyway
Impresses friends. No. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yes, for all the wrong reasons🙂

{There must be a better way to line up text in this wordpress theme!!!}

The Web Enabled Phone that Does not Like to Connect
In some ways the iPhone has been really good. The screen (at the time I bought it) was very good, apps run nice and fast, way too much software is available for it and it can hold a lot of pictures and videos before running out of space. Its size also suits me. But phone and web reception has always been a bit poor and its ability to hold onto a wireless connection seems to be especially questionable – as soon as a few other devices are contending for a router with my iPhone, my iPhone seems to give up its hold on the connection and sulk. I’ve had this in several places in several countries. I’m the only one up? Phone connects fine. 2 others wake up and connect? I’m off the network. I’ve also often been in a busy place (conference, sports event) and everyone else seems to be on the net but my phone just pretends.

Battery Blues
And of course, there is the issue of the battery becoming very poor. It runs on a full charge for only a few hours and if it gets cold it has a tendency to act like a squirrel and hibernate. I now carry around the spare battery pack my wife got given by her work for her work phone use abroad. The good news is, having been put on to it by Neil Chandler, I am now aware my phone has been recalled for a battery replacement. What I am a little irked about is that Apple have my details and the serial number of the phone but have never contacted me directly to let me know. OK, it is not a car (it’s just like a car – a Friday Afternoon Car) so I am unlikely to die as a result of the fault, but if they know it has a fault and it did cost a good whack of cash to buy, they should be being moral and contacting me.

Upsetting Upgrades
But the thing that utterly hacks me off is how it does not handle upgrading to the next version of iOS. I had an upgrade early on in my relationship with the phone and it blew everything off the phone. Not a big issue then as I had not had it long. But it made me cautious about upgrading. About this time last year the phone was insisting it must be upgraded and things were getting flaky (I suspect software manufacturers do this on purpose – I’ve noticed my PC running Windows can start acting odd when an update is due). Before doing anything, I backed it up. Or tried to. The first attempt said it worked but it was too swift to have backed up anything, let alone back up my photos. After then it just refused to back up. But the phone utterly refused to allow me access to the photos from my PC – it should do of course but no, nothing would pries those images out of the phone. I was particularly concerned as I had lots of snaps from a friend’s wedding. Said friend eventually helped me out by pushing all my photos to an iCloud account (It’s Just A Server On The Net) in a way he could access. I then updated the phone and, yep it failed. And locked the phone and I had to factory reset and lost all the photos. It had also lied about uploading the pictures to the net (which it took hours to not do) so they had gone for good. Grrrrr.

So this time when it started getting dodgy I managed to save all my photos (Huzzah!), backed it up, ran through the update – and it failed and locked up the phone. *sigh!!!!*. Only, this time it won’t respond even after a factory reset. My iTunes is up-to-date, it could see the phone OK at the start of the update (because I was doing it via iTunes!) but now it won’t see the phone and once I try, guess what, iTunes also locks up. So the phone is useless. I can’t help wonder if the battery issue and the failure to ever upgrade smoothly are linked somehow (by eg it being rubbish).

So I pop along to the kitchen drawer with the odds n’ sods in and pull out the old Samsung & charger and plug it in. 20 minutes later, I have a working phone. Turns out I have no credit on it anymore but I can sort that out. It even gets reception in the kitchen (I have to lean out the window of the back bedroom to get the iPhone to pick up a reliable signal at home).

Oh No! I have to Contact Apple!
Now the real fun starts. I contact my local Apple shop. Only I don’t, I access a damned annoying voice system that smugly announces “I understand full sentences” and immediately knows who I am and what my device is and when it was bought (as Apple have my details including home phone) – and it was over 2 years ago and it wants me to agree to a paid support package to go further. Of course it won’t give me options to speak to a human or understand “full sentences” even when I shout “battery issue recall” and “your update killed my phone!” plus various permutations at it. It also did not understand the sentence “I want to speak to a person”.

I eventually trick it by pretending that I will buy a support package. Huzzah, a human to talk to. Said human is helpful, pleasant, a bit hard to understand (usual call center woes of background noise and she has the microphone clipped to her socks). I explain that the phone has a recall on it and I just want that sorted and a proper reset. She’s not sure I can have this without a support package {after all, her job is to sell me some support and I am breaking her script} but she says the battery might be replaced under the recall (she has all my details, she can see the iPhone serial number, she could check!). “So I can drop it off at the store?”.

I expect “yes”. I get “no”. I have to organise an appointment. A 10 minute slot. Why? I want to drop off some kit for you to repair and I’ll come back another day. I am not making an appointment to see a doctor to discuss my piles. No, I have to have an appointment. On Monday at 10:10 or “plrbsburhpcshlurp” as the mike once once slips down the sock. OK, 10:10 Monday, she’s getting tired of me saying “please repeat that”. Then she says what sounded like “and the repair may cost up to £210 if there is a hardware fault”. WHAT?!? I don’t fully understand what she says next – but she understands I am not going to pay £210 to fix a device that has a known fault and has been screwed over again by their software update, so she backs off to “they can look at the device and advise me”.

It’ll be interesting to see how it goes on Monday. At 10:10 am. If they try and charge me hundreds of pounds to reset the damned thing or tell me (after I’ve checked) that they won’t replace the dying battery, I can imagine me becoming one of those ranting, incoherent people you see on YouTube. If they want anything more than the cost of an evening in the pub to get it working, I think it will become a shiny, expensive paperweight.

Meanwhile, welcome back Reliable Samsung Phone. You still seem to make calls just fine. Still not able to play Angry Birds though.

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

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Presenting, Private Life, UKOUG.
Tags: , , ,
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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).

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