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Returning to the Day Job. October 18, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life.
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7 comments

Having the Summer off. It’s something that quite a few IT contractors and some consultants say they intend to do…one year. It’s incredibly appealing of course, to take time off from your usual work to do some other things. Asking around, though, it is not something many of us self-employed types who theoretically could do, actually have done. I think it is because, although the theory is nice, the reality is a period not earning a living – and the background worry of “if I take a break, will I be able to step straight back into gainful employment afterwards”?

Well, purely as a service to all those who wonder about it, I decided to sacrifice myself to the experiment and do it this year. I had the summer off. {I know, I picked what turned out to be a very average summer weather-wise, but you just never know in the UK}. I’d finished a job for a client that had turned from a small number of weeks to several months of full-on seven-days-a-week effort and I had a load of domestic things that desperately needed some attention and my potential next job evaporated. I also have to acknowledge that I am in a somewhat lucky position. We do not have kids so the financial worries and potential impact on the innocent does not exist and my wife has been remarkably tolerant. How did it go? In a word, “great!”. I am a lot healthier and a lot more fired up to get on with work as a result of a few months away from the coalface – but I’ll save the second half of this post for some of the boring details of what I got up to {which you may well want to skip}.

This week the break ends. As I write this I do not have a job – but today I start looking around and I start locking myself in my office for the day. I’ll be doing work, even if this consists of me simply catching up on technical reading and testing some ideas I have about Oracle internals and design. This should hopefully increase the technical content of my Blogs too. If anyone is working on a project that could do with some Oracle performance or system design work, I’d be happy to hear from you.

As you can see, the one thing I am terrible at as a self-employed person is the selling of my services. I’m sure I will not get much response from a simple “give me a job” line in a blog that, let’s face it, is being read mostly by technical-doing-people and not budget-holding-hiring-people. However, you might have noticed a green text box on the right of this page proclaiming “available for consultancy”. It’s a free thing for me to do and I intend to keep it there, swapping it for a red “unavailable” when I am busy. This might of course reveal how poorly I do in finding work – but that could be interesting of itself.

So, what have I done? I’ve kept my hand in on the Oracle front but what about non-IT things? Well, one thing was building a clay pizza oven. That took a day on a course and about 200 hours digging a hole in the garden for clay, cleaning up some old bricks, mixing up endless quantities of cobb with the clay, straw and sand, building it wrong several times and destroying a perfectly good Pizza in it.

The final product works though. We fired it up this last weekend and it got up to 300C and the pizzas we cooked in it were very good – allowing for the odd bit of ash and ember. Hint, do not use wood that spits, like pine and off-cuts from building work. If you are wondering about the big bits of wood in the entrance, that is some green oak offcuts which I popped in there after the last firing. The morning after using the oven, you can put in wood for the next firing and the residual heat helps dry it nicely.

A lot has been done around the garden, especially as I now own a chainsaw. Again, I got myself on a course to learn how to maintain the machine and keep the chain sharp. I had to modify some protective clothing to suit my diminutive frame and then about two dozen trees came down and had to be chopped up. {Monty Python’s lumberjack sketch obviously had a big impact on my development as a child}. I then took the chainsaw for an excursion to Wales and gave my brother’s garden the same treatment. I wonder if anyone local wants a load of trees cut down? :-)

A major task has been to organise and then oversee the start of some building work on the house. As anyone who has had such work done knows, it takes a lot of time to organise the work and then once it starts there are a lot of initial issues to sort out. Much like designing and building a new computer system, upfront design and project initiation can make the whole build run so much more smoothly. At least, I am hoping so!

The building work resulted in an odd little bit of computer work. One of the guys was complaining that his machine had started running slow and now it would start up only to shut down immediately. One of the other builders said “Well ask the governor, he does computers”. Of course, I utterly failed to explain that I do other types of computers and so this PC duly arrived. It was nice to do some IT that was not my normal area. It turns out this machine had a couple of nasty viruses which I had to sort out first and then protect the machine with some decent AV software. This was made difficult by the “Rapport” security software his bank had encouraged him to download, which was somehow blocking a windows update from working, as well as grinding the machine to a halt. The performance impact of the software was causing the windows update to take 10 minutes, it would fail and take 20 minutes to roll back and then force a reboot… and cycle through the update again. I temporarily fixed this by booting off a Windows CD and I could then remove the dodgy security software, despite it’s attempts to stay in place. But the machine was still terribly slow. Dixons had sold him the machine and seen fit to put in only 512MB of memory, for a Windows Vista machine. £10 got us an extra 1GB of memory and a machine that now worked. Payment for all of this effort was a couple of nice bottles of wine and a very happy builder.

The building work is still in progress and, of course, part of why my Summer off has come to an end is that the builders have used up the spare money I had from the last job. *sigh*. Mind you, the Summer off was supposed to end in September but as the weather suddenly improved I got permission for a time extension from the lone worker in the house. Has anyone noticed this blog posting is slowly becoming nothing but an excuse for me to stick up some pictures?

There have been a lot of far more mundane things to do on the domestic front but there has also been some IT stuff I have been up to – but I’ll save that for a another day and a more oracle-centric posting I think. Right, I better try and make the CV look more like I’m the best Oracle guy on the planet {OK, I’d have to change the name on the top}. It leans towards being understated honesty rather than overstretched impressive, and I know that is what potential employers like to see (I think it is better for the interview to indicate more skills than the CV, rather than the other way around) but agents seem to want you appear better than a bizzare child of Tom Kyte and Christian Antognini for them to put you in a pile other than “yet another bog-standard IT grunt”. If the agent won’t put you forward, you can’t make your case in the interview, can you?

Friday Philosophy – Dyslexia Defence League August 19, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Immoral Unfairness of Contracts October 11, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life.
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10 comments

You can tell from the title that this is going to be a rant…

Do you remember the last time you signed a contract for a job? Did you read all the terms, conditions and clauses? How angry did it make you? If you did not read it, dig it out and do so. It will ruin your whole day.

I do a mixture of contracting and consulting to provide bread on the table and catfood in the cat bowl and I get to sign a lot of contracts. And they send me mad as so many of them have such outrageously immoral, unfair and, I strongly suspect, illegal clauses in them. But if you don’t sign, you don’t get a job.

If the contract says they can get rid of me on a week’s notice, but I have to give them a month, I insist they pick one or the other and it applies to both parties. If there is a clause saying everything I think of belongs to them then I say no – if it is based on their intelectual property or code specific to their application, then it is theirs and I will comply utterly, but if it is the sort of generic data dictionary query that all these client rely on me to use to do my job, it is mine and I want the right to use it {and give it to other people, like I gave it to you, Mr Client}. Another clause that seems to be becoming rampant in the UK contracting arena is the 40-hour working week and signing away any right to complain. I absolutley object to that as it has been proven scientifically that continuous long hours are detrimental to health. If I choose to do 40, 50 hours in a week (and I often do) it is my choice but they damned well are not going to insist on it. I also know if I do the 50 hours for too long, my productivity and quality drops – and I think we all know this is the real case.

There is often a discussion with the actual people you work with, how the contract is just “admin” and they would never treat you in the way it says they can and “just sign it and forget it as we know you will do the job and we will never use clause 17.3.2 on you”. And they probably won’t, but it makes the contract a big, fat lie at best and a potential stick to beat you with at worst.

A few years ago I decided that I had had enough of this and I now challenge the worst of these clauses and I have had some succes. I also challenge them because, just once or twice, I have had someone try and take advantage of me due to these clauses. Usually recruitment agencies, I have to say.

With small organisations I usually can agree fair and equitable terms. With larger organisations it is a fight but I can usually get some sense into the agreement. But with international corporations, it is a blank refusal. They do not need me, they can buy in someone else and they damn well ain’t going to negotiate or treat you as an equal.

I’m facing this one right now. I’m looking at the contract and the blank refusal by the faceless (and probably deeply annoyed {and overworked}) minion in Admin to even consider a single letter change to a contract. And I am thinking “well sod you and your job and your immoral and bullying contract then”. This morning I really considered walking off site and sacrificing any chance of payment to “punish” such unbending unfairness.

But I probably won’t, I’ll probably roll over and sign the abusive, vile document because I have already been on-site for a week and I like the people I work with, I like the job and I want their project to succeed. And the potential unfair aspects of the contract will probably never be a real issue. So why can’t they just be fairer and why does it make me so absolutely incandescant with rage?

*sigh*

I’m still here, honest May 18, 2010

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

In the last 24 hours I’ve had four emails asking if I am OK – Apparently I am not blogging or bothering people via email! Well, I am OK (and thanks guys for the concern), I was just knackered.

Rule 1 of blogging “no one cares about you as an individual” (and, I am glad to say, that is a myth. Even in the zero-physical-contact medium of electronic communication, some have been concerned about my silence. Humanity may yet have a future)

Truth is, I damaged myself trying to get healthier {so it is back to the eating pies and drinking beer for me!*} and that caused lack of sleep and more unhealth and I ended up very, very, very tired and I was reduced to putting all my energy into doing the day job.

This has nothing to do with a Blog on technology and database, of course.

Ahh, but Yes, it does, it actually has a hell of a lot to do with it. I have been tired, hard-pressed and under-performing. So I concentrated on doing my primary job and nothing else. So I have not blogged and I have not emailed people and I have not generally helped as much as I would like.

The thing is, if you think of your comrades and fellow staff (and, for some of you, the people who work for you) most people around you could well be the same. The primary directive of business, at present, is to get everything for your current task out of the staff right now. That is the prime directive, push the staff hard to get x, y and z done. Or, for those of you working under an Agile Methodology, the handful of tasks in front of you for this sprint {or whatever the hell terminology is for your take on the “Get It Done NOW” methodology}.

I have had no bandwidth to do more than my day job of late. And I stopped helping. I think some current working practices and philosophies have the same, chronic effect.

Is this a good thing? I will let you decide.

For myself, I’ve had a week walking in Snowdonia (and I was not fit enough to get the best out of the time, but mentally it was a God-send). I thought nothing about technology; I thought very little at all. I walked up hills, I drank beer and wine and I ate lots of pies. And I now feel good.

I know I am doing better work now than I was 2 weeks ago.

So, I hope to start doing proper technical blogs again in the next week or so. But right now, having had a week of total down-time, I am ready and need to do my day job again. And they pay me, so I better go off and do it! Expect a proper technical blog next week.

{* I joke about damaging myself getting fitter, but I feel condemned to point out that being generally fitter and healthier is a good thing, even if you hurt yourself getting there. It is better to be old and fit than old and decrepit. Or old and dead. :-) I’m full of happy thoughts like that…}

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year December 25, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life.
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3 comments

I just wanted to wish a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone who reads my blog, especially those who add comments and help make it a better source of information and, I hope, occasionally amusement.

Martin

Friday Philosophy – when do we learn? October 17, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life.
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5 comments

I’ve had a theory for a while that there are two times when we learn:

  • When we are under extreme duress
  • When we are under no duress at all

I think all technicians would agree with the former. We learn a lot when something very important needs doing urgently, like getting the database back up or finding out why the application has suddenly gone wrong {Hint, very often the answer is to find What Changed}. Another example is when a decision has been made to implement something a manager has seen a nice sales presentation on and they really like the look of it. We technicians have to make it actually work {and I admit to once or twice having been the Manager in this situation :-). I apologise to my people from back then}.

I’ve also believed for a while that the other time you learn, or at least can learn, is when things are unusually quiet. When work is just at it’s normal hectic pace, it’s hard to spend the extra effort on reading manuals, trying things out and checking out some of those technical blogs. You spend all your spare effort on The Rest Of Your Life. You know, friends, partners, children, the cat.

So I think you need some slack time to learn and that is when the most complete learning is done. Yes, you learn a lot when the pressure is on, but you are generally learning “how to get the damned problem resolved” and probably not exactly why the problem occurred; did you fix the problem or just cover it over? Did you implement that new feature your boss’s boss wanted in the best way, or in a way that just about works. You need the slack time to sort out the details.

When do we get slack time? Weekends and holidays. How many of us have snuck the odd technical book or two into our luggage when going on holiday? {And how many of us have had that look from our partners when they find out?}.

Well, at the end of this week I am going on two and a half weeks holiday, over to New England in the US. A few days in Boston, up through Maine, across to Mount Washington to a little hotel where we had possibly the best meal of our lives, down to Mystic and then over to Washington to see some friends.

I am not taking any manuals. I am not taking any technical books.  I am not taking a laptop with Oracle on it. I am not even likely to blog for the duration. Why? I have not been as mentally and physically shattered as I am now since I finished my degree 20 years ago. I just want to switch off for a while.

So I am revising my theory of when we learn. I now think we learn when:

  • When we are under extreme duress {that just does not change}
  • When we have spare mental capacity and the drive to use it.

Right now, I think I have the mental capacity of a drunk squirrel. So from the end of next week, I’m going to sleep, read sci-fi, eat and drink well and maybe do a bit of culture.  The computers and the learning can wait for a little while.

All Is Well in Widlake World August 27, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life.
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3 comments

I’m about to post a proper blog entry but, before that, I’d like to thank those of you who contacted me to ask how my Mother was doing. She’s doing OK, she has remembered how to breath and the cause of the whole issue has been identified, is treatable and is under control.

Now I just have to brace myself for when she can speak again and tells us all how bored and uncomfortable she is. Thankfully the Nurses will take the brunt of it and they are good at being understanding. Maybe in 6 weeks we will have her back home, looking after herself and my current main employer will not have to be as very understanding as they have been (thankyou Employer).

Oh, and the skills at reading graphs came in useful again. I asked a few days ago about “That set of spikes” and the nurses got agitated. Until they realised my Mother had took off a mointoring lead as it was annoying her. Mothers huh?

Friday Philosophy – When the Job Meets Real Life August 15, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life.
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1 comment so far

For my Friday Philosophy this week, I’m going way off topic. I’m straying into non-work life. Actually, let’s be accurate, I’m wading deep into personal life. If you want to know about Oracle mechanics, this ain’t the post for you.

It’s been a trying week this week, so much so that I have not posted for a few days – and I suspect I won’t post at all next week. About two hours after completing my last post on Tuesday, my wife called me to let me know my mum had been taken into hospital. My mother had developed some breathing difficulties, in that she’d forgotten completely how to do it.

So, after tube/train/drive across the country I found myself sat in an intensive care unit with my Brother, wondering how in heck so many tubes can be attached to such a small person as my mother, but they managed it. All of this medical monitoring stuff is attached to computers, many with readouts.

I have a couple of advantages over most people in these situations. I studied biology at University and I worked either within or along side the NHS for 7 or 8 years, on hospital patient systems. So I understand a bit about all the equipment that is used and the data it produces.

What has this to do with the world of Oracle Performance? Not an awful lot. Except for one thing.

Sometimes, though I love what I do for a living and find solving performance problems stimulating and satisfying, I question “what is the point” in the whole real-world situation. I was sat there at the side of my mother’s bed, exchanging idle chat and some black humour with my brother {it’s the way our brains are wired, I blame my Mum}. Suddenly I stopped listening to my brother. The pattern had changed. The graphs had shifted and the figures had altered on the screens attached to the equipment monitoring my mother. I’d picked this up as I was used to watching performance graphs for computer systems. My brother was oblivious. Well what a surprise, an IT skill that turns out to be useful in the real world. Spotting graph/pattern changes.

As it turns out, the nursing staff had spotted these anomolous graphs too, glanced over, and realised it was just “one of those things”. Status quo was restored about 1 minute and 3 pints of my sweat later.

So why do I think my ability to spot a change in “performance graphs” and scare myself so deeply is a good thing? Because at least I had a feel for what was going on and I felt less clueless and helpless.

I’ve looke back on this and come to an even more shocking thought. There is a management technique that helps in real life. I have been a manager and I was surrounded by experts in their field. I was sat in a real-world situation, surrounded by experts in their field. When they did not react to the changed pattern on my mother’s monitors, I was reassured that it was not serious. So maybe some management skills have other uses too. I’ll remember that the next time someone tells me all management skills are bunkum. {But it probably still holds that most Managers are Bunkum :-) }

I wish that more IT managers could treat their staff this way. If the DBA team
{or Sys admin team, or network team} do not respond to the graphs as a sign of impending doom, then it probably ain’t impending doom, so trust them.

And of course the other reason I’ve blogged about this is it’s an outlet to a certain amount of trepidation about the future. Maybe I should have stuck to Biology rather than IT. *sigh*.

Hey, it’s not my fault I can’t spell. June 10, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

*Sigh*
I just got pinged by someone to let me know of some spelling mistakes in my blog. I know, I know, just leave me alone OK?!

Do you remember doing the “colour blind” test at school? {And, for our American cousins, “color blind”}. You know, you are shown a few images made up of dots, with numbers in them.

Most of the colour blindness images are far less obvious than this

Well, most people are shown 5 or 6 images and shout out “8”, “16” etc promptly five times and are then shown out – nothing more is said. Some people cry “7”, “34”, “dunno, give me a clue” and after 10 or 12 images get told they can’t distinguish blue & green or red & brown or something and so can’t drive trains or fly fighter planes… Me? I was in there for 5 minutes, coming up with what must have been very confusing answers. They even started showing me the same images again and I remember occasionally going something like “it’s 16 not 6, isn’t it”. Eventually they told me my colour vision was fine and threw me out as a time-waster. I wonder if I can fly fighter planes?

What they should probably have spotted (and a school teacher friend of mine got quite angry about this when I told her this story, as she thought they should have spotted this even back in the late 70’s) was that I could not read for toffee – as I have mild dyslexia. She had been taught how to identify dyslexia in children and one of the easiest ways was, she said, issues with the colour blindness test but without being colour blind.

When I read things I don’t do what a lot of people do, which is kind of pick up the start and end of long words and “see” it. I do it in little spirals. I do not know that I can explain better than that, but if I hit a long word (more than six letters) I start at the begining, flick to the back of the word and work back and if the two don’t meet I spiral in. I wonder if there is a cunning lexical trick I can sell to Oracle Text on that one?

It’s no where near as bad as many, heck I’ve managed to get by OK with it, but spell checkers have been a boon to me. The problem is, I don’t always remember to use them and, even if I do, a word spelt wrongly but is itself a correct word will not be picked up. I know, many packages now also have Grammer Checkers that could pick some of it up, but I find Grammer Checkers so infuriatingly useless, I turn them off.

So, sometimes my spelling is terrible. It’s because I have an IQ of 73, OK? The thing is, I probably got pinged in every exam I took because of it {except Maths, where in all honesty I got past the exams at age 16 and then it all stopped being logical. Sorry Mr Winters, I did my best as you know, but my brain could not do all that more advanced stuff}. I even got bollocked told off during my degree for carpals and carpels but heck, to me both read crapals.

I had particular fun a few years back when I introduced Oracle Partitioning to British Gas. No one had used it before but I had a quiet little application that I was passing over to the production DBAs to look after that did. So, I went over to Hinckley (oooh, thats a doozer to spell) where all the proddy DBAs lived and gave a presentation on Partitioning. Except I was doing it with white boards and OHP and every time I spelt Partitioning I wrote “rtit”, then went back and put in the “Pa” at the start and then tried to finish it off. Usually I managed. That was what prompted the chat with the teacher, I was telling her how that sort of thing happens to me and it’s annoying and she asked about if I had ever been tested for colour blindness.

So, there you go. It’s my excuse. Now you know that either I am right, or I have munchausens syndrome {just look it up, OK? Try this here}.

The odd thing? I can’t always spell “who” but I never get “Dyslexia” wrong.

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