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Friday Philosophy – Flippin’ Technology June 5, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Perceptions, rant.
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5 comments

Sometimes I think I would have been a Luddite or a member of other groups who have trashed new technology in frustration. Some days, I can just scream at it. You would think having worked in Information Technology for so long would make me more of a fan, but it actually makes me worse – as I know there is no need for there to be so much wrong with the electronic dross we all have to deal with day-to-day. And if I, someone who has used (heck, even programmed) computers for 3 decades, have trouble with these damned things, how frustrating must “normal” people find it?

Tesco Challenge - original on RevK Rant's blog

Tesco Challenge – original on RevK Rant’s blog

Take this morning’s source-for-a-rant. Self checkouts in supermarkets. I had popped into Tesco to get the weekend’s rations of baked beans, wine and cat food and there were large queues for all manned (though, I should more correctly say, mostly womanned) tills. And almost no queue for the self-service ones. We all know why almost no queue for the self-service ones, most of us hate them. But I had to get back home for a UKOUG conference call and there was very little chance the three-people-deep queues would be negotiated in time, so I manned up and went to one of the vacant screens.

Have I mentioned I’ve been using computers since before Wayne Rooney, Keira Knightley or Michael Phelps were born? So I have some affinity and experience to navigating screens of information. But, like all of theses devices, using them is painful. Given they are designed to be used by everyone including idiots, why is the “UX” so low? Why does the important information appear at different spots in the screen at different times? Why does there seem to be no button to press for a simple, key-word triggered guide (“How to weigh Veg?” Oh, look up there, press the correct icon, look down there and press another and then finally click over here to say “yes I really did ask you to weigh some bananas” – that would be nice). Why does the Waitrose one make me swipe my card to pull up my scanned items but insist I shove the card up the slot to pay? Plus all the times you have to get some human to come over and confirm you are over 18 (I need to be 18 to buy expanding foam?!?) or don’t look suicidal. I’m not being funny but the age check is just not needed, if I am using a credit card it can know I am 18 or over (you cannot you have a UK credit card under 18, partly as you are not allowed to sign up for a credit agreement below that age and if I am using someone else’s credit card, me buying a bottle of wine is the least of the potential issues). To give them their due, at least our local Tesco (unlike many other stores I have used around here) have someone on hand to constantly swipe, press, tap and harass the machines into playing correctly.

I can’t believe how badly these self service checkouts work. I can’t believe the companies have not tested them extensively with real people (I know, they claim to, but then I’ve seen “user system testing” in big banks and it is shockingly poor). How can they think such terrible systems are good for business? That people still insist on queuing for checkouts with real people rather than use them must tell the companies something! Why can’t these systems be better designed. Why are they so painful to use? It can’t be me. Maybe it is me….

Next rant. My internet & email supplier. Hi BT. BT, you are crap at running your internet & email service. I’ll only mention in passing the regular episodes of slow internet, the times mail seems to struggle to keep moving, the harassing emails to buy more allowance as I am reaching my limit…for the prior month (“HI BT, I think I might pop back in time and download 15 films last March, can I have more allowance for than as I’d used over half my limit”) – but I am going to complain over the fact that for the last 5 weeks now, each weekend you stop accepting valid connection requests from my Laptop – but allow them from my iPhone. So my account/pwd is working fine. But no, from the PC you tell me I have to validate my account. So I log on to the web site and as soon as I put in my details you tell me I have to change my password as there has been too many failed attempts at access my account? Well, if they failed, I chose a decent password maybe? Trying to force me to change it is likely to make me change it to something simpler maybe? Especially as this is the fourth time this month… but then, usually the system fails to actually process my password change and just hangs. My iPhone still keeps working with the old details and, usually by the next day, the errors have gone and I can access my mail with my old details with a real machine again too. My conclusion has been that it’s their software screwing up. Each. And. Every. Weekend.

It’s got worse, it now fouls up some workdays too. And I made an interesting discovery. When I log in to the web site to validate myself, if I put in a password of “scr3wy0uBT” – it accepts it and puts me into the Change Your Password screen exactly the same as before. No, my password is not “scr3wy0uBT” {it rejected it when I tried…}. So top security there. Whatever is happening, it’s just…..pants {UK phrase, it means “utterly rubbish”. Pants are not trousers, they are undergarments, you strange Americans.}

What is BT doing wrong to have this problem keep happening? Is this a good “UX” experience for me and all the other people who seem to have similar issues? Is it so hard to sort this out?

What was the third rant? Oh yes. Windows 8. Too many people before me have vented spleen and given pieces of their mind on Windows 8 for me to be able to add any more to the pile, but what I cannot fathom is, as soon as they got the almighty ass-kicking that they did for ballsing up the Start Button/Menu, why did they not in the next version just put it straight back as it was?. Or put out and advertise a simple “patch” to put back what millions of people were screaming they wanted back? All I can think is someone’s ego was too large to wave their hands in the air and say “Oh boy, did we make a dog’s dinner of that – let us help improve your “UX” and our reputation by fixing that straight away”.

Final rant. Games. Computer Games. I like running around shooting things. It gets rids of some of the IT-In-Daily-Life anger. But I am not very good at it and my broadband connection is slow and a bit laggy, so I am not interested in running around shooting things with friends. The same broadband issues mean I also don’t want to spend 4 hours downloading a game, I want to buy it in a floppy disc…..I mean CD…. Errr, DVD… and play it. So I went to this place called a “shop” and I bought a game on media in a box and checked the packaging. No where did it state I have to have an internet connection. I get the DVD out (hmm, there are actually three), put it in the machine and 30 mins later the software is loaded. And now it FORCES me to register with some crapola online gaming site to register my copy (like, if I had a bootleg version that would not be the first bit they strip out) and that takes an hour to download it’s own shitty software. That done, it will let me fire up the game – that immediately bombs out to download the latest patch (which I think it the crapola online site’s version) and that takes two hours as it is obviously much, much more than a patch. I suspect it is the whole damned game again. This is not a “UX” I wanted and, you can bet, next time I buy a game, crapola online gaming company is one thing I will be looking to avoid. It does not help that said game won’t fire up without logging into said game site or making me watch a minute of adverts about who wrote the game on who’s graphics card using what game engine. Thankfully a few minutes on the net explained how I could avoid all of that. But why do I have to take steps to stop these companies annoying me and, this is the bit that confuses me, what makes these companies think I’ll be impressed by being repeatedly exposed to their adds that I don’t want to see? I’ll just despise them a little bit more each time.

I just don’t get it. The number one thing any IT system needs to achieve is User Acceptance (as I have said before, if you check the link). Why do so many large companies miss this and inflict on the world a seriously sub-standard experience of IT and technology? If someone like me who has driven a screen, a keyboard and a mouse for 3 decades, understands some of the limits to IT and must have at least some brains in his skull, if I get endlessly caught out, befuddled and simply screaming-out-loud-frustrated by crap IT, how is my poor old mum (and everyone’s poor old parents) supposed to cope?

I’m going to become a Lumberjack. Chainsaws do not have screens and keyboards.

No I.T. Hassles Here

No I.T. Hassles Here

Friday Philosophy – Make a Team by Letting Them Burn May 29, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
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The title of today’s Friday Philosophy sounds extreme, but it’s true.

Sir John Harvey-JOnes

Sir John Harvey-Jones

Recently, I was watching a TV program about “experts” helping companies turn around. A couple of decades ago the BBC had a program called “The Troubleshooter” where a gentleman called Sir John Harvey-Jones gave companies in trouble advice {the similar idea but without the cheap and tacky elements we have today with making the targets of the program cry and over-emote for good TV}. John just gave solid advice. But one thing that was true in the program back then and is true in the tacky 21st century take on the program is that eventually you have to let the new team make mistakes.

This resonated with me as when I was managing teams it was something I knew I should do – and struggled to allow. A new team and, especially, a new team leader, has to be given space to make mistakes.

I have always found this very hard to watch. When you become a team leader yourself, or a subject matter expert, or the “lead” on anything, you make mistakes. You just do: it’s new to you, you have not done it before and you lack the experience and knowledge to know what works and what does not. If you are lucky you might have a mentor you can talk to or think back on, maybe a team leader you enjoyed working for or an expert you admire. But often it is just you and the new role and a whole green field of requirements into which you can drop your own cow-pats. It is challenging, exciting, frightening, worrying… Looking back, those are the times that have been most demanding in my career and have also been the times I learnt the most.

I would say they were also the best times in my working life (and that would fulfill the usual mythology and story-telling shtick at this point) but that would be a lie. 50% of the time they were, the other 50% of the time I hated it. Am I not supposed to say that? Well, it’s true. Half the time, breaking new ground is not the Star Trek/Friends/Movie-of-the-month feel-good ride to betterment that society sells us it is. Sometimes it is hard work, bruising and sucks. Am I wrong?

So, I know it is not always a nice ride. And, irrespective, I’ve learnt some lessons over the years – and I do not see why people under my tutelage cannot just inherit the lessons I learned painfully without the pain, by me guiding them. I want what is in my head and my experience to be available to you.

What is wrong with that? Well, three things at least.

My way is not your way. I am me, you are you. Ignoring for the minute that I could get things wrong {As if!!! {British ironic humour) }, just because how I handle a situation or my team or a tricky customer interaction works for me, that way may not work for you – as you have a different personality and different strengths. I’m pretty good at dealing with companies that try to rip me off. I face them down and I bloody well let them have it. My wife does not do that, she keeps calm, is passive (in my eyes) and does not point out their stupidity. But she nails them with reasonable logic and calm {but she will go for the throat if reason fails}. We both usually win. She maybe wins more often (please don’t tell her that). We all have to find what works for us as individuals and that varies.

Secondly, though I would like to save you from pain, if you do not make your own decisions and live with them then it was not your work. If you do what I told you to do then it was partly my work. You will know that. What will you do when I am not there? I’m not arguing against seeking advice, that is always (in my book) correct. But if you are in charge of something, you need to BE IN CHARGE so that you learn to know you can (or cannot, let’s be honest) do it. You have to decide if you take any advice, it would be questionable of me dictate you take my advice (though there are times and situations when that would be correct of me). If you succeed because I told you what to do, you have learned a way to handle that situation. If you resolved the problem yourself, you also learned that you can do it. If you mess up, then you learnt a way not to do things and you now have to learn another vital management skill:

To be a good leader you need to accept your mistakes – and sort them out.

That is what I mean about letting the team burn.

The third point, the one I do not like looking at, is that. Well. My way may not be best. Your way might not just be different and better suited to you and your abilities, it might simply be better. If I over-ride a minion when they are not doing it My Way then I am preventing them from learning, I am preventing them from doing it their way, and I am potentially preventing them doing it a better way.

My job as a manager is getting the best out of those I manage. That may include them doing a better job than me. If that is a problem, it is my problem.

This is also true of teaching and mentoring and explaining. If I teach you SQL programming and you become a better SQL programmer than me, I’ll be hurt – How dare you be better than me? I Bloody taught you! I would like to feel that as I get older I can live more comfortably with achieving that aim of someone I teach becoming better than me.

So getting back to the title. If I manage a team leader, I have to let that team leader… lead. I advise, I help, I highlight what I think they missed… And then, if I can over-ride my damned ego, I shut up. I have to risk letting them burn.

If they burn, I try to put out the fire with them.

If they do not burn, they have learnt and will be better.

If they shine, then they have exceeded me and we might be swapping roles one day.

I would like to think that is how I operated at the end of my time managing teams.

With Modern Storage the Oracle Buffer Cache is Not So Important. May 27, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Hardware, performance.
Tags: , , , ,
11 comments

With Oracle’s move towards engineered systems we all know that “more” is being done down at the storage layer and modern storage arrays have hundreds of spindles and massive caches. Does it really matter if data is kept in the Database Buffer Cache anymore?

Yes. Yes it does.

Time for a cool beer

Time for a cool beer

With much larger data sets and the still-real issue of less disk spindles per GB of data, the Oracle database buffer cache is not so important as it was. It is even more important.

I could give you some figures but let’s put this in a context most of us can easily understand.

You are sitting in the living room and you want a beer. You are the oracle database, the beer is the block you want. Going to the fridge in the kitchen to get your beer is like you going to the Buffer Cache to get your block.

It takes 5 seconds to get to the fridge, 2 seconds to pop it open with the always-to-hand bottle opener and 5 seconds to get back to your chair. 12 seconds in total. Ahhhhh, beer!!!!

But – what if there is no beer in the fridge? The block is not in the cache. So now you have to get your car keys, open the garage, get the car out and drive to the shop to get your beer. And then come back, pop the beer in the fridge for half an hour and now you can drink it. That is like going to storage to get your block. It is that much slower.

It is only that much slower if you live 6 hours drive from your beer shop. Think taking the scenic route from New York to Washington DC.

The difference in speed really is that large. If your data happens to be in the memory cache in the storage array, that’s like the beer already being in a fridge – in that shop 6 hours away. Your storage is SSD-based? OK, you’ve moved house to Philadelphia, 2 hours closer.

Let's go get beer from the shop

Let’s go get beer from the shop

To back this up, some rough (and I mean really rough) figures. Access time to memory is measured in Microseconds (“us” – millionths of a second) to hundreds of Nanoseconds (“ns” – billionths of a second). Somewhere around 500ns seems to be an acceptable figure. Access to disc storage is more like Milliseconds (“ms” – thousandths of a second). Go check an AWR report or statspack or OEM or whatever you use, you will see that db file scattered reads are anywhere from low teens to say 2 or 3 ms, depending on what your storage and network is. For most sites, that speed has hardly altered in years as, though hard discs get bigger, they have not got much faster – and often you end up with fewer spindles holding your data as you get allocated space not spindles from storage (and the total sustainable speed of hard disc storage is limited to the total speed of all the spindles involved). Oh, the storage guys tell you that your data is spread over all those spindles? So is the data for every system then, you have maximum contention.

However, memory speed has increased over that time, and so has CPU speed (though CPU speed has really stopped improving now, it is more down to More CPUs).

Even allowing for latching and pinning and messing around, accessing a block in memory is going to be at the very least 1,000 times faster than going to disc, maybe 10,000 times. Sticking to a conservative 2,000 times faster for memory than disc , that 12 seconds trip to the fridge equates to 24,000 seconds driving. That’s 6.66 hours.

This is why you want to avoid physical IO in your database if you possibly can. You want to maximise the use of the database buffer cache as much as you can, even with all the new Exadata-like tricks. If you can’t keep all your working data in memory, in the database buffer cache (or in-memory or use the results cache) then you will have to do that achingly slow physical IO and then the intelligence-at-the-hardware comes into it’s own, true Data Warehouse territory.

So the take-home message is – avoid physical IO, design your database and apps to keep as much as you can in the database buffer cache. That way your beer is always to hand.

Cheers.

Update. Kevin Fries commented to mention this wonderful little latency table. Thanks Kevin.

“Here’s something I’ve used before in a presentation. It’s from Brendan Gregg’s book – Systems Performance: Enterprise and the Cloud”

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).

Guaranteed Method of Boosting your Oracle Skills May 21, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Knowledge, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

I can tell you how to be a better Oracle DBA, Developer, Designer, Architect – whatever your flavour of role or aspect of profession, if Oracle tech is part of your working world I can hand you the key to improvement. And it is easy.

I am totally assured(*) I can do this. It will work for every single one of you reading this post (except for you two, you know who you are). And you must send me $100 before I tell you how…

Hell, no you don’t! This is not some bull-droppings selling piece, it is just advice. And some advice aimed directly at myself too.

When did you last read the Oracle Server/Database Concepts manual? You know, that fairly short book (in fact, from 11G it is really short, with links through to other chapters in other books) that explains how Oracle TM (Copyright), actually does stuff? What it can do? It does not go into too many details but rather gives you a brief introduction of each concept and the fundamental “how it works” information.

Thanks to Kevin Fries who pointed out it would be nice if I linked to the online concepts manuals (as he did in his comment):
Here is the online 12C Database Concepts manual.
Here is the online 11GR2 Database Concepts manual for those still with 11GR2.
Here is the online 10GR2 Database Concepts manual for those trapped in the past with 10GR2.

Read it. Read it this week. I am confident that if you read the latest Oracle Database Concepts manual you will be ahead of the game by a massive step.

Oracle 7 instance diagram

Oracle 7 instance diagram

Why am I so sure? Because we forget what Oracle has been able to do for years and we miss new abilities if our day-job has not touched on them since they came in. I think there is a growing move to learning only what you really need to know to get the job done (as we are all so busy) as we know we can search the web for the rest. My friend Neil Chandler came up with a name for it, JIT learning: “Just In Time” learning). Only, you can’t easily search for what you don’t know (or have forgotten) is possible with the tech you use. If you go through the concepts manual you will be reminded of stuff you forgot, things you missed or {and this is key to newbies} gain an outline understanding of what Oracle can do.

I became fascinated with how many people read the concepts manual about a decade ago and started asking a question when I presented on any Oracle topic. “Who has reads the concepts manual for the version of Oracle you mostly work with?”. In the last 10, 12 years the number of hands has decreased from well over 50%. In 2012, at a UK meeting, it hit the bottom of the barrel, no hands whatsoever. Oddly enough, a few weeks later I was in Slovenia (for none-European people, a lovely country bordering Italy and Austria – google it if you need more help) and the same question resulted in 40% of the audience raising a hand. When I was in the US 6 months later, no hands at all again. In the UK and Europe since, no hands or occasionally, one hand – and a few questions usually nailed down that it was a prior version of the manual they had read.

I took some time to ask this question again at a UK user group meeting about 4 months ago (no hands came up of course) and asked “why?”. The consensus was “we know most of what is in the concepts manual, we just need to know what has changed” – with an undercurrent of not having time to read the now-huge set of Oracle manuals. A few people suggested just reading the New Features. This was a crowd who did not know what a table cluster was (“Ha, look at ME! I know what a table cluster is! Hahahahaaaa – OK, no one uses them.”). (British ironic self-depreciation there).

Reading “New Features” is certainly better than nothing but I feel it is not enough as it does not remind us of the established stuff we have forgotten. I am on a bit of a personal Jihad to explain the basics of Oracle to any Newbie who cares to listen and I have to keep checking my facts with the concepts manual and some chosen expert friends (thank you VERY MUCH expert friends) and I keep stumbling over stuff I don’t know, misunderstood or forgot. And I have been an “expert” in Oracle since… Well, before the millennium bug or Android phones or iTunes had been invented. THAT LONG! I know my shit – and some of it is, well…. wrong.

Actually, I have a confession. I have not read the 11g or 12C concepts manual. I told you this advice was aimed at me too.

So, Go Read The Oracle 12C Concepts Manual. Go ON! Go and read it!!!! Oh. Still here? Well, I AM going to read it – as I last read the 10G concepts manual properly. And as part of my current push to present, talk and blog about the basics of Oracle, I will blog what jumps out at me. I know one thing – I will not be quiet any time until August if I follow my own advice, I will be posting blogs left, right and center about what I learn..

I’ll use the tag 12Cbasics.

Let the learning of basics begin.

Oracle 7 or Oracle 8, 1.5 " of pure info

Oracle 7 or Oracle 8, 1.5 ” of pure info

Thanks to Joel Garry for digging his old manuals out the basement and doing this shot for me :-)

(*) it won’t work if you already read the latest concepts manual. But most people have not! Heck, I did not charge for the advice, so sue me if you read it already.

Fixing my iPhone with my Backside May 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
10 comments

{Things got worse with this phone >>}

iPhone 5 battery getting weak? Damn thing is saying “out of charge” and won’t charge? Read on…

NB a link to the battery recall page is at the end of this post and the eventual “death” of my phone and my subsequent experience of the recall with my local apple store can be found by following the above link…

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

Dreaded “out of battery” icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: if you have a similar problem with your iPhone5, there is a recall on some iPhone5’s sold between December 2012 and January 2013 – https://www.apple.com/uk/support/iphone5-battery
{thanks for letting me know that, Neil}.

Friday Philosophy – Know Your Audience May 7, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Friday Philosophy, Presenting, publications.
Tags: , ,
9 comments

There are some things that are critical for businesses that can be hidden or of little concern to those of us doing a technical job. One of those is knowing who your customers are. It is vital to businesses to know who is buying their products or services. Knowing who is not and never will buy their products is also important (don’t target the uninterested) and knowing and who is not currently buying and might is often sold as the key to ever growing market share and profit. But fundamentally, they need to know who the current customers are, so they can be looked after {I know, some businesses are shocking to current customers, never understood that}.

This should also be a concern to me.

Why? Well, I “sell” something. I don’t charge for it, but I put out my blogs and my tweets and my presentations. I’ve even stepped up to articles. So I am putting a product out there and I want people to use it. Any of us who blog, tweet, facebook or in some way communicate information are fundamentally trying to talk to people. It’s fine to just put stuff out there and see who comes, but if I am doing this in order to reach an audience, well, who is my audience?

I know who my audience is. I’m British. I live in the UK, 75% of my presentations are in the UK, 95% of my work has been in the UK. I drink tea as a hobbie, queue as only the British know how, want my ale at room temperature and I am self-deprecating in my humour. At least, I’d like to think I am, but please forgive me if I fall short of your expectations.

My Audience is UK:

Who comes looking from where

Who comes looking from where

My Audience is American.

Dang!

As you can see from the above, my reasonable assumption was wrong. Those are stats I pulled from my blog about visits by country for a recent period. Most of my audience is in the US. For this particular period the UK is my second highest audience and India is third, but I dug in a little more and at times my Indian audience is higher than my UK audience.

Other countries move up and down but the above graphic is representative – European counties, Canada, South America and Australia all are prominent areas for me, and South Korea – big technology country, South Korea, so I should expect a reasonable showing from there. However, I’ll just let you know that last year (different graph, I hasten to point out) I had only 1 visitor from the Vatican, Vanuatu and Jersey (part of the UK!) each. I’m a bit gutted about Jersey, having worked there once, but the Vatican? Does the Pope need a VLDB?

I have noticed a spike of interest in a given month by a country if I go and present there, but it does not last for long.

What about my Tweet world? The below shows where my followers are from:

Peeps wot Tweets

Peeps wot Tweets

It is nice that this graph emphasises that “others” outside the top 10 are larger source of audience tham any individual country, but it shows a similar pattern to my blog. I’m mostly talking to my American cousins, the home crowd and our friends over in India. I suppose if you think about the number of people working in IT (and, to a lesser extent, just simply living) in countries across the global, the numbers make a lot of sense. If I was doing this analysis on a database of the raw data I’d now be correlating for population size and trying think of a proxy I could use for “IT Aware”.

So now I know who my audience is. Does this mean I should alter the tone of my posts to be more American or International, or is the British flavour of my erudite utterances part of the appeal?

I have noticed one change in my output over that last year or so, as I have become more aware of the geographical spread of my audience. I tend to explain what I recognise as odd phrases (above paragraph allowing) or UK-centric references a little more. And I try to allow for the fact that not everyone visiting my blog speaks English as a first language. But in the end, I have to use the only language I know. However, I don’t think I appreciate well when I am using colloquial phrases or referencing UK-centric culture. I’ll try harder.

One thing I do resist is WordPress trying to auto-correct my spelling to US – despite the fact that the app knows I am in the UK. Maybe I should spend some time trying to see if I can force the use of a UK dictionary on it? I won’t accept corrections to US spelling because, damn it all chaps, English came from this island and I refuse to use a ‘Z’ where it does not belong or drop a ‘u’ where it damned well should be! And pants are underwear, not trousers, you foolish people.

There is another aspect of my blog posts that I find interesting, and it is not about where my audience is – it is about the longevity of posts. Technical posts have a longer shelf life. My top posts are about oddities of the Oracle RDBMS, constantly being found by Google when people are looking at problems. A couple of the highest hitters I put up in 2009 when almost no one came by to look. However, my “Friday Philosophies” hit higher in the popularity stakes when first published but, a month later, no one looks at them anymore. Stuff about user groups and soft skills fall between the two. Some of my early, non technical posts just drifted into the desert with hardly any notice. Sadly, I think a couple of them are the best things I have ever said. Maybe I should republish them?

No Local Oracle User Group? Oh Well, Go to a Bar… April 28, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting, User Groups.
Tags: ,
3 comments

Is there no local Oracle user group in your area? Do you wish you could share experiences with like-minded people? Is there no opportunity to talk about the technology you work with? Do you feel you would benefit from expanding your network of friends and contacts? But without a local user group it’s really hard to do any of that! – At least face-to-face. And, let’s face it, meeting for real really does beat meeting on-line. I know, you are sad about it.

Well, go to a bar. Have a drink, it might make you feel better. Especially if you go with Dave in your team. Ask your friend across town along who also works with Oracle Tech. And maybe she could bring her friend who is an Oracle DBA too.

Well done! You now have an Oracle User Group!

It really is that simple to start a user group. You do not need an organisation, you do not need membership and you do not need presenters. You just need three of you and a place to meet. I might be saying a bar above (or, in England, it would be a local Pub, my good chap) but it can be a coffee house, a cafe, a wine bar, the local library maybe or anywhere you can meet easily and relax. Obviously increasing from 3 to 4 to 5 etc makes it all more interesting with more stories, tips and experiences to share.

I’m in a user group just like that, it’s called the LOB – London Oracle Beers. We started in around 2009, 2010. Initially it was myself, Neil Chandler and Doug Burns occasionally meeting for a pint or three (and later arguing about who started LOB). Soon Pete Scott was joining us, then Dawn, then Graham {what happened to Graham?} then Martin Bach… It got serious when I put together a mail list. We’ve been going ever since and although the regularity of the meetings fluctuates, as does the size of the group, it seems to keep going at between once a month to once every 3 months. Thinking about it, we are due a get-together.

How to Start a Small, Social User Group

There is one thing that IS needed for a user group like the above, and in fact for the others I am going to mention.

You need someone to regularly say “let’s meet”.

It does not need to be one person, it can be shared between several people. In the current LOB it is mostly myself that sends out a call but Neil does too. Anyone in the group can make the call and occasionally others do (Dawn, Pete) and some ask me to make the call on their behalf, which I do even if I can’t attend. But that’s really all you need, someone to make the call.

The other thing you need to do is, as a group, invite some others along. Not everyone you can think of, for a social user group let it grow at a steady, organic rate. People drop in and out of user groups so you need to constantly keep an eye on things and if the numbers drop, ask a few others. People’s lives and circumstances alter so they can’t come or they just decide they’ve had enough and that’s fine. For this sort of social-centric user group I would suggest you stick to inviting friends and friendly contacts and try not to let it get too large (A nice problem for a user group to have!)

So Just Do it! If you do not have a local user group and you want one, be the person to ask a couple of friends and if there are 3 or more of you, make that call. And a month or two later, make the call again. The worst that will happen is that it won’t take off and, if it does not, you know you tried (and not many people will know you failed :-) ). I’d honestly be surprised if it does not at least take off for a while.

The Presenting User Group

Another sort of user group is where you start off by wanting it to be a bit more structured, to have presentations involved. This does take more organisation: a location where you can present (it does not have to be the same place each time), someone to present and it helps if you have a sponsor. As having somewhere to speak may well involve renting a room and it’s nice if you can offer some drinks and snacks. You don’t need a lot of sponsorship (if any). Ask some local Oracle-centric firms, the worst they will say is “no” and the best they will say is “sure, here is enough money for some pizza and Rohan in the Dev team is happy to talk about Blargh at the first meeting”. But work out what you need (say rental on the room and enough for a couple of Samosas for everyone) and only ask for what you need. Your sponsor may well want to put up a banner or have someone say something but that is part of the deal.

I’m involved in two such user groups in the UK at the moment:

Oracle Midlands run by Mike Mckay-Dirden. They are about to have their 8th meeting (Follow the link <- over there), on the 19th May in their usual location in Aston, Birmingham. I managed to get to most of their first meetings, spoke at one and sadly missed the last couple due to timing clashes. Might be true for this next one too :-(. Mike does brilliantly on this, he got a local firm (or part of the firm) Red Stack Technology to sponsor him and he has the gall to ask Oracle Ace Directors and other known people to speak :-)

Club Oracle London was started by Jonathan Lewis (I think prompted by the LOB and also what Mike was doing – but don’t blame Jonathan if I have my facts wrong) and is sponsored and run by e-DBA but with a very light touch. This will be their 4th or 5th meeting. I’m speaking at this one and I’ve been to all of them. Again, follow the link for more details and to register for the event on Thursday.

If you visit my blog often or follow me on Twitter you will have seen me promote these events. I’m very keen to support smaller, local user groups.

Again, it needs someone to Make The Call and also get at least the first speaker(s), but you can share the load for that. The other difference is that you probably want to spread the call a little wider. Tweet about it, use Facebook and all those other social media things.  Tell all the people you know who might be interested and ask them to spread the word as you want a reasonable crowd for the speaker.

There is more to organising these more formal user groups but nothing that one determined person or a small group of fairly determined people cannot make happen.

Larger User Groups

The next step up are the large user groups where you have membership and paid-for events, like national, regional (or state in the US) user groups. You need a run up to create one of those! However, they are still user groups, they are all part of the “environment” of the total user community.

These user groups can still be created by a small number of people but doing so is a bigger task and I suggest you contact other people who are involved in such things and really plan what you want to achieve – it’s a topic beyond a single blog post like this. But it can be done and it can grow out of the two sorts of user group above.

I would like to highlight that starting your own local, small user group should be no barrier to being part of the large user groups. I attend, promote and present at the small user groups. Heck, you could say I run one with the LOB (along with other people). However, I am an active member of the UKOUG, deputy-chairing a Special Interest Group that meets 3 times a year and I’m involved in organising the content of UKOUG Tech15 (See the banner -> over there -> – at the time of writing the Call for Papers is open ). We can all live together.

 

Getting Speakers

If you want a speaker at your event (which you can have at the social sort of user group but you need to make sure the speaker is not expecting a projector and can’t user powerpoint!) then you can ask someone in your group to do it, you can do it yourself (we all have knowledge and experience to contribute) or you could try to get a speaker outside your group.

If you are trying to start up the more formal Presenting User Group then a known name will help draw people to your event. But there is the danger that not enough people will turn up for the speaker! You will worry about that. Well, don’t. Just be honest with the speaker about the numbers you expect and be realistic. In many ways I personally like smaller crowds and I know other speakers who do. I’d rather have 5 enthusiastic people than 50 indifferent ones.

Obviously, the more geographically local the speaker is the more likely they will say yes  and asking the stellar stars is likely to get a “no” as they are simply too busy – but if they are Local-local, they may say yes! Remember, potential speakers have to earn a living so are not available at the drop of a hat and some only do conferences. Again, the worst you will get is a “no”.

I’ll make an offer – If you decide to start such a group in the UK and you need a presenter, let me know. I can’t promise but I’ll try to oblige. If you are further afield I’m afraid it is less likely I can help as I have to pay my own travel and expenses. But you never know, the odd jaunt over to Europe does happen.

Also, try looking up local Oracle ACEs and OakTable members. Again,they might say no, they might say yes but Oracle ACEs and OakTable members are generally inclined to help, it’s a large part of why we have those labels.

 

As the annoying advert says “Just Do It”

So in summary: If you want a user group and there is not one, maybe you can start one. If you want it to be a little more formal with presentations, look for a sponsor and ask some local Oracle Names if they would present.

Good Luck!

My First Published Article April 21, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting, publications, UKOUG.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

I’ve been blogging now for almost 6 years and presenting at conferences for… 12 years (really? Good grief!). I’ve even written and delivered several courses, ranging from 1 day to 3 days in length. However, up until now I’ve never been what I would term published – ie managed to persuade another organisation or person to publish something I have written.

That changed a few days ago when the latest UKOUG “Oracle Scene” magazine came out, which included the first of a small series of articles I am doing on how the Oracle RDMBS works – the processes and activities that underlie the core RDBMS engine. It’s based on my “how Oracle works in under an hour” presentation where I give the audience an overview of things like the redo mechanism, what a commit *is*, how data is moved into and out of memory and which parts of memory it resides in, how a point-in-time view is maintained… things like that. Many people don’t really know any of this stuff, even skilled and experienced developers and DBAs, as you can get by without knowing it. But understanding the core architecture makes a lot of how oracle works make more sense.

The below is a screen shot of the title and first paragraph, but you can use the link above to see the whole article.

Title and first paragraph of the article

Title and first paragraph of the article

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to publish something other than via my blog and presentations. I know part of it is the fear of putting something out there that is wrong or misleading. If it is on my blog, heck it’s only a blog and I stick to things I give test cases for or my thoughts and opinions (which are intrinsically open to interpretation). My presentations are certainly put “out there” but again I of course try to ensure what I say I can back up. I think the key thing is that in both cases it is very obvious who you can blame if it turns out I have made a mistake. Me.

But when something is going to be published I feel that (a) it might be taken more seriously so I need to make extra sure it is correct and (b) if I get something wrong or, more concerning, mislead anyone then the people publishing the article could also be put in a poor light. I think that is what has made me wary.

The irony is that the first thing I get published, I know that there are some inaccuracies in there! The article (and also the presentation it is derived from) is an introduction to a lot of technology and I have to simplify things and ignore many exceptions to keep it small and easy to digest. It’s how it works 90% of the time and you need to know that so you will better understand the exceptions and finer detail I don’t have time to tell you about. For the physical presentation I spend a minute at the top of the talk saying I have simplified, occasionally lied, but the overall principles and feel is correct. I had to drop that bit out of the article as, well, it took a lot of words to explain that and the article was long enough already!

Another reason NOT to publish is it takes a lot of time and effort to prepare the material in a way that is polished enough to be printed and I know from friends that the actual financial payback for eg writing a book is very, very, very poor. No one I know makes enough from royalties on technical books to make the effort worth while {though there are other less tangible benefits}. But I have time at present so I can afford to do these things.  If you want to make money out of publishing, write about a load of elves, an often-wimpy trainee wizard or something with sex in. Or all three together.

I did nearly put a technical book together about 10, 12 years ago, called “The Little Book of Very Large Databases” as it was something I knew a lot about but the issues were rarely discussed publicly – most VLDBS were (and are) run by financial organisation or “defence” {why can’t they be honest and refer to themselves as “Killing & Spying”} and they don’t talk. O’Reilly was doing several small, A6 booklet-type-books at the time that it would have suited. I can’t do it now, I know nothing about Cloud and some of the 12C features that would help with VLDBS, so I missed the boat. I regret not giving it a go. However, there is a possibility I might be involved in a book sometime in the future.

I have to thank Brendan Tierney for hassling me into doing this series of articles. I’m not being derogatory when I say he hassled me, he did, but Brendan did so in a very nice way and also gave me the odd toe in the backside when I needed it.

I also have to thank Jonathan Lewis. If this article had been a book he would have got a huge mention for being my technical reviewer. He was good enough to look over the article and let me know a couple of things he felt I had over simplified, some things with the flow and also something I had simply got wrong. You know that bit in books about “thanks to Dave for assisting but all mistakes are mine”. Well, I always thought it was a bit overly… defensive? Well now I don’t.

All mistakes are mine. I want no blame falling on the people who helped me!

I still can't take my Bio too seriously

I still can’t take my Bio too seriously

Tips on Submitting an Abstract to Conference April 17, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Tech15, UKOUG.
Tags: , ,
2 comments

<.. The tech15 committee and my role
<…. Who plans the Tech15 content

The call for Papers for UKOUG Tech15 has gone out. This is how most of the content for a large conference is sourced, by asking the community to submit abstracts for consideration. With smaller conferences and user group meetings the organisers can often get enough talks by hassling asking people they know.

mail_image_preview_big

Firstly, I would encourage anyone who has considered talking at conference but never has, to submit an abstract. We could easily fill the whole event with known speakers but we don’t. We have a policy of having some New Blood at every conference. {If you are in the UK and want to try out presenting then a great way to do so is by presenting at a smaller user group meeting, like for example the next RAC/Database UKOUG SIG meeting on July 1st :-) – It’s a friendly, relaxed way to get into presenting. Get in touch with me if it appeals to you}.

You can click on this link to go to the submission page, but before you do…

When you submit an abstract for a conference, you are not actually at that point communicating with your potential audience. You are communicating with the handful of people who are tasked with going through all the submissions and selecting the papers. With the UKOUG conference you are also communicating with the volunteers who will judge abstracts. And we, the agenda planning committee, take those judging scores very seriously. It is a large part of how we attempt to ensure we select the talks on topics that people want to hear about, as well as the people who you want to hear talk.

So when you get to the field where you describe your proposed presentation (the abstract) I would suggest you don’t want to be “teasing the audience” at this point. The people who are judging and selecting the papers are seasoned conference attenders. A catchy title might get you noticed but if the abstract does not clearly state what your talk is about, what you intend to cover and who you expect your audience to be, it makes it less likely that your abstract will get selected.
Also, if you have looked at the call-for-papers page and associated notes and have seen that we are particularly interested in some area (eg “what you need to know about ….” for the database stream) and your paper is addressing it, it is worth making that a little bit obvious. The agenda planning day is hectic, we get tired and tetchy and our brains start to leak out of our ears. If your abstract is clear about what you are talking about, you are increasing your chances of selection.

In years gone by we have given the people the option to give two versions of your abstract – the one for judging and the one for promoting your talk (that is the one that gets put in the conference notes and your potential audience will read and decided if your talk is worth their attention). However, many people felt this was asking for the same information twice so we have reverted back to a single abstract this your. However, you can change your abstract text after your talk has been accepted {but note, we are wise to people trying to change the actual content of the talk later on – we LOOK at the changes!}. So sell your talk to the committee and judges now and worry about the catchy reference to your favorite movie afterwards.

I used to make my submission abstract humorous (well, in my eyes) but I don’t anymore, or at least I tone it down. If anything, I make the abstract factual and simple. As an example:


How Oracle Works in 50 Minutes
—————————————–
This is a high level but technical talk about the key processes that underlie the Oracle database. I describe what an instance is and how the server process is the gateway to the instance. I cover how the redo mechanism works and why it is critical, how data is moved into and out of memory, delayed block cleanout, what a commit IS, the importance of the undo tablespace and how a read consistent image is maintained for the user. The intended audience is new DBAs or developers who have never been taught how the database works and at the end of the talk they will understand how these key processes work.

OK, the description is a bit boring but you know exactly what my talk is going to be about and if it will fit in your conference.

So what happens when you click on the above link to submit an abstract? You will see the below front screen:

Submission Screen

Submission Screen

I would suggest you not only read this screen but also check out the menu on the left of the screen. Look at the “Hints & Tips” and also the stream you are intending to submit to (eg “Systems” if you want to present on Exadata). If you are unsure which area your talk fits in, check them all out.

the big red Submit an Abstract will actually take you to the same place that the left menu “Speaker Application” takes you too. The first step of submitting an abstract is actually saying who you are and registering on the system. If you are willing to judge abstracts (ie you ticked that box) you will then get to indicate what topics in what streams you are willing to judge. THEN you will be put into the “Speaker Lounge” and you can enter your abstract by clicking the “Submit” button.

When you come back to the system, you can go straight to the Speaker Lounge, the system will show you your details again so you can correct anything. You will see what abstract(s) you have submitted and click on them to check or change anything, or click on “Submit” to add another abstract.

Think carefully before you submit 15 abstracts. As a general rule, more than 3 and you start to reduce your chances of having a paper selected. People judge your papers will score you down if you submit too many, it’s like you dilute your judging scores over all the abstracts.

Enjoy.

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