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Friday Philosophy – Top Ten Influencers in my Technical Career October 18, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
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Earlier this week I was sipping wine late at night and cogitating on what led me to where I am now. Part of that was the more specific topic of what, or rather who, influenced my technical development and career, especially early on. As a little game for myself, I decided to jot down the 10 first names I came up with and did not discard within 5 seconds. And then excluded those who’s influence had been negative!

The ones you will know…

It’s OK, don’t get your hopes up, you are not on the list.

That list was:

  • Cary Millsap
  • Craig Shallahamer
  • Mike Cox
  • Jonathan Lewis
  • Barry
  • Maria Colgan
  • Steven Feuerstein
  • Rachael Carmichael
  • Tim (OracleBase) Hall
  • Dominic Giles.
  • Richard Foote

I really hope you have heard of most of them. I’d be amazed if you know all of them. And yes, there are 11. I was, if you remember, sipping wine late at night. In the morning I looked at the list and thought about refining it or expanding it (and boy, I could expand it to 50 people plus in 10 minutes) but that was not my game. First 10, with very little analysis.

You know what is coming, I’m going to step through the list. I’m so obvious. But the reasons are not always so obvious (though some are, sorry). Remember, I was slightly drunk.

Cary Millsap. I detest Cary Millsap.

I’m joking of course! But a tiny little bit of me always goes “Grrrr” when I think of this man who is fundamentally a really nice person, very bright, and a wonderful presenter. Why? Well, he came up with OFA, the Optimal Flexible Architecture. This specified a logical, sensible way to lay out an Oracle database, it’s files and the directories they went in, file naming conventions etc such that the database was performant, easy to navigate, and you could have multiple databases on a server without confusion. And that could have been me! I came up with almost the exact same thing and I was damn proud of it. And 6 months after I came up with it and thought “I need to make a big thing of this and get some credit for my genius” – I came across OFA. I was gutted.

Optimal Flexible Architecture 8.1.5 style

The thing is, Cary was one of the first people I came across who was putting out stuff to help all us DBA types back in the 1990’s.  I am sure I must have seen stuff he did that became the OFA and it influenced me. His OFA was first published a couple of years before I came up with my design, but I had not seen it. We did not really have the internet back then!

Cary did not influence me simply by producing great stuff, he made me realise that several people can come up with similar ideas and, actually, being “first” is nice – but really the key thing is to spread the knowledge. Making our jobs easier for everyone around you is really doing something for the community. Cary also came up with Method R for performance tuning which is great, but time to move on.

I sometimes mention I have a decent dose of dyslexia. In my mind Craig is Craig “Shalamar”. His last name is too long for me and I “spin” in the middle of his surname “Shallahamer”. Too many repeated letters (in my mind there are 2 m’s too). Thus when I only knew him from printed materials my brain would stick with the wrong name. Few people were putting out stuff in the early 90’s and because his stuff was so good he was a key, early source of received wisdom for me. Then in the late 90’s he disappeared, or at least from my view he did. But now he’s back and I’ve met him. He is about the only person (him and Kerry Osbourne, sorry Kerry) who I have been a little hem-touchy with  (go right to the end of that post). ie went “Oh wow! You are blah blah!” when meeting them (follow the link if you want to know what I mean). It’s OK, Craig let me off. I got him a beer. It was a free beer, it was at DOAG! One day I’ll actually buy him a beer to say thank you for all the help he gave me early on. I might even buy him two, but let’s not get too giddy.

Mike Cox is fundamentally a brilliant developer & incredibly smart and he will never, ever present. It’s not for him. He represents the huge number of very talented I.T people you never hear about as they just get on with the job. I worked with Mike when I was at Oracle in the early 90’s and again at the end of the 90’s when he {grudgingly} told his boss I was not totally useless. His boss knew that was high praise. I remember someone telling Mike his code did not work. Mike replied “Yes it does! I’ve checked it. Twice!”. His code worked. He is one of the few people I know who can write a page of PL/SQL and execute it and it does what he wants, first execution. But that is not what he taught me. He taught me that what we do is create solutions and the absolute one thing you have to do as a developer is create something the user wants to use. I.E. it makes their working life easier. Everything else is secondary. Thanks Mike.

Sharp tools – everyone here is one

If you are in the technical core Oracle RDBMS sphere and you do not know who Jonathan Lewis is, I’m stunned. His approach to methodically understanding problems and how Oracle works is second to none. I think there are one or two people as good as Jonathan is but personally I know of no one better. So that is why he influenced me? Well, yes and no. Oracle Names, those top people (and this is true in all disciplines) are people, just like all of us. Very talented but, fundamentally, normal people. Jonathan is a friend, I like chatting to him in the pub and we will discuss bread and chainsaws on twitter. And he has given me advice and help over the years, as a friend, and I very much appreciate that. And if it is not Oracle, sometimes I’m teaching him. If you meet those presenters and writers of good stuff then yes, of course, respect their skill. But don’t hero worship them. Most of them don’t actually like it. Treat them like regular people (because they ARE regular people) and you might make a friend.

I’ve written about Barry before (and no, I can’t for the life of me remember his last name). Barry taught me that you don’t need to be technically the best to be great at what you do. You need to care and you need to be willing to try and you need to be willing to learn. It’s all about attitude. In the little team we were in we had a guy who was technically superb. And no one liked him, as he was an arrogant and unhelpful bugger. Everyone liked Barry and asked him to help. Be like Barry. I try to be like Barry.

SQL Maria (She’ll probably never lose that nick name in the Oracle sphere) used to the product manager for the optimizer and I was a performance nerd, so of course I knew of Maria Colgan. The number of times she said to the audience “I’m not technical, I don’t understand this stuff…” and then gave a really good description of that stuff. She was a little liar! She knew her stuff (and still does), you can’t present like that and not know your topic. She was also one of the first product managers in Oracle I started chatting to, both about technical topics and as a friendly face. Oracle Names are just normal people and Oracle Names From Oracle are just normal people too. Who knew? Maria now looks after In Memory and stuff like that, but if you google her, the top hit is still “Maria Colgan Oracle Optimizer”. I wonder if Nigel Bayliss, who has been the PM for the optimizer for a few years now (and very good he is at it too) has a doll in a drawer with pins in it…

Well worn indeed

Steven Feurestein. I can’t spell his last name best out of three due to the aforementioned dyslexia. Anyone, and I mean ANYone, who was coding in PL/SQL in the mid 90’s onward probably had/has the Ant Book on their desk, Oracle PL/SQL Programming by Steven. I consumed the first edition of that book, pretty much working it to ruin as I referred to it over the years. I still have it and boy it is tatty. Thanks for that book Steven, and the ones that came after it. However, Steven has influenced me twice. He now works for Oracle, leading the Oracle Developer Advocates team which includes the Ask Tom team. And that’s sort of what I do now, advocate Oracle and the community. Only I don’t really get paid for it. Can I have a job Steven?

{Why did I not pick Tom Kyte? Looking back now he was a massive influence on me as he was on many others, he should be in the list. But he isn’t. So aren’t a lot of excellent people like Arup Nanda, Chris Antognini, Kevin Closson, Uwe Hess…}

I thought I had written a blog about Rachael Carmichael but it seems I have not. Rachel was really active in the Oracle presenting circuit back in the 90’s and early 2000’s and wrote/contributed to several books. I met her at one of my first UKOUG conferences when I was a presenting newbie. Rachael sort of took me under her wing and not only gave me good advice but also introduced me to several of the really well know presenters, a lot of who were in the Oak Table. Both of those things had a big influence on my career.

Rachael then decided she’d had enough of technology and followed a different path and swapped to working with animals. Because she wanted to. You can change career totally – if the current one has lost it’s sparkle, go find something else to do. I did not leave the Oracle sphere (I thought about it) but I decided to stop being mostly a technician and more an enabler, encouraged by Rachael’s example.


Tim blogs as well as writing articles

ORACLE_BASE must be one of the most visited and highest quality sources of Oracle technical information on the web. If you did not know, Tim Hall writes it all (I think he writes it all. Maybe he has a team held captive in his basement. I’ll ask him). If I need to check syntax or how a feature works, I google it and if an ORACLE-BASE page comes up I go there. Tim’s a great guy and a very good presenter – but don’t let him near an Oracle panel session. And oh boy don’t let him sit on one! Like me he is a biologist really, so an absolute top, fantastic bloke :-). Tim also has a very philosophical outlook on this Oracle technology bollocks, which I am sure encouraged me to do my Friday Philosophies.

Dominic Giles is a Master Product Manager for the Oracle Database here in the UK. I don’t know what you do to become a Master product manager, maybe just get old? For years Dom has been a real friend to the UKOUG and the conference circuit in general, doing great talks about the core RDBMS, what is new, what can and cannot be done. But the reason he really influenced me is he came to help us when I was working on the human genome project. Most consultants going on-site for a company would never tell the client to “just grow a pair and do it Martin”. Dom did. Bloody brilliant. We did know each other quite well at this point and it was a kick up the arse I needed. Be real with people, it’s so much more effective (if perhaps a little more risky?)

Unfortunately, Richard does not look like this anymore

Finally, and well done for reading this far, is Richard Foote. Actually, I reckon almost no one will have got through this whole list, my wife keeps telling me to split this post into 2 or 3 parts. But Richard will get this far, he wants to know what I say about him and if it includes anything about David Bowie. Richard is a bit of a Bowie fan, as am I. Bowie’s “Black Tie, White Noise” is playing as I type this. What Richard does not know about indexing you don’t need to know. I learnt a lot from him. But then I learnt a lot from many people, so why Richard?
This blog. I stole his layout for mine. In fact, before I changed the graphics for the banner and stretched the format it looked EXACTLY like Richard’s blog. Also, I liked Richard’s presenting style – Relaxed, jokey, but with good technical content. I sort of nicked that too. Part of me just want to be Richard, except for the being Australian bit 🙂

Well done, that’s the lot.


OGB Appreciation Day: It’s All About ME! October 10, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, Knowledge, Perceptions, Presenting, UKOUG, User Groups.
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The Oracle Groundbreakers program, and it’s previous incarnations going back to OTN and beyond, are all about me. Yes – Me!

What a great bunch of people

Well, having hopefully got you hooked in with the ego-laden title and first line, let me explain.

As OracleBase (Dr Tim Hall) describes in this post on Oracle Groundbreakers Appreciation day, today we are celebrating what OTN/ODC/Groundbreakers means to many of us. For me it is quite simple, Groundbreakers, as part of the larger Oracle community, gave me the career and roles I currently have. The knowledge, support, and community they promote made me into the President of the UK Oracle user group. Why do I say this?

Let’s go back in time a little, to the last millennium. When I was first navigating my Oracle career the user community sort-of existed back then. You had big, flappy, paper things called “books” that you could buy and put on your desk. They held loads of information and stuff you did not know. And those of us who were keen to learn would swap white papers and articles by email, which you would also print out and put on your desk, in an ever-growing couple of towers. Why all the paper? We had 14-16 inch screens with terrible resolution, you had no screen space back then, so you programmed on that and had your help on the desk. As for googling things – didn’t exist. At this time I was utterly on the receiving end of community. I was being taught. I did teach back then, but only face-to-face for whichever company was employing me at the time.

Step into the new millennium and I landed a job with the Sanger Institute and the Human Genome Project. The Sanger have a culture of sharing – data, techniques, information, discoveries. As a result I was not just allowed but encouraged to go and talk at conferences. So I did. My first presentations were at Oracle Open World, the Oracle Life Sciences User Group (OLSUG), and the UKOUG conference. Very soon I was helping run the OLSUG events and volunteering at UKOUG events. I just got sucked in. I was still of course on the receiving side of the community, learning from all those great people who present, write, chat etc. But now I was giving to the community too. And there was something about being part of the “giving” community that I had not expected. You learn even more. And you have more fun! I got to meet a lot of fellow presenters, event organisers, and product managers – especially when I was made an Oracle ACE and joined what is by far the largest part of the Oracle community.

The ACE/Groundbreaker program recognises not necessarily the smartest and best people in any given field. It recognises those who put time and effort into sharing, in helping others (which was lucky for me!). You have to know your stuff to teach others (so be technically or business good), but you also need to be willing to, well, teach! To interact with people. So the vast majority of people who are in the program are also friendly & supportive people. Being dropped into that group really helped me.

Not only did I meet all these people from around the globe, I’ve been able to go around several parts of the globe to conferences and meetings. Groundbreakers does a lot to support people going around the world to present and share knowledge. The great thing about travelling is you see other perspectives and cultures. I don’t think we realise how parochial our viewpoint can be until we meet people with different perspectives and experiences.

As a result of my being part of the community and being an ACE/ACED, I’ve continued to learn technically, I’ve got a lot better at interacting with people, my communication skills have developed, and I now know a lot of skilled people in the community. All of these things have of course helped my working career. But where it all comes together is in my role as UKOUG president. I would never have considered putting myself forward for this role if I had not had all this experience with the Oracle community. And I don’t think I’d be very good in the role if I had not learnt all the “soft skills” that I have, and made the contacts that I have.

So Groundbreakers, you made me President of the UKOUG.

I *think* I thank you 🙂

I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you): October 7, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting.
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All people new to presenting need to know this:

Me presenting to a large number of people. Yes, I am nervous!

It’s OK to be nervous.

Nearly all those excellent presenters you see at conferences still get nervous. Being nervous actually makes you a better presenter. Embrace nervous. Nervous is your presenting best buddy!

The topic of performance nerves came up on a recent twitter chat I was involved in. Several well known presenters (in the Oracle sphere) all made similar comments, on how they have been doing this for years and that, though you get better at handling the butterflies in the stomach, they still bat madly in your insides before the show starts.

I won’t name names, but over half of the best speakers at UKOUG conferences (as measured by feedback scores) have confirmed to me that they still get nervous. And nearly all of them say the nerves help. Yes, help.

The degree to which you get nervous obviously varies from person to person and if, rather than nerves, it is fear so bad that you want to throw up, then presenting is probably not for you. I say probably – I know of a couple of people personally who seriously wonder if they can do it without losing their last meal, each and every time, and yet they still present. But for most of us presenters the nerves are there. Even those who seem totally at peace, smile warmly as they start, and have not a trace of quiver in the voice – they are nervous.

The first time you present is of course special. You don’t know how you are going to do, you worry.  Will you forget something, will someone have a pop at you, will you freeze, are you an idiot impostor who does not know your stuff? Well, actually those thoughts do remain with many of us, even after years of presenting. But actually, they are baseless fears. Let’s just cover them off:

  • No one knows what you are going to say, so if you forget something then 95% of the time no one in the audience will notice. And if they do notice and ask, well say “Wow! Yeah! Thanks for that, I must say something about…” and off you go.
  • You may well hit a point when you freeze. The next slide comes up, you look at it and realise you have no idea what it is about. In fact, you might suspect it is not even your slide… and for an age you stand there like an idiot, people knowing you forgot… Only, what seems an age to you is about 3 seconds – and the audience think you are just pausing to let them catch up. There really is a massive difference between the pause you experience and the pause the audience does. In fact, one thing I have learned over the years is that I *should* pause occasionally. It makes a better presentation.
  • You know your stuff, you picked the topic. If you really do not know your stuff you should not present. But you do not need to know every last detail and gotcha. If you can tell a work colleague about the topic or, better still, describe it to your mum (other relatives will do) you are fine. And part of why many of us continue to present is, we learn things through presenting. If someone raises a point you did not know, acknowledge it, make sure you understand it – and carry on.
  • No one has a pop at you. When did you last see a talk when someone belittled the presenter? And if you have seen this rare event, you know it is the person having a go who you did not like.

Oddly enough, I’m not trying to stop you being nervous here. I want you to be nervous – but at a level of nervous that is not crippling. You see, those nerves are crucial to you. They are energy and you use that energy to give your presentation an edge. If you do not have some emotion, some drive, then your talk will probably be flat. People I know who perform (play in bands or act ) all say the same – without the nerves, their performance loses something.

Those nerves, that mild (OK, maybe not that mild!) anxiety has a measurable, biological, scientifically understood impact on you. Several hormones are released into your body, including adrenaline and oxytocin, and these hormones “turn up the dial”. Your heart pumps faster and harder, your physical strength increases, you become more aware of your surroundings. Your reaction speed improves and, in some ways, you get smarter. You become the best you for dealing with things – like an audience.

Humour is the most challenging aspect of presenting for me. So I use it.

The degree of nerves also varies from talk to talk. I think I suffer from “The SCARY presentation monster” (as my friend Neil Chandler put it) less than many. If it is a technical talk I have done several times I can pretty much jump up on the stage and do it with barely a flutter of insect wings inside. But if I am doing a new talk or, ever so much worse, it is intended to be a humorous talk, then it is bordering on fear for the few moments before I start.

Over the years I have noticed something about my talks. If I am not nervous at all, I tend to do an OK job. It’s fine. I explain the topic, get the information across and everyone is, well, they’re OK with the talk. Sounds bland? That is because it was bland.

If I do a talk and the nerves are there, then I do either a great talk or a poor one. 90% of the time (I like to think!) it is a great talk. The best talks I have done have all been when I am screaming inside “Why in hell am I doing this!”. I did something more like a performance than a talk in Poland 2 years ago. It is probably the closest I have ever been to doing stand-up comedy – and before I started I could have just walked out the venue, it was the worst case of nerves I’ve had in 13 years. I think it was the peak of my presenting career and people said really nice things about it after. I now actually seek out a certain level of anxiety when I present. If there are no nerves before I get up, I will make myself think about what could go wrong, just to turn up that dial a little and make me better prepared to perform.

Nerves before presenting are natural and normal. Handle them, control them, but embrace them. As I said, Nervousness is your presenting best buddy.

Friday Philosophy – Brexit July 26, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
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I don’t really do politics on this blog, it’s often just too damned divisive. But not only am I angry (and vicariously ashamed) of Brexit but I have a strong suspicion of how things are going to go from now…

I’ll lay my cards on the table first. I did not vote for Brexit. Like the vast majority of people I get on well with in the UK, I wanted to remain part of Europe. Half of my anger with Brexit is that I feel there should never have been a public vote in the first place, for three main reasons:

  1. It has been heavily speculated that the issue of us remaining part of Europe was offered as a public vote as the Conservative party wanted to shut down the growing popularity of the more right-wing, xenophobic parties such as UKIP. Thus it was a waste of time, money, and effort to prove a point that I think could have been done in other ways. There was never any expectation by the people who instigated the referendum that a large percentage of the population would vote for leaving…
  2. Whether we are better off being within the EU and what we lose/gain from it is a very complex issue. I’d say 99% of the population knew nothing like enough about it to make a sensible decision. I think I understood more about the influence of the EU on us than the majority of people in the UK. This comes from me having an interest in environmental matters, workers rights, health & safety, and control of big business. An awful lot of our legislation in these areas came from the EU and were good for the majority and poor for the rich and powerful. However, I don’t think I had enough knowledge to make an informed decision, it was more a gut decision. And the political fight over the vote was almost devoid of sense, reason, even honesty, and was more a campaign based on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It was a vote by the ill-informed on the ill-defined.
  3. The final reason is that our media and politicians have used the EU as a “distant enemy” to blame or ridicule for decades. It’s almost a national hobby. We had stupid stuff like claims the EU said we had to sell straight bananas or that barmaids would have to completely cover their bosoms. Neither were true. But there has been a consistent blaming of the EU for things that UK politicians thought would be unpopular or that the tabloids felt they could sell copy on due to outrage. It’s just like how businesses blame “the computer system” for anything that goes wrong (“Computer says No! – *cough* “) whereas in fact it’s often nothing to do with the computer system. Thus the EU already had an unfair bad press due to all this political cowardice and media tripe. In many respects, we reaped the crop grown from the seeds of our own stupidity.

Anyway, we had the vote, it was really tight, it gave “the wrong” result. And it seems that far more people have swap from “let’s leave” to “let’s stay” than the other way around, when they got a better understanding of the impact – but we are not getting a second vote. That is despite 6 million plus people signing a petition for a second vote and the biggest public protest march we have ever had in this country.

So what do I think will happen from here on in?

Something I have expected to happen for a couple of years now, but has not really, is an attempt by UK politicians to start trying to blame the EU itself for the mess the UK are in. Basically to start saying “Well, we could leave the EU and it would all be fine – but the EU are being mean to us! The EU won’t let us do X or let us have Y! Because they hate us now and they are not being fair!!!”. We are going to see an escalating number of occurrences where the Conservatives will tell us that the EU negotiators have blocked an utterly reasonable suggestion or are making demands that threaten our sovereignty, or are trying to control us. They will announce that the EU is trying to stop us being the great nation we know we are. I fear that Boris will start turning to Trump to be our best friend in the playground.  

From what I have seen so far, I think the rest of the EU have basically been “You want to leave? Are you mad? OK, if you wish, off you go. But I’m sorry, if you are leaving the club you no longer get the club discount at the shops, you no longer have access to the club house, and you don’t get any say in the club rules. And yes, you do have to pay your outstanding club membership until you actually leave.” Which is all very, very reasonable and, if tables were turned, it is what we in the UK would be doing.

I predict that from here until Boris and the Tories do whatever they do in respect of our fundamentally xenophobic “we are still a mighty empire and are too good for you” walking off in a huff, more and more they are going to try and blame the innocent party, the EU. We are going to hear endless stuff about how they won’t be reasonable in negotiations and are bullying us. I don’t think the EU will do that, but really it’s what we actually deserve for our childish behaviour.

End of Rant

Reviving an iPad and On-Premises lesson 2. July 19, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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<< Introducing I.T. to an Elderly Relative
<<<< Preparing the device
<<<<<< First Lessons, Frustrations, & Funny Stuff

Unlocking it was not so easy

In my previous post we finished with my mother having bricked her iPad – that is, having turned it onto a useless lump. So I drove up to see her again to sort it out. {BTW if you think I am being a bit mean to my mum – yes I am. But I do love her and in the end the iPad has resulted in us being much more in touch. But I think it helps to share the frustrations of getting someone utterly unused to technology on line}.

The first thing I did was to get Mum to turn it on and put in the password. Martin with an I (not a Y – “as some people spell it like that!”). Mum was, very slowly, putting in the password correctly. And then staring at the screen until it flashed up an error. She had forgotten about pressing DONE. Now, if she’d called me when she had started having trouble… The thing is, that is so true across all of IT support. If only people called up when they first had a problem or did something wrong (like deleted all those rows…). If you call up quickly, there is much more chance the problem will be solved quickly. Anyway, I digress. I now knew what had gone wrong, she may or may not type the password correctly but it was timing out each time. Of course, by this point the iPad would no longer respond to the correct password, it was locked out.

You may not know this but if an iPad is locked out as it thinks it might be stolen (password put in wrongly too many times), you can’t just factory reset it. At least, I could not and google-fu mostly confirmed this. You have to plug it into another device with iTunes on it. And you can’t just plug it into the device you set it up on and refresh it, even if you backed it up to this device. At least, I could not. Maybe I am not very good at this tech lark. You have to download the latest version of the OS to your device, plug the switched off iPad into your device, turn the iPad on and then press certain buttons on it in a given way within a 0.731 second window that occurs at an unspecified time after turning the device on. I don’t know how often I tried to get the sodding iPad into recovery mode and recognised by iTunes, but it sure as hell amused my Mum to watch me try. I then re-set-up the iPad to be the same, simple set-up I had done so before. See post 2 for some hints on that. All the time Mum was making snide comments about “how simple this all is, Martyn!”. I think she was having revenge. Sue was keeping out the way.

After all the issues with “Martin with a Y or I”, I set the pass code to be a number. Yes, it’s less secure but I have the Apple ID details for her account – if she loses the iPad I can either track it or wipe it remotely. But we were up and running again, we had a working iPad and on-premises lesson 2 could begin. I’m not sure either of us was 100% happy about this…

Mum wants 2 main things from “the interweb”. She wants to be able to contact me (and, I presume, her other Son and her daughter-in-law) and she wants to be able to look things up. If she can do the former than I can help, remotely, with the latter.

You need the patience of this person…

So I showed her how to use messenger to contact us again. It’s been a week or so since the last lesson so I knew she would need a reminder. I pointed at one of the various icons and asked her what it looked like “It’s a phone!” So what will it do? “I don’t know, you are supposed to tell me!”. If it looks like a phone, it’s probably… “{blank look}”. You pressed this by accident last week and it made you scream? “Oh, it’s a phone!”. Excellent, we gave it a quick go.

What about this one next to it? What does it look like? “A box and a little box”. Fair point, but it looks a but like a tv camera? She agreed. So, what will it do? “blank look”. You know this one, we tested this with Sue in the kitchen last week… “the kettle?!?”. It was like Star-Trek… “Oh yes, she appeared on the iPad and I could talk to her. It’s just like Star Trek!”. We tried that one too. All good.

OK, let’s re-visit sending messages and using the keyboard. I show her me sending her a couple of messages again. Enter some text, any text. Press the icon to send the message. “Which one”. The one next to the message, it looks like a plane. “Which message?” The one you just typed. “So I press this one {points to the enter key}” No! No, the blue plane one. “This one!” No!!! that is a phone symbol, I explained that one 5 minutes ago and you seem to have no trouble hitting that one despite that it is in utterly the wrong place and no where near the message. “What message?” THE ONE…..The one you just typed, there, the one that says ‘GFRYTSB’. “So I click on your name?” NO! NO! THE FUCKING PLANE! TAP THE FUCKING PLANE!!!!

She taps the plane.

It sends the message “Oh. It did that before. How do I know who it sent it to?” It sent it to the Pope. “Why did it send it to the Pope?” {sigh}. How many people did we set this up for? Me, Sue, Steve, no Pope. But you see my name at the top of the conversation? You know, third child your bore? The name right above all the other messages? It sent it to me.

“But there are three names {moves finger} over here”. THAT IS OVER THERE!!!!!!! You have spent 10 minutes calling me, star- treking me, seeing messages from me, who the hell do you think it sent the message to?!? “Susan?” {I’m losing it…}

OK, send me another message. You know it’s me, my picture and name is above the conversation. Here, look at my screen your picture and name is above *my* conversation and those are the messages you have sent me.

She types something.
and stares at the screen.
And stares at the screen…
And looks at my screen…
And back at her screen…
“It’s not sent! Has it gone to someone else?”
The. Plane. Tap the Plane.
‘Ping’ – “Ohh! you got the message! How does it know where you are?” The bloody computer pixies know. They track everyone in the world. “Can I message anyone in the world?” I lie a little and say no. only the people in the list. “Does it know Steve is in Wales?” Yes. Look, do you ask the phone how it knows where I am? “No, but this is not the phone”.

We exchange a few more messages for practice and then I get her to tap on the other names, to change conversations. She swaps to Sue and Mum sends her a couple of messages. Once again Mum is asking how the computer knows where Sue is. I point out that as Sue is in the room, the iPad can see her – and then realise that was a really stupid thing to say as Mum did not get the joke. “So it CAN’T message Steve if it can’t see him?” No, it can, it can message anyone on her list.”Shall I message him?” No, he lives in Wales, life is hard enough for him already.

It’s time to go home. I make mum turn the iPad off, turn it on, put in the code and send me a message. She’s got it. “What about the internet?” The internet is not ready for you yet Mum, that will be lesson three. Read the book I got you and give it a go if you like. You can’t break… Actually, just wait until I come back over.

I have to say, since then Mum has been able to message me without issue and can turn the iPad on and off with no trouble, so you do get there eventually.

But I do seem to be buying a lot more wine these days…

First Lessons, Frustrations, & Funny Stuff – Introducing the iPad To My Mum July 12, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , , ,

<< Introducing I.T. to an Elderly Relative
<<<< Preparing the device

So, you are are helping an elderly relative or someone else who knows nothing at all about keyboards, icons, internet, or web browsing to get going with I.T. You have set up the device for them, now you need to introduce them to it. This is where it gets… interesting.

As I describe in earlier posts, I bought an iPad for my mum and set it up in a nice, simple way for her. I knew there was nothing she could do to actually break the iPad, it would just be a little confusing and possibly quite a frustrating process showing her how to use it. I was wrong. On all counts.

To do this I drove up to see my mum for the day, taking along the current Mrs Widlake for emotional support. Having arrived and set up the new router we had got from British Telecom (that’s a whole other story of woe) I sat Mum down and showed her the iPad, the on/off button, the volume buttons and the Home button. I got her to turn the device off and on, I pulled up some things on the internet to show her videos & music and got her to turn the volume up and down, and showed her how you touch the screen to do things. I told Mum about plugging it in and the icon that shows how much charge it has. All was going OK. I showed her the keyboard…

“Ohh, that’s complex!” No it’s not, there is one key per letter and some special keys. “Why can’t it have 9 numbered buttons and you just press 3 twice for H?” Because it is not 1995 anymore and this is much easier. I open Messenger for her, start a conversation to me and get her to type, yes you guessed it, ‘Hello World’. “I can’t find the ‘L'”. That’s OK, just take your time…

Mum is punching her finger on the screen as if she is killing cockroaches. You just need to tap it mother “I am!”. More softly (bash bash bash). No, gently (bash bash). If I poked your cat that hard she’d bite me, imagine you are touching the cat (bash bash bash). Mum, the screen is glass – if you hit it like that it will break and cut your finger off! That worked.. sort of (thud thud thud). 2 minutes and liberal use of the delete key later (her aim is poor) we get ‘Hello World’. Great! Well, you are sending the message to me, look that’s my name and a little picture of me! Say ‘Hello Martin’ – “Hello Martin” says Mum. Nooo, type it. “Where’s the L key?” Same place as before, just take your time…

When Mum is looking for a key she hovers her finger over the keyboard, waves it over one area, goes to another area and waves it over that – and then back to the first area… and repeats. Half of the keyboard has some sort of exclusion field around it. Mum, just look along each row until you find the letter you want. “I was!” No, you looked there and then there, 3 times. Trust me, just work along each row. She does.. “There it is! I knew it was there!”. Hmmm

After about 10 minutes of this random messaging (it felt like an hour but my wife, sniggering on the sofa, said it was 10 minutes) I get Mum to practice logging into the device. This, after all, is a vital step.

I tell her the password is my name. I decided on my name as she (probably) won’t forget it and it is more secure than a number that she will remember. “With a Y or an I?” Huh? “Martin with a Y or an I?” What did you name me? “Martin”. With a Y or an I? “Well, an I of course.” Well it’s with a bloody I then! “Some people spell it different…”. Why would I set your password to my name but spelt the wrong way? It’s an I you silly old Moo. (yes, it’s getting to me).

She types Marti.. “There is no N key”. It’s there. “Oh yes”. I tell her to press DONE. She does, the home screen comes on. I get her to turn it off and put in her password again. “What is my password?” Martin. “I just typed that”. Yes, we are practising. “OK – (thud thud thud… thud….)”. The N key is there, Mum (thud). And DONE… (thud) “I’m in!”. Excellent. Now do it again so you have done it without any help.

(thud thud thud….thud…..) “The N key has gone!” – It’s…  {breathes a little…} there! “Oh yes! I knew that!” But she does press DONE on her own.

Now do it again. “Why?” Because I need to know you can do it easily. (thud thud…thud thud…….) “Where…” It’s there! There! THERE!!! You’ve pressed it 4 times in the last 2 minutes, it’s ALWAYS there, it does not bloody move!!! IT’S THERE!!!! I can feel veins throbbing at my temples…

Sue pipes up “Shall I make us all a cup of tea and we can go look at the fish in the pond?” She’s a saint.

After a break and some calming down, we go through it all again (with fewer issues and less swearing) and I show Mum ‘Messenger’ again and how she can communicate with me. I show her how to type a message and send it and how to call me and we do a few trials and she seems OK with that. She keeps forgetting to press the plane icon “why is it a blue arrow?” It’s like a plane, you send the message. “It looks like an arrow”. OK, it’s an arrow, you are firing the message to me wherever I am. “How does it know where you are?” Magic Pixies.

By now we are both getting really annoyed with each other but she can turn the device on, log in, use the keyboard (well, sort of) and she can message me. That is enough for day one – and I need alcohol in a way that is slightly worrying.

We drive home and later that evening we get a message off my mum. It’s almost indecipherable as she has forgotten where the delete key is, and she does not seem to understand that she can check what she has typed, but it’s sort-of a success. I started to reply about where the delete key is, but something in my head steps in and quietly suggests to me that remote support for my confused mother after all the wine I consumed is probably a poor idea. I send a brief “we got home” message – and a picture of a cat.

Next day she calls me on Messenger. Hi Mum, how are you? “{small scream} – is that you, Martin?” Yes, you called me. “No I didn’t!” Err, yes you did. “I didn’t, I sent you a message”. Did you press the blue arrow. “Yes!”. The one next to the text you typed “No, the one at the top of the screen”…. At the top of the screen?… Does it look a bit like a telephone? “Yes!” That would be the telephone then. “Oh! How do I send this message?” After I end the call mother, press the blue arrow. 30 seconds later my phone rings. Hi Mum… “(smaller scream) – it did it again!” So, why do you think it did it again? “I pressed the wrong key?” Yes.

Over the next few hours I get a few messages (no more calls) and slowly the random strings slowly become things I can understand. We are getting there.

She Bricked the iPad

Next day she calls me on Messenger… Hi Mum? “{small scream…}”  We repeat the previous day. Typing is better.

Next day, no call, no messages.

Next day, no call, no messages.

Next day, the phone (real phone) goes “I’ve broken it, it won’t work!” Hello Mum. OK, what is broken. “It’s broken, it won’t let me in! It won’t accept my password”. OK pick up the device tell me what you are doing… We work through it, she is entering the password (with an I not a Y, I checked) and “it’s not working” is actually she is getting a message saying the device is disabled. I ask Mum if maybe, perhaps, she got the password wrong a few times and it asked her to wait 5 minutes before trying again? “No, I got my password right – but it would not let me in and after a few times it said that!”. OK… So, leave it alone for an hour and try again. “I did that yesterday!” I’m getting a bad feeling about this… ” And after I tried it, it told me to wait again… and it still could not remember my password and then I left it all day and now it says it’s disabled and needs to be plugged in. I plugged it in!”

I explain that she has actually done the one thing that can brick(*) an iPad. She has repeatedly got the password wrong enough times and persistently enough to cause it to believe it is stolen. It is useless to her. It needs to be plugged into a computer and reset. *sigh*. I asked her why she did not call me when “it forgot her password”. She did not want to bother me…

So now I had to organise a day to drive over there, factory reset the damned thing, and set it up again. And I was going to change her password to a simple number.

It had not been a little confusing, it had been utterly baffling.  I had not found it quite frustrating, I had been turned into a swearing lunatic. And she had indeed broken the iPad.

I rang my Brother. I told him the inheritance is all his – I am adopted.

(*) Brick – turn an electronic device into something as responsive and useful as a house brick.

APEX Connect – A Slightly Different Conference May 13, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, development, Meeting notes.
Tags: , , ,
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I wanted to do a write-up for the APEX Connect conference that happened in Bonn, Germany, a few days ago, as it was a slightly different conference than I normally go to and a slightly different experience for me.

I really don’t like DBMS_OUTPUT!

APEX Connect is a German event (put on by DOAG) that is focused on APEX, SQL & PL/SQL, and JavaScript. So more of a developers’ conference. It was an unusual conference for me for a few reasons:

  1. I don’t generally go to developer-focused events, my current roles tend to be performance & architecture based and, despite having been a developer or development DBA for most of the last 30 years, I (wrongly) mentally class myself as a “DBA type”.
  2. I was doing a keynote! I’m not used to that, but I was honoured to be asked.
  3. I was doing only the opening keynote, so once that was out the way I had pretty much 3 days of being a normal delegate. That made a really nice change.

The conference was well attended and well run. A couple of things that they did right was to have good catering and coffee was always available – good coffee! It really makes a difference and it is something some conferences (including the ones I help organise) struggle with. You have no idea how much venues in the UK want to charge to make coffee available all day, let alone *good* coffee!

Something else that struck me was that the audience was a little younger than many Oracle-focused conferences. This was helped by DOAG’s #NextGen programme which encourages students and recent graduates to come to conferences and meet professionals working in the industry. I met a few of these students/recent students as they had been tasked with asking all the keynote speakers a question, which I thought was a nice way for them to meet these “stars” and realise we are just normal people, doing a job.

Some of the usual suspects! Conferences should be, I believe, half educational and half social.

Another thing was the male:female ratio. Looking at the sessions I was in, it was about 75%:25%, which in our industry is a little unusual – and very encouraging to see. I had a good discussion with Niels de Bruijn on the subject of sex (balance), who is the main organiser, and it is a topic I have discussed a few times with Sabine Heimsath, who organised the SQL & PL/SQL stream and who asked me to present. Niels was pleased with the balance at the conference, and I shared my experiences of trying to increase the balance in the UK (I’d love 25%!). It is not a simple issue and I think (note, these are my words and not theirs) that it is almost a lost cause for my generation. I think things went wrong in the home computer industry in the 80’s and continued through the 90’s, with IT being portrayed by the general media as typically male and the IT-focused industry keeping to a very male-focused stance. I won’t stop trying to address the balance but I wonder if where we can really make the difference is in events where the audience is younger…

Anyway, APEX Connect had a nicely balanced and lively feel.

As I said earlier, I had been asked to do the opening keynote. My job was to say something that would be relevant to the whole audience, which was not too technically deep, and set the scene for APEX Connect. An added bonus would be for the audience to leave the talk energised for the rest of the conference. My normal talks are about tech… but I do branch out into talks on presenting, disasters and, err, beer. Talks to entertain basically. So that is what I aimed for, to entertain and to energise.

Server Side Development…

I’m one of those annoying presenters who does not usually get particularly nervous before a talk, I simply step up to (OK, behind) the lectern and go. But for the second time in 6 months (the other being the opening words for UKOUG 2018) I was really nervous for this. I think it is because when you talk on a technical subject, you are describing how something works and, so long as the audience understand, the rest of the talk (little stories, extra facts) are window dressing – enjoying the talk is a good thing to achieve but is secondary. With a keynote the Window Dressing is actually the main thing, and if the audience does not enjoy the talk you have not done the job. I’m glad to say I got a lot of positive feedback and I was very much relieved. I think I hit “peak enjoyment” for this talk when I described my early career (Builder, Oracle 7 PL/SQL developer, server-side developer, Development DBA) and used the graphical slide here.

Server. (on it’s) Side. Developer.

I have to say, with that talk out the way I was able to really enjoy being simply “at a conference”, seeing some great talks (Toon Koppelaars, Connor McDonald, Kamil Stawiarski, Eric van Roon – I missed Luiza Nowak & Heli Helskyaho but I had seen those talks before), chatting to lots of people, and enjoying the socialising.

I want to say a big Thank You to the organisers – Simone Fischer, Niels de Bruijn, Tobias Arnhold, Kai Donato and all the others behind the scenes. I know what it’s like doing this! And a special Thank You to Sabine Heimsath for asking me to present and for helping me get places and answering odd questions on German culture!

I’ll finish with what I think conferences and the community are all about. This does not just apply to developers of course, but to all of us in the industry:

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

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,

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

Keep the main screen as simple as possible

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

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

Keep It Simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The very basic “what the buttons do” help sheet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make it Big and Bold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reference Material

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

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

Keyboards Confuse the Uninitiated

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

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

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

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


Random Other Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From cheezburger dot com

Firstly, why are we doing this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Question – What hardware?

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

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

Choice made – will it be the correct one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decision made, it will be a standard iPad.

Are we all set?

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

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

Friday Philosophy – Size is Relative February 15, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Friday Philosophy, Hardware.
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The below is a USB memory stick, a 64GB USB memory stick which I bought this week for about 10€/$. I think the first USB memory stick I bought was 8MB (1/8000 the capacity) and cost me twice as much.

Almost an entry level USB memory stick these days

This is a cheap, almost entry level USB memory stick now – you can get 0.5TB ones for around €50. I know, I know, they keep getting larger. As does the on-board memory of computers, disc/SSD size, and network speed. (Though compute speed seems to be stalling and has dropped below Moore’s law, even taking into account the constant rise in core count). But come on, think about what you can store on 64GB. Think back a few years to some of the large systems you worked on 10 years ago and how vast you might have thought the data was.

What made me sit back a little is that I’ve worked with VLDBs (Very Large DataBases) for most of my career, the first one being in about 1992/3. And that was a pretty big one for it’s time, it was the largest database Oracle admitted to working on in the UK back then I think. You guessed it – this little USB memory stick would hold the whole database, plus some to spare. What did the VLDB hold? All the patient activity information for a large UK hospital – so all patients who had ever been to the hospital, all their inpatient and outpatient stays, waiting list, a growing list of lab results (blood tests, x-rays)… The kit to run this took up the space of a large lorry/shipping container. And another shipping container of kit to cool it.

What makes a database a VLDB? Well, This old post here from 2009 probably still covers it, but put simply it is a database where simply the size of it gives you problems to solve – how to back it up, how to migrate it, how to access the data within it in a timely manner. It is not just about raw volume, it also depends on the software you are using and the hardware. Back in the mid 2000’s we had two types of VLDB where I worked:

  • Anything above 100GB or so on MySQL was a VLDB as the database technology struggled
  • Anything above 2TB on Oracle was a VLDB as we had trouble getting enough kit to handle the IO requirements and memory for the SGA.

That latter issue was interesting. There was kit that could run 2TB Oracle database with ease back then, but it cost millions. That was our whole IT budget, so we had to design a system using what were really beefed-up PCs and RAC. It worked. But we had to plan and design it very carefully.

So size in I.T. is not just about the absolute volume. It is also to do with what you need to do with the data and what hardware is available to you to solve your volume problems.

Size in I.T. is not absolute – It is relative to your processing requirements and the hardware available to you

That USB stick could hold a whole hospital system, possibly even now if you did not store images or DNA information. But with a single port running at a maximum of 200MB/s and, I don’t know, maybe 2,000 IOPS (read – writes can suck for USB memory sticks), could it support a whole hospital system? Maybe just, I think those figures would have been OK for a large storage array in 1993! But in reality, what with today’s chatty application design and larger user base, probably not. You would have to solve some pretty serious VLDB-type issues.

Security would also be an issue – it’s real easy to walk off with a little USB Memory stick! Some sort of data encryption would be needed… 🙂