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

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
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2 comments

No tech or management this week – this Friday Philosophy is about something in my home life.

First Mural,. Image from www.rafchangi.com

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

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

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

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

Stanley Warren

Stanley Warren

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

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

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

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

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

Mural in the museum

Mural in the museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2377

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Philosophy – The Singular Stupidity of the Sole Solution April 22, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Exadata, Friday Philosophy, Hardware.
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13 comments

I don’t like the ‘C’ word, it’s offensive to some people and gets used way too much. I mean “cloud” of course. Across all of I.T. it’s the current big trend that every PR department seems to feel the need to trump about and it’s what all Marketing people are trying to sell us. I’m not just talking Oracle here either, read any computing, technical or scientific magazine and there are the usual adds by big I.T. companies like IBM and they are all pushing clouds (and the best way to push a cloud is with hot air). And we’ve been here before so many times. It’s not so much the current technical trend that is the problem, it is the obsession with the one architecture as the solution to fit all requirements that is damaging.

No clouds here yet

No clouds here yet

When a company tries to insist that X is the answer to all technical and business issues and promotes it almost to the exclusion of anything else, it leads to a lot of customers being disappointed when it turns out that the new golden bullet is no such thing for their needs. Especially when the promotion of the solution translates to a huge push in sales of it, irrespective of fit. Technicians get a load of grief from the angry clients and have to work very hard to make the poor solution actually do what is needed or quietly change the solution for one that is suitable. The sales people are long gone of course, with their bonuses in the bank.

But often the customer confidence in the provider of the solution is also long gone.

Probably all of us technicians have seen it, some of us time after time and a few of us rant about it (occasionally quite a lot). But I must be missing something, as how can an organisation like Oracle or IBM not realise they are damaging their reputation? But they do it in a cyclical pattern every few years, so whatever they gain by mis-selling these solutions is somehow worth the abuse of the customer – as that is what it is. I suppose the answer could be that all large tech companies are so guilty of this that the customer end up feeling it’s a choice between a list of equally dodgy second hand car salesemen.

Looking at the Oracle sphere, when Exadata came along it was touted by Oracle Sales and PR as the best solution – for almost everything. Wrongly. Utterly and stupidly wrongly. Those of us who got involved in Exadata with the early versions, especially I think V2 and V3, saw it being implemented for OLTP-type systems where it was a very, very expensive way of buying a small amount of SSD. The great shame was that the technical solution of Exadata was fantastic for a sub-set of technical issues. All the clever stuff in the storage cell software and maximizing hardware usage for a small number of queries (small sometimes being as small as 1) was fantastic for some DW work with huge full-segment-scan queries – and of no use at all for the small, single-account-type queries that OLTP systems run. But Oracle just pushed and pushed and pushed Exadata. Sales staff got huge bonuses for selling them and the marketing teams seemed incapable of referring to the core RDBMS without at least a few mentions of Exadata
Like many Oracle performance types, I ran into this mess a couple of times. I remember one client in particular who had been told Exadata V2 would fix all their problems. I suspect based solely on the fact it was going to be a multi-TB data store. But they had an OLTP workload on the data set and any volume of work was slaying the hardware. At one point I suggested that moving a portion of the workload onto a dirt cheap server with a lot of spindles (where we could turn off archive redo – it was a somewhat unusual system) would sort them out. But my telling them a hardware solution 1/20th the cost would fix things was politically unacceptable.

Another example of the wonder solution is Agile. Agile is fantastic: rapid, focused development, that gets a solution to a constrained user requirement in timescales that can be months, weeks, even days. It is also one of the most abused terms in I.T. Implementing Agile is hard work, you need to have excellent designers, programmers that can adapt rapidly and a lot, and I mean a LOT, of control of the development and testing flow. It is also a methodology that blows up very quickly when you try to include fix-on-fail or production support workloads. It also goes horribly wrong when you have poor management, which makes the irony that it is often implemented when management is already failing even more tragic. I’ve seen 5 agile disasters for each success, and on every project there are the shiny-eyed Agile zealots who seem to think just implementing the methodology, no matter what the aims of the project or the culture they are in, is guaranteed success. It is not. For many IT departments, Agile is a bad idea. For some it is the best answer.

Coming back to “cloud”, I think I have something of a reputation for not liking it – which is not a true representation of my thoughts on it, but is partly my fault as I quickly tired of the over-sell and hype. I think some aspect of cloud solutions are great. The idea that service providers can use virtualisation and container technology to spin up a virtual server, a database, an application, an application sitting in a database on a server, all in an automated manner in minutes, is great. The fact that the service provider can do this using a restricted number of parts that they have tested integrate well means they have a way more limited support matrix and thus better reliability. With the Oracle cloud, they are using their engineered systems (which is just a fancy term really for a set of servers, switches, network & storage configured in a specific way with their software configure in a standard manner) so they can test thoroughly and not have the confusion of a type of network switch being used that is unusual or a flavor of linux that is not very common. I think these two items are what really make cloud systems interesting – fast, automated provisioning and a small support matrix. Being available over the internet is not such a great benefit in my book as that introduces reasons why it is not necessarily a great solution.

But right now Oracle (amongst others) is insisting that cloud is the golden solution to everything. If you want to talk at Oracle Open World 2016 I strongly suspect that not including the magic word in the title will seriously reduce your chances. I’ve got some friends who are now so sick of the term that they will deride cloud, just because it is cloud. I’ve done it myself. It’s a potentially great solution for some systems, ie running a known application that is not performance critical that is accessed in a web-type manner already. It is probably not a good solution for systems that are resource heavy, have regulations on where the data is stored (some clinical and financial data cannot go outside the source country no matter what), alter rapidly or are business critical.

I hope that everyone who uses cloud also insists that the recovery of their system from backups is proven beyond doubt on a regular basis. Your system is running on someone else’s hardware, probably managed by staff you have no say over and quite possibly with no actual visibility of what the DR is. No amount of promises or automated mails saying backs occurred is guarantee of recovery reliability. I’m willing to bet that within the next 12 months there is going to be some huge fiasco where a cloud services company loses data or system access in a way that seriously compromises a “top 500” company. After all, how often are we told by companies that security is their top priority? About as often as they mess it up and try to embark on a face-saving PR exercise. So that would be a couple a month.

I just wish Tech companies would learn to be a little less single solution focused. In my book, it makes them look like a bunch of excitable children. Give a child a hammer and everything needs a pounding.

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

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, history, off-topic, Private Life, working.
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3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot the Oracle Faces April 15, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in history, publications.
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2 comments

My wife has been going through old photo’s from her mother today, trying to find a picture of Uncle Stan. In the box of photographs was also a magazine – an Oracle magazine!

Oracle Magazine award winners 2003!

Oracle Magazine award winners 2003!

As you can see from the front cover, it is the Oracle Magazine from the end of 2003, with the Oracle Magazine 2003 Award Winners on it. The tiny photograph on the bottom right is me🙂. Sue’s mum, Di, seemed to be more interested in what I did at work than my own mum (but then Di was like that).

So how many of the people on the magazine do you recognize? If you’ve met them, you should be able to identify a few – even though we are all at least 13 years older than those pictures. If you click on the image, you will get a larger version which might help. It is SO long ago that I don’t think there is an electronic issue of the magazine online, not even in the Oracle Magazine archive. But then, who wants to know about enterprise grid computing in 10g now? I could not even find another copy of the front cover in my 90-second search.

I’m not really one for looking to the past but I do enjoy the odd reminisce. It’s good to see what happened in the past (be it good or bad) and where it has left you in the present. There seems to have been quite a bit of this going on around me this week. Some people on the OakTable have been sharing pictures with the group of a similar vintage (so way before my time), I was talking about how we got into presenting and the Oracle community with Brendan Tierney over the last couple of days and at home we have been looking back even further. The “Uncle Stan” I mentioned was a POW in WW2 in Singapore and he painted the Changi Murals when he was there – painted to help keep up the spirits of those in the infirmary at the time. We will visit The Changi Museum to see the replicas and read the history when we are out there in 2 weeks and, if we are lucky, we might even get to see the originals.

Getting the 2003 Oracle magazine “Beta tester of the year” award was my first real step into the Oracle community. I’d only just started presenting (I think once at UKOUG Tech conference & one SIG, a couple of Oracle Life Science conferences plus being the “friendly face of the end user” at an Open World in 2002 talk…maybe 2003. I never even got on the agenda for that one). I got the award more as the representative of the work done by people in my team, ie their work, as opposed to mine – and for a long while I felt a bit guilty about it. But as a good friend pointed out, it was a team that I had built, doing work I guided and, between myself and Shanthi Sivadasan, we had it all running well and we were doing stuff that no one else would own up to doing (and that HP offered to help us with – and we ended up helping them!).

So back to the magazine cover. Who can you spot? Some I am pretty sure are no longer anything to do with the Oracle scene, but some still are…:

Arup Nanda, DBA of the year (oTY)
Tim Sharick, CTO oTY
Ronan Miles, IT Manager oTY
Peter Charles Smith, PL/SQL developer oTY
TonyJambu, consultant oTY
Bob Magan, developer oTY
Jeroen Baltussen, web services developer oTY
Harvinder Singh Saluja, Jdeveloper oTY
Arno Van Der Klok Java developer oTY
Matt Rhoades, BI developer oTY
Arnaud Bontemps, Portal developer oTY
Tom Copeland, Open Source developer oTY
{how many “X develop of the years”? How many “DBA-types” of the year? Oh yes, 10g was supposed to be the death of the DBA – again}
Jamie Kinney & Grant McAlister, Linux Innovators oTY
Hoosh Asfar, Early Adopter oTY
Mogens Norgaard {who?}, Educator oTY
Tom Kyte {another obscure one}, Oracle Book Author oTY
Jason Hunter, Oracle Magazine Author oTY
Me, Beta Tester oTY
Andrew Clarke, OTN contributor oTY
Rick Hamilton, Architect oTY

Friday Philosophy – You Lot are Weird April 8, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
5 comments

I mean this in the nicest way, but some of you lot are weird. I’m not aiming this at individuals (though there of plenty of “personalities” amongst you) but at whole damned countries.

One thing about social media is that when you tweet, blog, facebook or whatever – you are potentially communicating beyond your own culture. This is especially true when you are doing so to a community that is spread across the globe in the way I.T. is. Maybe most of you think this is blindingly obvious {perhaps as it is} but although I think of myself as intelligent and aware – for the first 2 or 3 years of blogging I hardly considered that some of my audience would not be from the UK and thus not understand any cultural references I made about television, books, sport, the importance of a cup of tea and a biscuit. After all, why would people in the US or Australia or India care what some guy in the UK had to say?

I think I avoid that particular error more these days but I still have to occasionally remind myself that the majority of my audience “ain’t from these parts”. The largest portion of my audience is in the US – which makes sense as there are quite a few people over the other side of the Atlantic pond and a heck of a lot of IT companies. India and my home crowd come second (swapping places from month to month), and after that come several European countries, Australia, Russia and, for reasons I am not sure of, Brazil.

We have some variations across our little nation and of course individuals often do not match their cultural stereotypes but, all the same, people in Britain tend to be pretty British. When I started presenting abroad, I was conscious that I was going Over There and so I tried to use less colloquial language and make allowances for the audience not using English as their first language. But I think I remained oddly culturally unaware for a while – and it still catches me out.

What I mean about this is, sometimes, on occasion – you lot get on my nerves. You annoy me. A whole nation’s worth of you. Because you are jolly well not being British! A recent blog post by Dan Kim about not being an XXXX Ninja reminded me of this. I really have no time for people saying they are “Road Warriors” (thankfully almost a dead phrase now) or “SQL Ninjas”, “Java Master”, “Database Gods” or similar “Huh! Look AT ME, I damned well ROCK!!!” self-labelled self-grandioseing twaddle. Americans are terrible for this, the uncouth lot that they are {though Dan is from the US and does not seem very fond of it – as I said earlier, individuals always vary}.

Of course, the issue is not so much with our American cousins as it is with me. British culture, at least the bits I hang about in, is currently still rather against blatant self promotion or even making a fuss (well, not a loud fuss – we are brilliant as a nation at passive-aggressive fuss). Whereas many people in the US hold the view that you should be proud of what you can do, the things you have achieved and you should stand straight and tell the world. It’s simply a different way of being. They probably think a lot of UK people are stuffy, repressed and have sticks up their backsides. Which is pretty accurate for some of us🙂

Apparently, in Japan (I have to say apparently as I have never been there), when you are listening to someone you show respect by remaining quiet – and this extends to concerts & gigs, which can cause bands not used to it to have some issues. A crowd that does not go nuts at the end of a song (let alone during it) is just… wrong. But they go nuts at the end of the concert. {If I’ve fallen into quoting a national stereotype that does not exist, please let me know}.

Something I have encountered personally is people in Northern Europe being very direct, ie people will simply say “you are wrong about that”. To me that used to come across as rude. You are supposed to tell me I am wrong in words that don’t actually say I am wrong! “I think you might not quite understand” or “well, that is another way of looking at it”. That to them seems bizarre and, when you think about it, it is bizarre. You should just be able to state your opinion, no offence taken.

Personally I find it is not the cultural differences in language or references to shard experiences that are hardest to acclimatise to, it is these cultural changes in behavior. I have to constantly remind myself that if someone is being rude or impolite or over reacting I should first consider if that is only true when compared to my culture, and not theirs. Of course, I can only do that if I have a clue about what is normal for their culture, which is why travelling Over There to do presentations or bits of work is so helpful.

Sometimes they are being rude. Culture is not the issue.

Of course, the single, largest area of cultural difference that bothers me is beer. Lager is fine cold, cider is jolly nice cold. Real ale should be a few degrees below room temperature and not cold.

Or, as my US friends would see it – “Barman, 3 pints of beer please, and a slightly larger glass of warm piss for our UK friend”.

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

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, Perceptions, Private Life, working.
Tags: , , ,
12 comments

When did you last learn something new about the tech you work with? This week? This month? This year? 2003?

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUG_Ireland – Bread, Beer & Playing with the Big Boys March 7, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in conference, performance, Presenting, User Groups.
Tags: , ,
2 comments
The last banner turned out to be wrong

The last banner turned out to be wrong

ougire16-hp-gen-v1

Learning, sharing & a small dose of fear – Last week was the OUG Ireland conference 2016. It is the second time I’ve been to the Irish Oracle user group conference and this year it had grown from one day to two days – and that was a great success. The expanded 2-day event, as initially sized, booked up with several weeks still to go. More places were made available – and they all filled as well. You could tell this, at least in the sessions I attended – they were all busy and many were full. The whole event had a busy feel.

I was doing two quite different session. The first was my overview of the core Oracle technology, a broad-brush, broad-appeal session. At the other end of the spectrum, the second was about the details of context switching between SQL & PL/SQL, the impact it can have and the improvements in 12C to help reduce that impact. People are becoming more aware of this aspect of calling PL/SQL from SQL and also the potential to lose your point-in-time view of the database, which many take for granted. I actually dropped the loss of point-in-time view out of the talk as it made the session too long – but someone asked directly about it! So I spent the last 5 mins I’d left for Q&A talking about it. If I repeat the session somewhere, perhaps I’ll add those slides back in and just talk less rubbish about me earlier on.

Oren Nakdimon actually mentioned one of the 12C improvements (PL/SQL in the WITH clause) in his excellent talk on the first day “Write less (code) with More (Oracle 12c new features)” including one aspect I had missed. So I stole his material and added a slide into my deck for Friday. I’m glad I referenced him on that slide – as he was sat in the front row in my talk🙂

(as an aside, this is my second time at OUG Ireland and the second time I’ve met someone from Israel who I shared beers with & spent quite a bit of time with – just one of those quirky coincidences in life. Oh, and I met his wife Inbal too and we had a chat about translating Sci-Fi from English to Hebrew! It’s not easy, but Klingon is easier to handle than you’d think).

See, no beer! (it's inside the podium...)

See, no beer! (it’s inside the podium…)

My other talk was on the first day and it was the one where I cover the core Oracle technology in a single presentation slot. It’s a bit of a Big Ask in 45 minutes but I tend to throw in less anecdotes or stories than normal in order to cover the material. However, this time I could not resist the temptation to include one, in order to continue the unfair myth that I can only present with a beer in hand…

I got a lot of great feedback about this talk, several people checked that they would be able to get the slides afterwards (they have been sent to the organisers and they should be put out in due course – but I can send anyone a copy), I got a few more questions during the conference, I spent about 30 minutes talking to one chap afterwards (about a very “interesting” project he is on where sense does not seem to be prevailing) and a lot of people said they enjoyed it. For a speaker, there is no better result and I was quietly happy. I might go as far as to say I was jolly chuffed.

I managed to get to a fair few presentations by others at this conference too and I did not see a bad one in the DB or Development stream. Jonathan Lewis and Joze Senegacnik were as excellent as ever (I think Jonathan was particularly on form) and I was reminded at how good Carl Dudley is at this presenting lark. I missed out seeing my Polish ORA600 counterpart, Kamil Stawiaski, due to a clash for one session and presenting at the same time as him on the other. But I got to have beer with him and his friend Adam Bolinski and a good few chats.

On the topic of Beer, as well as being forced to have one in my presentation on the first day (cough!), we had an excellent “presenters beers” on Wednesday evening before the event, organised by Brendan Tierney. Brendan had us meet up, on a foul and wet evening, at a pub with it’s own micro-brewery (so I was able to avoid Guinness which, I have to confess, outside of the Guinness Museum is Not My Thing) and my nephew Tim Hall’s (oracle) wife, Debra Lilley {they are not really married, but sometimes you wonder at the bickering…}, organised an excellent Oracle Ace meal on the Thursday night. I had to drop out early though as sleep deprivation was killing me (and only got worse for the final day – that was one of the noisiest hotels I have ever stayed in and I won’t be rushing back) but I did get to share the taxi back to the “Hotel Of Random Noise” with Debra (she was flying somewhere at early-O’clock the next day) and catch up.

I actually see the social side of conferences as just as important as the technical side. I have made some good friends with people at these technical meetings and the more you know people in the user community, the more you get out of it.

Well, Officer, It's yeast... Honest... Honest!!!! Argh!

Well, Officer, It’s yeast… Honest… Honest!!!! Argh!

So I’ve mentioned the beer. What about the bread? Well, I make sourdough. I have a pot of “starter mixture” in my fridge, which is a live culture of yeast in a slack dough mix. It’s alive (sorry, “It’s ALIIIIIIIVEEE!”), it needs looking after. It is, basically, one of the most boring pets you can have – but at least it never needs to be taken to the vet or does its business on the carpet. There are a few of us bakers in the Speaker Circuit. Jonathan is another one and so is Joze. And Joze also has a yeast colony pet in the fridge. We talked about our sour-dough pets at a conference last year and, as a result, Joze bought me a little bag of powder – dried mixture, stuffed with yeast. I’m going to start up a new jar of dough mixture, sourced from this powder. I’ll do a post about what happens.

There is one aspect of being given a bag of dried dough when on conference. You have to take it home. In your luggage. In my case, hand luggage. And in November, for the first time ever that I can remember, they decided to check my hand luggage. What if they did that this time?
“Is this your bag, Sir?”
“Yes”
“Is this plastic bag of a pale, dried mixture yours, Sir?”
“Yes Officer, but it’s OK it’s yeast!” – Bright Smile.
“Yes, of course it is Sir. Come this way.”
“But it’s just yeast and flour, it’s nothing dodggy!!!”
“Of course it is not Sir, and now my colleague here will now examine places you don’t want examining for more such samples”.

It added an extra level of excitement into what is usually a dull experience of international air travel.

The "rose" between two "thorns". If Thorns means The Best

The “rose” between two “thorns”. If Thorns means “The Best”

So that was the dose of fear? No. I did two talks at the conference but I had one other duty. At the UKOUG Tech conference last December, Jonathan Lewis hosted a Q&A session on the Cost Based Optimizer. We had Jonathan, Chris Antognini, Maria Colgan and Nigel Bayliss, with myself and Neil Chandler as Masters of Ceremony. ie, Question Wranglers. It worked really well, with some genuine-but-known questions to start until the audience warmed up, and they warmed up.

Jonathan decided to repeat this format in Ireland and he asked me to reprise my role, which I was delighted to do. I’m more than happy to fire in the questions to the experts, so long as I’m here at the side and they are there up on the stage.

One of our experts for Ireland had to drop out due to only being there on the Thursday. Jonathan asked me who can fill in. No problem, we have skills across the agenda, “Dave” can help. Dave said yes…but then no, it turned out Dave could not do it. So I was asked again who could fill and we got Jessica – but Jessica had to leave early. You can see what is coming, can’t you? We were out of replacements. A panel of 2 does not work really, you need three or more. So, I was promoted to Panel. Oh cr4p!

Alan Kelly stepped into the breach to be Question Master (Personally, I don’t know whether to thank Alan or not! But for the sake of the session, thank you Alan) and I joined two masters of the art on stage. Don’t get me wrong, this is not false modesty, I’m pretty good at this stuff. But I’m “Pretty Good”. Calm, Breath, Relax…

It was fine. Jonathan and Joze handled the tricky couple of questions and let me talk when I had stuff to add and the whole session was a hum-dinger. How do I know that? Well, the session was for 45 minutes at the end of the last day, on a Friday with all the usual pressures to get away and get home. And yet, despite that, we finally closed the session down after 90 minutes. I have to confess, I’m deeply proud of the fact I was able to play an active role and not just sit there.

All in all, I had a fantastic time and I think it was a cracking conference. Can I come next year? (Only, next year, can I keep to being Question Master! Alan can have a go up on stage)

Friday Philosophy – Being the Best Manager February 19, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

I’d like you to spend a minute thinking back on your career and decide who your best manager has been.

Surely your best manager ever deserves a good cup of tea

Surely your best manager ever deserves a good cup of tea

I don’t mean the manager who you personally got on best with or was most popular with the team – though being one (or even both!) of those does not rule them out as being the best manager you had.

It does not have to be in IT – or even work, actually, cast the net wide to include people who have managed teams and groups outside of work that you have been in.

What was it about them that made them such a good manager?

I know what I think made my best manager the best manager I’ve had: She was utterly focused on making her team a success.

The two or three managers I’ve had who are close seconds to the top spot also had that as a high priority. But managers I’ve had who put delivery of whatever their boss wanted above getting the best out of the team just fell short – and, in my opinion, actually delivered less than they could. Because, if delivery of the current objectives comes before the team, you start working on the next objectives with a team less capable than they could have been.

Making your team a success does not actually mean being nice to the team, at least not all the time and not to all of them. Sometimes you have to reprimand a team member for doing something wrong, like doing a shoddy job of a task you know they can do better – not doing so is condoning bad behaviour and they will do a shoddy job again, only now it’s harder to call them out for it. You also will have to at times get them do something they don’t want to do, like be on call at a particular time as no one else can or it is their turn. But if you can’t explain why they need to do this thing they don’t want to do, that is not going to help you get the best out of them.

I’m sure some of you will disagree with me about what makes the best manager you ever had so good, but in some ways it does not matter. Because what I feel is most interesting about that question is, if you manage, or ever have managed, a team (be it in work, in sport or whatever) – do you try and emulate whatever it was that made that best manager so good?

If not, why?

.

.

(By the way, if your response to the question about your best manager made you think “the least worst” or “I’ve never had a good manager” then either you have been monumentally unlucky – or else maybe the problem lies not with those managers… )

A Book of Friday Philosophies? February 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Philosophy – Content, Copying, Copyright &Theft February 12, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Friday Philosophy, writing.
Tags: , ,
13 comments

There have been a couple of things this week that have made me think about the stuff that some of us write and what other people do with it.

I’m writing a book with 4 other people at the moment (the 4 being Arup Nanda, Brendan Tierney, Alex Nuijten and Heli Helskyaho, all experienced book publishers already – I’m the new kid) which is on SQL & PLSQL. It has been a very interesting experience. I knew writing a technical book was hard work, took a lot of time and that, frankly, the direct financial return on the effort is very, very poor. I know a few authors of Oracle books and I’d talked to them about it all, so I was aware. However, it turns out I did not really know how hard it was, I still did not understand how demanding of time and effort it was! But I had written technical blogs and a couple of articles before I started the book and I had developed the strong opinion that you do not take other people’s work, and you certainly do not take it without citing the original author – because you are actually stealing a lot of someone else’s time and effort.

Probable  front image of "the book"

Probable front image of “the book”

As a result, at the very start of writing my chapters I was determined that my content was going to be My Content. Me, my experience, the official documentation , my test databases – and a word document to receive the end product from those ingredients. I was not going to read what others had written recently on or around the topics I was covering as I did not want to be even subconsciously borrowing from other’s efforts {I say recently as I cannot unread what I had already read!}. I certainly did not want to be accused of doing so. If I was going to object to people stealing my content, I’d be hypocritical to actually commit the crime.

How very noble of me. How very silly of me.

A couple of months in I was talking to someone about the first chapter I was doing and how I was struggling to decide how to structure what I wanted to say. I knew the facts and features I wanted to cover but was unsure of how to make it flow so that it would make sense to the reader and build up their knowledge in steps. They asked me how other people had handled it and I gave them the little opinion piece I’ve just given you. And they laughed at me.
Was I including new stuff? Yes. Was I using my own experience? Yes. Was I going to cut lines, paragraphs, even pages out of other sources and put it in mine? No! Of course not! Well then why was I purposefully making life hard for myself?
Then they asked me the killer bit – Did I know every last thing about the topic? Hmm, no, probably not, but then no one knows every last thing and certainly has not used every little aspect of an oracle feature for real. So I was only going to put into my chapters parts of the topic? Well, I guess so. And that is what someone trying to learn about the feature wants? An expert opinion full of holes? That bit stumped me.

I was kind of writing my chapters to show how much I know. I was certainly limiting it to what I knew well. But the reader does not give a fig about how much I personally know, they are not hiring me to do a job. They are reading about a technical topic so that they can do their job. So I should be making sure I know as much as I can about the topic in order to describe it and I should describe all of it that I think could be useful to others, even if so far it has not been of use to me and the specifics of the problems I was solving. And how do I learn about technical stuff? I read the documentation… and blogs… and books… and play with it.

It also got me thinking about what I will feel like if people use my chapters in a couple of years to help them write about a topic (be it in a book, a blog or an article). If they simply copy my stuff, steal my words, I’ll be angry. If they copy it but just change a few bits to hide the fact I’ll be furious. But if they are writing this as they initially learned from me and then added their own experience and knowledge, I’ll be chuffed to bits – because I taught them. And now they would be teaching others.

So I started reading my modern books on the topics around what I was writing and looking at blog posts and articles more. I know I am doing a better job for the audience since I started doing that. However, the list of people I will need to thank in my bit of the acknowledgements is going up & up and I suspect that for years I’ll be meeting people at conferences & meetings and going “here’s a pint for the help you gave me! And, no, you did not know you had!”. {One thing that did worry the pants off me is that when I read around, it turns out that in my first chapter I uses an example very extensively that turns out to be the exact same example at least two other people have used – it’s convergent evolution, honest! But I’m sure someone at some point is going to point a finger… Oh well, the deadlines are too tight for me to change it now. I don’t even have time to write this blog really…}

There was a specific incident this week that made me think again about copying. I noticed (as I was checking out a relatively unused aspect of a PL/SQL tool and what I did not know about it – but others might benefit from knowing) that the same information was in two places. Exactly the same, word for word. Someone had stolen content from Tim Hall’s excellent Oraclebase site. And it was not just one article, it was dozens, with no citation of the original author anywhere and a copyright sign on the pages of stolen content. You can read about Tim’s ire in this blog post he wrote. He got more annoyed than I think he normally does as this guy had stolen stuff before and Tim was suffering from a cold. He got about as annoyed as I would get in that situation, in fact.

I also noticed as I investigated my currently-obscure aspect of PL/SQL that most of the content on the topic elsewhere was mostly chunks just taken from the oracle official documentation with a few lines wrapped around each chunk. Was that stealing content? I’m still not sure about that, but I think that if there is more borrowed content than original content, it’s at best Poor Effort and probably is Theft. If they do not even write their own demo code for the feature but take Oracle’s – it’s theft. Bad people.

I did nearly comment on Twitter that I never got my stuff stolen, as my stuff is mostly just opinion pieces like this and of no technical worth! But the very next day – Yep, you guessed it, someone stole one of my blog posts. There was a single link back to my original post at the very end but it was not a citation, it just said “reference Link Martin Widlake’s”. In fact, initially I think it just said “Reference Link”. He also has a copyright sign on his web pages. I currently don’t, maybe I should add one so that I can simply say “copyright, take it off else i’ll issue a Take Down request to your service provider”.

I’ve emailed him to say I’m not happy to have a word-for-word copy stolen and presented as his and I am certainly not happy that the pieces is appearing on the front of his web site advertising his services! It seems he is just one guy trying to make a living in rural Northern Pakistan. Should I be concerned about the theft of my article and ask him to remove it? If it is helping him make a living thousands of miles away and he has at least added a small citation at the end? Yes, because it is still theft. And if I do not highlight to him how much this annoys people, he will probably steal other stuff. If you don’t challenge bad behaviour you condone it.

And besides, if he does steal more stuff this will certainly include Tim’s material as his site is often on the first search-engine page on any Oracle Topic. And when he pinches Tim’s stuff, Tim’s gonna be angry…