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Friday Philosophy – Are Leaving Presentations A Quaint British Tradition? August 11, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, working.
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9 comments

A few days ago a friend, Robert Lockard, started a discussion on Facebook about bad bosses and the strange things they did. I mentioned how one of my first bosses had refused to do my leaving presentation, arguing with his boss (very loudly so all could hear, despite it being in “an office” – a plastic box in the corner) that he did not want to be nice to me and do the presentation. Neither did his boss!

Another friend of mine, Jeff Smith (oh he of SQL*Developer fame) replied to my comment saying “what is a ‘leaving presentation’ – they let you get up in front of everyone and invite them to kiss your a$$ goodbye? Because, that sounds pretty amazing”.
That took me by surprise, it had never occurred to me that “leaving presentations” were not universal. That’s one of the great things about the global reach of social media, it helps you realise that so many things you thing are normal are, in fact, local to your region and are seen as bizarre by others in other cultures.

So that made me wonder how common “leaving presentations” are? I could have asked on Twitter or mailed a few friends, but I have this blog thing I can use…

I suppose I should describe what a “leaving presentation” is, in case other cultures do the same but call it something else (or just do it without a title). So:-

For most of my working life in the UK, if you are a permanent member of staff and it is known you are leaving (so it’s not a case of you being sacked) and it is only you (so it’s not a case of the company slashing the workforce) then “Shirley from Accounts” will take charge and will buy a card. I don’t know why, but it is nearly always a woman who gets the card and the same woman organises most people’s leaving card. The card is sent around the office in an envelope and people sign it (maybe adding some words like “begone foul demon”) and, depending on the organisations, there may be a collection made at the same time. It is beholden on you, the leaver, to pretend to never notice the card going around (or checking how the collection is going. I did know one guy who put money into his own collection to make himself seem more popular!).

Back in the 1980’s/90’s, the places I worked at did not have email – not even internal systems on the mainframe, so lots of envelopes would be going around with company memos or things you had to read and sign you had read. So the odd card going around was easy to ignore. These days of course everything is email so the last few times I’ve noticed a card going around, it stuck out like a sore thumb and you knew it was a leaving (or “congratulations” or “get well soon”) card.

Then on your last day your boss gets the team around, (s)he says you did not steal much and you did not piss off all the users, they give you the card and pretend to care what happens to you in the future. People then clap politely. This not the US, there is no whooping or saying it is the saddest day of their lives. If a collection had been made they will have bought you something with the collection. It is always almost, but not quite totally, useless. You might have to do a small speech and then, the best bit, you take them down the pub and buy everyone a drink (it used to happen at lunch time but now it tends to be more at the end of the day). The round generally costs you more than the collection they gathered for you. Sadly the last bit seems to be dying out.

As a contractor/external consultant you tend to avoid the mild discomfort of it all as you are not around long enough to become part of the team and, well, it’s just not done for over-paid contractors.

Personally, I have always found the whole thing a bit weird and, if I am the leaver, mildly uncomfortable. I try to avoid the whole thing by keeping my exit quiet or stealing enough stationary so that management do not feel I deserve a leaving presentation. Of course, in the case I cite above, I nearly avoided it just by making my bosses hate me. ho Hum.

But I do still try and do one bit, the “taking people to the pub” at the end of the day, even when I am a contractor and we are not supposed to get leaving presentations.

So what if anything do they do where you are? Is the leaver expected to do something (bring in cake, kiss everyone, do a dance)? Do you have a tradition that is eminently sensible and common in your country but, not you you come to think of it, maybe it’s a touch strange? Or do people just leave quietly and no one notices much – except for the scramble for the chair or your higher-res screen?

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Friday Philosophy – Sometime The Solution Has To Not Only Match The Problem But Also… August 4, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Programming.
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3 comments

…The People!

When you design a system for end users, a good designer/developer considers the “UX” – User eXperience. The system has to be acceptable to the end user. This is often expressed as “easy to use” or “fun” or “Quick”. But in reality, the system can fail in all sort of ways but still be a success if the end user gets something out of using it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again until I give up on this career. In my opinion:

User Acceptance is the number one aim of any I.T. system.

OK, you all know about UX probably. But what about solutions that have no End Users? I’m thinking about when you create a technical solution or fix for an internal system, to be used by fellow I.T. professionals. How many have you considered the skills and temperament of the people who are going to house-keep the solution you create? I suppose I have had opportunity to think about this more than some of you due to how I work:- I’m a consultant who gets called in to fix things and then leave. At times I have chosen a solution that has been influenced by the people who will be looking after it.

I’ll give you an example. At one site that I worked at for about 9 months, I did a lot of work for one system. The developer/systems administrator who looked after the system was…stupid. I don’t really like saying that, we all vary in our skill set, experience, intelligence, *type* of intelligence (I know some people who can speak 3 languages or know a lot about history but could not wire a plug). But this guy really seemed to struggle with logic, cause-and-effect or learning anything new. And I had to help him look after this database application with one main, huge, hulking table. It had to be partitioned, those partitions maintained and the data archived. I implemented the partitioning, I explained partitions to him several times, what was needed to maintain them, where to look in the data dictionary for information. It was like talking to my mum about it. He just seemed not to understand and his efforts to code something to do what needed to be done were woeful.

I knew it was not me, I’ve run enough training sessions and presented so often that I know I can explain myself (Well, I hope so! Maybe I am deluded). He just was not getting it. Maybe he was in the wrong job. So I wrote him a set of SQL-generating scripts to get him going. He kept messing up running them. In the end, I knew I was about to leave and when I did within 3 months the real customer would have a broken system. So I wrote a mini-application in PL/SQL for him to do what needed to be done. And set it to email a central team if it failed. The team he would call when he broke it all again. I also simplified the solution. My original system had some bells and whistles to help with future changes, such as over-riding where new partitions went or how old ones were compressed. I stripped it out to keep it as simple as possible. I altered the solution to suit the person that would run it.

I’ve done something like this a few times over the years. Usually it is more to do with the skill set of the team as opposed to actual ability. I’ve on occasion worked with people who are new to Oracle and my time is limited so, rather than give them a solution written in PL/SQL that none of them know, I have done so with SQL and cookery instructions/shell scripts. It’s not the best solution but it is something they can live with.

More recently I had to look at fixing the performance of some SQL statements. Baselines would have done the job perfectly. However, the team were all Java experts and had no desire at all to learn about database administration. (To be frank, they had no time to learn either, it was the usual situation of them having 75 hours of work each every week as management thought just shouting would get things fixed, not hiring enough people). I strongly suspected that they would forget about the baselines and if they had a problem they would be confused as to what was going on. So I fixed the key SQL statements with a set of hints to force both the overall structure of the execution plans as well as which indexes to use etc – and said over and over and over and over that if they ever changed indexes or migrated to a later version of Oracle, those hints would need reviewing. They were, in effect, part of their code base. A big advantage of the hints was that they would see them in their code and it would remind them what had been done. They seemed happy with that.

My point is, sometimes the “best” solution is not the correct one, even when you are keeping within the walls of the computing department(s). Sometimes you need to think about who you are giving the solution to and change the solution accordingly.

Friday Philosophy – Improving Your Working Life July 14, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
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1 comment so far

If I got you all to write down the top 5 things that make working bearable, and then got you to make a list of the top 5 things that make working enjoyable, I have a suspicion there will be one thing high on the “Enjoyable” list that may not even be on the “Bearable” list:

Being in a good team.

This one thing can make a real difference to your working life. I know this is true for me and it’s something I’ve heard other people say a lot. The team you are in can make up for a lot of negative things about any given job. I’ve found myself in roles where I am unsuitable for the task, or under a ridiculously high workload, even being paid much less than I know I am worth. But if I have been in a good team, working with people I like (well, at least some of them!) it makes it all a lot better. A lot, lot better. Think about the jobs or roles you have most enjoyed in your life. In any of them did you not like the team you were in?

Unfortunately in most teams there are people like Miserable Kevin, who does nothing but complain and slag everyone off. Or Oddly Quiet Katrina who is about as much fun to be with as eating a jar of pickled frogs.

You might expect me to now suggest you leave any team you do not like being in – but that is impractical advice for most people and impossible for many. And in fact I think there is a much, much better option:

Don’t change which team you are in – Change the team you are in.

You may think that it’s the responsibility of the team leader or maybe “management” to create a good team, perhaps by punishing or getting rid of Kevin and Katrina. And to a certain extent you are right. But most team leaders got the job for reasons other than their soft skills (the ones that allow them to understand and work with people – Heck, most of us in I.T. are there at least partially as we do not like other bloody people!). But actually, anyone in the team can change the team into somewhere more pleasant to be. I’m willing to bet that if you have worked in teams that are fun and satisfying to be in, the person or people who made it that way were not the team leader. Or at least not limited to the team leader.

Be warned, I am not claiming it is easy to change a team and it can take a while. But I think anyone can improve their team, if they put in a little effort. And you can do it in small, easy steps.

It helps if you know or learn a little about how different people think, a little bit of pop-psychology can go a long way (all those management training courses I once went on helped me a lot in this) but in essence you just need to help people to talk, relax, interact and get to know each other a little better. Try to see things from their side, consider why they are being objectionable or difficult. And be nice to people. Not in a creepy way, but just try to not lose your temper at someone who is being annoying, do not join in with the weekly team moan about Kevin behind his back. I’m not saying you should not disapprove if someone is being an arse, but you can make it clear you are not happy with them without being antagonistic or retaliating. Just one person doing this can make a big difference. I know, I’ve done it.

Another thing to do is try to include people more. If you and another team member are discussing an issue, maybe ask Oddly Quiet Katrina what they think. If you can find a common interest with someone you don’t know well in the team, try to talk to them about it. I don’t mean do what one bloke I know did – come in the office, ask how your weekend went and then look stunned with boredom when you told him – He had no real interest, he was playing a role, and doing it badly. If you are going to try and draw someone out a little, it really helps to be interested in what they say.

Once thing I have found helps significantly in creating a better team is suggesting the occasional coffee, go to lunch together (especially if it means going out the office to get something, even if only a sandwich) or have an after work pint. {I’ve previously mentioned this as Team Ice-Cream}. It really helps if you know at least 1 other person who will join in; and you are not trying to get everyone there. You just let people know, go and have the coffee or drink and let whoever wishes to join in. Sometimes there will be someone who will refuse to join in but, heck, the last thing you want to do is try and make it “enforced team fun” – as that never works well. I’ve done this in 3 or 4 roles now and after a few weeks (and it can take weeks and months) most of the team was coming along most of the time. And the intra-team bitching had plummeted. I even saw people help each other without being told to!

One thing to mention – don’t be too enthusiastic and gung-ho about it. Don’t come in first thing and cry “Hi team! How’s it all going! Hi-Fives! Who’s for a pint after work!?”. This will make you into Psychotic Barry. No one trusts Psychotic Barry.

The key principle is to be a bit more friendly and inclusive without people really noticing you are doing it. Keep it all low key.

Why should *you* be the person to put in the effort? Well, think of it selfishly. It will be nicer for you if being at work is less bloody awful. Also, it’s a skill you can use everywhere! Each time you change team, you can see if you can improve the new team a bit and see if you can do it more effectively. You can use it in social situations too. Maybe even the wider family, but if you try that and it all goes horribly wrong, don’t sue me.

Another reason to do it? Many people who know me in the flesh may be surprised to know that I’m not naturally very good in a crowd. I got a lot better at it, and more comfortable with people in general, by trying to improve the team.

So go change your team. It’s actually easier than you think and, heck, what have you to lose but some wasted effort and a couple of quiet evenings in a pub on your own (or maybe worst case scenario, just you and Psychotic Barry)? At least you will know that you gave it a go, it is now definitely the team leader’s problem.

One final word of warning. That bloke over there who is a militant vegan, self-appointed know-er of all and despises all contractors on philosophical principles? Don’t expect to get anywhere with him and don’t try too hard. Some people need professional help!

Friday Philosophy – Robots Rising & Tech Taking Over? July 7, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, future, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

Today I saw some cracking photographs of a lighthouse. How many of us have at some point wondered if it might be nice to be a lighthouse keeper? The solitude, the scenery, the stoic fortitude in the face of the storm – quite literally. (Thank you Brendan Tierney for the photo I’ve stolen from him).

No one lives here anymore

It’s an odd job lighthouse keeper, it holds a special place in Western culture and literature. A job to be held by those a little apart from society and yet with a dedication to the betterment of mankind. I suspect a lot of people in I.T. (and the wider community) find a resonance in that, as so many of us are a little bit apart and yet intelligent & care.

Well, you can’t be a lighthouse keeper anymore. At least, in the UK you can’t. Check out This web site about UK lighthouses and lighthouse keeping. That job, that vocation, was handed over to automated I.T. systems a few years ago, effectively handed to robots & technology. You might think you know where I am going with this, and initially you will be right, but bear with me.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last 2 or 3 years about the increasing use of technology and robotics to do tasks that we humans have been doing. An obvious one is autonomous driving vehicles, where The I.T. smarts and sensors are leaping along incredibly fast. I am in a long-running “argument” with a friend about when fully autonomous vehicles will be a reality on public roads. He says under 5 years, I think it is more (I started saying more than 5 years to him in 2016, so, giving some leeway, I say not before December 2021 will we see fully autonomous vehicles driving from a town centre to another town centre, sharing lanes with human drivers – specific enough Neil?). But self-driving vehicles will be safer than humans “soon”, and cheaper than employing humans, so companies will swap to it. That will end a lot of employment.

I know others have pointed this out and it is not as if history isn’t almost a continuous tale of technology assisting or replacing human effort. Tolpuddle martyrs, dark satanic mills and all that. Industrialisation of farming has put a lot of farm labours out of work but we could not feed the current mass of humanity without it. People move on to new tasks.

But the difference now is not that we are handing jobs to a slightly better automated system where we still need some human control, we are removing the human element. And we are doing this in a lot of areas in a very short space of time. Factories are becoming far more automated, we order our goods online and huge conveyor robotic systems are being built to do the packing, with fewer people involved and lower long-term costs.

But it’s not just physical tasks that are being automated. Genetic algorithms, neural nets, deep data and machine learning is starting to replace tasks that have needed human interaction. Chatbots are getting smarter, to the point where they are used by companies as first-line support {often laughably poorly at present, but it is getting better – and Oracle do have an interest as was covered in Oracle Scene recently {sorry, that link might not work for long}. Expert systems have been developed that can judge simple court cases such as parking fines and beat humans at spotting pre-cancerous cells in tissue samples.

Oracle and the Bots

We now see expert computer systems breaking a lot of barriers and doing things that until now have been deemed uniquely human cerebral tasks. Computers won at playing chess 10+ years ago, they triumphed in “Go” last year and now they can win at versions of Poker where you are not sure of the data and have to read the play of your opponent – in effect second guess a human. Currently all these systems are very expensive, highly focused and specific to a task, built on huge data sets and using fine-tuned sets of algorithms, to do one task. We have nothing as generally capable as a 5 year old child or even a dog.

Only, we keep building systems that are better and better at specific tasks.

So why do I say this bothers me but not in the way you would expect? It’s because I keep seeing “thought leaders” present the same denial of these impacts on us in I.T. of the systems we as an industry are developing, platitudes that we are a special case and will be OK. Several times over the last couple of years I see some utter pillock in a suit from upper management telling a crowd of I.T. experts that we will be just fine as we are smart and we can stop doing the easy tasks and concentrate on the harder ones, use our brains more.

This is balls for two reasons. Firstly:

What about everyone who is below smart?

Most of us in I.T. are not only above average intelligence (probably IQs of 125 and upwards), we are surrounded by similar smart people. Our life partners are generally above normal intelligence, we work in teams who are above-average smart, we probably mostly socialise with generally intelligent people (as a raft of psychological studies show, we gravitate to those at a similar IQ to ourselves, irrespective of where we are on the scale). Even the end users we abuse tend to be above average intelligence. I suspect that most of us somehow don’t “get” that well over 60% of people are not only less intelligent than we are but they have few options if our society passes the jobs they can do to computers and robots. And they are not that likely to be philosophical about having no point to their lives and being poorer. They’re probably going to be very angry, very poor and pretty pissed off with smart-arses who say that “we are OK” – and there are a lot, lot more of them than us.

And that leads to the second reason it is balls.

The smart work will also be doable by Tech

As I’ve said already, we can already create technological systems that can beat us at specific cerebral tasks and there is going to be a small and smaller pool of work for highly-intelligent workers. Let’s face it, a lot of what we do now in I.T. is drudge and boring, there is not really that much smart work needed doing, even in this industry stacked by us smart people. And doing work that really needs you to be smart is tiring (well, I find it tiring!). And our work in I.T. tends to be logic-based and what are computers good at? We will just have a breathing space before our work is also more cheaply done by computers.

I’m annoyed as I think those of use who are involved in this revolution are being told a deluded lie that we will be OK if it pans out like I have just said. Those extra 25+ IQ points are not going to keep us special for very long.

So if computers can drive the taxis & lorries, manage the steel works and build the cars, derive the best drug treatment and give the perfect injection (yep, theoretically a robot already wins on that) what do we as humans do?

Only a few people can be “utterly human” – artists, poets and philosophers. And we do not need 7 billion of them anyway.

We could try and legislate against it, tax robots hard. But those who make a lot of money already run the “free market economy” and will continue to do so. If Robots and computer programs do tasks more cheaply, companies that uses robots will rise to the top of any monetary-based society, i.e. a capitalist society. What will change what has been in place for 100+ years? I can’t see the currently rich and powerful objecting to working methods that increase their wealth. Even if it means more and more poorer people.

Some argue for a basic living wage to keep us all alive – fed, warm and basic healthcare whilst machines do the work. That would give us that often cited nirvana of being free to do “what we want”. But if you have no job, what do you do? Again, for those of us with high IQ we can maybe come up with things to do. Maybe. I seem to be relatively happy being semi-retired, but I’ve done a lot of stuff and had my time of striving to achieve. And still do. But how about those who are IQ 100 and below? I suspect entertaining yourself is not as easy. I think anger, resentment and the feeling of being disenfranchised is just going to continue increasing. I think it’s why the UK is leaving Europe and why the US has an egotistical man-child as president. More and more normal people are unhappy with their lot and see no good future – so they vote for a change. ANY change. Even if it is crazy change.

I know, not a very happy Friday Philosophy. Will someone please tell me it will all be OK? And I mean OK for everyone, not just us “smart” people.

Friday Philosophy – How I Took The Step Up from Thought Leader to Paradigm Architect. January 6, 2017

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

I’m sure you have come across the term “Thought Leader” before. You probably first came across it recently, in the last couple of years, and it is growing in occurrence. I’m always impressed by someone who describes themselves as a Thought Leader, I think it tells you a lot about the qualities of the person (*). At times I feel that I am also a Thought Leader – However, I recently decided to set myself the higher ambition of expanding my vision and becoming a Paradigm Architect. And I think I can tell you how you can do the same and also become a Paradigm Architect yourself.

What my mind's eye sees when I see "thought leader"

What my mind’s eye sees when I see “thought leader”

First, you need to really understand what a Paradigm Architect is. Such a person architects paradigms. You become one by sticking the title next to your name and then thinking of a woolly way of describing what it means. So: “a paradigm is the overall concept or co-dependent ecology of rules in respect of a knowledge arena, and I architect new paradigms for business and technology”. So, that’s me! Pretty bloody cool I think. And you still have no clear idea what I mean by “Paradigm Architect” – but it sounds so clever, doesn’t it?

Are you convinced? Hopefully you are not. I’m really hoping you are actually thinking “what the heck is Martin on about now?”.

OK, I’m obviously not a fan of the term Thought Leader. So what set me off on this little rant about the term? Someone recently followed me on Twitter and when I looked at their profile they self-described as a Thought Leader (I always look at the profiles of people who follow me, there are not so many a day that it is a burden and I like to block any young ladies who are “too poor to afford enough clothing”, those pushing some service I have no interest in or is in some other way following thousands of people simply in order to get more followers). I don’t see what the term “Thought Leader” really means. Oh, I get that some people can be thought of as visionary, leading the way, thinking of things not thought of before: someone to admire and follow, a beacon of enlightenment in the grey, confusing fog of our ever-changing world.

Well, I am a thought leader. I thought that now we have powerful, battery-driven hedge trimmers I could trim the tall hedge hedge at the bottom of my garden by using one whilst on a pogo stick. I’m pretty sure not many others have come up with that idea. I expect you all to give it a go now that I have led you there. Any medical bills that ensue are your own responsibility.

What I really think when I see someone self-identify as a Thought Leader (or a visionary, or a genius or some other similar label) is “you arrogant sod”. I am not impressed at all, at least not in a good way. As far as I am concerned you will now have to not only demonstrate to me some qualities or achievements that are to be admired, but they better be damned impressive. Better than I would expect from a normal genius. You went and put the high-jump bar at 2 meters, let’s see you bloody well clear it first time.

I put out a quick tweet out about what I thought when I saw this person’s profile:

Why is it I don’t trust anyone who self-describes as a “thought leader”?
I’m more trusting of someone who self-describes as a “smart arse”

I was struck by how popular that tweet was. I was particularly struck that some of the people who liked it were people who I admire for having moulded the way we think about Oracle Tech or have in some other way helped a lot of us to think clearer about things. But I have never seen any of them describe themselves in any way like “Thought Leader” or “Genius” or “F**King Awsome”. In fact, when I do see people blowing their trumpet with some such phase (such as “Code Ninga”, “10X Programmer” or “code Source Jedi Knight”) I just see in my head someone standing there, legs spread apart, hand on hips and chest thrust out. nodding at their own glory going “Yeah! It’s me! I’m F**ing Awesome!”

Piet de Visser told me:

we have an expression that translates to “Digital Self Inflation”… (internet drama queens, thought leaders…)

Now you can see what I really meant at the start when I said I’m always impressed by someone who describes themselves as a Thought Leader, I think it tells you a lot about the qualities of the person. The impression is not good and I think it tells me the person has an ego which is so large it’s starting to make my ego seem almost reasonable. That is why I think I am sometimes a “Thought Leader” – occasionally I can be tiresomely big-headed. I do it less now but sometimes, especially when alcohol has turned off some of the filters, I can be somewhat arrogant. I sequenced the human genome, don’t you know! (I did not, I just designed systems to hold some of the data).

Another point raised on the twitter thread was that these terms are much better if expressed about someone, not by them. Mathias Magnusson put it well:

‘I think “thought leader” is one of those things that only matters when someone says it about someone else.’

Personally I still do not like that actual phrase, I think it’s just a tad asinine, but if someone was to say to me “Sarah is great, she is a real thought leader” I’d know they thought Sarah was pretty good (unless I knew the commentor also did not like the term 🙂 )

Now I know and understand that there is a cultural difference here. In the USA, blowing your own trumpet is seen as normal and in fact sometimes expected. It’s not seen as anything like as arrogant, or arrogance is just accepted more in the USA. I’ve never really been able to make up my mind which of those two is the largest factor. At the Bulgarian autumn conference last year, one of the organisers brought up this point of how we Europeans describe ourselves and how the American presenters did. Rob Lockard did a fine job of explaining how he felt that in the USA you have to state who you are, what you have achieved, and what recognition you have had. If you don’t, your audience (or potential employer) thinks “well, if this guy does not think they are any good, why should I?”. The British Reserved approach of almost apologising for our achievements does not cut it. It was also interesting that the Bulgarian lady thought the British were slightly amusing in our often abject apologetic nature whenever we mention that we might not be utterly useless.

But I come back to my point about people who I think have shown us the way and yet are not at all arrogant. Some of those leading people who liked the twitter comment are American. I’ve had discussions with some American friends about this over the years and I’ve found that many of them do not like this “in your face, I’m so awesome” attitude. So I don’t now if the US cultural difference on this is all over the US or all through their society. It still leaves me somewhat confused.

I guess there is a balance between stating who you are and what you have achieved and, once you know the cultural differences, you might want to modify your approach. I am far more bullish about my achievements when I introduce myself at an American user group than I am in the UK. In Europe I actually play up the self effacing Brit, as it usually gets a smile to break the ice.

But whatever your culture, I don’t think coming across as arrogant is ever going to really impress people. Better I think to stand quietly by what you have done and, if you are blessed, others might describe you in glowing terms. That, to my mind, is way more important. But not as important is simply being a nice person. Or at least not too much of an asshole.

I’ll leave the last word to Leo Tolstoy.
leo

Friday Philosophy – Is a “Free Lunch” Only Ever a Mirage? Look Closer! December 16, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

Nearly all of us have heard (or even used) the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and we know what it means – if something of value is provided for no up-front cost, you are paying for it in some other way. According to the Wikipedia entry for it the phrase could have originated from US bars that offered a free meal with a drink, but the meal was salty and so made you want to drink more. Now you know why some up-market bars offer free salty nibbles, it’s so they can sell you more beer and the extra profit is more than peanuts.

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

I recently saw a post in a discussion thread I was watching about business interaction which said “well, I think this is OK as there is no such thing as a free lunch”. It made me pause because I realised that there are free lunches.

Why? Because the person writing it, I know I could unexpectedly land in the airport near them (say we got diverted) at late-0’Clock, call them and say “could you please come and pick me up – and I’m hungry and I have nowhere to stay”. OK, it’s not lunch, it’s probably dinner or tea or supper. But I know I could do that and they would get me and feed me and make sure I was OK. Why? Because they are a friend. I’d get my free lunch and a free bed for the night – well, maybe a sofa with the dogs but, hey, am I picky? If things similarly went wrong the next month too, I feel I could again make the call and all I would get is some light-hearted banter about “this is becoming a habit!”.

The key difference is that business is not friendship. Business is all about making more money than you spend and if your company has shareholders, they generally want as big a dividend as possible. Making money does not match giving things away for free! Unless it is a short-term cost to prompt a larger eventual profit. Any business that does not aim to maximise profit is probably going to be less successful than a similar company in the same sector and will probably eventually fail {I know, there are rare exceptions to this}. I would argue that if your friendships are based on expectation of getting more out than you put in, you are living your life with the wrong philosophy!

You could argue that with friendship there is an expectation of reciprocation – if my friend landed at Stansted Airport and needed a bed and a meal and they let me know, they would get it. Heck, if they landed in Leeds airport (about 3 hours drive from here) they would probably still get it {if I was not too drunk to drive}. But no matter which of us had been the provider of the free lunch, I don’t think either of us would be walking around with a mental tally in our head saying something like “I need to get some payback from that guy – my next flight over there, I ain’t booking a hotel”.

I’ll give you another recent example. Another friend and I do a lot conferences, often in the same place. He is more organised than I and he has at times sorted out planes and hotels and just told me what I need to do, where to go and what I owe him. I pay him. Or I don’t and I pay for a meal or buy us beers or whatever it is we decide to do. We keep a rough tally. Hang on, didn’t I just suggest that friends don’t keep a tally? Well, we do. A rough tally. And the reason we both keep it is as we don’t want to take more than we give back – which is very different from ensuring we take back at least as much as we give. But the most interesting part of this is that last month, after I paid for a meal, I asked him what the balance was as I had lost track. He just looked at me and said “I have no idea – is it even?”. Who knows. Who cares? Part of me worries a little that I am in debt but I think he worries the same. In the end it is moot. Neither of us is counting anymore.

I’m sure we have all had the odd friend who does seem to take more than they ever give back (that Andy, never buys his round in the pub!) and if it is too extreme you might come to the conclusion that this is not a friend but a free-loader – and quietly drop them. But some people either just never think about it or might be a lot less well off than you and simply not want to admit it. And in the whole friendship scheme of things, reciprocation of favours should only ever be a part of it I think.

So in business I think the “no such thing as a free lunch” is pretty much a true state of affairs. In friendships, I’d like to think it is certainly not true. Friendship should not be like a business. If any of your friendships are, maybe they are more ‘mutual arrangements’.

“Hi, meet my mutual arrangement Dave. I’m currently up three beers on him, so he’s buying”.

So I think you can have a free lunch. They are provided by friends. I’ll be popping over to your place for one soon 🙂

Friday Philosophy – When Tech Fails to Deliver, is it Always a Problem? December 9, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, ethics, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,
11 comments

I nipped out to the local supermarket this lunch time to get stuff. I use one of those self-use barcode scanners to log all the goods I put in my basket (apart from the bottle of whisky I was stealing). I then go to the payment machine, scan the “finish shopping” barcode and try to pay. I can’t pay.

quickcheck-647x346-3col

I can’t pay as I bought some paracetamol (note to US readers, you know it as acetaminophen). It turns out you need to be 12 to buy paracetamol. Fair enough, but why did I have to stand there and waste 30 seconds of my life before the assistant for the area noticed and came over? She had to uses her special device to access the permissions screen, check I was 12 (the greying beard helps) and authorise it.

I asked why I had to wait. “So I can ensure you are old enough – the machine does not know.” But it does! Or at least it should. I’m using their self-scan service for which I have to be registered. They know my name, address, age, hair colour and inside leg measurement. The system knows I am old enough. Plus I have to pay with a credit/debit card (no cash option with this system). You can’t have a credit card until you are 18 in the UK so by using one of them it knows I am old enough to buy the pills – and even the bottle of whisky I was stealing. And when you use any card, it checks your details. So if I was using a debit card it could check my age at that point and stop me when it makes the check. It’s possible and should be done!

The assistant had wandered off long before I finished making this logical case. I was just an annoying customer and she’d done what I needed her to do. But it really annoyed me – it is possible for the system to check me using technology and the data at hand, and not make me wait. The problem is, they were too lazy to build this limited smarts into the system!

aberlour

There is a lesson here. And that lesson is this – I should stop being such a self-centred, argumentative and miserable old sod. Firstly, I had to wait 30 seconds (and I am probably exaggerating that). Big deal, I had hardly been inconvenienced and it was a lot quicker than going to a normal till. Secondly, the assistant can’t do anything about the software behind the system. I mean, many of us spend our lives working on computer systems and often we can’t make any changes. Thirdly, I am aware that some parents give their children their credit card & number (the idiots!) so even though it is illegal to do this, the result is there a lot of people under the age of credit who have the means to pay for dangerous things (booze, cigarettes, paracetamol, knives, DIY expanding foam, ‘Viz’ magazine…).

Just because something is possible with the data to hand, sometimes it is not really worth much effort to make it happen.

And sometimes, although it seems logical & sensible given all the parameters (they have my info, no one but me should be using that card) in the real world those rules and data associations are not reliable. There is no enforced RI on our lives, at best there is a set of intended/encouraged limits. A person checking my age is way more reliable than some algorithm in this case.

So next time I whine about waiting 30 seconds in the queue, I hope the assistant just gives me a withering look and tells me to grow up.

I also hope they do not check my basket for un-scanned booze.

(* Just for the record, everything about the whisky was untrue. It was gin).

((And being serious, such system prevent fraud by 2 methods.
The first is that 1 in X times you get re-scanned. The assistant has no idea if they scan anything you had not and this is on purpose – so there is no scene in the shop. But the comparison is made and recorded, for further action.
The second is that apparently they can spot likely cheats just by the data you give them when you sign up and your spending habits. Now that is ‘Big Data Analysis’.
))

Friday Philosophy – Hello….?Dave? December 2, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, UKOUG.
Tags: , , ,
8 comments

In 2 days time the UKOUG Tech16 conference starts. I love this conference, I’ve been to all but 1 one of them in the last 15 years – but I am not going to go on about why I like it so much again.

Gratuitous Minion Picture

Gratuitous Minion Picture

I’m going to tell you one reason I don’t like it. Names! Names of people I know. Names of people I have known for years and who I’ve seen and spent time with at many of the UKOUG Tech conferences. Yes, I have mentioned before that I am terrible with names (and all memory task to be frank) and I know others have the same problem. But for me, the annual UKOUG conference is particularly bad – and I’ve even started developing some anxiety about it.

Why is UKOUG Tech particularly bad for me?

  1. I’ve been going to it for so long I know many, many people there from prior conferences, some of whom I have met a dozen times now, had meals with, got drunk with… Let’s stop there.
  2. There are a lot of people there who I meet at other UKOUG events and other conferences. We have a LOT of speakers at this conference and I must know 75% of the database ones and half the others.
  3. As I present every year at UKOUG and now help organise the event, lots of people recognise me – but I don’t really recognise them!

That last point is an interesting one, it’s similar to when people who work in television met “the public”. Sometimes those members of the public assume they know the television personality – as they see them on TV so often. So when I present or chair a session people see me and are reminded who I am (I usually admit my name when I present). I might have spent time chatting to them so I DO know them – but with my memory and the fact that I do not have a regular reminder of their name, in my head they are either Dave or Sarah (if I can’t remember your name, mentally those are the names I give you. I can usually determine gender…).

One example is John Lancashire. I’ve known John for years & years, we get on really well. We always catch up with where we are in our jobs, what odd things have happened in our lives and the like. We had a chat on Facebook a couple of days ago and plan to meet up again this year at the conference. Only whenever I meet him for some reason I want to call him Richard or Patrick and I have to run through the counties of Northern England to try to remember his last name to trigger his correct first name. All the time I’m internally screaming “He knows I’ve forgotten his name! He knows, He’ll be offended!”.  Women seem to get particularly miffed if you get their name wrong. Maybe that is why, as a young man, I was utterly incapable of “chatting women up”. Name anxiety kind of makes you nervous.

So the name thing is particularly bad for me at UKOUG and part of the reason for this post is as an up-front excuse and to say “sorry!!!”

But the other reason for it is – I am not alone in this. Lots of us struggle with names and those who don’t probably can’t understand why we do – we just do!

So it would be really nice, everyone, if you could wear your badge so your name is easy to see. So not on your belt, not in your pocket and please try and not locate it near your groin or your breasts, as it unnerves people when I stare at them in those locations. I have to confess that I am a repeat offender for having my badge down by my crotch as, well, I’m short and the lanyards are long. I have to remember to shorten it. (The lanyard, not the crotch).

One thing I forgot to ask the UKOUG to do this year is do what the Bulgarian User Group do – make sure the name is on both sides of the badge. That really helps and the UKOUG ones seem to always spin to the none-name side.

So if I meet you at a conference and I look panicked, it’s probably name-anxiety. And if I call you Dave or Sarah you know exactly why. What’s bad is when I meet a Dave and call them Patrick.

Why oh Why Do We Still Not Have a Fast Bulk “SQL*Unloader” Facility? December 1, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, database design, performance.
Tags: , , ,
6 comments

Way back in 2004 I was working at the UK side of the Human Genome project. We were creating a massive store of DNA sequences in an Oracle database (this was one of two world-wide available stores of this information, for free & open use by anyone {* see note!}). The database was, for back then, enormous at 5-6TB. And we knew it would approx double every 12 months (and it did, it was 28TB when I had to migrate it to Oracle 10 in 2006, over 40TB 6 months later and grew to half a petabyte before it was moved to another organisation). And were contemplating storing similar massive volumes in Oracle – Protein, RNA and other sequence stores, huge numbers of cytological images (sorry, microscope slides).

I did my little bit to work out how we all tick

I did my little bit to work out how we all tick

Significant chunks of this data were sometimes processed in specialist ways using Massively Parallel Processing farms (hundreds or thousands of compute nodes so we could do “2 years of compute” in a day or even a few hours). Oracle was never going to be able to support this within the database.

But Oracle had no fast, bulk data unloading offering, a “SQL*Unloader”. Other RDBMSs did. And that gave me an issue. I had to argue as to why hold this data in Oracle where it was hard to yank out chunks of it rather than keep it in say a simple file store or MySQL?

That year I was invited to Oracle Open World and I was given a slot with a senior VP in the RDBMS/OCFS area (as that is what were using – I know! But we were). I had been warned by someone that he could be a little “robust”. In fact my friend called him “Larry’s Rottweiler”. However my chat with the SVP went fine. Until he asked me for the one thing I would really want and I said “well, it’s been promised for the last 2 or 3 versions of Oracle, but it still does not exist in V10 – I’d like a SQL*Unloader so we can rapidly extract bulk data from Oracle into a structured file format”. He went very cold. I continued: “We need to do really intensive processing of the data with ‘C’ and if it is locked into the database we can’t do that. It’s hard for me to justify using Oracle as our primary data store if the data is now stuck there…”

I honestly thought he would bite!

I honestly thought he would bite!

He went ballistic. He was furious, he was raising his voice, leaning forward, I honestly thought he might hit me. I can’t remember the whole rant but one line stuck: “We will NEVER help you get your data out of Oracle!”. I ended the discussion as soon as I could – which obviously suited him fine also.

And here we are over 10 years later and no SQL*Unloader has appeared. And, as far as I can see, there is no longer even a suggestion that “one day” one will exist. You can obviously get data out of Oracle using SQL*Plus, SQLcl or PL/SQL’s UTL_FILE. But you have to write your own code and to make it parallel or fast is not that simple. And there are some commercial tools out there to do it. But fundamentally we do not have a simple, robust & fast data unloader tool within the Oracle toolset.

But I remain mystified as to why Oracle Corp will not provide a tool to do this. I can see the argument that doing so would help you migrate your Oracle Data set to a different platform and thus move away from Oracle, but I think that is a dumb argument. If you are willing to dump your Oracle environment for something else you are already not happy – and making life difficult is only going to make you less happy and almost certain to never come back! It’s incredibly inconvenient to extract all your data at present but compared to the cost to your organisation of changing a central part of your infrastructure, it’s just a bloody annoyance. It’s like domestic service providers (telephone, internet, TV) that make it easy for you to sign up but a nightmare to leave. Thus guaranteeing that once you leave (cos you will) you will certainly NOT be going back to them in a hurry!

So for the sake of what I see as a misplaced protectionist stance they close the door to rapidly extracting data from Oracle databases for processing in other ways. I’ve come across other situations like this, before and since, but the Human Genome issue threw it into sharp relief for me. The end result I’ve seen a few times (and effectively what we had at the Sanger) is the data gets stored at least twice – once in Oracle and then somewhere else where it is easy to access. Now that’s a daft and bad place to be, multiple copies and one of them at least lacking RI. Thanks for forcing that one on us Oracle.

Something that is changing is Cloud. Oracle wants us all to move our data and systems into the sky. Their whole marketing message at the moment is nothing but cloud-cloud-cloud and they give the impression that cloud is in fact everything, every solution. So how do you get 10TB of data into the cloud? It’s not so hard really. You can trickle it in over time, after all networks are constantly getting faster, but for bulk data this is a poor solution. Or you can ship your data physically. You can’t beat the bandwidth of a transit van. I’ve heard Oracle people at OOW and other conferences saying this is easy-peasy to arrange (as it should be, I’ve done it for clients doing migrations a couple of times).

But how are you going to get it out again? How well do you think that a company that has never provided SQL*Unloader is going to help you get bulk data back out of your Oracle cloud-based databases into on-premises systems? And how well are they going to help you shift it from one of their systems to another cloud system? One they have not sold you? Sometimes people talk about business relationships being like a marriage. Well once you gave gone cloud, you might have ensured any divorce is going to be really messy!

Update – see the comment by Noons on the fact that VLDBs and Data Warehouses are often not as static as you think – so there can be a constant need to move a lot data into and out of such very large data stores. Cloud is not currently going to support this well. And if you have a data life-cycle management policy, say archiving off data 3+ years old. Where are you archiving it off to and how will you do this once it is in the web?

* Please note, this was not human DNA sequence information gathered for medical reasons! It was mostly sequence information for other organisms (chimps, flies, potatoes, rice, viruses, bacteria all sorts) generated by the scientific and, in some cases, biopharma community. There was human DNA sequence in there but by consent and anonymised – you can’t have a human genome sequence without involving some humans! We did not hold your Dodgy Uncle’s DNA test that was taken for that court case…

Friday Philosophy – 3rd Normal Form, 3rd Normal People November 25, 2016

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

I was at a wedding a few months ago and one of the guests was wearing a pair of bear ears (I think – they might have been raccoon ears, they were not exactly anatomically correct). What made it a little unusual was that the guest was an adult and something like 2 meters tall (6’4″ in real units). So they were rather noticeable. But that was it. No tail, no strange mannerisms, just being there and chatting to people, wearing ears.

This is not the person, these are not the ears - but you get the idea

This is not the person, these are not the ears – but you get the idea

Later on in the day, at the afternoon reception, someone came up to me and said “what do you make of the person in the ears?”. Their whole tone said the rest of what they were indicating, which was they thought this was very odd and laughable. I looked at them for a few seconds and said “well, they took the ears off during the wedding service – but I guess you kept all that metal in your face?”.

The person making the comment had their hair dyed several primary colours and, as I indicated, had several studs in their face, a nose ring, a lip ring and a couple of other pieces of shiny stainless steel in strategic places. They were very much taken aback by my reply and went away.

For the first few minutes after the encounter I was really annoyed that someone who had so obviously decided to make a “statement” with how they appeared could be looking to share a laugh about another person who was doing similar – but in a different way. And in a less permanent way than the detractor had. I always get annoyed by people who seem to me to want to have their “thing” but be derisory about those who do their different “thing”.

Is this any less "odd" than the ears? (NB stock photo again)

Is this any less “odd” than the ears?
(NB stock photo again)

But thinking about it, there could be other factors at play. This be-metalled person may well be surrounded by people in their social circles where body piercing & extreme hairstyles are the norm. What we see as normal is very much influenced by what our peers think of as normal, even if the wider society we are in does not think of our clan’s actions as normal. You see this with each generation of youth (I’m thinking about 10 years) who have cohorts wearing daft things or take on mannerisms most of us regards as bizarre. Like trouser around your bum hole being held up by one hand whilst shuffling forward swaying from side to side. But in their world it is cool & normal and either not strange or being “strangely cool” to follow that trend. {With that particular fashion I could only see it being very inconvenient, limiting in movement and likely to lead to high washing machine use and constant danger of falling on your face, but ho-hum}. It also struck me that the detractor might have been looking for an opening to just talk about it as they were themselves a closet furry – though their demeanour was one of utter derision.

When I was in college there were various groups: The Goths; the small number of punks; the heavy metal crew (or crews, some groups seemed to really dislike other groups); the desperately dull & miserable “Smiths” fans; emos were just starting; and by far the largest group, the “I’m different” group. All of them striving to be individuals and yet all so very much the same. They were the ones with the face metal, wild hair, grungy clothes and extremely dismissive attitude. I often thought I was a member of the smallest, most exclusive club, the “normals”. No fashion sense {or care}, no desire for a tattoo, boring hair. Oh, I’m sorry, I was a nerd even then 🙂

The thing is, everyone is not-normal in some way. Not always as obviously as in the cases I have talked about above, where it is defined by attire, adornment or alteration. But if you spend time talking to and getting to know someone there is always something not-normal there. Almost none of us are 3rd normal form.

It took me a long, long time to realise this and be less scathing of people who do permanent physical things to themselves on a whim (I just do not understand why you would have tattoos or major body piercing where it is “for life” unless you do something almost as extreme to put things back). My saying “on a whim” is itself scathing and shows a lack of appreciation why people do such things. OK, it is not for me but that’s simply my opinion, it’s wrong of me to make a judgement call on people who make a different decision on these things. After all my utter lack of fashion sense or willingness to improve/change my looks will strike some people as very odd.

So, if someone looks different, they look different. And if it is a different you have never seen before (ie actually, honestly, really different) they could be a very interesting person to talk to. Or they could be not, you don’t know. But if you have changed any aspect of your own appearance, be it a tattoo, a chunk of iron-carbon-chromium through soft tissue, a pair of raccoon ears or just dying your hair, then they are fundamentally the same as you. And if they look normal. Well, there really are very few real “normal” people. Their not-normal is yet to be discovered. Now you have to chat to them to find it.

How much are a pair of raccoon ears? I might get a pair and a tail for the next UKOUG conference.

Gary Larson, making the complete, exact opposite to my point :-)

Gary Larson, making the complete, exact opposite to my point 🙂