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

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

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 Nanada, 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…

Friday Philosophy Guest: Open Source Projects January 15, 2016

Posted by amitzil in Architecture, Friday Philosophy, Guest Post, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,

This post is Guest Post by my friend Liron Amitzi, an Oracle Ace, presenter and instructor who specialises in Oracle design & infrastructure. You can find his blog over here.  And with that, over to you Liron :-)


I have been wondering about open source projects for a while. I’ve talked to quite a few people about it, and still don’t really understand some of it. So I decided to write a post about my thoughts regarding this issue.

I’m not going to talk (or even mention) specific projects, but it is very interesting to me how these projects run.

During the years I have worked with quite a lot of open source software and I like some of it a lot. I completely understand how small projects work, such as text editors, small schedulers and others. With these relatively small projects, I can easily see that someone needs such software and simply sits down and writes it (alone or in a small group). When it is ready, I can see that they want to share it with the world – and open source is perfect for that. I can even understand that they will want to update it, add features, support it a little bit, etc. Another side to it that I can see is a developer that writes software to get his reputation going in the community: in order to get a job, an interesting project or simply fame.

However, I’m quite puzzled with the big open source projects, such as databases, queue management, large monitoring systems and more. I know that behind at least some of these software products, there are actual companies that invest money and people. And I don’t really understand how it works as companies need to cover their expenses, salaries, and of course, make a profit.I know that there are many ways to make money out of open source projects. Some companies charge for support, some for education & courses, and some for professional services & consulting. However, in some cases the companies that provide these services are not related to the company that sponsored the development.

So what makes a company develop or support a development of an open source project? I can think of a couple of reasons:

  • As the software will be free and open source today is very common, it will get this software many potential customers and foothold
    After getting a foothold, the company can charge for specific features or other complementary software.
  • Business decisions can also be a cause. A company that makes a lot of money from software might decide to give some back to the community so people will “like” the company more.

Still, when it is a big software project and requires a lot of resources, I can’t see why a big company will go for open source.

  • First, they can make it a freeware without releasing the code.
  • Second, at the bottom line, they will have to make money on this somehow.

So, if they release the project as an open source but charge for education or professional services, I guess that the education and professional services will cost more, so at the end they will make the same amount (and we will pay the same amount) as with licensed software and cheaper courses and professional services.

Am I missing something?

What do you think? I’d love to know.

About Liron

Liron Amitzi and Steven Feuerstein

Liron Amitzi and Steven Feuerstein

Liron Amitzi is originally from Israel and now lives in Canada with his wife and two children. I met Liron at the UKOUG Irish User Group conference in Dublin last year and again at Oracle Open World 2015, when it struck me that he looks a lot like  Steven Feuerstein (Liron is on the left). Liron has been an Oracle ACE since 2009 and has helped run the Israel Oracle User Group since 2011. He specialises in High Availability solutions, design, infrastructure, performance and recovery. As well as presenting he is also an instructor and lecturer in Oracle course.

The IT Blight of Working During Holidays December 24, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in humour, on-call, Private Life, working.
Tags: ,

I’ve been thinking today about those people in IT who are going to have to either work or be on call during the festive period. Twitter has become a lot more quiet today and most of the activity is not-work-related. My blog traffic is now a trickle and there is a general feeling of doing more family, non-work things for a couple of days, which I think is good for all of us from time to time. Maybe more times than current working culture and practices allow for.

The endless daily grind - even at Christmas

The endless daily grind – even at Christmas

But in the IT industry, especially if you are an administration-type (DBA, Sys Admin, Network Admin, stuff like that) there is often a need to do work at this time as systems are quiet or can even be shut down. Some places do release and upgrade work over the quiet period, so developers and designers can be pulled into festive-season work too. Even if you are the sort of organisation that has a code freeze for Christmas/New Year, there will be a rota of people who need to either monitor systems or respond if something goes “Bang!”. Those of us “blessed” with those roles will be on the on-call rota, tasked with at the least staying sober and often with monitoring duties. For some people in some organisations, you know you will in fact have an endless stream of “why in the heck am I having to do this” tasks to do.

I’ve done my share and I feel for those who are made to work over this time who really would rather not. In fact, I’ve done more than my share. Actually, A lot more than my share. You see, I do not have children – my wife and I established very early on in our relationship that producing new versions of me was a damned bad idea, even if new versions were leavened with her better characteristics {and if they got her worst ones along with mine, ohhhhh terrible consequences}. So as someone with no children there has always been more pressure on me to take more than my 1/number-in-team share of the Christmas, New Year, Easter, Bank Holiday etc work. I’ve also come under pressure not to take time off during school holidays, to cover for those who need to do so for the sake of fitting in with the kids. Now, I don’t want to go away on holiday when everywhere is covered in kids as kids are too self-centered, noisy and annoying (ie very like me) for me to put up with. But I would like occasionally to have a week off, in the summer, to sit in the garden. But the biggest pressure has always been over taking more of the Christmas work. Because, I am told, it is important family time – it’s for the kids

I get that, I do. But then, if you have kids they are actually your fault. You did things to have them. Trust me, I’ve got a degree in biology, I know where kids come from :-). At the start of my working career I was fine to take on more of the work/monitoring/staying sober duties. But as the status of not-having-kids lasts a lot longer than having-young-kids (or more recently, with people my age, young-grand-kids) it had been a constant expectation of me for about 20 years – until I stopped playing. I stopped on the grounds, after 2 decades, that I had Done My Bit. I threw my toys out my pram and said I deserved my share of time off at Christmas (to pick said toys up, of course). I solved the problem more recently by trying to be unemployed at such times.

Anyway, forgive the rant, I feel better now. But my extra-Christmas-Duties have made me realise more how much of a pain it is to have to work when most people are enjoying themselves. So I feel for those that are having to do it and do not want to. I truly know how it is and all I can say is “thank you for doing your bit”. Especially if you have done it despite having young kids. And especially if you have had to do it for 20+ years to cover for all those damned work-shy parents (joke!).

The ironic thing is that this year I will be working over Christmas. But I don’t mind as it is my choice. And I am doing so in warm sunshine, with a glass of wine, and in fact I can stop whenever I like. That is the joy of writing over doing stuff people need to be done now.

Merry Christmas everyone, especially to the unwilling workers.

Friday Philosophy – Inspirational Tweets: Why Do They Annoy Me so Much? December 11, 2015

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

A few weeks ago I saw this on the Twit Sphere:

A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.

Wow. Deep. Meaningful. Let me follow that twitter account.

No. Let me not. I looked at the account and it was just an endless stream of “Inspirational Tweets” and very little comment or content. For some reason I can’t quite understand, this sort of thing gets on my nerves. No, that’s is not strong enough. It makes me unreasonably bad-tempered and angry. The first draft I wrote on this topic was a ranting diatribe of swear-words and invective {I love that word} that was completely beyond acceptable.

So I’ve been wondering, why do twitter accounts that put out lots of Inspirational Tweets annoy me so much? We have all seen them. In fact I have a couple of friends I follow on twitter who at times put out half a dozen Inspirational Tweets a day. I have to sometimes mute or “unfollow” them for a while. I think part of it is that if an account puts out half a dozen Inspirational Tweets a day, they can’t really mean them very much can they? If I had a set of short phrases that summed up important aspects of my life, such as “Always be nice to cats” then I can’t help but feel that they should be few in number and really mean something to me. They can’t really mean something to me if I have 200 of them.

Another reason is that so many of these Inspirational Tweets are actually just trite such as “when you listen, it’s amazing what you can learn” or even asinine such as “I love dramatically looking out windows on public transportation”. Yes, that is a real one. Of course, most of us put out some stupid tweets and we all have different tastes or interpretations of what is worth saying.

So I am not sure why I find them annoying – but I do. If you put out such tweets and I follow you & then unfollow you, follow you etc or I seem to go quiet (you might be on temporary mute) then just ignore it. I think it’s more my problem than yours. But you have annoyed me.

Why? Why follow me?

Why? Why follow me?

As a secondary rant of the day, I get really annoyed with these fake accounts that follow you or like a tweet of yours but having no connection to your world. Some of course are just another way of advertising something (usually soft porn it would seem – I usually spot them from the start as the account picture is some young women who can’t stop buying clothes 2 sizes too small and describes themselves as “bisexual and always follows back”…Yeah, I’m convinced). But recently I’ve had a lot of follows or likes from accounts, again apparently from young ladies, but now there are often two of them in the picture. Their tweet streams are just an endless flow of retweets, “clever” lines, the inspirational ones of course and nothing, not a thing where there is a conversation with someone else. But no soft porn. I can’t work out what these ones are actually aimed at. They don’t seem to be selling or promoting a specific thing, though they often have some films or makeup adverts retweeted, but if this is what they are selling, the content is drowned out by the stupid stuff and they are missing their audience. I’m pretty sure the content is generated though as I looked at a couple of them and the same quotes and “humorous” utterances seemed to make appearances across accounts.

If anyone could tell me if this is some type of advertising or it really is some attempt by teenage girls to increase they number of twitter friends just as a “look how many followers I have” (though I thought twitter was more an older persons thing) then I’m curious to know. It’s got to be sales, hasn’t it?

Perhaps I should stop worrying about these things and either mute or block them as them come up. Oh, I do :-)

Friday Philosophy – Sex in The Office December 4, 2015

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

Sex in the office. It’s a bad idea – you can get hurt falling off the swivel chair or desk and there is the ever present danger of the stapler…

Though accurate, the title is of course misleading to make you look at this blog. I’ve actually been thinking about the ratio of women to men in the office, the impact it has and the efforts put in to address it. If you have somehow missed it there is something called “WIT” – Women in Technology – and it is part of an ongoing drive to get more women into the traditionally male-dominated careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics {STEM} and to help them stay there once they are in the industry. I can’t say I’ve been aware of this next aspect until the last couple of years but apparently a women is more likely to move out of IT as they get older than a man is.

There is a morning meeting on WIT at the UKOUG Tech15 conference on Tuesday at 8pm (details here) and it is open to men as well as women. I hope to be there as it is a topic I am interested in and support. However, I have to say I have some ambivalence towards it too. Why? Because at some of these meetings you get a bit of “men-bashing” and also things get suggested which are positive discrimination – and I am not a fan of discrimination, even when you put the word “positive” in front of it.

I work in the UK and I’ve worked in IT now for 25 years. The ratio of women to men in technical roles does not seem to have changed much in most of that time and has stayed at around 10% to 20%, depending on the business area. My first job was in the national health service and the percentage of women was about 20%. I’ve also been in teams where there is not a single woman. I much prefer there to be a higher percentage of women where I work than 10% – and this is not for any creepie “they are more pretty” or similar reasons, it is because when it is all or mostly men, the atmosphere is like a never-ending boy’s locker room. Juvenile humour, constant swearing and biological jokes are good fun for a while, but not day in, day out. Rightly or wrongly, when the sex ratio is more balanced, so is the humour and behaviour. I’m told women are just as bad when they are in a male-free environment – but I would not really know, would I?

I think over the last 5-10 years there has been some movement though, I think we are finally moving towards a more balanced ratio. Actually, no , it would be more accurate to say we are progressing to a less unbalanced ratio.

There is no question about the technical ability of women and I am confident in my own attitude towards having women in technical roles – I’ve hired, promoted, supported and reprimanded enough women over the years to demonstrate I don’t have any issues there. But I don’t think we will ever have equal numbers of men and women across the technical roles in IT.

Why do I think this? Because it is about numbers, percentages and factors. I have to quickly point out that I am not talking about individuals here and there are individual exceptions to everything I say, but I do run the risk of upsetting people…

One factor is the Autistic spectrum. Or maybe I should be saying Aspergers, as that term was supposed to indicate people with reduced empathy but not reduced cognition (intelligence or learning speed). I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, the fact that when you look at people working in IT there is a tendency towards us being poor at understanding people, uncomfortable dealing with other humans and being happier working with things. ie somewhere in the mild end of the  Autistic spectrum. Obviously this is not true of everyone in IT and probably is only relevant to, ohhh, 83% of us {Joke! It is probably less than 50%}. It is certainly true of me and a few of my best friends, ironically. Technology particularly appeals to those of us who are on that spectrum, especially when we are younger, as it is easier for us to deal with something other than people. It is also true that you are less likely to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum if you are a woman than a man. Add those two together and over a large enough sample, like the working population, you will see a significant effect. Men as a population are more autistic, IT appeals to the autistic, you will get a bias towards men in IT. It does not mean all men in IT are autistic.

Another factor is of course that when children come along it is nearly always the woman who takes the lead in childcare. It does not have to be that way, it certainly should not be expected let alone forced. I’ve known couples where the father stops work and takes the main parental role (and they always run up against a lot of sexism about that, so it’s a two-way street ladies!) but it is still relatively rare. And taking time off work has an impact on career development and skills because you are not doing the job during that time. I know that when I have not done something for a year or two my skills degrade (I did not do much PL/SQL development work for a couple of years and I was rusty as heck when I went back to it properly). What is wrong is the tendency for that pause in development to be continued when people come back to work or work part time. We can help address that by making more effort to support people (women and men) coming back to work to continue onwards from where they left off, not be expected to stay still. But, over the whole industry, taking a break to concentrate on family is going to have an impact on not only the raw numbers of women in IT at any time but also career progression relative to age. Again, I stress this is not about individuals, it is about ratios and percentages.

Another aspect is that if you have a break from what you do as a career, it is an opportunity to ask yourself if you still want to do it. If you don’t have a break you are less likely to question your job and more likely to just keep turning up and doing it. Some women drop out of IT due to sexism – but some drop out as they just decide to try other things. On average men are less likely to have such a break and just trudge on, week-after-week, year-after-year.

There are other factors beyond those three but the point I am making is that I don’t think the ratio between women and men in technical roles will ever be 50:50. I would prefer it to be 50:50 but I don’t think it will be. I am also not arguing in any way about being complacent about sexism at work, not promoting women or anything like that. The fact that I don’t think we will ever have parity of numbers does not condone sexism in any way. Everyone should have the same chances and support. I’d like there to be no need for positive discrimination as we don’t have any discrimination – it is all about the individual and ability. As my friend Pete Scott put it on twitter when this post first went up – Humans In Technology is where we want to be – HIT

Friday Philosophy – We Could Be Heroes! {just for one day}. November 6, 2015

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

At Open World I overheard a snippet of conversation which went something like this:

Bob – “How’s it going? Did the last talk go down well?”
Bill – “Sure, it was on time, the audience seemed to like it.”
Bob – “Will you be here next year?”
Bill – “Errmm….” pause…*sigh*… “I don’t know…. I’ll see how I feel.”
Bob – “Oh? In what way?”
Bill – “It just that, at Open World… I have to fend off two dozen people just to go have a pee!”

Wild horses could not drag out of me the name of the person who said that (though several pints and the offer of a curry might do the trick – try me). It both made me smile and made me think. There are down-sides to becoming highly respected in your sphere.

There are definitely different levels of renown and respect in the relatively small world of the Oracle Database Technologist. I’m not doing bad in that respect; I’d put myself in the third of the seven circles, maybe tapping on gates of circle two. Occasionally I think it would be nice to be either technically or entertainingly good enough to join the Big Names in the innermost circle – but I really don’t think I can face the Hem-Touching!

What do I mean about “Hem-Touching”? It’s something a few friends and I came up with at the UKOUG Tech conference about 5 or 6 years ago to describe people who will approach one of the Oracle Names with a mixture of awe and fear in their eyes and just want them to acknowledge their presence,be allowed to speak, maybe to touch the hem of their cloak. If you go up to the balcony that is above the exhibition hall at the Birmingham ICC, you can sometimes watch an Oracle Name walk through the exhibition and see some people suddenly swerve and hurry towards them – especially if the Name currently has no one with them. I’ve even seen someone suddenly stop when another acolyte gets to their hero first. I don’t know why, these people will speak to more than one person at a time. And the thing is, people in the UK and Europe are generally more reserved than our cousins in other continents, so we are less forward in, well, being forward.

Am I being mean to these people? Well, a little I guess, but it’s mainly because of the little story I started with. I’m friends with some of the Names and I know a lot of them are uncomfortable with Hero Worship. Being respected and held in high regard is great, most of them are very happy about that, as they have worked damned hard and long to be knowledgeable enough to hold that position. But when people treat them like a living saint or the bestower of blessings, it’s just a bit weird. This is just an area of technology after all, not the eradication of Malaria. They are “just” people – OK, they are people who are usually very smart and very capable, but they are also people who are happy to share and teach – otherwise they would not be at the conferences sharing and teaching. Most of them are idiots in other areas of their lives too, we all are.

I’ve never felt the need to hero-worship myself. Not because I do not deeply respect people who achieve great things, it’s just not in my psychology I think. I did not put up any posters in my bedroom of the people I most respected when I was a teenager. I used to know a Nobel Prize Winner (though I doubt he’d recognise me in the street now) but when I met him the first time I had no idea who he was and just treated him like a person – and we got on fine. He treated me like a person too. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some very smart academics, many of the Oracle Names and even the odd traditionally famous person. It’s amazing how like people they are – if you treat them like people.

I’m certainly not above being pleased when someone I respect mentions me or refers to something I have done though. I’ll grin like an idiot on the rare occasions someone has name-checked me in a presentation or they tell me they liked something I said. I’m tickled pink when a Name follows me on twitter. But I feel hero worship is not what they want. Respect yes, being told you appreciate what they have taught you fine. Going shiny-eyed and asking to touch the hem of their coat, weird; don’t do it.

Oracle Names are people, treat them as such. They’ll probably appreciate you more if you do.

And if you ever find yourself in a group of several others, all trying to say “hello” to some gal or guy you just saw presenting, and they are looking a little uncomfortable and shifting from foot to foot and looking towards a door over there – let the poor sod go to the loo will you?

Friday Philosophy – Be Moral or Be Sacked? October 9, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,

How far will you bend your moral stance to keep your job?

This post was prompted by a Twitter discussion over the recent VW Emissions scandal development where software engineers are being blamed. Let’s just skip over the rather trite and utterly unbelievable proposition that a couple of rogue software engineers did this “for reasons unknown” – and the fuel engineers, mechanical engineers, and direct managers did not realise “hey, our engines are more efficient than we knew was possible, never mind seen”. Plus the testers, change control, release managers, etc were all circumvented by the rogue software engineers…. It would have to be incompetence of unbelievable levels for the whole stack of management up to the top did not in some way at least know about this – and I personally am sure they condoned or even demanded the results.

What made me think was a comment by a friend that the software engineers must have at least colluded and thus are at least partially responsible – and it struck a chord in me. What constitutes collusion? and would you or I do it? I’ve been in a very similar situation…

Back in my first job I worked for one of the regions of the UK National Health Service, as a programmer. An edict came down from high. Government high. We were to make the waiting list figures look better. “We” being the NHS management initially but, as I guess they were powerless to really do much about the reality of the situation, it come down the levels until it was realised it was the data used to show how the waiting times were doing that could so easily be changed.

I was given the job of altering the Waiting List Reports in a few ways. A key one was how the date you started waiting was measured. No matter how often the hospital cancelled your appointment or sent you home not having done the procedure, the date from which you started waiting remained the same. However, if you were offered an appointment and for any reason you could not attend – ANY reason, be you ill in another way, have a responsibility you could not avoid, were only given a day’s notice – the date you were waiting was reset to the day of the refused appointment. Of course this was utterly unjust and we were told it would not really mean Mrs Smith who had been waiting 3 months would now have to wait another 3 months – “it would be handled”. But it made the figures so much better.

I refused. In the first place it was a con, in the second I doubted all the Mrs Smiths would be handled as the NHS, even back then, was in a right state.

To this day I am proud I refused.

My colleague was given the task instead – and she did it. I asked her how she could do it? We had some shared political and philosophical views. How could she do something she knew was utterly false and misleading? Her answer was simple.

“You’re lucky – you can afford to take the risk. I’ve just got married, we have a mortgage and I have …other responsibilities – I can’t afford to damage my career or get sacked. You can.”

She was right. I did not know it then but she was trying for a baby, so yeah, getting sacked would have been devastating. On the other hand, I had no dependents (no one loved me), no mortgage and I was already muttering about leaving. She had in effect been bullied into doing a task she was morally against. And she knew, if she did not do it someone else would and she would have taken the hit.

And I confess, I did not simply stand up, shout defiance and proudly walk out the room, head held high. I had a long chat with my union rep about what support I could expect if things got bad before I refused. I knew he was ready to support me.

There were repercussions. I already had a poor relationship with my manager. After I refused to do that work I had an even worse relationship with him, and now his boss disliked me quite a lot too. It was a large part of me leaving to join some no-hope database company.

So, I think there is a very large difference in colluding and being coerced.

The same argument goes up the stack too. I can imagine there were lots of people involved in the VW scandal who knew what was going on, did not like it but, “hey, it’s my job I am risking and it’s not as if I’m the one *authorising* this”.

I can’t say I’ve always held to my moral ground so strongly, I’ve done a couple of things professionally I wish now I’d also said no to. But I’ve also said no to a couple more.

{I hope the statute of limitations on mentioning governmental evils is less that 25 years…}

Friday Philosophy – Antisocial Social Media and Sociopaths September 25, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Twitter.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

Twice, on consecutive days a week or so back, I realised that someone I knew on Twitter but did not know in real life… was someone I knew in real life. But I’d never made the connection! With one person it was not that their real name was missing from their twitter profile, it was just my brain had linked all I knew about them to their handle. In the other case, as far as I can see there is nothing to link their slightly obscure handle to their physical persona, despite the fact they are tweeting quite often about Oracle and also present at conferences. So that was simply not playing fair to hide their real identity in that way and I feel slightly aggrieved.

I’ve also had the experience of meeting someone in the flesh who treats me like an old friend, is being nice to me {possibly some sales-person-type I should back away from, I initially wonder?} but also knows a fair bit about me {Oh no! Creepy-stalker-type! Must-run must-run must-run} – before it dawns on me that this is actually Randolph Toddlepoddle who I have known online for 5 years, comments on my blog and I respond. But I’ve never met. And who is now wondering why I am being so unfriendly, am backing slowly away from them with a fixed grin on my face and scanning for exits. This has actually happened to me several times now. Thankfully only once with each person (I think – names & faces are not my forte}.

XKCD comic 741

I have a relationship with you lot? {shudder!}

The result is that I am sure that for some people I have two utterly separate relationships with them – the online one and the in-the-flesh one. (According to xkcd comic 741 I have a relationship with you as you read my blog. When can I meet the parents?).

Another aspect of social media I feel is a little tricky for me, personally, is keeping track of what people have said to me and things I’ve said I’ll do. I have a poor memory, I can barely remember conversations last week. With email I can file them away and find them later (mostly I just file them away and wonder why my email directory is so massive). But with Twitter and Facebook comments? OK, so you can search but it is slow and it is not great. Only today (as I type) I remember being given some advice by my friend Brendan about writing articles. I went and checked my email ( under “friends/Brendan” or maybe “ora600/articles”, I can’t remember). Nope. Could I have put it elsewhere in my email store of information and event? Nope, no where in my email I could find. Ahh, it was a twitter conversation. Damn. Now I need to step back and find it…

Maybe there is an app to tie all this stuff together for me but I would have to find it and learn it and the vendor will get bored or go bust in 2 years and I’ll lose the lot then. I’d rather mow the lawn.

Then there is the much-commented-on aspect of online comments where some people seem to sign up to a service or follow someone, just so they can be snide or criticise. No, this is not the usual rant about these phalluses (phalli?), It’s more that I don’t read user comments on the BBC web site much anymore as it lowers my already pretty sociopathic outlook on the human race (don’t get me wrong, many individual humans are wonderful animals – but as a pack they are a nasty and destructive species). It’s not that there are nasty or thoughtless people who put these comments up, we learnt there are people like that in the school playground (or even in the classroom – Mr Jenkins, you know who you are). It’s just that seeing what people can put on social media reminds me more about how dysfunctional people can be than meeting people in the flesh does. Being able to have some control over people you meet in the flesh means real people don’t tend to enhance my sociopathic tendencies as much as social media.

I follow a couple of “humorous” twitter accounts. They put the same stuff up all the time, sometimes it’s obviously fake and they “borrow” from each other like crazy. But it’s just a few tweets and if I find the repetitive nature of it or their take on humour gives me less amusement than annoyance, I can always do that “unfollow” thing. I am not in any way being forced to be exposed to it. I don’t have to start commenting all the time about “you got this from redit!!!” or “You spelt that wrong you moron” or “That’s not funny, I can tell it’s a paper bag on a baby”. I made the mistake a couple of weeks back of responding to one saying “Dude, thanks for pointing out the totally obvious, it had CLEAR passed me by”. Yeah, I told you I had sociopathic leanings – I went and did what they had done to annoy me, there was no need for me to read the comments if I knew it would annoy me.

Of course, I could just stop joining in; close my twitter account, delete the blog, remove my inconsequential presence on facebook. But then, I’m now in all these relationships (sometimes two or three times with the same person). How can I break up with so many people? :-)

Friday Philosophy – If You are reading this You are probably Pretty Smart September 11, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Knowledge.
Tags: , , ,

I bet I can predict a few things about you. And I mean You, the person reading this on my Blog right now.

At senior school (when you were aged between 11 and 16-ish) you were at the top of your classes. At least most of them. You were in the top few in your year for most science subjects and probably Maths too.

And you were not bad at any of your subjects once you had a choice over them, but there was at least one subject you were glad to get rid of as you were poor at it. But if you think back, I bet you were simply *almost average* at it, there were as many kids or more worse at it than you then there were better than you at it. You were just not as stand-out good as you were in other subjects. Come on, I’m right aren’t I? Even your poor subjects you were OK at compared to all the other kids.

You almost certainly went to college and, if you are under 35, you did to study a STEM subject – Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths. If you are 40-50 you did not study computing but you ended up working in it anyway. 35-40? You either studied computing, thought about it or took options in your course that had a major element of computer programming.

However, you were probably not quite the smartest kid in your year at school.

What makes me think this? Because I can mind-read(*)?

No, I think this simply due to the fact that you work in corporate IT or something very similar. You use your brain to solve issues or get tasks done. I think that the generally high level of intelligence is a more common trait in IT than the other thing I can probably predict about you – you don’t feel you are a people person, not really. Using myself as an example; I present at conferences, I have run training courses and I usually have something to say in a large group or discussion; I even partly run London Oracle Beers, a social Oracle user group. But I can’t make small-talk with people I don’t know and I am uncomfortable meeting new people.

We have to be intelligent to make a career in IT and most of us were probably drawn, at least in part, towards computers and software as we could work on it on our own and the computer did not have any feelings to dent or make any social demands on us. However, many (most) people are social nervous and so I think the more defining trait of people in IT is that they are intelligent – and intelligent in the way that IQ tests measure intelligence: A mixture of learnt patterns and various problem solving/logic/deduction skills. If you have had your IQ tested I am sure you are 120+. I would not be at all surprised if you score 130+. But you still have a little way to go to beat… my wife.

You probably were not the smartest kid in your year at school as the smartest kid either went into medicine/vet school, academia, law or crime – something more way-out-there.

So what point am I making? None really. It’s more just an observation. Though I do think you should occasionally take time to say a prayer of thanks to Pythagoras (or whoever you think is listening) and remind yourself how lucky you are. Most of your intelligence is inherited and the smaller (but not insignificant part) is due to schooling and your own efforts (note, I’m talking intelligence, not what you know – the two are different but aid each other). Your brains were given to your by your parents and grandparents, no matter how hard that can sometimes be to believe :-). I was on a PL/SQL course with Steven Feuerstein about 10 years ago and he took a minute or two to passionately state how lucky all of us on the course were to have our brains, to be making our living by thinking and not back-breaking toil or dull manual work. It was a sentiment I whole-heatedly agree with. I actually love spending time digging a ditch or chopping down trees but I would hate having to do it every day for a living.

Of course, intelligence of the IQ type is not everything and it does not make you a better person. I’m sure we have all known some very smart assholes and some wonderful people who can’t think themselves out of a damp paper bag. Some people have average IQ and yet have talents most of use would struggle with, like making a violin sound anything but bloody awful. I’ve known academics with an IQ somewhere Way Up There but who had about as much common sense as a pigeon. I have come across a few examples of intelligence bigotry in my time too. I know one guy in an academic institute who tried to insist that the highest grade you could achieve and the top of your salary band be dictated by your best academic qualification. No one without some sort of degree should get above level 5, No one with less than a 2(i) allowed in grade four and to get to grade 2 a PhD was needed. He was a very smart asshole. I’ve known a couple of people without a degree in this business of IT and both of the ones I’m thinking of right now are very, very good at what they do.

So be grateful for that brain of yours and just remember that most people are not as intelligent as you, so show patience in explaining and working with them. And if you are not patient, you could well be an intelligent asshole. You might need to learn to not be like that.

(*) Just as an aside, deducing things about groups of people and, in fact, traits most people have is not hard. It’s called cold reading. It’s what mediums, mind readers, psychics and other intelligent assholes use to hoodwink people. Part of it is things you can guess at given one piece of information or even none. I can deduce things about you because you work in IT. I know you feel you’ve never reached your potential and you have more to give as *almost everyone does*. No one wants to be seen to be selfish but we all know we are, at least at times. Even Mother Theresa thought so at times. The other aspect to it is reading body language and empathy, which is why I can’t make a living as a psychic. I just don’t get people….

Just thinking on this aside for a second, maybe mediums and psychics could get less abusive jobs as data analysts? Deducing things about people based on averages and correlation is Big Data Business right now.

(Update – thanks to the person who quietly contacted me to point out my spelling error/poor grammar with “patience” and “patient” – in my section in intelligent assholes too! He showed real patience with me)

Friday Philosophy – On “Being the Expert” September 4, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in contracting, Friday Philosophy, performance.
Tags: , ,

Working as a recognised expert at something is a little…strange, I find.

I had an assignment this week to go visit a client, have a look at a performance issue and find out the root cause. I was also to at least come up with suggested resolutions with the ideal aim of giving them a proven fix they could implement. All to be done in two to three days. This is pretty standard fayre when you are putting yourself forward as some sort of expert in something. And it is not always an easy thing to do – for more reasons than you might expect.

When it comes to the core service you are providing you are certainly expected to know your stuff and if you are there as the expert and you don’t? Well, any pain you now suffer is self-inflicted so I have no sympathy. You might think actually being an expert is the hard part – the knowing all that stuff, remembering it, the ability to answer all the questions or look at an issue and in 5 minutes say “It’s because the CLOB settings are wrong”. ie matching the expectations of almost God-like knowledge and ability. But it is not. If you can listen to what their problem is, understand it and then explain something to them that they did not know before, it will be fine. What the client needs is to feel progress is being made. An immediate and inspired solution may occasionally be possible but on the occasions I have pulled that off, the client usually just feels uncomfortable, like they missed the obvious. Because they did. If I sort out the issue straight away that they have had for 3 weeks and that the in-house expert has looked at there is only really two possible reasons
(a) it is simple and they missed it.
(b) they ignored their expert.

The option of (c) my genius is sadly just a dream.

What I find more tricky is when they just accept what I say, when they treat everything I say as correct. Even if I say “it might be this” there can be an assumption I am being modest and it really is what I suggest. I’d like them to only believe me once there is some proof. Most of my time on such assignments is me sat at the SQL prompt trying to back up what I think is the issue/solution. Even when I have evidence, I know I could just be seeing what I want to see. I want some proof and I want them to challenge it.

There is also sometimes a tendency for the rest of the staff to regarded you as some sort of a weirdo, someone Not Like Them. After all, if you are an expert in Oracle Performance you must spend all your time looking at explain plans and 10046 traces and not doing normal people stuff. I have to say, I had a really nice (and in some ways quite worrying) complement a few years back. I was at a client site for a couple of months, plowing though what seemed like endless layers of bad code/design/decisions to make things run better. One lunch time I headed out to find some lunch with a couple of the developers. One of them turned to me and said something like “You know, I’m really glad you joined us. You’re just a normal bloke and not one of those freaky tuning experts!” He really thought all Oracle Performance people would be strange – and strange in the already bizarre context of all the other people that inhabit our profession. I wonder who else he had met?

You can also run into resentment – occasionally irrationally (fear of challenge? envy? just psychotic people?) but also for real reasons. I sort-of alluded to it earlier. You get listened to when you are “Being the Expert”. Even though you may say what Sarah had already pointed out last month, you get listened to. Sarah is not going to be happy about that. Sarah is going to be especially annoyed and resentful if she told Me, the expert, about the point I raised. In these situations I try and emulate what a friend of mine taught me about 10 years ago on “Being The Expert”. One of your jobs as an external consultant should be to tell the client to listen to their staff if their staff are getting things right. What the real problem is could well be that the client is not using the resources it already has. And you were, after all, hired to solve their problem.

The final thing I find strange that I’ll mention is this. As the expert I am constantly anxious I am going to be “found out”. I mean, right now, I am doing my final report on this assignment. I know I identified several issues, I backed them up with evidence, I moved the client forward. I found out things that they had not known. I taught some of the staff new stuff. I stressed that I will not have found everything as it was only 3 days with no access to the live system… But I worry that in 3 weeks I’ll hear that none of what I suggested worked and that the REAL issue was something I utterly missed and when they corrected that, the run time went down by a factor of a thousand. And I failed them.

I just worry about that. Because I am “Being the Expert”


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