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

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

Unlocking it was not so easy

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

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

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

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

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

You need the patience of this person…

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

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

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

She taps the plane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
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<< Introducing I.T. to an Elderly Relative
<<<< Preparing the device

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She Bricked the iPad

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

Next day, no call, no messages.

Next day, no call, no messages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep the main screen as simple as possible

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

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

Keep It Simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The very basic “what the buttons do” help sheet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make it Big and Bold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reference Material

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

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

Keyboards Confuse the Uninitiated

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

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

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

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

 

Random Other Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From cheezburger dot com

Firstly, why are we doing this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Question – What hardware?

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

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

Choice made – will it be the correct one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decision made, it will be a standard iPad.

Are we all set?

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

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

Friday Philosophy – Despair of the Dyslexic Developer and Your Help Please June 1, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life.
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2 comments

Like a surprisingly large number of people, I’m dyslexic. I’ve mentioned this before, describing how I found out I was dyslexic and also how I think it is sometimes used as an odd sort-of badge of distinction. I am mildly dyslexic, the letters do not try to “merge or run away” from my eye, if I hit a large word I am unfamiliar with I can visually chop it up and get through it. But that is just me. So, today, I want to ask you all, if you are a dyslexic developer or know one, are there any steps you have taken to reduce the impact?

I should mention, neither Jim or Richard are dyslexic as far as I know!

A recent, slightly jokey, conversation on twitter reminded me of the issues I have had in typing the wrong thing (over and over and over again – my usual example is how often I have tried to “shitdwon” an oracle instance). And that in turn reminded me of a more serious conversation I had when at the OUG Ireland conference back in March.

As a developer, I sometimes struggle to spot spelling mistakes or use of the wrong (or missing) punctuation in my code. As my friend JimTheWhyGuy said in the twitter conversation, spotting you had spelt UDPATE wrong. I was telling the audience that I was something of a slow developer, partly due to dyslexia. I can stare at code for ages, especially if I am using a new construct to me, not understanding why I am getting an error. It is often not a syntax problem but a spelling one. I had real problems with the word “partitioning” (and still do) when I started using that feature. – it is a little long and has almost-repeated sections in the middle and I “spin” in the middle if I read it or try to write it. It’s a little too long for my wrists to learn to automatically tap it out.

After the talk a lady came over and asked me if I had any advice on how to reduce the impact of dyslexia when writing code. She’d been diagnosed at school and so had grown up knowing she was dyslexic. (I was not diagnosed as a child, which oddly enough I am still glad about – as I learnt to cope with it in my own way. But I am NOT glad I am dyslexic). I do not know what support and advice she had been given through school, but it was obviously still something that impacted things. All I could come up with were a couple of tricks I use.

One is to copy text into MS Word and see if it highlights anything. You have to teach your version of MS Word (*other word processors with spell checkers are available) that the normal syntax words are real, but all the punctuation and special characters get in the way. Where it does help a lot is reducing the number of errors in specifications & documentation I produce and, now, articles I write. But as I know most of you who come by here have already realised – spelling errors that give another correct word are not picked up by a lot of spell checkers, such as this WordPress site. My blogs are full of missing words, wrong words and other crap.

The other major advance is the use of, Software Development Tools (SDTs – and YES, I spelt SDT wrong first time around writing this!) or Interactive Development Environments (IDEs). These highlight syntax errors (so highlighting typos), allow auto-completion of command words and provide common code constructs. They help, but I’ve never been that good at getting the best out of them. I use SQL*Developer more than the others and it does help.

The final other thing is that I just factor in that it’s going to take me more time to write or read stuff. Like many dyslexics, there is nothing wrong with my comprehension (I went off the scale for reading age when I was 12) but it takes me longer and is more effort.

Looking around on the web about this, there is a lot of stuff, the above point about IDEs being a main one. One common thing is to use different fonts to help stop letters skipping about or moving, but I don’t have that sort of dyslexia so I’ve never looked into that. I was going to review the topic of dyslexic developers more before putting this article together, but reading it all was taking me too long! That and I found the constant “It gave me an advantage” to be bloody annoying.

So, knowing a few of you out there are also dyslexic to some degree or another, have you any tips to share? If you have something to share but do not want to be identified, contact me directly.

I’d really appreciate it, if not for me then for if ever anyone else asks me how I cope as a dyslexic developer.

My main opt-out of course was to move into performance. It’s somehow more “pictorial” in my mind and you write less code…

Friday Philosophy – If I Was a Computer, I Might Be An IBM System 360 April 20, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life, working.
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4 comments

So today I turn 50. I spent a few minutes looking up what your typical computer looked like then and I decided the IBM System/360 was about right. It was a business machine. Personal computers did not exist then as, well, it was almost the dark ages…

IBM system/360, phot by Dave Ross

{Note, it has been pointed out to me that I should say “If I were a computer”. Seems that even at my age I still have things still to learn properly… I’ll leave it as is to remind myself…}.

Technology changes and we who work with it change. With tech, after a while any individual part (say a specific computer) becomes obsolete and we throw it away. The technology itself changes and we stop using the parts that are superceeded. I don’t remember the last time I used any sort of floppy disc or a Zip Drive. Ironically we still often use a floppy disc icon to identify the Save button.

But us? Do we who work with I.T. become obsolete? Yes. We do so when we stop changing with the times (or “stop working”, but this is not an “I’m old and considering my mortality” type post, you will be relieved to know). I think that if you lose your passion to keep learning something new in computing and/or programming, it’s time to move out of the arena; as, worryingly soon, you are going to become like those old systems that never get updates and you know will be thrown out if they develop a serious flaw or just become too expensive to keep on the payroll – err, I mean plugged in.

I nearly lost interest about 8,10 years ago. I think it was partly that I found myself doing the same things over & over again and having the same stupid arguments (sorry, “discussions”) about how not doing things correctly was going to just make everyone’s life harder in the long run. I don’t mean doing things the same, I mean doing the things that make a good system – ensuring it fits the business need, that it is tested before it gets released, and you do this crazy thing called design. This time it was not that I needed to alter along with the tech, I needed to alter myself a little. I finally realised that, although it was getting worse, the I.T. world has always been a bit like that and part of the trick to this business is simply walking away from places that are too bad and looking for those who are a bit better. I’m lucky to be able to do that moving about (don’t get me wrong, I did have to put effort into it and I think that is where some people go wrong, they seem to almost expect an external agent to make things better for them) but then I’m 50 and still in the business. I’ve seen lots of people simply leave the industry when they could not affect that change.

However, doing a bit of the introverted-navel-gazing that comes with Significant Birthdays, I find it interesting that at 20, 25, 30, 35,… 42 (very significant that one) things have always been changing for me.

When I was born, computers filled a large room. And were yellow.

At 20 I was studying Genetics & Zoology at college and thought I would be a lab scientist. A career in I.T. was not even a consideration.
By 25 I’d taken up computing and I had fallen into this company called Oracle and I reckoned I would be with them for a good while, building systems with Forms, ReportWriter. PL/SQL and whatever came next. Oracle would not last for ever…
When I was 30 I was self employed, touting my services to various companies and mostly doing systems design and performance work.
Come 35 and I was back full-time employed (that was a surprise) working in science organisation (even more of a surprise) using my degree to some, well, degree (an utter surprise). And presenting at Oracle user group conferences.
At 40 I was self-employed again, but now totally focused on performance and and Oracle RDBMS Subject Matter Expert (someone who knows a bit about most of it and most of a bit of it).
42. 42 is a great age. You are the answer to everything…
At 45 I was retired. Except when I was not. OK, I had become a Consultant, doing short jobs for different clients. And doing all this User Group stuff. Me! Antisocial, miserable, slightly-autistic me!
Now at 50, I have to confess I am not keeping on top of the technical details of my chosen sphere the way I probably should, if my career is still in this area. But I’m not doing bad and my “job” is now even more as a presenter and a member of the User Group community. I need new skills for that.

So it keeps changing. Sometimes I chose the change and sometimes changes just dropped on me. But I’ll look at the options as they come up. And if no options are coming up and I am not happy in my job, I go look for options. I won’t say I always choose the best option but, heck, it’s worked OK so far.

I wonder what I’ll be doing at 55 and 60? I just hope I am not stuck in a museum with a “do not touch” sign next to me, like all the remaining IBM System/360s

Friday Philosophy – Genial Greetings & Festive Fun December 23, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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2 comments

For many of us, today will be the last working day before the Christmas Break (unless you live in one of the many places that don’t celebrate Christmas, in which case ignore this post). So Merry Christmas everyone and Happy New Year!

My brother's "Christmas Card" to us this year

My brother’s “Christmas Card” to us this year

These good wishes are especially directed at those who have to be on call or actually working over the holiday period. It’s one of those blights of working in I.T. that there always needs to be a bunch of DBAs, Sys Admins, Network guys and others who can be called upon when the 7*24*365 systems we keep running decide to play up as soon as we stop looking at them. As I said this time last year, as I’ve never had kids I’ve ended up doing more than my fair share of holiday cover – but not anymore. So if you are one of those on duty over the next week or so, I hope the damned systems stay quiet for you!

As you’ve hopefully noticed over the years, I’m a stunningly intelligent person with a thorough understanding of people and I think I have the totally correct attitude towards Christmas. Traditionally it’s the time to gather together with family & friends – to play games you hate, argue about what TV you are not going to watch and see how many old family injustices you can resurrect and have a damned good argument about. Only these days I opt out of that and I see people before or after Christmas – as at Christmas nothing is open so you can’t escape to go and do interesting things or look at stuff with them (you argue less when you are at the Zoo or wandering around a castle). If you can’t take the tedium at home anymore during Christmas, the only option for going out is to go buy a sofa… or something similar

My brother and I particularly enjoy exchanging Christmas cards. To the left is our idea of a good Christmas card. No tinsel, no robins, not a Christmas tree to be seen and absolutely no sappy Christmas poems or messages. Bah Humbug 🙂

But I like to believe I think long and hard about Christmas presents. One year I’d noticed something that had been annoying my wife during the year so I addressed that problem with a Christmas gift. I bought her a new ironing board. The old one had been getting hard to put up. Ahhh, you should have seen the look on her face when she unwrapped it…

And we still have the ironing board!

And we still have the ironing board!

A couple of years later I really splashed out and got her a new set of top-of-the-range non-stick pans. Again, the reaction had to be seen to be believed… I can’t recommend enough buying your partner domestic items for the household.

My mother joins in by going into those shops that sell candles, ornaments and nick-knacks. She picks the worst one and buys it for me. I’ve had a “gnome sat on a mushroom” that was so hideous the cat would not go near it. It had the added appeal that, once it had been hidden behind a bush in the garden for a year, the cheap plastic perished from sunlight and crumbled into the soil. It’s what you want from a garden ornament…
A couple of years ago was the best from my Mum, it was a candle holder made of wood but that looked exactly like, well, a “present” a dog might leave you. Only once it had been sprayed with lacquer and polished. I was a little hurt when Sue suggested it might look good in the garage. In a box.

I can’t work out why but a few years ago my wife suggested we stop buying each other presents. Now we just spend time together, enjoying each other’s company. But she’s thoughtful, she insists I go and see my Brother for a few days over New Year. In Wales. Not at home. Every year.

Being serious, However you decide to spend Christmas, I hope you have a great time.

UKOUG Tech16 Day 0 – Car and Curry Chaos! December 5, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in conference, humour, off-topic, Private Life, UKOUG.
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1 comment so far

This year I decided to come to Birmingham a little early for UKOUG Tech16, coming up on the Saturday. I drove up to Lichfield where I grew up (15 miles North of Brum – which explains the touch of Brummie in my accent) in the morning to see my mum. Once we had discussed her various ailments and prejudices for a few hours and I’d unblocked her vacuum cleaner I set off into Birmingham to get to Jury’s hotel for 18:00. I was sure the shoppers would be pouring out of the city centre by then and it would be quietening down.

How wrong can you be! The A38 into the centre of the city was a crawl for the last 5 miles, with lots of random lane changes by people confused by the delights of inner-city town-bad-planning – or just frustrated enough to be attempting a freestyle game of “dodgem cars”. I know a sneaky way to get over to the back roads behind Broad Street and my hotel -but either the recent road changes have removed it or the density of traffic hid it from me, so I had to follow the herd.

When I finally got to the hotel – the car park was coned off. And there were dozens of cars circling the area trying to find anywhere to park, avoiding the hoards of revellers set on drunken debauchery who would lurch into the road at irregular intervals (usually going ” Wayheeeyyyy!” or “Heeheheheheheeeehehehee”). I put the car where I felt it would not receive a ticket in the near future and checked into the hotel. “Can you let me into the car park”. No. “I’m here for days!” Go park somewhere else. “Where?” I dunno, over that way somewhere. *sigh*

I decided to check out the car park on foot. There were 2 spaces on the top floor! So I got the car, whipped around to the entrance -and found some git in a blue car already removing the cones to sneak in. I tried to follow but the attendant came over and stopped me. “But I know there are spaces, I checked!”. He’d actually seen me do this and told me to try and take a ticket. It refused to give me one. It was not that the car park was physically full but the tech would not issue a ticket if it thought it was full. I started to back out and he stopped me. “Just wait – someone will leave soon” and he put the cones behind my car. Within 5 mins he was proved right, I got a ticket and went to one of my identified spots. Which was still empty. The blue car had been abandoned in an odd place…
I was very thankful to the attendant who had been so nice to me.

After that fiasco I dropped my stuff in my room and met Dave Roberts & Brendan Tierney in the Jury’s bar for a couple of relaxing pints. Relaaaaaxxxxx. Dave knew of a massive, £4M curry house that had just opened, about 2 mins up the road. It was 3 levels of basement. We decided to give it a go!

The establishment itself had curtains up at the doors -all away across the doors. You could not see in. Was it open? We approached the doors and it was opened for us. Inside was a swish reception area and three people to great us. 3? We asked for a table for 3. And they did that bloody annoying thing all posh restaurants that are up their own arse do.

“Does Sir have a reservation?”
“No”.
Pause, hard stare at us and in a cold voice “I will check if there is space for you….sir” (no capitals in ‘Sir’ anymore).

This check consisted of him wandering away for 5 seconds, coming back and saying “I think we can fit you in”. We were led down an odd tubular corridor, down through one floor that was obviously not yet in use, another floor that looked fully kitted out for diners and to the lowest floor with maybe 70, 80 tables in it. And less than 1/4 occupied. Veeeery full! So why the snotty attitude you tits?

So we sat down and quite soon one of the waitresses came over (there seemed to be about 1 for every 2 occupied tables) and she took a drinks order. She was not sure what beers they had but ho hum, the menu had them in. Then another of the under-utilised staff came and took our food order. Everything we asked for, she would look dazed and say “I really need to get used to these names” and we would have to point at the item in the menu. They were highly unusual items of Indian cuisine – such as a Lamb Korai or Chicken Tikka…. Hmmmm.

We chatted and sipped our beer. And chatted. And sipped. And chatted some more about ?how long? – and watched the table next to us get a bit short with waiting staff and the “man in charge” had to come over and appease them. And then he came over to us and asked if everything was OK. Brendan was a star “We ordered almost an hour ago so shall we just settle for the beers or are we likely to get any food soon?”.

Within 5 minutes we had our starers. The waitress came over and asked who was having the chicken and I said yes – and she gave me the fish. To be fair it was hard to tell as, like many up-market restaurants they were creating an “atmosphere” by keeping it too dark to clearly make out items on the table. But the added interest was that every couple of minutes or so the lighting would raise a little, only to dim again the next minute.

The starters were very nice, to be fair, and once we had swapped them around we enjoyed them. And the mains came soon after. Mine was too salty but other than that nice enough. But certainly not as nice as the price indicated it would be.

We ate the food and left, pausing on the way out to point out to each other the dust and poor finish in certain areas 🙂 It had been an entertaining evening but not for any of the reasons the restaurant would want is to remember it for.

We retired to the bar in Jury’s and enjoyed a couple of drinks with some other conference early arrivals before retiring at a reasonably sensible hour. Day zero was over and I felt ready for Super Sunday and the rest of the conference.

For tradition’s sake I left my cashmere jumper in the bar. I do it every year.

The Book. August 4, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in PL/SQL, SQL, writing.
Tags: , , ,
6 comments

I’ve just added a picture to the right side of this site. It is for a book about SQL and PL/SQL. If you look at the image of the front cover, at the bottom is a list of authors and, near the end, is my name. It’s all finished and at the printers, but it is not out yet – It should be published in the next few weeks.

The British part of me wants to mumble and say “oh, yes, hmmm, I did contribute to a book… but I think you should concentrate on the chapters by the other chaps, they are proper experts, very clever gentleman and lady… I was just involved in a couple of lesser chapters…”

The part of me that spent weeks and months of late nights and long weekends writing it wants to scream “Look! LOOK! I damn well got it done! And it was way more painful than any of my author friends told me it would be as, despite their best efforts, I did not get How Hard Writing A Book Is!
I BLED FOR THAT BOOK!”

And the final part of me wants to say “If you buy this book, would you mind awfully sending it to me and I’ll cut out my chapters and paste in new ones with a few more things covered and a bit more clarity and I really should have mentioned… and I’ll send it back”. Apparently this is exactly how Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchet felt about all their books, so I feel in good company in that respect. I re-wrote one chapter 3 times and I still think I could do it better. Think? I know I could do it better!!!! Next year I’ll do it better than the current better…

How did I get involved in this… nightmare? It was Brendan’s fault. I hate Brendan. My wife hates Brendan. My cat, before she passed on, hated Brendan. When I am drinking beers with him in September, around the fun-fair that is OOW16, I’m going to suddenly turn around and hit him Really Very Hard somewhere soft. Somewhere reproductive I think…

It was, I believe, March 2015 that Brendan Tierney asked me if I had ever thought of writing a book. I said “yes” and explained how I’d had some ideas back in my Teens about what “intelligent aliens” would really be like and the oddities of people – but then found Mr Adams had covered that way better than I ever could. And then I had thought about a spoof on Dungeons and Dragons but then found Pratchett had that totally covered and I now had only one idea left… “No…” he said “I mean a technical book – about Oracle”. Oh! After all, he said, I blogged, presented and wrote articles. What was the difference?

Brendan and Heli Helskyaho had come up with the idea for a book about SQL and PL/SQL which was not an intro book and not a huge tome about all aspect of either – but more about using both languages to solve real-world issues, based on real experience. It would be aimed at those who could write reasonable SQL and who could throw together a quick PL/SQL program/package but wanted to know more about how experts used the languages based on experience. They had Arup Nanda on board already as well as Alex Nuijten and Chet Justice. I knew these people! Arup is a brilliant DBA and teacher, Alex is one of the best presenters on the circuit and Chet is Oraclenerd! All are ACE Directors. So I said no – looking at the 5 of them, I was not an expert. I’m just a skilled-but-still-learning journeyman.

At this point Brendan got tetchy at me (‘being tetchy’, for non-UK people, means ‘easily annoyed but doing a very poor job of hiding you are annoyed’). “how long have you programmed in SQL and PL/SQL?” about 25 years – before PL/SQL was really ‘out there’…
“When did you last develop a production solution in PL/SQL?” About 2 months ago – it was cool, it was fully instrumented, restartable and used plain SQL for the heavy lifting…and bulk processed the rest…
“Who’s better at this than you”. Well, Adrian Billington, Boneist Dawn, Andy Clarke… for SQL Stew Ashton, Chris Saxon is sh1t hot… “so you can name your peers?!?”.
“what is the most challenging thing you have done with PL/SQL?” – I listed a few things…

The point he was making was, I’ve used both languages for two and a half decades to solve problems others had struggled with. OK, I am not the “Best”, but I’m not bad and I’ve done things wrong often enough to learn some lessons! I know I can deliver a solid solution that will either still be working properly in 10 years or, in my eyes more importantly, telling you why it is not. And the key thing was, as Brendan pointed out, I was happy to share.

So I agreed to contribute in a minor way.

And then Chet had to pull out for personal reasons – and guess who inherited half of what we was covering? :-). I thus became an equal player. (Just a quick note, Chet stayed as our tech editor and he kept me “honest”. Everyone on the book helped me, the new guy, keep up.)

Writing a book is a lot, lot, lot harder than writing a blog or an article. I’d been told about this – I was a non-technical reviewer(*) for Jonathan Lewis’s “Oracle Core” and we talked a little about it the whole process – and there was a long, long discussion between the Oaktable members about the effort and financial reward of book authorship (“an awful lot” and “sod all” respectively). I still did not get it. If you are writing a chapter that is 20 times longer than an article it is not simply 20 times harder or takes 20 times as long. It is both, plus a dash more. Part of the reason is the need to get a flow through such a large body of text and I wanted to do that across my 3 chapters. The other is, somehow a book feels more important and you want to makes sure your mistakes are kept to a minimum – both for your own pride and so as not to mislead the reader. Also, as a shared book (and I was the only new author involved) I was very conscious of letting the side down.

So the reality was that for 6 months I worked on those 3 chapters and, during that time, I struggled to maintain my duties as a house husband, the garden went to hell and my regular exercise ceased. Occasional days were so bad that the cat went unfed and my wife had to cook her own dinner. The hard stares were difficult to take, as was my wife being annoyed with me. And I was only doing a few chapters!

But it is done and I am now looking forward to seeing a copy “in the flesh”. I think that will feel weird. One of my regrets in life is that I did not stay in science long enough to be published. I feel this makes up for that.

Would I do it again? No. I’d rather go back to commuting into London every day and I hated that.

Will I change my mind in a year or two? Maybe. I still have that one idea for a Sci-Fi book.

(*) I represented the “knows some stuff but is still learning” intended reader of Jonathan’s book – I was not correcting mistakes or advising him on technical content. I was saying “please tell me more about X as I’m still confused”. I rather enjoyed it.

Friday Philosophy – Brexit & the Misplaced Blame Culture. July 1, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
21 comments

This is not going to be a rant about Brexit and how the selfish, stupid and simply fearful were led by a jingoistic & deceitful bunch of career politicians to show the worst side of the UK. Well, maybe a bit… It’s more about something that struck me about Brexit in respect of who is to “blame”. And there are aspects of this that are echoed in our own industry.

I feel that there is a strong element of “the chickens coming home to roost” with Bexit. By this, I mean things were done by our politicians and our media that unintentionally led to this fiasco – and a lot of those who are presently supposed to lead the UK, who are currently dismayed at the Brexit vote are, in fact, partially responsible.

For years UK politicians have blamed the EU for many of the woes and issues in the UK. We’ve constantly been hearing how “Brussels will do this” or “The EU will force us to do that” or “we can’t do what ‘we’ want as it is dictated by the EU”, painting the EU as a distant evil that reaches out it’s fingers to damage our nation. The media is even worse, the endless stupid and easily disproven stories of bent bananas being banned or bar maids not being able to show cleavage just being used as a way to sell papers or get ratings. Often, what the politicians have said about EU legislation is at best a misrepresentation of the situation and, at worst, an outright lie. But it shifts the blame to some distant group who is not going to fight back.

The end result is that for many people the message has stuck. If you look at the various graphs of which areas voted for brexit and indicators of education, there is a strong correlation with high Leave vote and low Education. It’s not scientific, but listening to the opinions of those shown by the media who wanted to leave or stay, you’d not expect a team of leavers to beat a team of remainers in a quiz. The easily swayed were swayed.

So when our politicians show utter dismay at the vote for Leave then they should be considering the number of time they attacked the EU, blamed it for stuff in an attempt to absolve themselves of blame and, most importantly, knowingly lied for political gain. The out-going Prime Minister spent years using the EU as a monster in the corner he was fighting for “Our” benefit and gaining concessions as the UK was so important. All to help improve his standing or shift the blame away from his government. It is part of what made his campaigning to stay in the EU such a hard pill for many to swallow. To cap it all, one of the main campaigners to leave, Boris Johnson, started back-peddling on the claims he had made and supported before the counting had even finished.

Why do I think there is something similar in our industry? Well, how often have you rung up a company to complain when things have gone wrong – and been told “it’s the computer”? I suspect that many of you, like myself, often suspect it was not “the computer” as it does not makes sense for whatever the problem is to be down to “the computer”. It might be someone messed up entering data into the computer and, sometimes, it really is that the computer system has gone wrong. But, just like with the EU, “the computer” is seen as a nameless, distant and out-of-our-control entity that blame can be easily shifted to, partly as people will now just accept that it is “the computer”.

Two instances stick in my mind about this “blame the computer” attitude. Once, a few years back, was when there was a brief spell where my wife was having outpatient visits to a hospital. We had a holiday booked and knew it would clash with the appointment next month – but the specialist said this was fine and to book 2 months ahead. The receptionist did not see it this way, a holiday was no excuse and she would book us in for the next month and we would have to cancel. (??? yes I know, not her decision to make). I challenged this and told her to just book it. She still refused and when I insisted she check with the specialist – she still refused, saying there was no point as the computer system would not allow it. I reached over, tapped a single key and the next month’s schedule was up on her screen. I’d taught people how to use that system. Her whole demeanor screamed that she knew she could skip a month and had been caught out. She had no trouble now booking the appointment and pressing the correct key to get back.

The other was when I actually caught one of my own team taking a call from an irate user and they, a computer programmer, said “the computer’s down so I can’t do that”. The system was not down, it’s just he did not know what the problem was and so cited the “evil box” explanation. I was really pissed off with him, one of the few times I actually lost my temper and went a bit postal on one of my people. “If you, of all people, wrongly blame the computer then how much is that damaging trust in our systems?”.

I’m not sure quite how the “blame the computer” is going to harm us in the same way as “blame the EU” has, but I can’t help but feel that whenever we try to shift the blame from what we control to a remote and blameless entity, we are at risk of “the chickens coming home to roost”.

One last thing. I know very few young people in the UK will read this but, for any who do: A lot of us older people also voted remain, just not enough. I’m sorry that, as a group, we older people voted for a future that you, as a group, you younger people did not want. Remember, don’t trust rich, old people. Or anyone who says “I’m not a racist but…”