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

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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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?”
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: , , ,

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!

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.
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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…”

Private Life – When the Pond Came Inside June 17, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in off-topic, Private Life.
It's not deep - but it's still unwanted!

It’s not deep – but it’s still unwanted!

This week my plans were thrown into chaos when our house flooded. Before I go any further I should state that everyone is fine, no structural damage was done and we were about as lightly flooded as you can be whilst still being, well, in the situation of having dirty, contaminated water in your home. Let’s just say our garden pond partially relocated into our house but brought with it a strong hint of Septic Tank.

I tweeted about it and my wife put some pictures up on Facebook and so people have been in touch to ask how things are. I don’t have a personal blog as well as this work-based one (and I treat this one as my personal blog anyway) so I’m putting some information and pictures up here. I won’t be mentioning Oracle or Office Politics.

Cup half full or half empty? This one is 3/4 full of rain

Cup half full or half empty? This one is 3/4 full of rain

So, why did our house flood? We live no where near a river. In fact, we live on a large, elevated plateau about 50 meters higher than almost everywhere 3 or 4 miles from here. But we do have a couple of square miles of clay-soil fields a few meters higher than our hamlet, just to the South of us. And the brook in our garden is part of the system that drains it. This has never been a problem in the last 10 years, even when it has rained solidly for a week. However, on Tuesday we had just over 2 inches (about 6 cm) of rain fall in about 30, 35 minutes. That is not a lot in some parts of the world, but in the South East of England, it’s very, very unusual. I’ve never seen rain like it in this country before, at least not lasting more than a few minutes of a “cloud burst”. I knew roughly how much rain had fallen as I had left a cup outside that morning, but one of the neighbours has a weather station and that accurately recorded it As I said, the soil around here is clay and it has been dry, so the rain did not have time to soak into the soil much. It just drained into the ditches and brooks…

There is a pipe down there - and it runs over the grass if it needs to

There is a pipe down there – and it runs over the grass if it needs to

It’s just like a database performance issue – it is not so much the volume of data you process but the speed at which you need to process it. Your physical discs can only write so much data in a minute. If you try and process too much, it all goes wrong.

When it was raining it was so extreme I actually took a couple of pictures and a video – before I was distracted by some water leaking through the roof as a gutter was being overwhelmed. I was really annoyed about the 3 or 4 liters that came in and that I had to mop up. Little did I know what was coming…

After the rain stopped I went and checked the brook and garden – it was fine. There was some standing water across much of the garden and it was flowing off into the brook and away. But then I saw one of the neighbours had a problem. There was water still flowing down the road and the brook on their side of the road was overflowing, it was threatening to get into their house. I went and got a spare sump pump I have but I could not find the attachment to put the pipe on it! By the time I had cobbled something together, the water was in their house. But the pump stopped it getting worse. Huzzah!

It's all starting to look bad...

It’s all starting to look bad…

What I had not noticed was that my brook had been rising fast. I went back to my house to find I had a stream flowing past my front door. I’d never seen that happen before… Oh crap. The brook had filled my pond and it had overflowed one small section, where another neighbour had reduced the bank height whilst building an extension. (No, not on purpose and neither of us had realised it might be an issue). I went and got my pump (which was now redundant at the first house) but it can only shift about 5% of the volume going past the front of the house – It was not a raging torrent like you see on TV when major floods are reported, but it was a strong, steady, increasing volume of water that was creeping up the front of the house. Some spade work helped increase the flow and move the water on it’s way, I figured it would not breach the front door now.

"She'll nay take the strain, Capn!" Brook about to blow?

“She’ll nay take the strain, Capn!” Brook about to blow?

I waded across the torrent (this was the point when the wellington boots become redundant as the water went past them and up to my knees) and checked the back garden, where the brook runs around the house. If it gets too high it normally overflows at one point and along a shallow depression which is there to take such unusual conditions. This was indeed happening – but such was the volume of water, there were pinch-points that have never been an issue before. The large tree you can see on the right is where that photo of the water going into a pipe is. Usually if the volume is too large for the pipe, it flows over the grass in a smooth way. Only this time it had a couple of “rapids” and was backing up towards the pond… And then the pond overflowed along several meters at once and I stopped taking pictures!

The first trickle of doom?

The first trickle of doom?

I now had a similar flow around the back of the house to the front and both were still rising. I could see it breaching our french doors into the lounge, it was almost game over. The first trickle has appeared and I could see the level creeping up

I checked next door and they had already flooded from the front (their house is lower than ours), with about 6 inches in the house. Would they mind if I increased the flow from our back garden to theirs, to try and stop us suffering the same fate? They graciously agreed to this so I set too with a spade and dug a drainage channel. It worked! Hundreds of gallons rushed away and the water level by those doors dropped below the threshold. Huzzah, let’s crack open the wine!

The creeping doom working along the floor (sorry, poor shot)

The creeping doom working along the floor (sorry, poor shot)

Only, why is there a large puddle growing at the other end of the lounge? In the centre of the house? Parts of the house are old, some bits of it go back around 300 years. We have internal walls that were once external walls. The water was coming up through the floor at one of these junctions, it was somehow getting under the house and in through this gap. Game over, I had defended the perimeters but been taken by a sneak attack from below.

Over the next hour or so the water leaked in through that gap and covered most of the lounge and hall carpets. I was able to move most things that could be harmed up off the floor. Another room at the back of the house (the base of a windmill) also flooded, this time through a door that I could not defend – but the floor is 6 inches lower in that room then the rest of the house. Again, I moved as much as I could but Sue lost some bits for making her hats :-(. The water never got more than about 2, 3 inches deep

No carpets and the drying process starts

No carpets and the drying process starts

The really annoying thing is that it was not just flood water with mud and dirt in it. Where I live we have no main sewer. We all have septic tanks or similar devices. When they flood the liquid contents get washed out. There were no signs of excrement floating on the water but the smell is very distinct. This is not water you want soaking into your curtains!

By early evening it was all over. The flow from the fields and down the brooks subsided and the pond level dropped. I pumped out the standing water next to the windmill and the water in the lounge (mostly) drained back down though the floor. I was up until about 2am using a carpet cleaner to suck up the worst of the water in the entrance hall – I knew I had to make that room passable as it links all the ground floor rooms together.

Anyone need some bits of carpet, slightly soiled?

Anyone need some bits of carpet, slightly soiled?

Since then it has been a case of ripping up the carpets and moving the stuff I could not move out of the places that got wet on my own. All carpets are now out of the house, most of it is in a skip. Now we are drying the rooms out and moving stuff again so we can move around the house and “live”. I’m not sure how many times I can empty a bookcase, move it and then fill it again with the books before I decide to stop reading books for the rest of my life 🙂

Our insurance company has been very good and all in all the whole flooding experience has been one of inconvenience than anything serious. I certainly would not like to go through it again and I think I know a couple of things I can do to help prevent it happening again.

So all in all, not a great week – but it’s only “stuff” that has been harmed and, in the great scheme of things, not a disaster. Just incredibly inconvenient. It will all be sorted soon.


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

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

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

First Mural,. Image from www.rafchangi.com

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

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

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

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

Stanley Warren

Stanley Warren

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

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

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

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

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

Mural in the museum

Mural in the museum

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, history, off-topic, Private Life, working.
Tags: ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Book of Friday Philosophies? February 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Philosophy – 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…}