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

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

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

No one lives here anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oracle and the Bots

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

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

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

This is balls for two reasons. Firstly:

What about everyone who is below smart?

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

And that leads to the second reason it is balls.

The smart work will also be doable by Tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Exadata, Friday Philosophy, Hardware.
Tags: , , ,

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

No clouds here yet

No clouds here yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probable  front image of "the book"

Probable front image of “the book”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IT Blight of Working During Holidays December 24, 2015

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

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

The endless daily grind - even at Christmas

The endless daily grind – even at Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas everyone, especially to the unwilling workers.

Return from The Temple of Apple June 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life, rant.
Tags: , ,

I doubt many of you are on tenterhooks as to how I got on with my phone today {after my << rant last Friday}. But I’m going to tell you anyway.

Overall, Apple have gone some way to redeeming themselves.

I got myself down into Cambridge this morning to visit the Apple Store, at my allotted slot of 10:10 {I later witnessed someone attempting to be 15 minutes early for their slot – and they were asked to go and have a coffee and come back. The customer was unimpressed as they had lugged some huge Apple monitor in with them}.

I have to say, walking into the store was somewhat like entering some form of modern temple. The clean lines, the two parallel runs of “desks” with precisely & spaciously laid-out items to worship, lit by discrete banks of lights in the ceiling. Down the center was a clear path to allow you to move deeper into the hallowed space, with a scattering of worshipful believers moving between the icons. And, at the end, a cluster of acolytes in blue tops gathered around and before the “Apple Genius Bar” alter.

I approached the alter…err, service desk… and was very soon approached by an acolyte holding a prayer tablet (iPad mini 3) in front of them. My name was on the list, my time was now. I would be granted an audience. I was directed to a stool to one side to await my turn.

Thankfully, the wait was short and ended when Dave came over, Dave turned out to be a friendly, open and helpful chap who managed to take the edge off what was frankly a bit of an OTT ambiance if you ask me. So far my impression had been that (a) you can see why the kit is so expensive to support this sort of shop frontage and space-to-item ratio, something I had only really come across before in Bose shops & car dealerships and (b) it’s just a shop selling I.T. kit, get over yourselves. Dave (not his real name, I’m afraid I forgot his real name, but he looked like a Dave – and had a great beard) listened to my potted history of the battery woes and upgrade deaths, looked over the phone briefly and then plugged it into one of the banks of MACs. It pulled up the ID of the phone and {Huzzah!!!!} set about blatting everything on it and reloading the OS I think. It took a few minutes (I read my paper magazine – “New Scientist”) and then the phone rebooted…. and put up the Apple icon… and thought about it. I could see Dave thinking “this is taking a bit longer than normal”. Anyway, the thing finally came alive.

We chatted about what the root cause could be as he said he had not heard of anyone having multiple upgrade issues and it just locking like this. He went and asked a more senior acolyte (perhaps already in the priesthood) and his opinion was that it might be a faulty motherboard – in which case all bets were off and I’d have to basically buy a new phone for £200. Dave said I might as well not bother and put the money towards getting a nice, new iPhone 6, as they were only £500 or so. I wonder what the Apple shop staff get paid to think £500 is no big shakes.

Meanwhile, Dave had verified the phone battery was indeed covered by the recall and it would be two hours to complete the work. Was I happy to get that done today? Sure, I’m happy to drink coffee and eat a bun somewhere for 2 hours. So off I went. And came back (witnessing the taking to task of a customer arriving before their time – they did let them leave the monitor behind in the end). My phone was presented back to me, working, and I just had to sign on a tablet. Sorry about using the indelible marker pen, guys. I took a photo of the temple and made a quick test call outside the shop to ensure all was OK – and it was. And apart from the brief suggestion of buying a new iPhone 6, no financial cost had been incurred (except the park & ride in, cost of coffee & bun and a lost morning).

I was soon back home and ready to restore my backup from last week. I plugged in the phone, iTunes recognised it, ran the restore… and the phone is no different – none of my contacts, no change to icons, layout or background, nothing – but now iTunes says it does not recognise the device. Ohhhh shit. Oh, and the photo of the Apple Temple is gone (it was going to be at the start of this update). A couple of hours later and trying many things, I think I know what the issues are and maybe were:

1) The device is just a bit dodgy and sometimes/often the connection with iTunes just ends (I’ve swapped cables, I know it is not that) .
2) It would not restore the backup with “Find My iPhone” running – but due to (1) it usually did not get so far as telling me that. I wonder if updates would fail for the same reason? They were very insistent I turn off the feature before I went into the shop, but of course with a locked up phone I could only do this at the web end.

I turned off the feature on the phone, ran the restore again and this time it completed and left me with a phone that worked and looked like it did a week ago.

So I eventually got the phone restored and it works as well as it did – but hopefully with more battery life. It will be interesting to see if the reception issues are any better. I kind of doubt it. It’s now at iOS 8.3 as well. Deep Joy.

My final conundrum now is that, given that my phone contract that partially paid for the phone in the first place ended a couple of months back, do I stick with this device and hope all is now OK? Or do I spend more money replacing something that is only just over 2 years old? And do I get anything but an iPhone? After all, both my wife’s iPhones have worked OK and they are nice when working. But I’m not a member of the Apple Congregation and have no desire to join.

One thing I do know. I won’t be putting the old Samsung phone I’ve had to fall back on away just yet.

Friday Philosophy – Friday Afternoon Phone June 19, 2015

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

{<<my earlier attempts to sort out my phone}
{Update on my trip to the Apple Store >>}

There used to be a phrase in the car industry in the UK (I don’t know about elsewhere) a “Friday Afternoon Car“. This is a car which is unusually unreliable, as it was built on Friday afternoon when the workers were tired, the weekend was coming and, heck, they might have been to the pub at lunch. It is occasionally used just to describe something that is a bit crap and unreliable.

I have a Friday Afternoon Phone it would seem. I am fast becoming quite disillusioned with it. You may remember my post about my sitting on said phone to make it work again. It’s an iPhone 5, I bought it as I was finally persuaded that it would be more useful to have a smart phone than the “temporary” cheap Samsung I had bought about 2 years prior to then – as an emergency replacement for my previous web-enabled phone that committed suicide with a jar of pickled onions (it’s a long, hardly believable story). I expected the Samsung to keep me going for a month or two but it was so simple and reliable it just stayed in use for over 2 years.

Your Honour, allow me to present item A and item B

Your Honour, allow me to present evidence item A and item B

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Phone A. . . . . . . . . . . . Phone B
Cost. . . . . . . . . . .£400 or so . . . . . . . . . £15 with a free £10 pay-as-you-go top up.
Battery . . . . . . . . New, 8-12 hours. . . . . .New, a week
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Now, 4-5 hours. . . . . . Now, a week!
Reliability . . . . . . Breaks every update . . .No issues ever
Making calls. . . . .6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9/10
Receiving calls . . .4/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9/10
Plays Angry Birds. Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .No
Taking pictures . . 9/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0/10
Helps me up a . . . Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No
Connection to web 6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Are you kidding? But I’m mostly sat at a computer anyway
Impresses friends. No. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yes, for all the wrong reasons 🙂

{There must be a better way to line up text in this wordpress theme!!!}

The Web Enabled Phone that Does not Like to Connect
In some ways the iPhone has been really good. The screen (at the time I bought it) was very good, apps run nice and fast, way too much software is available for it and it can hold a lot of pictures and videos before running out of space. Its size also suits me. But phone and web reception has always been a bit poor and its ability to hold onto a wireless connection seems to be especially questionable – as soon as a few other devices are contending for a router with my iPhone, my iPhone seems to give up its hold on the connection and sulk. I’ve had this in several places in several countries. I’m the only one up? Phone connects fine. 2 others wake up and connect? I’m off the network. I’ve also often been in a busy place (conference, sports event) and everyone else seems to be on the net but my phone just pretends.

Battery Blues
And of course, there is the issue of the battery becoming very poor. It runs on a full charge for only a few hours and if it gets cold it has a tendency to act like a squirrel and hibernate. I now carry around the spare battery pack my wife got given by her work for her work phone use abroad. The good news is, having been put on to it by Neil Chandler, I am now aware my phone has been recalled for a battery replacement. What I am a little irked about is that Apple have my details and the serial number of the phone but have never contacted me directly to let me know. OK, it is not a car (it’s just like a car – a Friday Afternoon Car) so I am unlikely to die as a result of the fault, but if they know it has a fault and it did cost a good whack of cash to buy, they should be being moral and contacting me.

Upsetting Upgrades
But the thing that utterly hacks me off is how it does not handle upgrading to the next version of iOS. I had an upgrade early on in my relationship with the phone and it blew everything off the phone. Not a big issue then as I had not had it long. But it made me cautious about upgrading. About this time last year the phone was insisting it must be upgraded and things were getting flaky (I suspect software manufacturers do this on purpose – I’ve noticed my PC running Windows can start acting odd when an update is due). Before doing anything, I backed it up. Or tried to. The first attempt said it worked but it was too swift to have backed up anything, let alone back up my photos. After then it just refused to back up. But the phone utterly refused to allow me access to the photos from my PC – it should do of course but no, nothing would pries those images out of the phone. I was particularly concerned as I had lots of snaps from a friend’s wedding. Said friend eventually helped me out by pushing all my photos to an iCloud account (It’s Just A Server On The Net) in a way he could access. I then updated the phone and, yep it failed. And locked the phone and I had to factory reset and lost all the photos. It had also lied about uploading the pictures to the net (which it took hours to not do) so they had gone for good. Grrrrr.

So this time when it started getting dodgy I managed to save all my photos (Huzzah!), backed it up, ran through the update – and it failed and locked up the phone. *sigh!!!!*. Only, this time it won’t respond even after a factory reset. My iTunes is up-to-date, it could see the phone OK at the start of the update (because I was doing it via iTunes!) but now it won’t see the phone and once I try, guess what, iTunes also locks up. So the phone is useless. I can’t help wonder if the battery issue and the failure to ever upgrade smoothly are linked somehow (by eg it being rubbish).

So I pop along to the kitchen drawer with the odds n’ sods in and pull out the old Samsung & charger and plug it in. 20 minutes later, I have a working phone. Turns out I have no credit on it anymore but I can sort that out. It even gets reception in the kitchen (I have to lean out the window of the back bedroom to get the iPhone to pick up a reliable signal at home).

Oh No! I have to Contact Apple!
Now the real fun starts. I contact my local Apple shop. Only I don’t, I access a damned annoying voice system that smugly announces “I understand full sentences” and immediately knows who I am and what my device is and when it was bought (as Apple have my details including home phone) – and it was over 2 years ago and it wants me to agree to a paid support package to go further. Of course it won’t give me options to speak to a human or understand “full sentences” even when I shout “battery issue recall” and “your update killed my phone!” plus various permutations at it. It also did not understand the sentence “I want to speak to a person”.

I eventually trick it by pretending that I will buy a support package. Huzzah, a human to talk to. Said human is helpful, pleasant, a bit hard to understand (usual call center woes of background noise and she has the microphone clipped to her socks). I explain that the phone has a recall on it and I just want that sorted and a proper reset. She’s not sure I can have this without a support package {after all, her job is to sell me some support and I am breaking her script} but she says the battery might be replaced under the recall (she has all my details, she can see the iPhone serial number, she could check!). “So I can drop it off at the store?”.

I expect “yes”. I get “no”. I have to organise an appointment. A 10 minute slot. Why? I want to drop off some kit for you to repair and I’ll come back another day. I am not making an appointment to see a doctor to discuss my piles. No, I have to have an appointment. On Monday at 10:10 or “plrbsburhpcshlurp” as the mike once once slips down the sock. OK, 10:10 Monday, she’s getting tired of me saying “please repeat that”. Then she says what sounded like “and the repair may cost up to £210 if there is a hardware fault”. WHAT?!? I don’t fully understand what she says next – but she understands I am not going to pay £210 to fix a device that has a known fault and has been screwed over again by their software update, so she backs off to “they can look at the device and advise me”.

It’ll be interesting to see how it goes on Monday. At 10:10 am. If they try and charge me hundreds of pounds to reset the damned thing or tell me (after I’ve checked) that they won’t replace the dying battery, I can imagine me becoming one of those ranting, incoherent people you see on YouTube. If they want anything more than the cost of an evening in the pub to get it working, I think it will become a shiny, expensive paperweight.

Meanwhile, welcome back Reliable Samsung Phone. You still seem to make calls just fine. Still not able to play Angry Birds though.

Friday Philosophy – Flippin’ Technology June 5, 2015

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

Sometimes I think I would have been a Luddite or a member of other groups who have trashed new technology in frustration. Some days, I can just scream at it. You would think having worked in Information Technology for so long would make me more of a fan, but it actually makes me worse – as I know there is no need for there to be so much wrong with the electronic dross we all have to deal with day-to-day. And if I, someone who has used (heck, even programmed) computers for 3 decades, have trouble with these damned things, how frustrating must “normal” people find it?

Tesco Challenge - original on RevK Rant's blog

Tesco Challenge – original on RevK Rant’s blog

Take this morning’s source-for-a-rant. Self checkouts in supermarkets. I had popped into Tesco to get the weekend’s rations of baked beans, wine and cat food and there were large queues for all manned (though, I should more correctly say, mostly womanned) tills. And almost no queue for the self-service ones. We all know why almost no queue for the self-service ones, most of us hate them. But I had to get back home for a UKOUG conference call and there was very little chance the three-people-deep queues would be negotiated in time, so I manned up and went to one of the vacant screens.

Have I mentioned I’ve been using computers since before Wayne Rooney, Keira Knightley or Michael Phelps were born? So I have some affinity and experience to navigating screens of information. But, like all of theses devices, using them is painful. Given they are designed to be used by everyone including idiots, why is the “UX” so low? Why does the important information appear at different spots in the screen at different times? Why does there seem to be no button to press for a simple, key-word triggered guide (“How to weigh Veg?” Oh, look up there, press the correct icon, look down there and press another and then finally click over here to say “yes I really did ask you to weigh some bananas” – that would be nice). Why does the Waitrose one make me swipe my card to pull up my scanned items but insist I shove the card up the slot to pay? Plus all the times you have to get some human to come over and confirm you are over 18 (I need to be 18 to buy expanding foam?!?) or don’t look suicidal. I’m not being funny but the age check is just not needed, if I am using a credit card it can know I am 18 or over (you cannot you have a UK credit card under 18, partly as you are not allowed to sign up for a credit agreement below that age and if I am using someone else’s credit card, me buying a bottle of wine is the least of the potential issues). To give them their due, at least our local Tesco (unlike many other stores I have used around here) have someone on hand to constantly swipe, press, tap and harass the machines into playing correctly.

I can’t believe how badly these self service checkouts work. I can’t believe the companies have not tested them extensively with real people (I know, they claim to, but then I’ve seen “user system testing” in big banks and it is shockingly poor). How can they think such terrible systems are good for business? That people still insist on queuing for checkouts with real people rather than use them must tell the companies something! Why can’t these systems be better designed. Why are they so painful to use? It can’t be me. Maybe it is me….

Next rant. My internet & email supplier. Hi BT. BT, you are crap at running your internet & email service. I’ll only mention in passing the regular episodes of slow internet, the times mail seems to struggle to keep moving, the harassing emails to buy more allowance as I am reaching my limit…for the prior month (“HI BT, I think I might pop back in time and download 15 films last March, can I have more allowance for than as I’d used over half my limit”) – but I am going to complain over the fact that for the last 5 weeks now, each weekend you stop accepting valid connection requests from my Laptop – but allow them from my iPhone. So my account/pwd is working fine. But no, from the PC you tell me I have to validate my account. So I log on to the web site and as soon as I put in my details you tell me I have to change my password as there has been too many failed attempts at access my account? Well, if they failed, I chose a decent password maybe? Trying to force me to change it is likely to make me change it to something simpler maybe? Especially as this is the fourth time this month… but then, usually the system fails to actually process my password change and just hangs. My iPhone still keeps working with the old details and, usually by the next day, the errors have gone and I can access my mail with my old details with a real machine again too. My conclusion has been that it’s their software screwing up. Each. And. Every. Weekend.

It’s got worse, it now fouls up some workdays too. And I made an interesting discovery. When I log in to the web site to validate myself, if I put in a password of “scr3wy0uBT” – it accepts it and puts me into the Change Your Password screen exactly the same as before. No, my password is not “scr3wy0uBT” {it rejected it when I tried…}. So top security there. Whatever is happening, it’s just…..pants {UK phrase, it means “utterly rubbish”. Pants are not trousers, they are undergarments, you strange Americans.}

What is BT doing wrong to have this problem keep happening? Is this a good “UX” experience for me and all the other people who seem to have similar issues? Is it so hard to sort this out?

What was the third rant? Oh yes. Windows 8. Too many people before me have vented spleen and given pieces of their mind on Windows 8 for me to be able to add any more to the pile, but what I cannot fathom is, as soon as they got the almighty ass-kicking that they did for ballsing up the Start Button/Menu, why did they not in the next version just put it straight back as it was?. Or put out and advertise a simple “patch” to put back what millions of people were screaming they wanted back? All I can think is someone’s ego was too large to wave their hands in the air and say “Oh boy, did we make a dog’s dinner of that – let us help improve your “UX” and our reputation by fixing that straight away”.

Final rant. Games. Computer Games. I like running around shooting things. It gets rids of some of the IT-In-Daily-Life anger. But I am not very good at it and my broadband connection is slow and a bit laggy, so I am not interested in running around shooting things with friends. The same broadband issues mean I also don’t want to spend 4 hours downloading a game, I want to buy it in a floppy disc…..I mean CD…. Errr, DVD… and play it. So I went to this place called a “shop” and I bought a game on media in a box and checked the packaging. No where did it state I have to have an internet connection. I get the DVD out (hmm, there are actually three), put it in the machine and 30 mins later the software is loaded. And now it FORCES me to register with some crapola online gaming site to register my copy (like, if I had a bootleg version that would not be the first bit they strip out) and that takes an hour to download it’s own shitty software. That done, it will let me fire up the game – that immediately bombs out to download the latest patch (which I think it the crapola online site’s version) and that takes two hours as it is obviously much, much more than a patch. I suspect it is the whole damned game again. This is not a “UX” I wanted and, you can bet, next time I buy a game, crapola online gaming company is one thing I will be looking to avoid. It does not help that said game won’t fire up without logging into said game site or making me watch a minute of adverts about who wrote the game on who’s graphics card using what game engine. Thankfully a few minutes on the net explained how I could avoid all of that. But why do I have to take steps to stop these companies annoying me and, this is the bit that confuses me, what makes these companies think I’ll be impressed by being repeatedly exposed to their adds that I don’t want to see? I’ll just despise them a little bit more each time.

I just don’t get it. The number one thing any IT system needs to achieve is User Acceptance (as I have said before, if you check the link). Why do so many large companies miss this and inflict on the world a seriously sub-standard experience of IT and technology? If someone like me who has driven a screen, a keyboard and a mouse for 3 decades, understands some of the limits to IT and must have at least some brains in his skull, if I get endlessly caught out, befuddled and simply screaming-out-loud-frustrated by crap IT, how is my poor old mum (and everyone’s poor old parents) supposed to cope?

I’m going to become a Lumberjack. Chainsaws do not have screens and keyboards.

No I.T. Hassles Here

No I.T. Hassles Here

Friday Philosophy – Want to Get On in Business? Don’t Start from Down Here February 13, 2015

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

I had a manager a few years ago, a lady. She was good at her job, knew the tech and we got on well. And she would take the piss out of me constantly about my height (and other things). One day, another member of the team suddenly said “Hey! Leave him alone! He might actually be sensitive about it and it’s wrong you should be bullying him like this”. My boss replied “Oh come on, he’s not sensitive about it! He takes the Mickey out of himself all the time!”

“Besides… He’s too short to do anything about it.”

It was bloody funny and I think all of us laughed at that – but my defender had a point. I might joke about my height at times and most of the time I’m fine about how tall I’m not, but day after day of comments and jokes? And other stuff? Crouch down here beside me for 5 minutes and I’ll show you the view…

I am small. If you have not met me, I stand five foot and two and a half inches (158.5cm) tall in my socks. Don’t forget the half inch, it’s significant. I have no medical condition, no dwarfism, no biochemical challenges, no lack of food as a child, nothing is wrong to make me small. My parents were small, my grandparents were small, my brothers are similar to me. I’m just small. All of me is in proportion, with one notable exception.

My Ego – That’s huge.

The Three Martins at UKOUG Tech14

The Three Martins at UKOUG Tech14

(The above picture is a bit of a trick actually, to emphasis my not-height. look at the £10 notes, mine looks  slightly small than the other two Martin’s notes. That is because I am standing about 18 inches behind them and, as the picture is taken on a smartphone, the camera is only about 4 feet away and does not show depth of field well. It’s called forced perspective.  And why the suit? I’d just hosted the keynote for the conference. The other two were just slumming it, enjoying the talks.)

I should not complain too much. I have all my limbs and senses, everything physical works well, my brain does a pretty good job {despite a few quirks}, I have lots of friends and a wife and I’ve done OK in my career. Actually, no. Let the positive be positive and the negative be negative – My wife is smart, attractive and extremely capable and I’ve done well in my career. I present internationally, I’m acknowledged by my peers and I’ve been asked to be involved in some great projects.

But it is a Bit Shit Being a Short Man.

As my friends and colleagues are aware, I sometimes make a joke of being small. I can be the first to mention it and I can sure as hell make fun of myself about it if I so decide. However, it is a defense mechanism. Don’t even think of taking the piss out of me for being small as, hey, I’m already doing it and I can do it a lot better than you, should I wish – I have almost 4 decades of practice {anybody remember the nose-jokes scene by Steve Martin in Roxanne? Go check the link, it’s one of his funniest scenes}. If I am willing to joke about being small I rather effectively remove the ability for someone else to do so to abuse me about it and also give them permission to mention it. That last point is important, I’ve known people get anxious about not mentioning my height in case it upsets me, and that gives them problems and there is no need.

My boss above was not being attacking in her jokes as I’d shown I was not sensitive. With my approach I’ve taken away most of the potential for someone to be directly negative about my height unless they are willing to be very, very pointed and very obviously unpleasant. Since leaving my early 20’s, very few people have been willing or inclined to do that, so it is an effective strategy. {In fact, the majority of direct heightist abuse I have received in the last few years has been, ironically, some odd people who attacked me over this article, as they felt I was so obviously being a “clown to get acceptance” or not being angry enough – see the comments to this post}.

But for those who know me well, it sometimes becomes annoying. I’m constantly taking steps to establish this defense and as a result I occasionally harp on about my height. Some suggest I stop doing it as it is boring and unnecessary. I should not put myself down. {Down!}. They may be right, but it is a defense mechanism that has served me well and I guess I err on the side of over-emphasising it. So I’m sorry if it bugs some of you, but allow me my oddities please.

{*sigh* – update. Nearly everyone who has commented to me about this blog post (in person, on twitter, or on this blog) have been positive, nice, said they had never considered the accepted & pervasive impact of heightism. Some even apologised for it. Apart from a few short-centered groups who got angry, mostly as they assumed I used humour in a “I’m wearing a big red nose and doing funny mimes” way. No. My humour is not sycophantic. I use irony (like sarcasm but more passive-aggressive, unlike sarcasm which is just aggressive), perspective, even science. If you are short and don’t like that I ever find things funny, like not being able to reach the car mags as they tend to be up the top with the other “bloke” magazines, then sorry – I’m not trying to offend you. I don’t demand you handle things the same as I do. But in return I have no time for anyone who tells me I am wrong to laugh at things.}

But there is one area where humour does not help and it is an area where I probably get the most discrimination since leaving school (where the old standards of being hit, pinned down, thrown or similarly physically messed with were more popular – oh, for the sweet innocence of childhood).

As a Small Male, in some business situations, I am sometimes not listened to or taken seriously by people – especially management. Management is full of Alpha Males {actually, in IT mostly it’s beta males, all the Real Men are in finance, sales or other crime}. This is true even when I am a fellow manager. I can’t number the times I have been in a meeting, said something and the conversation has continued as if everyone had just taken a moment to look out the window, rather than listening to someone contributing. Many times I’ve had that galling experience of an idea I put forward being ignored until someone else, someone… more tall… says the same thing and then it is a great idea. Or of being talked over by an Alpha Male. Repeatedly. Early on I made the mistake of challenging this head-on a few times and the response was either simple denial or, worse, condescension. “Oh don’t be so sensitive Martin” or “Of course we value your input, don’t be so silly and just grow up”. Yes, I’ve had that.

I suspect most women reading this will be recognising these issues and saying “Yep, welcome to my world”. For a long time I’ve felt there is a parallel between being a small male in a working environment, especially in management, and being a women. Don’t get me wrong, small men don’t get the constant other hassles women get. I don’t get looked up {err… looked down in my case?} , I never feel like I am being hit on {or maybe I am just missing it, I’m terribly naïve}, no one has come up to me in a conference and said “my friend likes you, will you come and talk to him” {my wife has had this – she said it was like being back to school parties but with an extra element of Creepie}. But I often get ignored by management and my input to discussions gets downgraded. I’ve watched this happen to female colleagues year after year, it is a real issue. Some men will listen politely to women but it is simply listening politely – before they mentally rewind the meeting to before the “delightful lady said something” and continue with the proper matter in hand. They do exactly the same to my input. I’m not an alpha male, I’m a child, it’s nice that they let me be there and join in.

But unlike sexual or most other forms of discrimination I also have no real recourse to… Anything. There is of course no legal position on heightism. There is also no social pressure on or condemnation of heightism. In fact, if anything it’s the opposite. “You silly little man”, “Grow up”, “you pathetic little sh*t” and a whole catalogue of insults with the word “little” or “small” or “tiny” thrown in for emphasis. There are plenty of sitcoms where the small guy is the dweeb or the butt of the jokes. Not many films where the action hero is played by someone like Danny DeVito. And if the actor is small, efforts are taken to hide that (how many of you are thinking Tom Cruise? – who is all of 4 inches below average! He’s not small!!! He’s in the normal 60-70%!). If I challenge the attitude directly it rarely goes well, especially if I am angry. Apparently, there are few things funnier than a small bloke jumping up and down with a red face squeeking “Take me Seriously!!!”. It’s also very tiring. I have to jump quite high to be seen past the desk. And suggesting I am acting like a child is just more damned height discrimination you… dickhead.

Even when people are trying to be nice to short men they often just continue the discrimination without noticing, thinking it’s some sort of complement. Think about it, how often when someone small is being praised do they say something like “He may only be small but inside there is a giant” or “Dave may not be the tallest guy but, in respect of {blah}, he towers above us”. They are still saying short is bad and tall is good! You would not say of someone who’s fat “Derek may be obese but inside he has the physique of a Greek God”. And you would certainly not ever, ever say “Mike may be black but inside there is a white guy trying to get out”!!!

Do you think I’m making too much about this? I am being overly sensitive to a problem that does not really exist? Well, stay crouched with me and do a quick web search on the correlation between height and pay, height and political success, height and business success {NB three different links, just to “google.uk” really}. Again, women will recognise all this.

And of course, I don’t have issues with my height all the time. Many people listen to me, especially if I am talking as a technical expert as opposed to a manager. I have managed to function well as a manager and sometimes when I make a side reference to it, people will stop and go “oh. Yes, I see what you mean”. But it is a constant background bloody maddening annoyance.

Interestingly, I mentioned this all to a friend a while back when we were discussing the hard time women and ethnic minorities can have and at first I think he just listened politely. A couple of months later we were chatting again and he said something like “you know, I’ve been thinking about what you said. I’ve never had a short manager, most senior people I come across are at least average or tall. The small men I come across are all technicians”. Apparently size is not seen as a negative when it comes to using your brain. But it is when it comes to negotiation, winning arguments and leading.

So thanks for crouching down here with me for a few minutes to take in the view, you better stand up again before your knees give you hell.

There is nothing I can really do about the above, it’s just a fact of life that heightism is there and at least it is not a type of discrimination that is aggressive or hateful, unlike the serious ones that society does or is starting to tackle. But I just wanted to mention it, to get it off my chest. It’s been weighing me down.

Finally, remember that half inch of height I said was significant? Well, it is – but not maybe in the way you might think. When I was personally hung up about my height, especially when I was in my teens {and actually just into my 20’s} and still growing, then every half inch of height was significant as it was me “improving”. When I stuck at 5’2.5” the .5 was important as it pushed me into the normal 5th-95th percentile for height – or it did if you were looking at a graph from a pretty old encyclopaedia, like I was. Average height has risen by a couple of inches in the last 50 years and varies from country to country. Thus  I’m not even close to the normal range now. Can I just say that it’s really mean of you guys to have moved the goal posts by growing even more. But the 0.5 inch took on a new significance in my late-20’s – as I stopped worrying about it or mentioning it if anyone asked my height. I’m small, that’s not going to change and it’s fine. I mention the half more now than I did then, as it makes me smile when I say “5 foot 2… and a half”. It’s significant. Significant in that it is no longer important.

Friday Philosophy – Is Dave Productive? November 7, 2014

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

How do I know if Dave is doing his job properly? If I am his (or her*) manager, what techniques can I use to ensure I am getting my pound of flesh out of this worker drone in return for the exorbitant salary my company puts into said drone’s bank account each month?

Well, as a start there is my last Friday Philosophy all about deduction of work profile via auditory analysis of input devices (ie how fast is Dave typing) 🙂 I have to say, the response to that topic has been very good, I’ve had a few chats with people about it and got some interesting comments on the blog article itself. My blog hits went Ping 🙂

However, I have a confession to make. I have a “history” in respect of keyboards and management of staff. Maybe one of my old colleagues will comment to confirm this, but I used to regularly walk into an office full of “my people” and bark “Type faster you B*****ds! I don’t care what it is you are doing, I just want to see those fingers flying over the keyboard!”. They all knew to ignore me, this was just one example of my pathetic sense of humour. In some ways, I was never a very good manager as I was just a bit too juvenile, irreverent and non-managerial.

I was being ironic and they knew it. I had no time for many of the Management Easy Options you so often come across in organisations that are used to apparently help ensure the staff are working hard. What do I mean by Management Easy Options? I’ll cover a few.


You have to be at your desk for at least 8 hours.

At Your Desk. Because if you are at your desk you are working of course. And if you are not at your desk, you are not working. Hours at the desk apparently equate to productivity. So a Management Easy Option is to insist all your staff are seen to be in the office and at their desk for as long as, and preferably longer, than the average time across all staff. And that is partly why in dysfunctional companies staff are in the office so long. As if lots of managers want to demonstrate that they are “good managers” by having their staff “productive” at their desks, their staff will be there longer than average…which pushes up the average…so they keep the staff there longer… *sigh*

I could spend a few pages on the academic and psychological studies that disprove the above nonsense about 8 hours of productive work – but we all know it is nonsense anyway. We talk about it at lunch or in the pub. If you are stuck at your desk longer than you can concentrate, you do other stuff that is hard to distinguish from work. Or you do poor work. WE ALL KNOW THIS so why does this myth about hours-at-desk continue? What happens to some manager’s brains such that they start managing and soon stop knowing this?!?

As a self employed worker in the London IT market, I often get given a contract to sign that specifies I must do a professional working day:- that “consists of 8 hours minimum each day”. For the last 5 or 6 years I have always crossed out that clause or altered it to say “8 hours maximum” or replaced it with what I feel should be the real clause, which is:

A professional working day, which is to, on average across a week,  match or exceed the requirements of my manager for a day’s productivity.

If I am being asked to work a Professional Working Day then to me that means I have to achieve a day’s worth of benefit to the company for each day paid to me. If that takes me 8 hours or 6 or 9 or whatever is immaterial. As a Professional I will on average, each day, keep my manager happy that I am worth employing. If that involves 6 hours of extra work one day between 8pm and 2am, fine. But do not expect 8 hours the next day. If my manager is not happy, then you ask me to go and I will go. It really is as simple as that.

{honesty forces me to admit that at present, for the first time in years, I have that 40 hour clause in place. Because I am doing a role for a friend, and I did not want to cause a fuss by objecting to the clause. But if management ever refer to the clause, my friend knows I will simply thank management for their time to date – and I’ll be going now}.

I drifted into my own world there, but the point I really wanted to make is that hours spent at the desk in no way indicate if the job is being done. We all know that, all the managers know that (well, they will if they are any good). Some people can be at their desk 10 hours a day and, frankly, it would help the company if they were not! Other people are at their desk but spend a huge slice of the time on the web or Instant Messaging or *cough* writing blogs.


You have to be in the office.

If you are at home, you will be goofing off.
So what does the above say about the manager if that is their opinion? If you are at home, you would goof off, so therefore your staff will? Of course working from home has other considerations, such as it is only possible if your role allows you to spend some days not physically doing things in the office (pressing reset buttons on boxes? Making tea for the team?) and you are in the office enough to maintain and make proper bridges with your colleagues. I also think working from home is a privilege to earn and not a right, as some people really are incapable of working from home. I had a role a while back where when one chap was “working from home” he was actually doing all sorts of things – but his smartphone was set up to fake an online presence. He was incapable of working from home.

But in IT there really is not a need for many of us to spend all that time and unpleasantness commuting and some tasks really are done more efficiently if people can’t keep coming up to your desk and demanding their personal priorities really are your priorities too (which usually equates to they are in it up to their necks and you can dig them out).


Enforce a Clean Desk policy.

Now, there are things that should not ever be left on your desk. Financial information, personal information (like people’s CVs or annual reviews), management information (salary reviews, plans to axe 22% of the workforce, stuff like that) but I have no time at all for the argument that a clean desk looks more professional. It does not look more professional, that is just weaselly, lying balls. It looks more like someone has implemented a draconian clean desk policy and any sign of the desk occupants being human is of no consideration.

If you walk into an office with 300 utterly clean desks, it looks like a soul-less, bitter and degrading place to work slave.

You walk into an office and you see pictures of offspring & partners, little toys (not my thing but some people like to have the gonk their boy/girlfriend gave them) and that’s just fine.

Yeah, if Malcolm has a pile of 237 Diet Coke cans in a pyramid on his desk that is not so hot, but as a manager it is your job to go tell Malcolm to recycle those damn cans. And for those of us who work in Clean Desk environments, we all know we spend a few minutes each morning pulling stuff out of our pedestals and a few minutes each evening chucking it all back in there. Great use of time, oh management clean desk police. So the Management Easy Option is to make everyone remove all signs of humanity and *also* waste time moving all useful things off your desk each evening and drag them out each morning, rather than occasionally check what people leave on their desk and, when Cherry has left details of the latest dodgy plan to hide details from the FDA on her desk, give her a seriously hard talking to.

In one job I did not have desk pedestal, I had a locker – “Over There” at the other side of the office where my first allotted desk was. It took two or three trips each morning and end of the day to sort out my stuff and keep my desk “clean”. At least I docked it off the 8 hour day…


So having moaned about a few of these Easy Management Options that, in my opinion, are detrimental – how do you ensure Dave is Productive? Now, this is a complex and challenging idea and I am not sure some managers will understand it. But, the way you can tell if Dave is productive is that…

He Does His Job.

He completes the tasks assigned to him in the time frame that is reasonable or informs you of the reasons why the tasks are taking longer. If Dave’s role includes scooping up issues and solving them autonomously, you know Dave is doing his job as the end users are not screaming at you. In fact, if as a manger you are barely aware of Dave existing, either he is doing his job exceedingly well or you employed him to do a non-existent job (so more fool you). The bottom line is that, as Dave’s manager, your job is to to aid Dave do his job, overcome obstacle and track that his tasks are done.. ie be a proper manager, not rule by Easy Management Options.

Bottom line, to get back to my first paragraph or two, it matters not one jot how fast Dave types. If (s)he is in the office for the meetings and any core hours needed, fine. So long as a member of staff is not doing things that negatively impact their ability to do their job or those around them to do theirs, there are few blanket rules that help. All those Easy Management Options simply exist to cover the backsides of poor managers and satisfy the desire for control that comes from HR and upper management. Neither of which *Ever* abide by the rules they lay down on others.

Break free! Type slowly! Put a picture of Debbie Harry on your desk. Work from home and Go Crazy spending an hour in the afternoon combing the dog. Just make sure you do your job. In my book, that makes you worth your pay. Is it really so hard to manage people in that way?!?

(*) I have yet to meet a lady called Dave, but Dave is simply my generic name for someone working in IT. No real Dave is implied. But both sexes are.

SBC June 26, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in humour, off-topic, rant.
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When I was about 14 or 15 years old I had this idea that I could create a company selling stuff and make a fair amount of money at it, very easily. What prompted these thoughts were advertisements that attempted to persuade you to buy things that were not at all special or unusual or even good, but the ads claimed that they were in fact fantastic and desirable and having them would significantly improve your life. Often the ads were for really quite rubbish things. It was blatantly obvious that, whilst no factual lies were uttered, the promise of the sun always shining, the big smile on your face, the family joy (with mandatory cute dog) and the inner glow that comes from the product were ludicrous. The product was not going to do that, the whole underlying premise of these adverts were ludicrous lies.

In particular, I was struck by breakfast cereal advertisements.

When I was a kid I had most of the main brands and I can tell you, a bland product based on flattened corn, puffed wheat, mashed wheat, wheat in long strands woven into a small hard cushion, abused oats or any other tortured grain was fine to stop you feeling hungry before being booted out the house to walk to school – but it was not actually adding to the joy in my life. They were OK. Actually, without the sugar and the milk they were a bit shitty. And I knew they were cheap.

This summed up many products – not at all exciting, nothing special, in fact a bit crap. But they did the job and they were cheap.

So why not sell them as such? would people not prefer the honesty of a product and advertisement that fundamentally said “buy this because it is shitty but cheap”? I would have, I would have loved the base honesty of the proposition and not having to wonder why grey-brown food that tasted only slightly better than cat litter was not making me smile and the sun shine. (I was fine about not having the dog though.)

So I was going to create a company called SBC Limited that made basic, cheap stuff that you had to have and that it was ludicrous that anyone was telling you it would improve your life. Shitty But Cheap Limited. Breakfast Cereal would be one of the products for sure.

Role forward about 10 years and I created my first company, as most computer contractors in the UK do, back in 1995. Guess what I was going to call it? Yep, SBC Limited. But my wife took a firm stance (and by this I mean she set her feet a good foot and a half apart, the better to give her purchase as she slapped sense into me) and said I could not do this, as I would be incapable of not telling potential clients what SBC limited stood for.

Of course, I now realise that my outlook on things and sense of humor is not universally shared and, sadly, there are a lot of dull people who are swayed by those facile advertisements. My company to sell fundamentally bland but cheap morning foods would probably have failed. That and the Swiss Banking Corporation or SBC Telecomm or, more likely as I reside in the UK, the Scottish Borders Council might have got in touch to object.

But imagine my joy today when I was sent a potential job by SBC Recruitment!

And the icing on the cake was the job was for an APEX developer with HTML 5 proficiency. No mention of those skills on my CV, my CV makes it pretty clear that I am a DBA-type, so a fairly shitty attempt by the agency to fill the needs of the client. So presumably the recruitment company pretty much matches my intention for a company called SBC…


(* Note to lawyers, SBC Recruitment could be the best agency in the country, this post is humorous. But I really was not at all suitable for the job, very poor targeting).