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OUGN 2012 First Day – First Panic

I’m not really one for blogging about conferences – I mean who cares what someone else saw being presented? But this is the first time I have stopped moving long enough (and been in contact with the internet world) to blog and my brain is too fried to do a technical one.

Friday Philosophy – The Inappropriate Use of Smart Phones

I’m kind of expecting to get a bit of a comment-kicking over this one…

I never much liked mobile phones – Yes they are incredibly useful, yes they allow countries that lack a ground-based telephony network to create a nationwide system, yes they allow communication all the time from almost anywhere. That last point is partly why I dislike them. {Actually, I don’t like normal phones much, or how some people {like my wife} will interrupt a conversation to dash across the room to answer it. It’s just a person on the phone, it will take a message if someone wants to say something significant. If someone calls your name out in a crowd, do you abandon the people you are talking to, dash across the room and listen to them exclusively? No, so what act that way over a phone?}.

The Most Brilliant Science Graphic I Have Ever Seen

The below link takes you to an absolutely fantastic interactive demonstration of the relative size of everything. Everything. Stop reading this and go look at it, when it finishes loading, move the blue blob at the bottom of the screen left and right.

The Relative_scale_of_everything

The raw web link is:

http://www.primaxstudio.com/stuff/scale_of_universe/scale-of-universe-v1...

The web page says scale_of_the_universe but it should be relative_scale_of_everything_in_the_universe. Did you go look at it? NO!?! If it’s because you have seen it before then fair enough – otherwise stop reading this stupid blog and Look At It! NOW! GO ON!!!

Yes, I do think it is good.

Friday Philosophy – When Things Feel Wrong

I got pinged by someone else missing the Friday Philosophy today {BTW, Good news, the technical blogs start again on Monday}, so…

Take a look at the below. It is a rather pleasant spot of countryside on Sao Migel in the Azores, where the area in the foreground has been converted into a bit of a garden to take advantage of the natural beauty.

Friday Philosophy – Should I Be a Twit?

Something I have been pondering for a while now is should I join in with the “happening crowd” and sign up to Twitter? I know, I’m two or three years behind the times on this, but more and more people who I like have signed up – even Doug Burns now uses twitter and he used to be negative about it in the same way as I. I’ve asked a few of these friends what they think.

Friday Philosophy – The One Absolute Requirement for System Success

Alternative title “The lady from Patient Admin – she says YEEESSSS!!!!!!”

What must you always achieve for an IT system to be a success?

  • Bug free? Never happens.
  • Within budget/time frame? That would be nice.
  • Includes critical business functionality? Please define critical.
  • Secure? Well, it’s important for many systems but then it is often lacking (even when it is important).
  • That it is to specification? Well we all know that’s wrong.

There is only one thing that an IT system must always achieve to be a success.

User Acceptance.

For an individual system other considerations may well be very important, but the user acceptance is, I think, non-negotiable.

Friday Philosophy – Human Tuning Issues

Oracle Tuning is all about technical stuff. It’s perhaps the most detail-focused and technical aspect of Oracle Administration there is. Explain Plans, Statistics, the CBO, database design, Physical implementation, the impact of initialisation variables, subquery factoring, sql profiles, pipeline functions,… To really get to grips with things you need to do some work with 10046 and 10053 traces, block dumps, looking at latching and queueing…

But I realised a good few years ago that there is another, very important aspect and one that is very often overlooked. People and their perception. The longer I am on an individual site, the more significant the People side of my role is likely to become.

Here is a little story for you. You’ll probably recognise it, it’s one that has been told (in many guises) before, by several people – it’s almost an IT Urban Myth.

When I was but a youth, not long out of college, I got a job with Oracle UK (who had a nice, blue logo back then) as a developer on a complex and large hospital system. We used Pyramid hardware if I remember correctly. When the servers were put in place, only half the memory boards and half the CPU boards were initiated. We went live with the system like that. Six months later, the users had seen the system was running quite a bit slower than before and started complaining. An engineer came in and initiated those other CPU boards and Memory boards. Things went faster and all the users were happy. OK, they did not throw a party but they stopped complaining. Some even smiled.

I told you that you would recognise the story. Of course, I’m now going to go on about the dishonest vendor and what was paid for this outrageous “tuning work”. But I’m not. This hobbling of the new system was done on purpose and it was done at the request of “us”, the application developers. Not the hardware supplier. It was done because some smart chap knew that as more people used the system and more parts of it were rolled out, things would slow down and people would complain. So some hardware was held in reserve so that the whole system could have a performance boost once workload had ramped up and people would be happy. Of course, the system was now only as fast as if it had been using all the hardware from day one – but the key difference was that rather than having unhappy users as things “were slower than 6 months ago”, everything was performing faster than it had done just a week or two ago, and users were happy due to the recent improvement in response time. Same end point from a performance perspective, much happy end point for the users.

Another aspect of this Human side of Tuning is unstable performance. People get really unhappy about varying response times. You get this sometimes with Parallel Query when you allow Oracle to reduce the number of parallel threads used depending on the workload on the server {there are other causes of the phenomena such as clashes with when stats are gathered or just random variation in data volumes}. So sometimes a report comes back in 30 minutes, sometimes it comes back in 2 hours. If you go from many parallel threads to single threaded execution it might be 4 hours. That really upsets people. In this situation you probably need to look at if you can fix the degree of parallelism that gives a response time that is good enough for business reasons and can always be achieved. OK, you might be able to get that report out quicker 2 days out of 5, but you won’t have a user who is happy on 3 days and ecstatic with joy on the 2 days the report is early. You will have a user who is really annoyed 3 days and grumbling about “what about yesterday!” on the other 2 days.

Of course this applies to screens as well. If humans are going to be using what I am tuning and would be aware of changes in performance (ie the total run time is above about 0.2 seconds) I try to aim for stable and good performance, not “outright fastest but might vary” performance. Because we are all basically grumpy creatures. We accept what we think cannot be changed but if we see something could be better, we want it!

People are happiest with consistency. So long as performance is good enough to satisfy the business requirements, generally speaking you just want to strive to maintain that level of performance. {There is one strong counter-argument in that ALL work on the system takes resource, so reducing a very common query or update by 75% frees up general resource to aid the whole system}.

One other aspect of Human Tuning I’ll mention is one that UI developers tend to be very attuned to. Users want to see something happening. Like a little icon or a message saying “processing” followed soon by another saying “verifying” or something like that. It does not matter what the messages are {though spinning hour glasses are no longer acceptable}, they just like to see that stuff is happening. So, if a screen can’t be made to come back in less than a small number of seconds, stick up a message or two as it progresses. Better still, give them some information up front whilst the system scrapes the rest together. It won’t be faster, it might even be slower over all, but if the users are happier, that is fine. Of course, Oracle CBO implements this sort of idea when you specify “first_n_rows” as the optimizer goal as opposed to “all_rows”. You want to get some data onto an interactive screen as soon as possible, for the users to look at, rather than aim for the fastest overall response time.

After all, the defining criteria of IT system success is that the users “are happy” -ie accept the system.

This has an interesting impact on my technical work as a tuning “expert”. I might not tune up a troublesome report or SQL statement as much as I possibly can. I had a recent example of this where I had to make some batch work run faster. I identified 3 or 4 things I could try and using 2 of them I got it to comfortably run in the window it had to run in {I’m being slightly inaccurate, it was now not the slowest step and upper management focused elsewhere}. There was a third step I was pretty sure would also help. It would have taken a little more testing and implementing and it was not needed right now. I documented it and let the client know about it, that there was more that could be got. But hold it in reserve because you have other things to do and, heck, it’s fast enough. {I should make it clear that the system as a whole was not stressed at all, so we did not need to reduce system load to aid all other things running}. In six months the step in the batch might not be fast enough or, more significantly, might once more be the slowest step and the target for a random management demand for improvement – in which case take the time to test and implement item 3. (For those curious people, it was to replace a single merge statement with an insert and an update, both of which could use different indexes).

I said it earlier. Often you do not want absolute performance. You want good-enough, stable performance. That makes people happy.

In Defense of Agile Development (and Their Ilk)

In my previous post I asked the question “why doesn’t Agile work?”. I’m not sure the nuance of the question came over correctly.

I’d just like to highlight that the question I asked was “Why does agile not work”. It was not “Why is Agile rubbish“. I’ve said a few times in the past couple of weeks that I like the ideology of Agile and I am (and have been for years and years) a strong proponent of prototyping, cyclic development, test driven design and many other things that are part of the Agile or XP methodologies.

That distinction in the title is a really important distinction and one I’d hoped I’d made clear in my post. Looking back at my post though, I think it is clear I failed :-( . I highlighted reasons why I think Agile does not work and in my head I was thinking “if we avoid these, Agile could work” – but when you write something down it does not matter what is in your head if it does not reach the paper.

I’m actually frustrated that in the last few years I have not seen Agile really succeed and also that this must be the normal situation, going on the response you get when the topic of Agile comes up with fellow technicians and comments on my own blog.

However, on that post about Agile two people who’s opinion I deeply respect came back at me to say “Agile does work!”. Cary Millsap, who many of you will have heard of as the “Method R” guy and the person behind Oracle Flexible Architecture. And Mike Cox, who most of you won’t have heard of but Mike taught me a lot about sensible development back in the 90′s. He’s one of the best developers I have ever had the pleasure of working with and I know he has had great success with Agile and RED. I’m not sure if they read my post as “Agile is Rubbish” or they are, like me, simply frustrated that it can work but so often does not.

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot this weekend and I was helped by Cary’s paper on the topic that he mentioned in his comment. I’d highly recommend downloading it as it is an excellent description of not only why Agile can help but describes how and some of the pitfalls {I’d started my own post on that, but go read Cary’s}. I should add, you can see Cary present his case for Agile at the UKOUG conference this year.

So where does this bring me to? Well, I think “Is Agile good or bad” has become almost an “IT religion” topic, people love it or loath it and it is based on what they have seen of the methodology in real life. No, that’s wrong, it is based on what they have seen that has been labelled with that methodology in real life. Or worse, it is based on anecdotal opinion of those around them. The thing is, if you look at what XP is supposed to consist of or what Agile Programming is supposed to consist of, most of us would agree that a great deal of it makes sense in many situations. I’d disagree with some of the details in Cary’s paper but overall I’m in strong agreement. Sadly, What Agile and XP is supposed to be is not well matched by what you see on the ground in most cases. So even if these methodologies are right for the situation, what has been implemented is not the methodology but probably more a slap-dash process that simply jettisons documentation, design and proper testing. This whole thread sprung from my lamenting the demise of database design and several of the comments highlighted that the introduction of Agile seemed to equate, at least in part, with the demise of design. As MIke and Cary say, and as I think anyone who has successfully utilized Agile would say, Design is an integral part of Agile and XP methodology.

Agile can and does work. But many things can and do work, such as taking regular exercise to keep healthy or regularly maintaining your house to keep it weathertight. Like Agile, both take effort but the overall benefit is greater than the cost. And like Agile, do it wrong and you can make things worse. If your window frames are starting to rot and you just slap a new layer of top-coat on them all you will do is seal in the damp and rot and hide the problem – until the glass falls out. Going for a regular 5 mile run is good for you – but not if you are 10 stone (60KG) overweight and have not run in years. A 5 mile run is also not a good idea if you want to be a long-jumper. Right training (methodology) for the right aim. Also, just like keeping healthy, house maintenance or anything that takes effort but works, proponents tend towards extremism – probably as a reaction to the constant {perceived} pig-headedness of critics or the failure of people to just do what now seems so sensible to them {think reformed smokers}. I’ll have to buy Cary and Mike pints to make up for that jibe now, and promise them it was not aimed at them personally…

Sadly, the reality is, Agile does not work 90% of the time it is tried. So, does that mean Agile is actually rubbish? Or at least, not fit for purpose, because many companies are not able to use it? Companies are there to achieve something and the IT systems are part of achieving that something. If Agile cannot aid that IT department then Agile is the wrong way for that department and company.

*sigh* I’ve gone on and on about this and still not got to my own main point, which is this.

- Can we identify reasons for Agile and XP Failing.
- Having identified the Reasons, can we fix them in simple ways?
- Can we create some simple guidelines as to when a project should be more Agile and when it should be more Up-Front design.

I’d love to know people’s opinions on those three points above.

Friday Philosophy – Dyslexia Defence League

NB This post has nothing to do with Oracle or even technology really. It’s just some thoughts about one aspect of my life.

I know I’ve mentioned this once before, though it was in an early blog post when I had a readership of about 8, but I am mildly dyslexic. If you want to know how I found out I was dyslexic then check out the original post. I’m quite fond of that post, as a non-technical one, though almost no one read it.

The thing is, I now cringe slightly when I say I am Dyslexic. I’ve sat on this post for weeks, wondering if I should post it. You see, it seems to me that dyslexia, along with some other oddities of perception, have over the last few years almost become a thing to be proud of. A banner to wave to show how great you are. “Hey, look at me, I am this good even though I have Dyslexia” or even “I am great because I have dyslexia”. Maybe I am just a little sensitive about it but it seems to me that more and more people make a thing about it. If I am being candid, I feel a little proud that I did OK academically despite it {I should point out there is no proven link between dyslexia and IQ but in exams you get marked down for spelling and slow reading speed means it takes longer to, well, read stuff!} and in the past I have been very open about mentioning it. Hey, this is my second blog on dyslexia!

However, I’ve had it suggested to me in the past that I use it as a defense for being lazy – Can I prove I am dyslexic? Does it really impact me that much? Well, actually no I cannot prove it and has it impacted me? Not a great deal I guess as I can read pretty much anything {I did say it was mild. Scientific papers and anything with very long words can be a challenge, but isn’t that true of everyone?}. My reading speed is about 120,150 words a minute. Average is about 250wpm. My wife seems to read at about 500wpm :-)

Also, don’t get me wrong, I fully appreciate that looking at a challenge you have and taking the benefits from it that you can is a very healthy attitude. If I remember right it was Oliver Sacks in one of his books (“the man who mistook his wife for a hat” maybe) who describes a man with sever Tourette’s syndrome {which is more often all about physical ticks and uncontrolled motions rather than the famous “swearing” aspect of it} who could somehow take advantage of his physical manifestations in his jazz drumming. He could just make it flow for him. But when he took treatment to control the physical issues, his jazz drumming suffered. He really wanted the benefit of the drugs for day-to-day life but keep the Tourettes for jazz. So he took the drugs during the week and came off just before the weekends when he played. Neat.

Does Dyslexia help me? I think I am more of a diagrams and pictures person than a text person because of my dyslexia and I think I maybe look at things a little differently to most people at times – because of the differences in how I perceive. That can help me see things that maybe others have missed? Maybe an advantage. I’ll take that.

Also, in my case at least, dyslexia is not an issue for me comprehending or constructing written prose. I think I write some good stuff at times.

But I don’t want to be dyslexic. Frankly, it p122es me off.

I’ll give you an example. I did a blog post a few weeks back and it had some script examples in it. I had nearly finished it when I realised I had constantly spelt one word utterly wrong. The spell checker picked it up. But just before I posted it, I realised I had also got my column aliases utterly wrong. I have a little set of rules for generating table and column aliases, it is not complex, but in my head the leading letters of a word are not always, well, the leading letters. I had to alter my scripts and then re-run them all as I knew if I tried to unpick the spelling mistakes manually I would mess it up, I’ve been there before. It took me hours. I can really do without wasting that time. {Update, since originally drafting this post the same situation with another technical post has occurred}. Then there is the embarrassment of doing something like spelling the name of a column wrong when you design and build a database. I did that in a V8 database when renaming columns was still not a simple task {was it really Oracle 9 release 2 before column rename was introduced?}. The database went live and accrued a lot of data before anyone made an issue of it. It then kept getting mentioned and I had to keep explaining.

I don’t see Dyslexia as a badge of honour and every time I see someone being proud of it (or to my odd mind it seems they are proud of it) or suggesting they are better than average for overcoming it (again, maybe it is just my perception), I just feel uncomfortable. I think all and everyone of us has something we have had to overcome to be “normal”.

Yet, on reading that above paragraph back, it is simply insulting to people who have fought and striven to overcome severe dyslexia or other issues with perception or communication. I certainly do not mean that (and I apologise unreservedly to anyone who is now fuming at me because of my callousness).

Maybe that is my issue with the whole topic – I am not uncomfortable with the notion of being proud to have overcome something like dyslexia and I admire people who cope with other conditions which make it harder for them to get by in our culture, but I just can’t see why you would be proud of the condition or want to use it as a bragging right.

I guess I want to be able to just acknowledge my dyslexia, point out it is no big deal in my case but it is why I spell like a 10 year old. It is as significant as the fact I’m scared of heights. I guess I cringe a little when I say it as I don’t want to be seen to be making excuses and I certainly do not feel, that in my case at least. I have won through against the odds. Maybe I’ve been a little hard-done-by occasionally but haven’t we all?

Friday Philosophy – Blogging Style and Aim

I’ve recently looked back at some of my earlier blog postings and also some notes I made at the time I started. I had a few aims at the start, pretty much in this order:

  • A place to put all those Oracle thoughts and ideas, for my own benefit
  • Somewhere to record stuff that I keep forgetting
  • I’d started commenting on other blogs and felt I was maybe too verbal on them
  • To increase my profile within the Oracle community
  • To share information, because I’m quite socialist in that respect
  • To learn more

It very quickly morphed into something slightly different though.

Firstly, it is not really somewhere that I record thoughts and ideas or where I record stuff that I forget. When I am busy, I sometimes only get half way to the bottom of resolving an issue or understanding some feature of Oracle. I tend to create little documents about them but I can lose track of them. I initially intended to put these on my blog. The thing is though, I don’t feel I can blog about them because I might be wrong or I raise more questions than I answer. I don’t think a public blog about technology is a good place to have half-baked ideas and I certainly don’t want people:

  1. reading and believing something that is wrong
  2. thinking I do not know what I am talking about
  3. seeing my rough notes as boy are they rough, often with naughty words in them and slang. Converting them to a familly-friendly format takes time. 

You see, there is the point about increasing my profile in the community. Part of me hates the conceit that you have to be seen as all-knowing or never wrong, as no one is all-knowing and never wrong. In fact, I think most of us find it hard to like people who put themselves as such.  But if I put out a blog saying “it works this way” and I am wrong or I simply say it in a clumsy way or I assume some vital prior knowledge, I could be making people’s lives harder not easier, so I spend a lot of effort testing and checking. It takes me a lot, lot longer to prepare a technical blog than I ever thought it would before I started. And yes, I accept I will still get it wrong sometimes.

Another consideration is that I make my living out of knowing a lot about Oracle. If I post a load of blogs saying something like “gosh I wish I understood how Oracle locks parts of the segment as it does an online table rebuild and handles the updates that happen during it”, then I obviously don’t know about that. Or I put out a post about how I currently think it works and I’m wrong. Tsch, I can’t be that good! How much should I have to think about how I am selling myself as a consultant? There is a difference between being liked and being perceived as good at what you do. If you want someone to design a VLDB for you, you probably don’t care if s/he is a nice person to spend an evening in the pub with - but you certainly care if they seem to be fundamentally wrong about oracle partitioning.

Balancing that, if you saw my recent post on Pickler Fetch you will see that I was wrong about a couple of things and there was some stuff I did not know yet. But I learnt about those wrong things and lack of knowledge, so I feel good about that. That was one of my original aims, to learn. Not only by having to check what I did but by people letting me know when I was wrong.

What about style? I can be quite flippant and, oh boy, can I go on and on. I know some people do not like this and, if you want a quick solution to an oracle problem, you probably do not want to wade through a load of side issues and little comments. You just want to see the commands, the syntax and how it works. Well, that is what the manuals are for and there a lot of very good web sites out there that are more like that. If you do not like my verbose style then, hey that’s absolutely fine.  But I like to write that way and so I shall.

So after over 2 years of blogging, I seem to have settled into a style and my aims have changed.

  • I try to be helpful and cover things in detail.
  • I try to polish what I present a lot, lot more than I do for my own internal notes. Maybe too much.
  • I’m going to write in a long-winded way that some people will not enjoy but it is my style.
  • I’m going to try and worry less about looking perfect as I am not.

I suppose what I could do is start a second, private blog with my half-baked stuff on it. But I just don’t think I’ve got the time :-)