Monday, October 29, 2007

October Travelogue #3:

Written on Saturday, October 27:

Here I am in seat 31C of an old Air India 747, making my way north to Paris and from there to Chicago. In some ten hours I will be home, at long last, after two weeks away - one in Europe and one in India.

For the last six days, I traveled to four different cities in India - Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai (Bombay) - and in each one, my friends at Quest Software India (led by Krishnan Thyagarajan, a very tall, very smart and very experienced software industry executive), put together a busy agenda that had me exhausted by the end of each day. My time in India was also just about the most successful, gratifying and exciting country tour I have ever experienced.

I'd been told for several years that there were lots of PL/SQL developers over in India who would love to come hear me speak. And, of course, I also knew that India was a country in transition - population growing rapidly, the high tech sector exploding even faster. Well, this was one case in which knowing intellectually about something and experiencing it personally are two very different things.

And before I say anything else about my time in India, I need to say this: I saw very little of it, and most of what I saw was from the window of a moving car. Of those six days, I spent a total of four hours as a tourist, being driven around Delhi, seeing some interesting tombs, mosques, monuments, etc. The whole rest of the time, I was either (a) presenting on PL/SQL best practices and Quest Code Tester to enthused groups of developers; (b) driving in totally insane traffic between those presentations; (c) sleeping in very nice hotels (but having time to nothing but sleep in them, sadly); (d) going to and from airports; and (e) flying around in planes.

I am not complaining, though. I told Krish that I was not coming to India to be a tourist. I wanted him to make the most of my short time there, and he did just that. In the five work days, I spoke directly to some 2000 developers! My audiences ranged from 10 (which was also one of the best in terms of discussions) to 400, at my public seminar in Mumbai just last night. I usually did three or four presentations each day (and I must tell you: I do not want to even think about presenting on best practices for quite a while).

Even with that very limited view of India, I could write for pages and pages about what I experienced. Sadly, I have many other things to do. So instead I will offer a scattering of impressions and highlights.

PL/SQL Ascending!

PL/SQL is an interesting language and the people who write PL/SQL code make up a very unusual programming culture. It is relatively small - perhaps a couple million developers. And PL/SQL developer are generally more focused on getting the job done than on debating the pros and cons of methodologies like Extreme Programming and Test-Driven Development. Yet there is a broad and deep appreciation of the language, from its simplicity and ease of use to its powerful methods of accessing the Oracle database.

In the US and Europe, it is also a language that is seeing very slow growth, in terms of numbers of new PL/SQL developers. It would be fairly typical for me to present to a group of 200 at an Oracle User Group event and find that only 10 people have started using PL/SQL in the last year or two.

In India, the numbers are starkly different. In a group of similar size, easily 50-75 people will be new to PL/SQL! That really warms my heart and gives me hope of ever blossoming book sales (:-) What can I say? I still need to food on the table...). And they are so young! One of my standard jokes goes like this:

"The programs you write today are likely going to still be running 20 years from now. How many of you have children under the age of 15?"

And in the US crowds of 200, perhaps 1/3 will raise their hands.

"Then there is good chance," I continue, "that some of those kids will grow up to be programmers. And maybe, just maybe, your daughter or son will end up maintaining your code. So you have two choices: either never put your name in your code or write code that you are proud of, that will not cause nightmares for little Johnny or Sally."

That gets a pretty good laugh in most of my presentations (so yes, I admit it: I have a standard repertoire of jokes. I am a "stand up comedi-programmer."). But in India, when I ask "How many of you have kids under the age of 15?" they all stare back at me unmoving. Heck, I think some of them are 15 years old!

In India, PL/SQL developers are young, they are energetic, they are enthusiastic, they are eager to learn. It was a real joy to spend time with so many of you in this past week, and I very much look forward to my next trip!

Rock Star!

I travel around the US and Europe mostly, doing trainings and presentations. And I always remind the people who are organizing the events that while it seems like it is easy to get people to come attend my events in respectable numbers, if you want to get lots of people to show up, you have at least pretend that the event is a BIG DEAL, really super special, etc. Otherwise, why would anyone else think it was going to be a big-deal, must-attend event?

Well, Quest India really took this advice to heart. Besides the on-site presentations at something like 15 companies, Quest organized two public events, one in Bangalore and the other in Mumbai. Hundreds of people attended each one and they were greeted by quite a show. I expect to post some vide clips on YouTube soon - you will not believe your eyes. A full stage backdrop set up, with an introductory video with pounding music...and then the phony fog hisses across the stage and as I step through the door in the center, confetti explodes into the air all around me! I have never experienced anything like it (and, honestly, I am not sure how much I want to :-) It was very entertaining, but I sure did a little bit weird).

After that rousing introduction, though, I got right back down to talking about PL/SQL, running code and so on. But for those few moments, I could pretend I was a "rock star."

.... to be continued ....

Sunday, October 28, 2007

October Travelogue #2: I arrive in India!

[Note: now I am home, after flying for over 17 hours yesterday. Ugh. So nice to sleep in my own bed and hug my wife...the following was written on Tuesday, Oct 22....more to come...including photos]

Continuing my travelogue, I left Germany on Saturday morning but instead of heading home (which I would really loved to have done, given the small amount of time I have had lately to spend with my wife, Veva), I got onto a Qatar Airways Airbus 330 and headed to Doha, Qatar. This is a very popular transfer point to India (I assume Qatar is offering not only many flights but also low fares), and as a result I visited the Middle East for the first time ever.

In other words, even though I have been very active on Middle East peace issues for the last five years or so (with a focus on supporting Israeli soldiers who refuse to enforce the occupation of the West Bank), even though I was raised in a typical Conservative Jewish home on Long Island, I have never visited Israel nor any other country in that region.

And this wasn't much of a visit in Doha or the Middle East - I never left the departures area. Still, when I came down off the airplane, it felt a bit special and different to stand on this ground. I stood there in the heat and looked around, eager to make the moment last - and immediately an airlines employee began to urge me to get on the bus. Take it easy, there!

Then a long bus ride to the terminal....looking out the window, I was struck by how much the area directly outside the bus reminded me of Chicago in the winter, after a light snow. Of course, in this case, it was sand and not snow, but in the darkness, they looked much the same!

Entering the terminal, I saw that all the signs were in English and Arabic -- and was immediately struck at how beautiful Arabic lettering is. English seems very boxy and boring, all business, compared to the flowing curves of Arabic (the same is true for Sanskrit - beautiful, as I glance at the signs on the seat in front of my on my current plane ride from Delhi to Bangalore).

And a few hours later off to Delhi! I arrived in Delhi at 6 AM on Sunday and my first impressions were that this is an old airport in major need of upgrading. Which, apparently, is how the airport authority feels about it as well, since they are in the midst of a major renovation project. Then whisked away by my arranged driver for the ride to the Le Meridien hotel....I am not sure if he was just being friendly or was hoping for a better tip, but he decided to show me the sights all the way, pointing out embassies, big government buildings, etc., usually creeping along at about 3 MPH to provide his brief explanations in halting English. And all I, rather exhausted on 1 hour of sleep, wanted to do was to get to the hotel....

I finally arrived and found that the Le Meridien was a very beautiful and fancy hotel - the sort that makes me a bit nervous, because they are so well appointed. I'm just not much of a luxury sort of guy. My room was very modern, with a console for all electronic operations right at my fingertips by the bed.

And then after just a couple hours' in that beautiful room, off I went for a half day of a tour through Delhi, organized on my behalf by Quest Software India. I saw the Presidential Palace, the Parliament building, India Gate (on which are carved the names of all soldiers who have died for their nation, I believe since World War II - not sure about that. I mostly looked at it and hoped that they would not run out of space), several tombs and adjoining mosques, the Red Fort and more. It was a hot sunny day and I got worn down rather quickly. My driver, Amar Singh, was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable, though I would have enjoyed it more if he was a bit more fluent in English; discussions were rather difficult. Sadly for me, October 21 is a national holiday, so all the museums were closed - a big disappointment.

Delhi is an enormous, busy place. Usually, traffic is an utter horror. Sunday, it wasn't as bad as usual, because of the holiday, but it also made some areas and streets even more crowded, as they prepared to celebrate. I was intrigued by the three-wheeled, very small taxi vehicles that zoomed in and out of every available open space (when, that is, a motorcycle hadn't beaten them to that space). Everyone honks at everyone else, but without any real anger so far as I could tell. And, yes, the contrast between wealth (such as my hotel) and poverty (the beggars lining almost every street, knocking at the window of my car whenever we stopped at a light, accosting me as I walked around the India Gate and other places) is downright depressing. Of course, this contrast also exists in the US - and it is getting worse with every passing year, under the grand leadership of "W". Yet it is a bit more "in your face" in India, unavoidable, ever-present. I guess in the US, we have compartmentalized and hidden extreme poverty from the eyes and thoughts of every day middle class existence. And I am not saying that is a good thing, but there it is.

One of my favorite moments in Delhi was standing at the window of hotel and watching hawks circling around on the air currents, right outside my window (which was, unfortunately, quite dirty). I also saw flocks of noisy, green parrots swooping about.

The roads are full of three-wheeled, 2 stroke engine mini-taxis (they are all green in Delhi, yellow in Bangalore and their official name is "auto rickshaw"). They jam themselves in between cars. And then the endless stream of motorcycles fit into every space between the mini-taxis. So there is absolutely no room to maneuver, but everyone maneuvers endlessly.

Well, that was it. A very short visit to Delhi, a very constrained visit to Delhi. My friends here at Quest did not think it would be a good idea for me to just go out and walk around (my usual, preferred method of visiting a new city). So I was driven around, I saw the very typical tourist sites, I bought my wife a gift, and then back to the hotel.

Because by 3 PM, I was mostly sitting in the car and falling asleep, and when I was awake, I was thinking about how I would have to wake up before 5 AM to catch my flight to Bangalore.

And that is the flight I am on now....I have two days and nights in Bangalore, the highlight of which will be a public seminar on Tuesday evening to which almost 900 developers have registered (!!). So I will write another entry in my blog after we see how that goes.

Looking forward to years of sub-standard flying in the US....

Reading through the Herald Tribune (NY Times' international daily - I always look for it when in Europe because it has a daily chess puzzle), I came across this item:

Strapped US airlines fail to upgrade fleets

"In essence, a new generation of jetliners - bigger, more comfortable, more fuel-efficient - is largely bypassing U.S. airlines and their customers."

Instead, they are being purchased by European, Asian and Middle Eastern airlines. U.S. airlines have $28 billion in the bank (cash) but prefer to use it to pay down debt, rather than upgrade their fleets. We are assured that the old planes (flying for 20, 25, even 35 years) are perfectly safe. Oh, goodie.

Flying back from a two weeks in Europe and India, it just struck me as another example of how our empire is in decline. We, the citizens of the US, supposedly among the most powerful and affluent people in the world, live in a country whose bridges are falling apart, whose mass transit systems are in decay and crisis, millions of people are being foreclosed out of their homes, and we are shuttled around the country in dilapidated, dirty airplanes. Oh, and we, our government, somehow can't afford to even make sure that our children receive health care (thanks, George W, for your brave dedication to fiscal discipline by vetoing legislative that would help children instead of your cronies in Halliburton and the despotic Saudi Arabia).

Meanwhile, the very rich among us grow unimaginably richer, fly around in their own private jets, build bigger walls to stay cleanly separated from the rabble.

I know, I know - what a pathetic bleeding heart I am! Well, I'd rather my heart bleeds than is a stone, looking down from on high and urging everyone to "trust the market."

Monday, October 22, 2007

October Travelogue #1: A week in Europe

Hello there from Chennai, India! I am halfway through my first ever visit to India, and I am simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated by the experience. What a country, and what an almost-overwhelming population of PL/SQL Developers! In the past three days, I have spoken directly to well over 1,000 programmers. It has been an absolute morning-to-night whirlwind of activity organized by my very capable friends at QSFT India: Krishnan, Selza, Berta and Christina. I will write more about my experiences in the coming week or so, but for now, I am going to post what I wrote about last week's trip through Europe:

Quest Software organized a series of seminars and Toad Conferences in Norway, the Netherlands and Germany. I volunteered to talk about my favorite topics: best practices and testing.

I started off with a visit to one of my favorite countries, Norway. I like it so much, because they are just so darned civilized. Norway, in case you didn't realize it, is a major oil exporter, extracting crude from the North Sea. As a result, the country has lots of money, but they use it wisely, compared to so many other nations.

What do I mean by "wise"? Rather than allow oil wealth to concentrate into the hands of a very few people, Norway invests in social services to provide a high quality of life for everyone. It also recognizes that oil revenue will not last forever. To address this issue, Norway has established a national pension fund that today tops $350B in value. More than that, the fund operates in a totally transparent manner, publicly listing all of its investments (which are widely and shallowly - no more than 1% investment in any one company - spread across the world) and also explaining its investment strategy to its citizens.

That's smart, that's democratic, that's a model for other countries to follow. Thanks, Norway, for leading the way!

Then on to another favorite nation and city - Netherlands and Amsterdam. I always greatly enjoy coming to the Netherlands for several reasons:

* Amsterdam was my first international destination, years ago, when I participated in a European Oracle User Group. Amsterdam was in the midst of a wonderful spring, the weather was great, everything was subtly and not-so-subtly (think: coffeeshops) different. I had a wonderful time!

* The PL/SQL community in the Netherlands is just about the most advanced I have ever encountered. Many developers are very interested in writing high quality code, in exploring different ways of creatively using PL/SQL, in engaging with PL/SQL as more than just a way of getting their jobs done.

* My good friend, Patrick Barel (PL/SQL developer, Delphi developer and about-to-be newly hired AMIS consultant), has welcomed me into his family and so whenever I can, I stay with him and renew my friendships with Quinty, Kayleigh, Mitchell and their mom, Dana. It is so nice to avoid the hotels and stay in a real home with friends!

Now, on this trip, I made a couple of too-short presentations at the Toad conference, which was held at Ajax Stadium. Ajax is the Amsterdam football team. The stadium is enormous, and while we of course presented in the conference center, we all got together for a group photo in the stadium itself. That was different. At the end of the conference, I participated for the first time in the SQL-PL/SQL quiz by Lucas Jellema and Alex Nuijten of AMIS Consulting. That was hilarious and very challenging, but I am proud to say that even though I had no idea about many of their quiz topics (centered as they were in SQL and DBA features), I was able to use logic to narrow down my choices. I ended up 1 out of 14 answers correct, and was quite happy with that.

I learned one very important lesson from this conference: never agree to speak for less than one hour in a session. I had just 45 minutes each for my talks, and it was simply not enough. From now on, I draw the line: give me at least one hour - preferably two - or leave me off the agenda!

But the Toad conference was only the first part of my day. In the evening, Ordina Consulting held its second public program featuring yours truly as its speaker. They did this the last time I was in the Netherlands (back in March) and we had a really fun time; over 200 enthusatic, easily amused people (they laughed at every one of my jokes) showed up to hear my thoughts about best practices. In October, we again had close to 200 people in the MediaPark, a futuristic, high-tech conference center in Utrecht. Once again, a very attentive and responsive audience and, once again, Ordina did a bang-up job organizing a really fine program. My warm thanks to Jenny and Frank!

What next? Ah, yes! Germany: Cologne, Berlin and finally Mannheim (near Frankfurt). I took a 6:30 AM high speed train from Amsterdam Central Station to Cologne. Very nice form of transportation. I then stepped out of the Cologne station to see the incredible Cathedral, a gothic wonder with a very tall tower (which I was to climb in a few hours). I headed over to the Hilton and a little while later performed for the "masses." Actually, the audience size was a bit on the small size, something that repeated over the next two days as well; it seems that the Toad events attracted many more DBAs than developers; I am not sure why. They were also much quieter and more serious than the Dutch, partly I believe due to a bit more of a language barrier. Yet some of the attendees gave me great ideas for new features to add to Quest Code Tester.

With the afternoon free, I went to the Cathedral and climbed the 500 steps up through a very confining circular stone stairwell. Good exercise, a great view, and a marvel of gothic architecture. Besides that, the highlight of my Cologne visit were the excellent pastries and numerous Snickers bars put out over the break. Photos to come later....

From there, to Berlin - my first time ever to this historic city. Unfortunately, time was very short and besides giving my presentations, I only had time for a short walk in the neighborhood of the Crowne Plaza hotel.
Photos to come later....

And then Mannheim. Following the pattern of this trip, we traveled into the evening, then rented a big Mercedes van to drive the hour to Mannheim and the Dorint hotel, which was a major disappointment. To my and others' utter amazement, this conference center hotel only offered dial-up Internet access in the rooms; I had to sit out by the elevator to find a wireless connection, thereby sharing my conversation with my wife via Skype with anyone going in and out of the elevators. To plug in my laptop at the desk, I had to unplug the lamp. No fitness center. And to top all that off, at 7 AM construction workers started their day right outside my window, making more than enough noise to ensure that I did not need an alarm to wake up in time. Very irritating.

All in all, though, a fine trip to Germany. Many thanks to Daniela for organizing the events so professionally. And it was great to see again my friends Johannes and Thomas, two fine Quest SCs.

Monday, October 08, 2007

An amazing Scrabble achievement

Veva and I have been playing Scrabble lots lately....

A few weeks ago I was delighted to put down this word


Nothing terribly special, except that I was able to put it across the board in such a way that both the V and the G were on double word spaces - so I got a quadruple word score! That was the first time I had ever done that.

But this accomplishment was nothing compared to last night.

On Veva's first turn she put down BREEZES - 7 letter word -> 106 points!

I immediately countered on MY first turn with SOUTHING - another 7 letter word but "only" 74 points.

Well, from there my game definitely took a turn for the worse; I ended up with only 298 points.

But Veva...Veva...she never slowed down. She came up with a SECOND 7 letter word score: DIVERTED, good for another 70 points, followed that by CREW on a triple word score that netted 48 points and....

She ended up with a score of 437 points, an average score per turn of 21 points!


That was a lot of fun, though I have to admit I would have had MORE fun if I was the one who got 437 points.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Liberal Media bites again? Hah!

I find the charge that the US media is "liberal" to be especially amusing, because it is one of those claims that has no resonance in the real world. But if "you" (that is, the people taking up lots of our bandwidth on radio, TV, etc.) repeat something often and loudly enough, after a while, people seem to accept it as a sort of truth.

It is, for example, almost impossible to find a real left wing voice or face on television. And of course in recent years, all major media, even that most "liberal" of newspapers, The New York Times, went out of their way to support President Bush as he lied his way straight into the tragedy unfolding in Iraq.

Yet those are very broad-brush examples/counter-arguments. I ran across a much more concrete example this morning of how the US media is largely biased in favor of the right wing.

Check out this article on Yahoo News:

Springsteen ready for criticism over "Magic" words

From Reuters, it leads off with this text:

"Bruce Springsteen's new album "Magic" marks his return to the pop sound that propelled him to mega-stardom in the 1980s, but the hook-laden melodies mask lyrics portraying an America of despair and hopelessness.

"Springsteen says he is prepared for criticism from those who may take the lyrics on his latest album "Magic" as unpatriotic for speaking out against the Iraq war and President George W. Bush in war time."

Now, c'mon, folks - who at this point pretends that this war is popular or that criticism of this war would be considered "unpatriotic"? Just the right wing nut cases. The war is demonstrably, overwhelmingly unpopular. Many people, from all walks of life, all political parties, are criticizing Bush and Cheney and Gates.

Wouldn't a more accurate headline and overall subject for this article be something like: "Springsteen to put Bush Administration further on defensive with new album"?

This article, in other words, is not really news. It is a twisting of the news to persuade us that we should be thinking of Iraq war criticism as being "unpatriotic."