Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Steven Feuerstein, Tree Killer

I don't just like trees. I am in awe of trees. Sometimes, I must confess, I do walk up to a tree to trace the texture of its bark with my fingers, or just lean up against the big trunk, feel its strength, and age, look up to follow the wonderful twisting branches up into the sky.

And now, October, of course, it is time to have one's breath taken away by the changing leaf colors, as in:

But I must be honest and also confess that I am a tree killer. I have cut down or pulled out by the roots easily over 1,000 trees and saplings in the past decade.

Heck, just in the past month, I have paid quit to the lives of hundreds of buckthorn trees. What, you want proof? OK, here it is:

Those piles of greenery inside the red boxes are buckthorn I have cleared from an area along a branch of the Chicago River. Here's proof they are, in fact, dead trees:

Am I being horrible and terrible and killing the world?

No way! I am working hard to save a thin chunk of forest that is turning into a sad and unhealthy monoculture. To quote the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, "Common buckthorn was first brought here from Europe in the mid-1800s as a popular hedging material. It escaped and became a nuisance plant, forming dense thickets in forests, yards, parks, and roadsides. It crowded out native plants and displaced the native shrubs and small trees in the mid-layer of the forest where many species of birds nested."

And you can definitely see that happening in this forest. Here's just one photo of many I took showing buckthorn (four thin, dark trunks - probably because it was cut back years ago) crowding around and eventually choking off another tree:

Yes, it is an ironic but unavoidable truth that due to the spread of invasive species (by the #1 invasive species in the world: humans), those of us who pay attention to non-Humanland and attempt to repair some of the damage our species has done often have to kill plants and animals in order to save native habitats.

I plan to create a Buckthorn Brigade here in Chicago, a team of concerned citizens who will join me in an effort to eradicate buckthorn (not that we will ever truly achieve that!). Let me know if you are interested!

No more daily quizzes? Oh my!

In case you ever have visited the PL/SQL Challenge or generally follow my obsessive behaviors, I have just announced at the PL/SQL Challenge blog that I plan to stop offering daily quizzes starting in 2014.

This is a big deal, at least to me. I started the PL/SQL Challenge in April 2010 and since then we've published five new quizzes on PL/SQL each week, come rain or shine, holiday or workday. And it should come as no big surprise, given that this whole site was my idea, that I have written more quizzes than everyone else combined: over 1,000. Wow.

See what I mean about obsessive? PL/SQL is not the "biggest" language, feature-wise. Sure, there are still aspects of the language we haven't covered, but certainly all the main branches of functionality have been covered - several times over.

Clearly, I could keep going. I could do it. But for several reasons you will find on the blog, it seems like it makes more sense to shift how I spend my time.

One motivation for the shift is so that I can concentrate more attention and resources on other aspects of the site.

Another motivation is to reduce the amount of time I need to sit in front of my computer.

I just celebrated my 55th birthday, and it sure has gotten me thinking about how much more of my life I want to live in cyberspace.

These days, I am much more interested in getting outdoors, away from what I call Humanland, and both enjoying the natural world and helping to repair the natural world. I expect to be sharing more of these ideas - and ways that you can do some repairing yourself - in the coming months.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Television is not our best friend

My granddaughter, Loey, will be two at the end of October 2013. She is a delight. And very observant. Several times in the past two weeks, as I've been holding her - so her face is close to mine - and I say something, she'll stick her index finger in my mouth and say:

"What's this?"

And I realize she is pointing at a filling, a blob of shiny metal in my mouth (actually, whole lots of them. I am a good flosser and fine brusher, but I am also an awesome eater. I have had many cavities in my life).

It's an awkward moment - not because explaining the filling would be awkward in any way. But because she is asking me a question, clearly waiting for an answer, with her limpid blue eyes staring into mine, but her finger is in my mouth, so I cannot talk.
I look at her, she looks at me, finger in my mouth, and then I try to talk, bringing my teeth in contact with her finger, which she immediately pulls away. At which point, I say something like this:

"There was a hole in my tooth and they filled it up with metal."

And then she seems to lose interest. Funny girl!

But it got me thinking: at the age of two, Loey has already developed a mental image of a normal mouth, a mouth whose teeth does not invite comment or notice. I expect this means that neither Chris nor Lauren have very many fillings. So simply from being around her parents a whole lot, she saw their teeth and those teeth became what teeth are supposed to look like in a mouth.
Very passive ingestion of data leading to strong pattern recognition. It's how our brains seem to work.

Then I think about children watching television. They often do so at the urging or at least tacit approval of their parents, so have every reason to trust this source of data. In other words, kids are not scared or suspicious about television. Instead, they are entertained, stimulated - and inundated with information.
We should think of a television as a high-bandwidth, high resolution stream of data feeding the watcher.
And what will children do with this data? The same thing they do with any other data. They will analyze it, identify patterns, and adjust their understanding of the world accordingly.

If a kid manages to develop the image/concept for "normal teeth" just by looking at her parent's teeth, I am sure that if she watches commercial children's television on a regular basis she will have new patterns settling into her brain, affecting how she sees the world,and what she wants from it. Do you really want to let that sort of stuff get into your child's brain? 

Parents get to decide this - that's your responsibility as a parent.

And so I plead with parents around the world: turn off your televisions!  Just leave them off. All day long and into the night. Instead, read books (not on an iPad). Sing songs. Play games together. Board games, card games, not Angry Birds...be in the real world with your children, not in cyberspace.

You don't have children? Or they are grown up? No problem. You still have a brain. The pattern-generating effects of TV on adults is no different (see: Fox News). And so I also plead with all adults: Stop watching TV. Just stop. Instead, spend some time thinking about your life - what you like about it, what you want to improve. Check in on your fundamental beliefs: do you still feel the same way you did a year ago about the really important stuff in your life? It never hurts to ask.

And think about, be in, the small bits of the world left that are not a part of Humanland. Take a walk in a forest. Sit on the beach with your eyes closed and feel the sun warming your face, hear the wind whistling past your ears and the waves rushing in and out....

But for your sake and mine, and your children's, stop watching TV!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Vivian Vulture - a Children's Book

I don't just write books about PL/SQL. I also write children's books (much, much harder!). In fact, back in 1991, I wrote my all-time favorite: Vivian Vulture. My incredibly talented wife, Veva Silva, did some fantastic illustrations for it and we plan to publish it soon via Amazon's Createspace. 

In the meantime, I have recorded a reading of the book, which you can check out here: http://youtu.be/nC0swtkJr50

Please give me some feedback so we can make it as wonderful as possible before publication!

Loey Loves Boots

Conversation with Veva Silva a few nights ago:

Steven: Sometimes I get worried about how easily Loey is able to bewitch entire groups of people. "Ohhhhh," they sigh, as if experiencing one of Life's Mysteries, "she's so beautiful..." And talk about melting your heart, when she holds out her arms and looks openly and expectantly right into your eyes, how can you not fall in love with her, and want to pick her up, and be willing to do anything for her to be happy?

Veva: Yeah, but what really worries me is that she does it to get their boots.

This is true. Loey really loves boots, the higher the better, the more leather, it seems, the better. We were at a popular park on Saturday and Loey noticed a mom with (we found out later) a 19 month old boy - and really nice, high, leather boots. She walked right over, stood in front of the woman, looked up at her, looked down at her boots. I explained: "Sorry, Loey really likes boots, she wanted to come see yours."

The woman was instantly enchanted and delighted and offered to let Loey wear one. Oh, she had no idea. Loey immediately kicked off her shoe. Actually, it was Indigo's shoe. Indigo is Loey's best friends, 9 months older. Anyway, Loey dissolved into tears when Gogo - as she calls Indigo - tried to wear her own shoes to the park. She wanted to wear Gogo's shoes. So eventually Gogo saw the light and offered them to Loey to wear. Loey has a "thing" about footwear.

Well, I helped her into this big beautifully sewn boot with a zipper up the side. The top came up to her waist. And then she made abundantly clear that she wanted to wear both of them. And so in another moment or two, that was also arranged. About eight people total were watching this, all of them smiling or laughing, as Loey proceeded to walk around and call out "Gamma, yook" and "Mama, yook".

Here is Loey with those boots, being shown a photo by the nice lady's husband:
Finally, though, it was time for them to go. Loey gave up the boots, I put her (Gogo's) shoes back on, and then she held out her arms to the mom. They hugged and then Loey climbed up on her lap. Happiness descended on all of us like the scent of beautiful flowers on a windless day.

That's the sort of effect Loey has on people.

And that's why her grandparents are worried.

Will she use her great powers only for good?

Monday, October 07, 2013

A question about my e-reader preferences

I received this note late in September:

Hello Steven,

Well, as I've been searching for info/opinions/reviews on this, I figure why not try asking you ???  Would sure appreciate your feedback.

I'm a programmer entering into work where I'll be traveling a bit, no longer able to search my bookshelf for information.  I'll need to travel with my frequent references, including your books and others from O'Reilly, Tom Kyte's books and others from Apress, and books from Oracle Press.

I'm an old timer more comfortable with paper books that I scribble notes in, but it looks like I have to go electronic.  What e-reader format do you use, if any, and what do you like or not like about your device?

Thanks in advance!

So, Steven, what do you use? Your tablet? Your smartphone? Your Kindle Paperwhite?

None of the above.

In fact, my feeling right now is that I have reached my limit for how much I want the virtual "world" to invade my "real" life.

I finally upgraded my fliphone to a smallish Android smartphone, because I found texting too frustrating on those small phones and I realized that I would need to text with my nieces and nephews if I was going to stay in touch with them. So I paid that price.

But I have no interest in playing games on my phone or using apps, or getting a tablet to watch movies, or investing in an e-ink device so I can read books on a screen that doesn't wash out in the sun.

Nope, none of that for me. My career as a software developer, author, trainer has already resulted in me spending a horrifying large percentage of my adult life in front of one screen or another.

Today, the most important thing I can do (after taking care of family) is GO OUT INTO THE NATURAL WORLD - escape human devices and the enclosures/surfaces we create to protect us from our habitat (house, car, sidewalk, road, office, etc.)

Specifically, I try to spend a minimum of ten hours a week fighting back against invasive species. Here in Chicago, my nemesis is buckthorn. You can see below an area that I have cleared. It's hard work (I have quit my fitness center - all my exercise takes place outside now) and I love it.

So to get back to Edward's question: I realize that you have different needs and perspectives, so I am sure you will find something to meet your requirements. I'm simply the wrong guy to ask. But please do give serious thought to spending more time outdoors, away from human things.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Database Design Quiz: Another reason to check out the PL/SQL Challenge

Since April 2010, the PL/SQL Challenge has offered daily, weekly and monthly quizzes on Oracle PL/SQL, SQL, deductive logic and Oracle Application Express. Oracle technologists have submitted over 740,000 answers to these quizzes. Hundreds have raved about how much they have learned, how much fun it is to compete (or not, as you choose!)....

This website is one of my proudest achievements, but I sure would love to have more of my developer and DBA friends around the world using the site.

So I am excited to announce a new weekly quiz on Database Design, which will start on 5 October.

Relational databases form the backbone of thousands, if not millions, of applications around the globe. A key part of building these applications is designing and implementing the data structures they use. Proper table design can mean the difference between a scalable, high performing database that is a joy to query and an unscalable mess that makes your brain melt.

Given the importance of databases, understanding good data modelling techniques and physical implementation methods are essential skills for architects, database administrators and developers creating database applications.

Building on the SQL and PL/SQL quizzes already available at the PL/SQL Challenge, the weekly Database Design Quiz kicks off on 5 October to help you build these skills. The quiz will cover many areas of database design, from logical design all the way to physical database design, including topics such as:
  • Normalization - ensuring you have high quality data
  • Referential integrity - saving you the time and effort of writing your own constraints
  • Indexing - enabling you to write fast and efficient queries
Whether you're an experienced data modeller or completely new to relational databases, the weekly Database Design Quiz offers you the opportunity to both learn new approaches and show off your expertise. It will teach techniques that you can use to improve the quality for your work and impress future employers with your achievements.

The person who has made this quiz possible is Chris Saxon, a long-time player on the PL/SQL Challenge. Chris is a database technologist with 10 years experience designing and building Oracle database applications. He currently works as the Data Architect for the airline Flybe, a role which sees him creating the data structures for the flybe.com database and the company's enterprise data warehouse. He also runs the blog www.sqlfail.com, a project to explain database concepts and other topics of interest using just SQL and PL/SQL. While not thinking about data, his spare time is filled chasing after his daughter Isabelle, born in January this year.

I have, by the way, seen pictures of Isabelle. She is beautiful!

But Chris is so devoted to his craft and so interested in helping others that he is going to give up precious time with his daughter to create and manage the quizzes.

So play the quiz! Every week! Starting 5 October (this Saturday).

If you have not yet visited the PL/SQL Challenge, it's easy to register and entirely free. Check it out!