Changing Technologies – T-SQL Tuesday

Select <columns> from Some_Table where Condition=’Some Value’

T-SQL Tuesday Topic

The above statement is pretty much the basis of what started my current career. Of course it actually goes back further than that. I have a Computer Science Degree from RPI. So I’ve done programming, learned hardware and more. I even took an Intro to Databases course while at RPI. I still recall the professor talking about IBM and something called Structured Query Language. The book had a line that went something like “while not the most popular database technology, its use may grow in the future.” Boy did it.

When I first started working with SQL Server, it was 4.21 and for a startup. I had a lot to learn. Back then, a lot was by experience. Sometimes I made mistakes. But I learned.

When I started at that startup, if one could write basic queries and backup and restore a database, one was a half-way decent DBA. Knowing how to tune indices was a definite bonus, as was knowing things like how to set up log-shipping and replication.

Back then, besides experience, I learned new stuff two ways: SQL Server Magazine and the SQL Connections conference. Work paid for both. It was worth it. But honestly, there wasn’t too much to learn. But there also weren’t as nearly as many resources as there were today.

Fast forward 30+ years and here I’ve written a book, worked for several startups, regularly write about databases and database related topics, and often presented at User Groups, SQL Saturdays and at the now defunct PASS Summit. Today as a consultant I regularly touch the SQL Server Query Engine, SSAS, SSRS, SSIS, use PowerShell, write the occasional C# and VB.Net, sometimes do work on a Linux machine or VM and more. A lot has changed.

Obviously the technology has changed. So how have I responded? By doing what I said above. This may sound like a tautology or even circular reasoning but it’s true. When I would go to a SQL Saturday, I’d often attend 3-5 different topics. I’d learn something. But then I started presenting. And that forced me to learn. As much as I may like to think I know about a topic, when I go to present about it, I like to ensure I know even more. This forces me to read white papers, other articles and perhaps attend other sessions.

When I’ve written an article, I’ve often had to do a lot of research for it.

So strangely, I would say a bit part of keeping my skills up to date is not just learning from others, but from teaching. Teaching forces me to keep my skills up.

In summation, I’ve responded by learning from others, but also forcing myself to teach myself before I taught others. It’s a feedback loop. The more technology changes, the more I reach out and learn and the more learn, the more I do outreach.

The impetus for this week’s blog was Andy Leonard’s call for a T-SQL Tuesday topic.

Hiring

Not sure why it came to mind last night, but I was thinking of the best hire I never made. This expanded into me thinking about folks I have hired over the ages. As a Director of IT and later a VP of IT, I’ve had to make a lot of hires over the years, some better than others. Even when I can’t remember their names (an unfortunate weakness of mine) I can almost always remember their faces and how they worked out. And fortunately, most of them worked out quite well, even the ones who surprisingly might think they didn’t.

Looking back, I would say there was probably only one person I absolutely should not have hired and she was the only person I ended up having to let go because of performance issues. There were a few how were less than stellar, and a few I had to let go because of budget cuts, but even those weren’t necessarily bad hires.

But then there’s the one that “got away” and honestly, when I reflected upon it, I was glad, for both of us. Back in the early days of the first dotcom bubble I was working for a company that was quickly expanding. I can’t recall how many interviews a day I was doing, but it was a lot. We were looking to ramp up quickly and I couldn’t afford to be too picky. That said, some of my best hires came during that period.

In this case she was an ideal candidate, both on resume and in person. She had a great college background, ticked all the checkmarks in terms of classes taken and experience. She did great during the interview, both technically and in terms of how I thought she’d be for the team I was looking to build. In fact, looking back, I think she would have been the first member of said team and as such would have been a good role model for others.

There was only one issue, and we both recognized it in time. We were a startup. We didn’t ask that stereotypical (and I think bad) question of “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” because, heck, we didn’t know where we’d be in 5 years. We didn’t have a clear career path of growth for employees. I mean it was obvious we’d grow and there would be steps up, but there was no clear org chart.

On the other hand, companies like GE, especially back then, had a very clear progression path. If you wanted management, you knew the path to take and it was pretty clear that both parties would work to make it happen.

And, it became apparent, she wanted to know where she would be in 5 years. And there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. We made her the offer, but I half-hoped she’d turn it down and was relieved in some ways that she did. Yes, she would have been a great hire for us. However, honestly, for her own career, it probably would have been a mistake.

But, I have to wonder what things would have been like had she joined the team. She would have been great. She’s the one that got away. And I’m OK with that.

“It’s Just a Simple Change”

How often have we heard those words? Or used them ourselves?

“Oh this is just a simple change, it won’t break a thing.” And then all hell breaks lose.

Yet, we also hear the reverse at times. “This is pretty complex, I’ll be surprised if it works the first time, or if it doesn’t break something.” And yet then nothing bad seems to happen.

We may observe this, but we don’t necessarily stop to think about the why. I’ve seen this happen a lot in IT, but honestly, I’ve seen this happen elsewhere and often when we read about accidents in areas such as caving, this also holds true.

I argue that in this case the perception is often true. Let me put in one caveat. There’s definitely a bias in our memory where we don’t recall all the times where simple things don’t break things, but the times it does, it really stands out.

The truth is, whenever we deal with complex systems, even simple changes aren’t so simple. But we assume they are and then are surprised when they have side effects. “Oh updating that path here won’t break anything. I only call it one place, and I’ll update that.” And you’re good. But what you didn’t realize was another developer liked your script, so made a copy and is using it for their own purposes and now their code breaks because of the new path. So your simple change isn’t so simple.

Contrast that to the complex change. I’m in the middle up refactoring a stored procedure. It’s complex. I suspect it’ll break something in production. But, honestly, it probably won’t. Not because I’m am awesome T-SQL developer, but, because of our paranoia, we’ll be testing this in UAT quite a bit. In other words, our paranoia drives our testing to a higher level.

I think it behooves us to treat even simple changes with more respect than we do and test them.

In the world of caving we use something called SRT – Single Rope Technique. This is the method we use for ascending and descending a rope. When ascending, if you put your gear on wrong at the bottom, generally there’s no real risk other than possible embarrassment. After all, you’re standing on the ground. But obviously a the top, it’s critical to put your equipment on correctly, lest your first step be your last. Similarly, we practice something known as a change-over; changing from ascending to descending, or descending to ascending while on rope. When changing from climbing to descending you want to make sure you do it correctly lest you find yourself descending at 9.8m/s^2. To prevent accidents, we ingrain in students “load and test your descent device before removing your other attachment point.” Basically, while you’re still secured to something at the top, or to your ascending devices if you’re partway up the rope, put your entire weight on your descent device and lower yourself 1-2″. If you succeed, great, then you can detach yourself from whatever you are attached to at the top, or remove your ascending devices. If somehow you’ve screwed something up and the descent device comes off the top or otherwise fails, you’ve got a backup.

Now, I will interject, getting on rope at the top of a pit, or a changeover is something an experienced caver will have done possibly 100s if not 1000s of times. It’s “a simple change”. Yet we still do the test because a single failure can be fatal. And I have in fact seen a person fail to properly test their descent device. And moreover, this wasn’t in a cave, or other dark or cramped space. It was in broad daylight on the edge of the RPI Student Union! This was about as simple as it could get! Fortunately he heard it start to fail and grabbed the concrete railing for dear life. In this particular case a failure most likely would not have been fatal, but would have caused serious injury.

So, despite having gotten on rope 100s of times myself, I ALWAYS test. It’s a simple change. But the test is also simple and there’s no reason to skip it.

The morale of the story, even your simple changes should be tested, lest you find they’re not so simple, or their failures aren’t so minor.

4/20

I was going to start this post by making a crack about getting any cracks about references to 420 out of the way. But then I realized they’re actually apropos of the intent of this post.

Yes, often when we folks think of the numbers 420 the references to marijuana jump out. Not a habit I’ve ever had any interest in, but I’ve been around it enough to feel its effects and I guess I can understand why others might partake. Growing up in the 70s and 80s I was routinely offered it but always declined due to lack of interest. That said, one thing that I never really dwelt on much was what would happen if I got caught with it. My skin color mattered.

Three events though shaped 4/20/21 for me.

I happened to reread (I had come across it earlier) a post by Eva Kor on Quora. Eva Kor was a twin who survived Josef Mengele’s atrocities and spent much of her life talking about them. She was a living witness to the history of the Holocaust, an event we must never forget. Sadly she is gone now, but her writings and voice live on.

4/20 also happens to be the birthday of George Takei. I recall growing up watching him in reruns of the original Star Trek, playing originally a physicist on the Enterprise, but really best known as the ship’s navigator. To quote Spock Sulu “is at heart a swashbuckler out of the 18th century”. But I later learned he was also instrumental in bringing attention to a dark period of our own US history during WWII, the internment of US citizens of Japanese heritage. He is, at this writing, still a living witness to those dark days. But, the truth is unfortunately, time will eventually silence his great voice. But that does not mean we can be allowed to forget what the US did to its own citizens.

And finally of course 4/20/21 was the reading of the verdict of in the George Floyd murder case. Guilty on all three counts. George Floyd’s life was sadly ended with the words “I can’t breath.” He can’t speak for himself. But fortunately, due to cell phone cameras, and the work of the prosecution, the jury could speak for accountability and hold his murderer responsible.

While the murderer will be held accountable, it will not change the tragedy that such an event should never have happened. There are those that will still argue, “well if he hadn’t resisted arrest…” ignoring the idea that perhaps the initial response while legal, probably should have been handled very differently. Dr. Mengele’s atrocities were considered legal, but that didn’t make them right by any moral compass I am comfortable with. The Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States held that the government could force Korematsu to be detained because of his heritage. In the case of George Floyd, the defense argued a reasonable officer would do what George Floyd’s murderer did. The jury rejected that argument. Thankfully. But we know all to often where that argument did hold sway. And, honestly will again.

So back to 420. The decriminalization of marijuana is quickly becoming the norm. Even my US Senator Chuck “I never found a camera I didn’t like” Schumer posted on Facebook positively about 420 day. These are steps forward. But, there is still an ugly racial history to the handling and prosecution of crimes related to marijuana in this country. Blacks for example are about twice as likely to be arrested for possession, despite their rate of use being about the same as whites. Like many aspects of the law, it’s clear it’s applied disproportionality and in a huge part based on the color of ones skin. Hence why I never really worried too much about it.

Fortunately here in New York, part of the rollback of marijuana laws is including vacating 10s of thousands or prior convictions and expunging them from individual records (there are some caveats however.) This is a step towards restorative justice.

So 4/20 represents a confluence of events and perhaps a step forward. But despite Eva Kor’s testimonies, George Takei’s work, still going on today, and the conviction of George Floyd’s murderer, we have a long ways to go towards the living up to our ideals. They are the voices calling us to do better. And we must. And we must never think the work is done.

Make Security Easy

This will be a short blog this week, but I want to talk again about an issue I have with a client of mine. They make security hard.

This is not to say they don’t take it seriously, or that they are lax. Far from it. They actually are fairly stringent on their security protocols and get after folks on ensuring boxes are consistently patched and that passwords are stringent and details like that. Overall I’d give them probably an B on security. But I can’t quite give them an A.

There’s really two reasons for that:

The first is inconsistency. Let me be clear, getting to their internal network is appropriately difficult. I have to use their secure VPN, with soft-tokens and similar measures. Technically before I can access a box, I have to jump through multiple hurdles. I’m ok with that. What’s a pain is on some boxes if I walk away for an extended period of time, the screen remains unlocked and nothing changes. Now, because of my OWN security model my computer will lock FAR sooner than that. And my default mode is to typically lock my own computer anytime I walk away from it (and that’s within my own house). But for some machines, if there’s no keyboard or mouse input, the screen will lock after 15 minutes, but my session won’t ever be logged out. For others, the screen will lock after 15 minutes and my session will be logged out after several hours. There appears to be no real rhyme no reason to this other than a slight correlation with when the box was configured.

Now, in general, I think locking unattended screens can be a good thing. The downside is, due to the nature of my job, I may start work on one machine, flip over to another to do something like update the schema and then flip back to the first, only to find my screen locked. In some cases, I won’t. It’s inconsistent. Ideally I think it should be consistent.

So, if you have a security protocol, decide on what it is, and make it consistent.

But the real complaint I have, and this has been true of multiple companies I’ve worked with: make security easy.

Again, with this particular client, on most, but not all boxes, I can easily download and install the required patches. (OS level patches are handled by their internal IT team which is a huge win). But some machines have firewall rules in place such that you can’t download the patch directly to the machine. You have to go to a jump box, download the patch there and copy it over. This is fairly inconvenient. Now, if this were consistent across all machines I’d develop procedures around that, but they’re not consistent. This is particularly a problem for software that often will actually only download a stub installer that will then try to download the actual patch. In this case, if you simply copy over the stub and try to run it to patch the machine, it too will fail. This means you need to find the often hard to find link to download the full patch to the jump box and then copy that over. In some cases, it’s even worse, you have to manually place files where you want them. I had this occur on an update I was doing to a module for PowerShell. I had to download the installer to a jump box, extract what I needed and manually copy the files to the right subdirectory. Now, granted, I get paid by the hour, but I’d like to think my clients pay me for things other than copying files.

I’ve seen another related issue at other clients when it came to patching. They’d patch users desktops during the day and default to “reboot in the next 10 minutes” with no option of delaying the patch or reboot. Now, there are possibly first day exploits where this might be warranted, but this was the default for ALL Windows patches. This was really discouraging to employees and multiple times caused them to lose work, especially it they were away from the desk during this time and didn’t have a chance to save their work. The sad part is that there are multiple ways this could have easily been handled that would have had far less impact on the employees.

In the end, security is critical, but we should be making it as easy to comply as possible and as consistent as possible. There’s an old adage that the security person doesn’t stop doing their job until they’ve stopped you from doing yours. Don’t make that a truism.

Stuck, with Responsibility

So, by now, you may have all heard about the vehicle that got stuck trying to go through a somewhat narrow passage. No, I’m not talking about the container ship known as Ever Green. Rather I’m talking my car and the entrance to my garage!

Yes, due to circumstances I’ll elucidate, for a few minutes the driver’s side of my car and the left side of my garage door opening attempted to occupy the same spot in space and time. It did not end well. The one consolation is that this mishap was not visible from space!

Now I could argue, “but it wasn’t my fault! My daughter was driving.” But that’s not really accurate or fair. Yes, she was driving, but it was my fault. She’s still on her learner’s permit. This requires among other things, a licensed driver (that would be me) in the vehicle and observing what she was doing. She did great on the 8 mile drive home from high school. So great in fact that when she paused and asked about pulling into my garage, I said “go for it.”

To understand her hesitation, I have to explain that the garage is perpendicular to the driveway and a fairly tight turn. It’s certainly NOT a straight shot to get in. I’ve done it hundreds of times in the last 5 years (when the garage was added to the house) and so I’ve got it down. Generally my biggest concern is the passenger side front bumper “sweeping” into the garage door opening or the wall as I enter. I don’t actually give much thought on the driver’s side.

So, I gave her the guidance I thought necessary: “Ok, stay to the far right on the driveway, this gives you more room to turn.” “Ok good, start turning. Great. Ok. Ayup, you’ve cleared the door there, start to straighten out.” “Ok you’re doing…” Here the rest of the cockpit voice recorder transcript will be redacted other than for the two sounds, a “thunk” and then a “crunch”. The rest of the transcript is decidedly not family friendly.

The investigator, upon reviewing the scene and endlessly replaying the sounds in his head, came to the following conclusions:

  • The “thunk” was the sound of the fold-way mirror impacting the door frame and doing as was intended, folding away.
  • The “crunch” was the sound of the doors (yes, both driver’s side doors) impacting the said door frame.
  • Both the driver and the adult in charge were more focused on the front passenger bumper than they were on distance between the driver’s side and the door frame. Remedial training needs to be done here.

Anyway, I write all this because, despite what I said earlier, in a way this is a bit about the Ever Green and other incidents. Yes, my daughter was driving, but ultimately, it was my responsibility for the safe movement of the vehicle. Now, if she had had her license, then I might feel differently. But the fact is, I failed. So, as bad as she felt, I felt worse.

In the case of the Ever Green, it’s a bit more complex: the captain of a ship is ultimately responsible for the safe operation of their vessel. But also, in areas such as the Suez Canal, ships take on pilots who are in theory more familiar with the currents and winds and other factors that are local to that specific area that the captain may not be. I suspect there will be a bit of finger pointing. Ultimately though, someone was in charge and had ultimate responsibility. That said, their situation was different and I’m not about to claim it was simply oversight like mine. My car wasn’t being blown about by the wind, subject to currents or what’s known as the bank effect.

What’s the take take-away? At the end of day, in my opinion and experience, the best leaders are the ones that give the credit and take the blame. As a former manager, that was always my policy. There were times when things went great and I made sure my team got the credit. And when things went sideways, is when I stood up and took the blame. When a datacenter move at a previous job went sideways, I stepped up and took the blame. I was the guy in charge. And honestly, I think doing that helped me get my next job. I recall in the interview when the interviewer asked me about the previous job and I explained what happened and my responsibility for it. I think my forthrightness impressed him and helped lead to the hiring decision. The funny part is, when I was let go from the previous job, my boss also took responsibility for his failures in the operation. It’s one reason I still maintained a lot of respect for him.

So yes, my car doors have dents in them that can be repaired. The trim on my garage door needs some work. And next time BOTH my daughter and I will be more careful. But at the end of the day, no one was injured or killed and this mistake wasn’t visible from space.

Stuff happens. Take responsibility and move on.

Stop! Basic vs Deep Understanding

As an NCRC instructor, it turns out I’m eligible for steep discounts on equipment from a company called Petzl. I decided to take advantage of this a few weeks ago to get some new equipment for caving and just for practicing in general. One of the pieces, a new helmet was a no-brainer (in order to protect my brain). And I must say it’s so much more comfortable than my old helmet that I’m quite happy with it and has become my new default helmet. Well worth it.

Background (cavers (or anyone really) can skip this!)

But one of the other pieces I bought is a bit different. It’s called a Stop. For those who aren’t familiar with caving, first some background. Excluding cave-diving, which is a very specialized activity, caving is pretty much divided into horizontal and vertical. Horizontal caving doesn’t mean it’s perfectly flat, but does mean you can basically move through the cave using just your hands and feet and maybe a piece of webbing or short rope as a handhold.

That said, at some point, many cavers want to start to explore more caves that have more vertical relief and that require ropes to descend into. Unlike rock-climbers, cavers don’t actually climb the rocks (as a general rule) but the rope itself.

The general techniques used by cavers fall into a category known as Single Rope Technique (SRT). The emphasis here is that a single rope is used to ascend and descend. This article won’t go into all the different ways of ascending the said rope, but among the systems are what are known as Frog, Texas, Mitchell, Rope-Walker and homegrown ones. Cavers will argue infinitely over which one is better, but at the end of the day, much of it comes down to personal preference. (That said, the Frog system is by far the most common one used in Europe and the US tends to be far more varied.)

Generally the most common way of descending is to use a device that generates friction with the rope. Here is perhaps the biggest difference between European Frog users and American Frog users.

In the US, most Frog users (in my experience, I’m not sure I’ve seen a great poll) use what’s known as a micro-rack. (And yes, this does mean there’s a non-micro-rack. These are still used in some cases, but far less common).

Image shows a micro-rack on 10mm rope on the left and on the right, the fore-arm/palm of a left hand for scale,
Micro-Rack (left on rope in position of use, on right to show scale)

These are fairly simple devices that are durable and given the design, generally can provide a wide range of friction. Generally in American SRT work, once you start descending, you stay on a single rope and don’t need to move to another rope. I love my micro-rack and can, while hanging on the rope (from my climbing devices) change over safely to be able to rappel in well under a minute and I can do it blindfolded (that’s not an exaggeration, I’ve tested myself.) It’s a great device and it works.

But as I mentioned, this is in the US. In Europe, most cavers would look at me twice and wonder what the heck I was thinking. Over there a different device, generically known as a bobbin is used. In my case what I bought was a version from Petzl known as a Stop (among other things, it has a handle to help move one of the internal “pulleys” to vary friction)

Open Petzl stop on left, attached to rope on right

Stop! This is the part to read!

And now after all the long-windedness I’m finally getting to the meat of this post.

As I mentioned above, both devices rely on friction. Both require some device specific knowledge to use. For example, with the micro-rack you need to know which way to thread the rope. With the Stop, you need to be aware of the requirement of what’s known as a braking carabiner in addition to the Stop itself. In this case I’m using a specific carabiner Petzl sells called a Freino Z. Each device also has a specific way of doing what’s known as a hard tie-off. This is essentially a method of tying the rope around the device such that if you release both hands from the device and rope you will not descend. This is a critical skill to have.

So, after playing with the Stop on the ground a bit, I decided I had to try it as I would use it, i.e. 10′ in the air off the floor of my office while attached to a rope. I struggled a bit, but changed over from my ascent to descent safely and made it back down.

I mention this because I didn’t have anyone there to teach me or show me. I was reminded again that there’s a difference between what I’d call rote or a basic understanding and a deep understanding. I teach a lot of beginners how to change over from their climbing system to their descent devices. And it’s obvious at first that they are simply replicating the motions taught to them. I know I did when I started. Put this here, put that there. It works, they technically pass the requirements needed to take the class I’m teaching. But, if suddenly in the middle of a trip their equipment failed or they lost it (it’s not entirely unheard of for someone to drop their rappel device down the shaft) and had to change to a different piece of equipment, they quite honestly would be lost.

Their basic understanding is limited to the original device. They don’t fully understand how it operates as much as “how to do these steps to make it work”. Only with time and lots of practice does the basic understanding become deep understanding. This is to me, the fun and interesting part. I’m not saying you could hand me any device and I’d automatically understand how to use it. For example, unless someone tells you a braking carabiner is a required part of a bobbin setup, you wouldn’t know that just from looking at it. But if someone said, here’s the basic operations and here’s some details you’d need to know, then yes, you feel confident I could use a new device.

In the case of SRT, proper knowledge is literally a life safety issue. But what about databases. (Yes, I almost always find a way to tie my caving activities to databases!)

I saw a question on Quora the other night asking “How do I do a backup/restore in SQL Server.” The basic answer is readily apparent, even from a casual reading of the documentation. BUT, the deeper understanding should be to the point, where among other things in my opinion, when doing a restore with NO RECOVERY automatically flows from your fingertips. Sure, you might find that you’ve recovered exactly what you need with the first file and no additional logs are necessary, but how many of us have finished a multi-hour restore only to realize we forgot the NO RECOVERY and now can’t apply our logs and have to start over? This may seem annoying, but if it’s the production database, you’ve just more than doubled your recovery time and hence your outage. That’s not a good thing to happen.

Similarly, many of us have seen things like NOLOCK used in queries. We almost always cringe. Sure, the syntax may be correct, but 99 times out of 100, the usage shows the person didn’t have a deeper understanding of the implications.

So it’s about more than simply knowing the syntax (which I’d argue is similar to the rote or basic memorization on how to put a micro-rack or bobbin on a rope) as much as knowing implications of the syntax and why certain things are done.

I’m still working on getting as good with the Stop as I am with the micro-rack, but honestly, if you stuck me in a dark cave tomorrow, I think I’d do just fine.

And next time I restore a database, I think I’d do fine. Will you?

The Value of Paper vs Convenience of Digital

About 35 years ago in the fall, a housemate of mine got a phone call, “hey, I’m a caver who’s passing through your area this weekend and found your name in the NSS Members’ Manual, I was hoping maybe you could hook me up with a caving trip.” Well it just so turns out that the RPI Outing Club traditionally does Friday night caving. (Why night you might ask? Well it’s always dark in the caves, so going at night leaves time on Saturday and Sunday to hike, rock-climbing, canoe, etc.) My housemate invited the guy along and he joined us caving (I think in Knox Cave).

I mention this story because it’s an example of how the NSS Members’ Manual has often been used over the years. Talk to enough old-time caves (especially those who recognize the smell of carbide in the morning) and many will mention how they’ve been in a strange area and looked up a fellow caver. Usually the lookup was to find someone to go caving with, but it might also be help with a broken vehicle, looking for crash space for a night or even more esoteric reasons. Many cavers kept a copy in their vehicles so they’d always have it with them.

Well, this past weekend (March 13th to be precise) the Board of Governors of the NSS voted to stop publishing the Members’ Manual. There was a lot of debate on the topic during the meeting and later online on Facebook (and I assume other spaces) and I wanted to discuss a bit of it here.

There were several rationales for this decision and I don’t think any specific one can be pointed at and said, “this is the reason.”

Conservation was certainly mentioned. The NSS is after all a group who has a primary charge of conservation and while this primarily pertains to underground resources, I think arguably not wasting trees falls into this purview. I’ll leave the debate about the size of the actual impact to others.

Convenience was another one mentioned. Many argued the online members manual which allows for searching to be more convenient than flipping through pages. I’d agree there’s some merit to this argument, but as others countered, that doesn’t mean much if you’re outside cell range and that many caves just happen to be outside cell range. A printed manual is always available, never runs out of batteries and never goes offline. I think there’s merit to both sides of the argument and a lot depends on one’s use case.

But there was an argument I had not given much thought to before and as it continued I started to notice that it was perhaps more demographically split than the others. This argument was about data privacy.

While the argument about the convenience of a printed manual did tend to skew towards the older cavers, that wasn’t strictly true. Even many of the older cavers admitted they hadn’t opened the printed manual in years and preferred to use the online manual.

But the argument about data privacy definitely appeared (in a very non-scientific look) to have two skews: younger and by gender.

At least one, and I believe two of the younger folks advocating for dropping the printed manual expressed shock when they first received their copy of the Members’ Manual and found what they considered personal information, including their home address printed therein. And pretty much all the objections to such easily available information came from women. This gave me cause to think. There’s been a lot of discussion among some NSS members about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Many (and it’s almost always older white men by the way) will argue, “oh anyone is welcome caving!” And while that’s true, I will argue many are ignorant of some of the barriers that might exist. I’ll admit, I had always looked at the Manual as a great way to get in touch with a fellow caver. I mean after all, why not? I’m a good, decent guy. Pretty much most of the cavers I know are. Why would it be a big deal if some random caver wanted to get in touch with me? This discussion about privacy has made me rethink that. My assumptions do not necessarily hold true for those who don’t look like me.

Now, two notes: First, I’m fairly positive, but I can’t be sure and will admit I haven’t looked closely, one has always been able to opt-out of what info went into the printed Manual. I could be wrong. Second, the online method I know positively has that option. And here’s one area where the online manual is superior. It can be constantly updated. This means not only is address info potentially more current, but a member can at any point go in and add, or more importantly, REMOVE their personal information if they so wish. Once the printed Manual goes out, such information is there forever. This presents a risk some members don’t want to have.

Now, I’m going to make a slightly contradictory argument before I come to my final words. As a data professional, on one hand I’m a fan of “make all things digital!” There are definitely benefits, many of which are outlined above. The ability to dynamically update information and access it in many different ways is arguably a huge plus.

BUT, I’m also well aware that while we say, “once it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever” the reality is far more complex and nuanced. Anyone seen their Geocities pages lately? And while it’s not true that NASA has lost the Saturn V plans, the reality is, there are computer tapes, especially from the earlier planetary missions that are either hard or even impossible to read. This is partly due to the fact that the magnetic media has decayed but also due to the fact that the hardware has disappeared. This happens in our own lives. How many of my readers have games or other items on floppy disk and no way to read it with a computer in their house?

I mention this because among other things, the NSS is a research organization. This means it’s quite possible that 10, 20 or 50 years from now, someone may come along and want to do research on the membership of the organization. They might want to explore where cavers are from, the type of members, how long folks were members, or for other goals we can’t imagine at this time. While inconvenient to do such research from printed form, I can guarantee that the printed manuals will be readable 50 years from now. And each one will be an annual snapshot. I’m not so sure that the current membership database will be readable 50 years from now (how many folks for example can read a dBase III database?) and I’m even less convinced that annual snapshots will be easily available (that said I’m not privy to how the membership is stored and if it’s always dynamic or if there’s annual snapshots or what).

So in my final words I’d say “there’s no perfect answers” here. I think the arguments for and against a printed manual have merit and both sides need consideration. My preference is a compromise:

  1. Charge members who want the printed Manual an upcharge to help cover costs. Make this opt-IN (i.e you don’t automatically get a manual unless you ask)
  2. In addition, a certain number of Manuals should be archived at research libraries around the country. While all this data is stored at the headquarters, disasters such as fires, water leaks, etc can happen. I think the NSS needs to ensure that data, such as a history of its membership needs to be preserved.
  3. When members join or renew, other than their name and membership number, make all PII data opt-IN for printing and for on-line. Nothing will show in either place unless they specifically allow it. This is the modern world and all members should have the right and ability to control what information of theirs is made public. This is among other things a DEI issue.
  4. Drop any form of on-line PDF (I can’t find one, but several people mentioned they had found one). Ironically this is perhaps the biggest risk in my mind of breach of privacy data; PDFs are easily scraped for data. In addition, do NOT allow a “global” search of the on-line Members’ Manual where all members can be looked up at once. Both this and if there’s an inline PDF make scraping far too easy.
  5. Take into account current data privacy laws (such as in the EU and California) that have a direct impact on the retention of online data.

Basically I’d prefer, if not the best of both worlds, the best we can get: the convenience and permanency of a printed manual as well as the convenience and dynamism of an online manual. Both I feel have their place. But as far as either goes, I think the growing awareness of data privacy practices and the fact that the NSS needs to be aware that for some, this IS a DEI issue, means that the status quo has to change. I’ve said before, “the times they are a changing” and this is an example of that.

Reasons I Attend WIT Events

Last Friday, I took time out of my day to attend the Data Platform WIT Day. Hosted on Redgate’s Zoom, it was a series of webinars that started with Rie Merritt’s excellent Keynote Lifting as we Climb and concluded with Stepping Stones from Diversity Learning to Equitable Actions with Cindy Gross. The full list of sessions is available at YouTube here.

I highly recommend you take some time out and check out the sessions that may appeal to you. The keynote is 30 minutes and the follow-on sessions are roughly an hour each. Because of other events on my schedule I wasn’t able to attend all of them, for example I could only jump into Cindy’s about half-way through, but very much enjoyed what I watched and learned quite a bit.

Afterwards, one of the organizers, Mala Mahadevan tweeted the following:

https://twitter.com/sqlmal/status/1367951596227854340

I was caught a bit off-guard by the call-out, but not in an unpleasant way. I’m proud to support WIT. And it prompted me to write this post on my usual Tuesday, just a day after International Women’s Day.

I attended for two reasons: one was for learning and the second was honestly to be supportive.

The first reason should be obvious. There’s some good information in these webinars. Tracy Boggiano gave a great presentation on dbatools and dbachecks, tools that I definitely need to learn more about. The panel on mentoring with Leslie Andrews, Shabnam Watson, Deborah Melkin, Gilda Alvarez, and Deepthi Goguri was a great learning experience for me. I gained further insight into how mentoring can work, especially for those who have a different experience than mine. And while the panel focused more on the experience and value of mentoring for women, I gained several great takeaways. So it wasn’t just a “women for women” type event.

But quite honestly, I attended in part for the same reason I’ve often started using my pronouns in various places (him/his for those who aren’t aware): to normalize the practice. I think it’s important for those who don’t identify as women, and especially for those who identify as men to attend such events. While the focus of a WIT event is for women, it does not mean men can’t learn from it. It doesn’t mean we’re not welcome. I had heard much of Rie’s talk before, since she adopted it from other talks she’s given. It’s primary focus is of course on how women can help women grow in their professional careers. But there are tips that men can learn, such as not interrupting the women they work with, amplifying their voices, and more. I tell the story that the first time I heard Rie speak, I was one of two men in the room, and the other was a friend she had apparently asked to attend in order to give her feedback. I was a bit saddened there were not more men there, as we need to learn a lot of what she has spoken about. I suspect some men felt “oh I don’t need to go” or “there’s nothing there for me.” But they’re wrong and I want to continue to normalize attending such event for those who present as men. And I attended of course because I want my women colleagues to know they have support, that I value their contributions and experiences.

Now that said, I will add that events such as last Friday’s are “Women in Technology” events. The focus is in the name. While welcome, men should avoid any attempts, conscious or subconscious to center them on their own experiences. What do I mean? For one, during the Q&A parts, if you feel tempted to say “I have more of a comment than a question…” just stop. Nope. It’s a Q&A period, not “I want to hijack the discussion and talk about myself period.” This is not to say questions aren’t welcome. But make sure they’re actually relevant to the topic at hand, e.g. “Tracy, I think I missed something, am I correct in understanding that the latest version of dbachecks has a problem with the latest version of Pester?”

So my advice, do your best to be an ally by your actions, not your claims.

And that said, for those who are inevitably going to ask: When it International Men’s Day?

Whatcha Reading?

I thought I’d start off March with something a bit lighthearted and as sort of a follow-up to last week’s post about what I’ve been eating in the last year.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve loved reading. I could not wait until my kids could learn to read. Without reading, we are in many ways limited to what we can see with our own eyes right in front of us. But by reading, we open up whole new worlds.

I’ve stood on the peak of Amon Hen with a Halfling as he stood there, wearing a magic ring, debating what he should do as he looked across the world and could feel himself being spied upon.

I’ve flown in a spacecraft controlled by an intelligent computer that was given opposing directives that it decided it could only resolve by killing its crew as it flew through space on its way to a flat rectangle whose dimensions were known to us to be in a ratio of 1:4:9 and in higher dimensions could be said to extend to to 16, 25 and possibly higher.

I’ve travelled the ante-bellum Mississippi with a young man named Huck and his best friend Jim. I’ve wondered why the hounds of Baskerville didn’t bark. I’ve flown over Italy, dropping bombs on people wondering why I was doing that as they had never done anything to me. And people thought I was the crazy one.

I escaped my boarding school and wandered the streets of New York City for day. (I should note my dad insisted I read this one and told me I’d really relate. I didn’t. I found Holden to be boring, self-centered and honestly, just plain annoying). On the other hand, I loved riding in an automobile escaping New York City to Long Island while past a valley of ashes during the roaring 20s. Those same ashes appear later in the biography of the man who would literally reshape the outline of Manhattan and the traffic patterns of that great city and other parts of New York for generations to come.

I’ve read of a dystopian future that at times seems all to close where certain women are forced to wear red cloaks and to bear children for other couples. But I’ve also sailed across the seas of a foreign world where there are no continents, just archipelagos of islands, on one of which one a young woman, raised to be a priestess/goddess to her people learns from the gentleness of a young man she’s forced to impression that there’s so much more to learn of the world and gains her freedom.

I’ve sailed into deepest Africa to find a man who has gone crazed with power. And later voyaged to the bottom of the planet on a sailing ship, only to find myself stuck with my fellow crewmates in ice for over a year. Our captain undertook a daring and amazing voyage to a whaling station, only to have to cross over the mountains between where they landed and the village in order to find our rescuers. I’ve also sailed to the Moon and back, numerous times, the first, hitchhiking along on Christmas Eve as the story of creation was read to the nations of Earth. I joined him again later only to discover once again we weren’t going to land, in fact we weren’t even going to orbit. But that’s ok, I also travelled to the Moon and back again not just once, but multiple times, including with the first man to walk on the Moon and the last.

I’ve also hiked to the top of Mount Everest and surveyed the detritus of bodies of those who attempted the trip and failed and felt relieved to know that at least one who had been left for dead later found the will-power to pick himself up and crawl to the nearest camp. In a similar vein, I’ve read both sides of the story, of two climbers in the Andes, one who had to cut the rope of his partner, letting him plummet to his death, the other being the one whose rope was cut, falling not to his death but to a miracle. But I was also heartbroken to read of the young man who went into the wilderness of Alaska to live, and ultimately die in an abandoned bus.

And then yet another morning I woke up to find myself in the body of an insect, wondering what it all meant. And another day I came home from school to find a tollbooth in my bedroom through which I could ride a toy car and be joined by a humbug and later jump to conclusions.

Ok, enough reflections on that, let me talk a bit more about what I’ve read or will read in the coming months. I’m a luddite in some ways. I still prefer the feel of dead paper in my hands. At the top of this article is a photo of some of the magazines I tend to read on an a monthly basis (I just realized at least one is missing).

Discover and Scientific American: I read monthly, cover to cover and learn all sorts of new things. I highly recommend everyone read at least one of these. Yes, some might argue they “dumb down” science, but in reality I think they make it more accessible.

NSS News: This is an interesting one. The articles can range from extremely technical (the chemistry and hydrology of a cave for example) to very lighthearted or celebratory. It’s one of the few printed items I read where on a nearly monthly basis I can expect to read the name of someone I know personally, or see their credits for photos. It also collects excerpts from grotto newsletters, giving me a more intimate feeling of what other cavers are doing.

Trains: Ok, this is a bit of a niche market, but I’ve always been fascinated by trains and railroading and in fact bought stock in BNSF long before Warren Buffet did. He just had a bit more money than I did when it came to buying the whole thing.

Outside: I’ll admit I actually read this the least. I get it for free, so it’s nice to browse when I have time. But honestly, I’d rather BE outside than read about it!

Air & Space: Again, following my theme of science and space, I love reading this one.

The Times Union: Ayup, I still read the daily newspaper. I find an online version doesn’t cut it. When I was working in the Washington DC area I also subscribed to the Washington Post (and then on the weekends would come home and catch up on the Times Union)

But what else? You may notice so far I haven’t mentioned anything about SQL Server. But, just this past month I finished reviewing a book a publisher has asked for my feedback on possibly editing and updating. So there’s that. But I find most of my SQL reading is done via blog posts. These include but are not limited to:

Monica Rathbun: some great articles, generally with a focus on performance. Well worth the read!

Deborah Melkin: I’ve known Deborah since she first came to SQL Saturday Albany to speak and have always enjoyed her style and ability to make complicated things simple enough to understand.

Steve Jones: I think he probably blogs the most of anyone I follow. I’m not sure how he does it, but it’s consistently great.

Ray Kim: a fellow member of the Capital Area SQL Server Group, he, like me blogs about a lot more than just SQL Server. He will often focus on baseball, like his most recent blog entry.

Derek Lyons: I’ll admit, anime has never really been my thing, but it’s always nice to see what a friend is writing about. But if anime IS your thing, check out his blog.

And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I’ll google stuff a dozen times a week if I need to, so there are plenty of other blogs and pages I’ll hit on a regular basis.

And being the luddite I am, I still read Usenet and actually moderate the sci.space.tech and sci.space.science discussion gorups.

And I really do read SQL books from time to time, they’re just not overly gripping reading!

Finally, living outside of Illium, err Troy, I once met a young old man who went by the name of Billy who told me of his adventures in WWII and travelling to another planet. All the above is just a small part of what I’ve read and a small part of what I will read. And so it goes.