SQLBits – My Thoughts

Many weeks I struggle with what I plan on writing about, but this post came to me last Thursday or Friday. It was clear to me that I should write about 2022 SQLBits.

Now, the more astute of you are probably thinking, “But Greg, you weren’t there. How can you write about it?”

Well you’re right. I’m not going to write about my experience attending it. Rather I’m going to write about my experience not attending it.

I had applied to speak at SQLBits, but didn’t make the cut this year. That happens. But this time there was more than mixed feelings. Had I been selected, I almost certainly would have tried to find a way to do so in person. However, as many of my readers know, I’m back in school taking classes as prereqs to get into PA school. And frankly, I’m loving it. But it is taking time and focus. This week, March 14-18 is Spring break for my fellow students. But last week I did have classes and I’m not sure I could have taken the time off to fly to the UK. And I’m not sure I would have wanted to; if only because of missing my A&P I lab this week (learning about the bones of the head and spine, including the axis and atlas (C1, C2 vertebrae).

So in a sense, I’m almost grateful that I wasn’t chosen to speak. It solved me the pain of trying to solve the dilemma of do I attend in person or not?

But dang, did I miss people. I saw posts from so many of my #SQLFamily that I was sad I couldn’t see them in person. And then, looking at the calendar, it dawned on me, I’m not entirely sure I can make the PASS Summit this year, again due to classes.

It just drove home how much so many of you have become family and how much I miss so many of you. And in some ways its just the start. As my plans continue, I’ll find myself making the slow transition from the #SQLFamily to hopefully a #PAFamily or whatever community I find there. And while I have often found myself in many communities, for example besides #SQLFamily I’m also heavily involved with the NCRC and plan on continuing my efforts there, I know over time my active involvement in #SQLFamily will slowly diminish. That said, I’m not walking away just yet and will continue to be involved as much as I can, both in presenting when I can and in running my local user group.

But that said, I miss you all. And do look forward to seeing any of you when I can.

The Dream

The dream is always the same. … and I… find myself in a room full of kids taking their college boards. I’m over three hours late; I’ve got two minutes to take the whole test. I’ve… just made a terrible mistake. I’ll never get to college. My life is ruined. – Risky Business

Today is the day. For the first time in over 30 years I’ll be sitting down in a college classroom and taking a class. I distinctly recall taking my final exam for college. It was in Microbiology. I wasn’t overly concerned. I need to get something like a 40% on it to pass the class (and since it was counting as transfer credit, my actual letter grade didn’t matter as far as RPI was concerned.). It was multiple choice. Once I was confident I had gotten well over 40% I put down the pen and walked out. (For the record I ended up well over 80% on the exam.)

But I have to remind myself, that technically while that was the end of my undergrad career, I have taken classes since then. I took a class on SQL Server a few years later, I studied for and got my MCSE a few years after that, and starting in 2002, I started my career with the NCRC where I have since become an instructor.

But, this is different. For one, it’s 12 weeks of classes. There will be a lab. There will be homework. It’ll be harder in its own way than the other training.

Like many, for years after I graduated, I’d have a dream, usually around May, where it was exam time and I realized there was a class I had never attended and now had to take an exam in it. I’d always wake up a bit upset. One year though finally the dream changed. This time the setup was the same, but when I went to take the final exam, I aced it. Don’t ask me how. But I literally stopped having these exam dreams after that.

So I figure it’s appropriate that I had a dream about starting school last night. In my dream though, I was over in Schenectady (about 15 miles from the community college I’ll be taking classes at) trying to get folks to tell me what time it was, since I had to be at class at 2:00 PM. None would give me a straight answer at first until I got upset. Finally one person told me it was 1:45 PM. I was panicking because I knew there would be no way I’d make it to the Torrington CT Campus of UConn. It was then that I recalled that fortunately I didn’t have to drive that far.

All this is a setup to admit that yes, I am actually both excited and nervous. I’ve gone in a few short weeks from a feeling of ennui when it came to my career and life to one of stress and even a slight bit of panic. Of course it didn’t help that I had to get my vaccination status cleared, and then a bunch of other paperwork finished up late yesterday before it all became official.

I honestly have very little idea what my experiences over the next several years will be like. But I’m looking forward to them.

And more in the future.

2022 in Preview

I started last year’s version of this post with the suggestion I should leave it as a blank page and I’m tempted again, but no, I actually have goals for next year.

By words, thoughts become actions, and by actions words become deeds.

I’m going to start with the usual list of items and then have a big reveal at the bottom (you can skip to that if you want).

  • Like last year, I’m going to continue to write for Red-Gate. Even if it’s just one article. I will also attempt to keep my “Friends of Red-Gate’ status. In fact, I vow to be even more involved if I can find time.
  • This year for the NCRC, I’m looking to premiere a new class we’re calling “Tip of the Spear” aka TOTS. The focus of the class will be to work with medical doctors, nurses, physicians assistants and other medically trained personal to get them (the tip of the spear) to the patient deep in the cave as quickly as possible to provide the best possible medical care. Unlike our normal classes where there’s a strong focus on things like setting up communications, rigging, searching, etc this will focus solely on getting them there to use their skills. I’m excited about this, even though there’s a fair amount of work required to fully develop the curriculum.
  • Yeah, I’ll continue blogging. ‘Nough said. (Hey no one says you have to read it!)
  • Travel: While I do plan to do more, the big trips may be out for reasons to be mentioned below. But we’ll see.
  • Biking: Yeah, I hope to hit at least 700 miles this year (that has sort of been my minimum goal for years and I’ve beat it every year. I’ll continue to do so).
  • Hike More: I hope to do at least one overnight this year. And of course day hikes. So if you’re interested in doing a hike, let me know.
  • Caving: There’s a few caves I want to get into this year. So I’m looking forward to that.

Changes are Coming!

And now “the big reveal”. I’m going to start by saying that while I enjoy consulting and I think I’m pretty good at it, I am not enjoying it as much as I used to. I’m also simply not finding it fulfilling in a way I’d like it to be.

Among the reasons is that at the end of the day I look at what I’ve done and wonder “what difference does it really make?” Yes, I’ve written some solid code. I’ve helped with projects that have saved my clients thousands of dollars or made them tens of thousands. Financially, they’ve obviously made a difference. But, on a personal level they haven’t.

One reason I’ve enjoyed teaching cave rescue so much (and participating in the few I have, including a body recovery) is because at the end of the day I know I’ve made a difference: I’ve taught someone valuable skills, helped someone get out safely, or even in the most extreme case, been able to help others find closure.

I’ve been contemplating a change for awhile. I had toyed with a few ideas, such as going back to being a full-time employee, ideally in a management position for awhile. And I may still end up doing that, but that’s not where I am planning on heading right now. Financially it would probably be the right move, and honestly, I think when I’ve had the right environment, I’ve been a good manager (on the flip side, in a bad environment I’ve found it hard to be an effective or good manager).

So, instead, I’m going to pivot a bit and attempt a career change. I’m going to to try to move into a field where I think I can make a direct impact on people’s lives. I’m going to start taking prerequisite classes so I can apply for a Physician’s Assistant program. This is an idea I’ve toyed with off and on for years. Or rather one of several. Besides enjoying working with computers, I’ve been fascinated with two other fields: medical and law. I’ve thought for quite a few years if perhaps I should explore them. This really came to a head during my dad’s fatal illness 6 years ago. I’ll brag a bit and say that more than once I had one of the attendings or nurses ask me (after discussing his condition or treatment) “Are you in the medical field?” Once even when students were rounding, the attending asked them a question and none answered it to his satisfaction, I was able to step in and correctly answer it. Yes, one or two students scowled at me.

Now, having said that, I’m quite realistic in understanding that while I do claim a greater than a laymen’s knowledge of things medical, I have a LONG way to go and I’m entering a difficult field later in life and have a bit of catchup to do. I have no illusions that this will be easy for me. But to perhaps channel a bit of John F. Kennedy “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

In the most optimistic timeframe, I’ll be completing my PA work in mid 2025. In a more realistic timeframe, probably 2026. This is a serious investment of time and effort. This is arguably going to be one of the hardest things I’ve done in years. There’s no guarantee of success (heck, there’s no guarantee that even after doing all the prereqs I’ll be accepted into a program). But, I’ve decided I have to try. Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for? I won’t know if I can do it unless I try and I don’t want to be a 4 years older wondering “what if?”

I’d been having thoughts about this for a long time. I finally put the thoughts into words, which made them that much more real. Now I’m starting to put the words into actions.

And one of those actions is to write the words down here for others to read. I do this for a multitude of reasons.

  • By writing this down and revealing it to the world (or at least to a small part of it) it holds me a bit more accountable for trying.
  • I’ll freely admit, I could use any and all support and help any of my friends, family, including #sqlfamily, and others are willing to give.
  • And honestly, perhaps it’ll inspire others in a similar position to stretch for their own goals.

For the coming year

I’ll keep working in SQL, you’ll see me at events and I’ll probably do some speaking, but I won’t be seeking out new work. I simply won’t have the time.

I’ll still keep running my local user group and looking for speakers

I’ll be blogging about my successes, and failures.

And I’ll be busy.

Wish me luck.

Changes

Let’s start with what I’m not doing this week: teaching cave rescue. As I wrote two weeks ago, those of us in charge of annual upcoming National Cave Rescue training class decided to cancel it in light of the ongoing Covid pandemic. Of course over the weekend, on Facebook popped up images of the modular version of the Level 1 class I taught last year (because the National planned for June of 2020 had ben postponed due to Covid). This got me thinking about the numbers. Using the site 91-Dovic I was able to compare the infection rate year to year, and let’s just say it’s shocking. In New York State, the infection rate was roughly 3 people per 1000. Currently it’s hovering around 23 people per 1000. And this is with a high rate of vaccination. National numbers are similar in terms of the ratio of numbers. Clearly, despite vaccinations we’ve got a long ways to go, but I feel more confident in our decision to cancel.

That said, there were of course other personal consequences. For one, I’m able to actually spend time with a client on a project that’s seriously backlogged. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say, only recently, with the addition of a very competent project manager has this project gotten on track. My role is sort of the middle-man whose scripts passes data between two systems. It’s a critical part of the process, though my development work is mostly done at this point. But had I been teaching this week, it would have created issues for the goals for the project. So, I guess the client wins out on this one.

But there were some other positive consequences. While I couldn’t go to my daughter’s college to drop her off on her first day (the school was limiting move-ins to the student and two others, so my wife and son went, he had never seen the campus) I was able to see her off that morning. Something that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. (though, despite that, all four of us forgot to take the cookies I had baked out of the fridge and put them in the car!)

Heading off to college!

But also, it meant my wife and I were able to drive my son to his college for his last semester. (the plan to provide him with his own car hasn’t quite gone according to plan).

My son, with my wife, settling in to his new apartment

Looking back, I realize the last time I had gone to my son’s school was last May to take him out there so he could pack up his dorm room after the school went entirely virtual. At some point, while driving the New York Thruway something creepy struck me: how empty it was! Due to the ban on all non-essential travel and the reduction in consumption, there were far fewer vehicles of all sorts on the highway. On the way back, the truck stop we stopped at to get some gas at was basically empty. I think it was ourselves, and 2 other cars and just the person working the counter. It reminded me very much of the post-apocalyptic scenes you see in some movies!

These two drives also represent the furthest I’ve been from my house in about 18 months.

Also last week, my wife’s job finally went back to in-person. So in the space of a week, I’ve gone from a full house to an empty nest. It’s quiet here not. Too quiet.

In the past 18 months or so I’ve gone from semi-regular travel all over the country to not going more than 30 miles from my house (except for very rare occasions) and from not wearing a mask to wearing one almost all the time and now more recently, from a full house to a much emptier one. Let me just say, the cats aren’t overly social.

So changes… Some big. Some small, but they all add up.

Let’s Start with the bad news…

Last Thursday I had to send out an email that started with this line. I had to tell over 4 dozen students that the upcoming Cave Rescue training had to be cancelled due to the ongoing uptick in Covid infections.

Long-time readers of this blog are probably aware of the history of this class. In short, it was originally scheduled for last June. Last February we decided to postpone it to this June. This past February, based on where we thought the infection curve would be and vaccinations would be, the decision was made to postpone the major event to late August and do a much smaller, more limited event in June.

In hindsight, one could say, “well you should have had the National Class in June.” Most of our folks would have been vaccinated and the infection rate in June was extremely low.

And the reality is, we might find in the next 12 days or so before the class was scheduled a dramatic drop in the infection curve.

Since the Training Coordinator and I made the decision to cancel, I have received numerous emails expressing sympathy for all the hard work I had put in and how disappointed I must be. I appreciate them, but the truth is, I’m not disappointed or upset. And I’m definitely not second-guessing the decisions that got us here.

The thing is, despite an earlier post, I’m generally comfortable with making decisions and even enjoy making them at times. One thing to keep in mind, especially with decisions like this, is that one makes them based on the information one has available at the time. Back in February, when the decision was made to postpone, we didn’t know that the vaccination rate would be as high as it would be by May. We also didn’t know that there would be such a huge surge in infections in August. Had we known that, we’d have made a different decision.

The other factor that can help is to not make decisions in a vacuum. Ultimately, this seminar was my responsibility and I was the one who made the recommendation to our Board back in February to delay. While there was a vote and decision and vote by them, ultimately my input was a big factor there. (It was unlikely that the BORC would have rejected my advice to delay). In this most recent decision to outright cancel, it came down to the Training Coordinator and I. Neither decision was made in a vacuum (that can lead to bad decision making and also means less information is available) but ultimately the decision and responsibility came down to one or two people.

There were two overriding factors that led to this decision. One was a very practical factor. A number of our students and instructors simply had to cancel. Either they felt the risk was too great, or in several cases, their employers had revoked their time off since they were needed at work to help handle the impact of the ongoing rate of infections. So we simply were facing the fact that we were having a diminishing number of instructors and students and that fact alone was causing us to cancel portions of the seminar.

And the other was: we are charged with training and doing so in a safe environment. As the covid spike gets larger, we felt we could not do a training in a way we felt that was safe.

I’ll admit, had we gone ahead with the training I’d have been a nervous wreck for at least two weeks after the seminar until we knew we were safe (or not) from Covid.

Yes, it’s disappointing that we had to cancel, but I know it was the right decision. And I know each decision was the right one that led to this point.

It’s often tempting to second guess decisions. While at times it can be useful to review what went into making a decision, I would caution against dwelling on decisions.

So to review:

  • Remind yourself, decisions made in the past are generally made on the best information at the time. Don’t revaluate them based on information not available at that time.
  • When possible, get input from multiple people, but have a clear process for making the decision and at times that’s best done by one or two people.
  • Generally, decide towards safety. In our case, there was no pressing reason to lower our safety standards.
  • Also, it can be important to remember no matter how much effort or work was put in in the past, not to count that in the decision. A LOT of work has gone into planning this upcoming training. But that doesn’t change the factors that are currently in play. This is the sunk-cost fallacy. That work is done. But new factors determined the decision.
  • Don’t live in the past. Move forward.
  • Get vaccinated. (that has nothing to do with decision making, but is a good idea).

“We’re up to plan F”

I managed to skip two weeks of writing, which is unusual for me, but I was busy with other business, primarily last week leading an NCRC weeklong class of cave rescue for Level 1 students. I had previously lead such a class over three weekends last year, and have helped teach the Level 2 class multiple times. Originally this past week was supposed to be our National weeklong class, but back in February we had agreed to postpone it due to the unknown status of the ongoing Covid pandemic. However, due to a huge demand and the success of vaccinations, we decided to do a “Regional” Class just limited to Level 1 students. This would help handle the pent up demand, create students for the Level 2 class that would be at National, and to do sort of a test run of our facilities before the much larger National.

There’s an old saying that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. In cave rescue this is particularly true. It also appears to be true in cave rescue training classes!

The first hitch was the drive up the the camp we were using. The road had been stripped down to the base dirt level and they were doing construction. Not a huge issue, just a dusty one. But for cavers, dust is just mud without the water. But this would come into play later in the week.

Once at the camp, as I was settling in and confirming the facilities, the first thing I noticed was that the scissors lift we had used to rig ropes in the gym last time was gone. A few texts and I learned it had only been on loan to the camp the past two years and was no longer available. This presented our first real challenge. How to get ropes up over the beams 20-30′ in the air.

But shortly after I realized I had a far greater issue. The custom made rigging plates we use to tie off the end of the ropes to the posts were still sitting in my garage at home. I had completely forgotten them. This was resolved by a well timed call to an instructor heading towards the camp, who via a longer detour then he expected, was able to get them. Fortunately, had that call waited another 5 minutes, his detour would have probably doubled. So the timing was decent.

I figured the week was off to a good start at that point! Honestly though, we solved the problems and moved on. I went to bed fairly relaxed.

All went well until Monday. This was the day we were supposed to do activities on the cliffs. Several weeks ago, my son and I, along with two others had gone to the cliffs, which were on the same property as the camp, but accessible only by leaving the camp and accessing from a public road, in order to clear away debris and do other work to make them usable. I was excited to show them off. Unfortunately, due to the weather forecast of impending thunderstorms all day we made the decision to revise our schedule and move cliff day to the next day. There went Plan A. Plan B became “go the next day.”

On Tuesday I and a couple of other instructors got in my car to head to the cliffs in advance of the students so we could scope things out and plan the activities. We literally got to the bottom of the road from the main entrance to the camp where we were going to turn on to the road under construction, only to find a the road closed there with a gaping ditch dug across it. So much for Plan B. We went back to the camp, told students to hang on and then I headed out again, hoping to basically take a loop around and approach the access road to the cliffs from the opposite direction. After about a 3 mile detour we came to the other end of the road and found it closed there. Despite trying to sweet talk the flag person, we couldn’t get past (we could have lied and said we lived on the road, but after 8-10 other cars would have arrived in a caravan saying the same thing we thought that might be suspicious). There went Plan C. We called an instructor back at the camp and headed back.

We got there and turns out an instructor had already come up with Plan D, which was to see if we could access the cliffs by crossing a field the camp owned and going through the woods. It might involve some hiking, but it might be doable. While there are dirt-bike paths, there’s nothing there that worked for us. So that plan fell apart. We were up to Plan E now. Plan E was proposed to further swap some training, but we realized that would impact our schedule too much. Now on to Plan F. For Plan F, we decided to head to a local cave which we thought would have some suitable cliffs outside.

That worked. It would out quite well actually. We lost maybe an hour to 90 minutes with all the plans, but we ultimately came upon a plan that worked. We were able to teach the skills we wanted and accomplish our educational objectives.

Often we wake up with a plan in our heads for what we will do that day. Most days those plans work out. But, then there are the days where we have to adapt. Things go sideways. Something breaks, or something doesn’t go as planned. In the NCRC we have an unofficial motto, Semper Gumby – “Always be Flexible”. Sometimes you have to completely change plans (cancelling due to the threat of thunderstorms), others you may have to try to adapt (finding other possible routes to the cliffs) and finally you may need to reconsider how to meet your objectives in a new way (finding different cliffs).

My advice, don’t lock yourself into only one solution. It’s a recipe for failure.

This Post is Free!

Yes, seriously, other than a bit of your time, it will cost you nothing to read this post. And you might gain something from it. That can be a good value.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of things I do when I’m not doing SQL Server is perform training for those interested in Cave Rescue. I also sometimes blog about it. I have also mentioned that this year I’m organizing the National Cave Rescue Commission‘s national weeklong training class. In addition, since apparently I’m not enough of a masochist I’m also organizing a regional Level 1 only weeklong training class.

Due to generous contributions the NCRC is able to offer scholarships. For the regional weeklong, we are able to offer 4 scholarships of a value of up to $375 each. This covers 1/2 the cost of training. Applications were due Saturday. Now, we’re hoping for 12-20 students, so this means if everyone applied, they’d have between a 1/3-1/5 chance of getting scholarship. Can you guess how many had applied as of Saturday?

Before I answer that, I’ll note my wife used to work as a financial aid director at a local nursing school. They too sometimes offered scholarships. There was one worth I believe $500 that often went unclaimed. Yes, it required a one page essay to be judged to apply. That one page apparently was too high of a barrier for many folks and as a result sometimes it was never awarded. Quite literally a person could have written. “I would like to apply for the scholarship” as their essay and gotten it.

The same thing happened with our regional scholarships. Out of 11 students so far, none applied. This was literally free money sitting on the table. We have decided to extend the scholarship application process until April 23rd and reminded folks they could apply.

Now, some of the students probably can NOT apply, because they are employees of government agencies that sometimes have rules on what outside funds or gifts can be accepted. This actually increases the odds for the other students. And some may feel that their economic status is good enough that they don’t need to and fear they’d take a scholarship away from someone who has more of a need for it. And that’s a position I can definitely appreciate. But my advice to them, “let the scholarship committee make that decision.” If they determine someone is more needing the money, or your need is not enough, they will let you know. And if they do give you a scholarship and you feel guilty, pay it forward. Donate to the fund later on, or give the money you saved to other causes.

Besides essentially free money at the NCRC, I got thinking about the amount of free training I’ve received in the SQL Server community. Yes, I’ve paid for PASS Summit a few times, but even if I had never gone to that, the amount of knowledge I’ve gained for free over the past several years has been amazing. Between SQL Saturdays and User Group meetings, the body of knowledge I’ve been exposed to has been absolutely amazing.

And yet, I know folks who shun such activities. I’m not talking about folks who say, “I can’t make it this month because it’s my kid’s birthday”. I’m talking about folks who claim they never learn anything. I don’t understand how that’s possible given the HUGE range of topics I’ve seen at SQL Saturdays and oh so many other free events. Some folks seem to think only the paid events are worth it. And while PASS Summit had certain unique advantages, the truth is, you can listen to almost all the presenters at various free events too.

Yes, time is not free, and I recognize that. But overall, it still amazes me at the number of folks who overlook the value of free events, or easy to gain scholarships to events. Don’t turn your nose up at free. It can be valuable.

P.S. – for the parents of college bound kids out there, one thing I did in college which netted me a bit of free money. A few days after the semester began, I’d stop by the financial aid office and ask if there was any unclaimed scholarship money I was eligible for. I never netted much, but I did net a few hundred dollars over the years. For 15 minutes of my time, that’s a pretty decent ROI.

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.

2021 in Preview

I’ll admit I was tempted to just have a blank page here and say I’m starting 2021 with a blank slate. But that seemed too easy.

But with hope in hand, I will set some goals:

  • Continue to write for Red-Gate! I enjoy this and have to admit, the little extra spending money isn’t so bad.
  • Expand my client base. A concern I’ve had for a few years, and 2020 really reminded me of this, too much of my current consulting depends on one large customer. I want to change that. I’ve already reached out to some colleagues in regards to possible clients and will continue to do so. Part of my goal is to really define my business model here.
  • Have a successful NCRC Weeklong Cave Rescue Seminar here in NY. This was originally planned for 2020, but in light of the risk of becoming a super-spreader event, we postponed. Right now it’s still not clear if we’ll be able to safely host the event, but the odds are slowly improving. I’ve been monitoring my Facebook feed and it’s amazing how many folks I know already who are in the process of getting vaccinated against Covid-19. If this continues at this rate, we’ll be able to have an event!
  • Continue blogging. 2020 was my best year year, but I hope to improve in 2021. Of course I have to admit my numbers were helped when Brent Ozar mentioned one of my posts. So, I guess the real secret is to get Brent to retweet my blogs! Seriously though, I enjoy blogging and as much as I often do it for others, I’ll admit, some of it is really just vanity for me, but also serves as a practice to keep up on my writing and creative skills.
  • Travel! Once it’s safe to travel again, I hope to do a LOT more this year. One benefit of being an independent IT consultant is I basically can work any place I have a steady Internet connection. I hope to take advantage of that.
  • Continue biking. This probably means finally getting a new bicycle. I had hoped to replace my Trek 520 that is now 30 years old this year, but due to Covid basically avoided bicycle shopping. But after 1300 miles last year, I think it’s time to seriously consider a new one.
  • Hike more. I loved my overnight trip last year. I hope to complete the section of the Appalachian trail in Massachusetts I haven’t done yet and then perhaps finish Connecticut or Vermont.
  • Continue to enjoy life. I mentioned yesterday that as crappy as a year it was, I actually enjoyed much of the year. If anything, Covid forced me to take stock and focus on enjoying life. I want to continue to do this.

And, most of all, make it through another year with you all.