By ‘eck, I got a degree after all

Yesterday had one of my life’s sweetest moments – my final Open University module result came in. I passed M359 relational databases and completed all 360 credits for my BSc (Hons) in Computing and Systems Practice. I have been awarded a 2:2, which I am immensely proud of.

This has been a long time coming. I started in October 2007 with thoughts about completing a career-enhancing computing-related degree, and it has turned into a bit of a grind over the years with primary thoughts geared to just getting to the end with my sanity intact. There have been some difficult periods that have taught me some harsh lessons in self-organisation, and some module material that was slippery to grasp, but I have learned a hell of a lot in these seven years. I’ve gained some valuable insights into software development, some extremely interesting concepts regarding systems thinking and found out quite a lot about me.

It has been a very rewarding experience on the whole, but exhausting and all-consuming at times. But, I have only bloody well gone and finished it! Some pass grades could have been better along the way, but I have had to combine multiple modules per year due to the OU’s decision to end-date my named degree in 2014, I have a full-time job and a small, active child. I would have liked a 2:1, but pleased with a 2:2. A first is for cleverer, more motivated people than me!

I could not have finished it without my lovely wife Jo. Her patience and motivation have pushed me over the line. I owe her a lot of my time for the foreseeable future for sure! Our Netflix account has been invaluable to her this year while I’ve been staring at my iMac screen failing to grasp various database-related concepts.

In all I am glad I did it, but probably more glad it is over. I’ve learned that I can write a bit of Java code, but that I’d need a whole pile of practice to put it to good use. I understand some aspects of database design and maintenance, but the overall feeling I have after this last module is respect for those good DBAs that can actually wrangle these bloody things into something useful and usable.

The most successful and useful parts of this degree were the two Systems Thinking modules which took up a whole third of my overall credits. These two modules have given me a new (or, at least, altered) perspective on thinking about problems or people. Thinking about anything. My mind has been shifted – uncomfortably at times – into considering just about everything through different lenses. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I found the two years I spent going through these two modules to have started a paradigm shift. It’s journey that never ends, but I’ve started it and it has empowered me to think about problems (or at least try to) as a whole.

I will write a bit more about this over time. It’s a very interesting (to me, at least) way of thinking.

I am looking forward to spending extended amounts of time with Jo and Ruby, being able to catch up on all the programmes I’ve missed over the years and to not studying anything for a bit. I need to rest this brain! My relief at this point is almost visible from space.

Hurrah for the Open University – one of the UK’s finest educational institutions. It has been a hell of a ride. Thank you.

BBC News – Tal Fortgang not sorry for being white and privileged

Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang has been told repeatedly to “check his privilege” – to be aware of how his socio-economic and cultural background shapes his views – and he’s not happy about it.”The phrase,” he writes, “handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung.”

via BBC News – Tal Fortgang not sorry for being white and privileged.

This article is an interesting read as it highlights some concepts that I learned while studying the systems thinking modules as part of my Open University degree. ‘Weltanschauung’ was a term used widely,  and while it doesn’t directly translate to ‘worldview’ it is a close-enough approximation.

Tal is displaying some understandable frustration with this ‘check your privilege’ meme that seems to be popular among on-line activists. However, he is also showing the limits of his own Welstanshauung. He does have an advantage over many of his American cohorts, and this is not due to any hard work on his part but by the luck of his birth. White males in the west are much more likely to succeed than  ethnic minorities – this is the ‘privilege’ that Tal should be aware of. It’s not his fault and it’s not something he can do anything about, it’s just a consideration – an epistemological awareness of his situation.

He is only 20 and has most of his life ahead of him. His views are limited by his life experience, just like everyone else’s, and his worldview will change over time. Perhaps he will look back at his essay in a few years and wonder why he expressed himself in such a fashion? Opinions based on a personal Weltanschauung are fine and all but that doesn’t mean that others cannot provide their own responses based on their own experiences and views.

Tal is wrong, he should ‘check his privilege’, as should we all. We would all make more informed decisions.

Mary Elizabeth Williams writes far more eloquently about this than I can over at The Salon.

But what people often don’t like – what Fortgang himself quite obviously doesn’t like – is when someone who hasn’t walked in your shoes tries to tell you your experience. What people don’t like is when someone who moves through the world with a particular set of advantages writes an essay that uses the word “empathize” but then confidently announces that he lives in “a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.” Young man, if you honestly think this country doesn’t care about religion or race, then you are privileged. You have grown up in an America that has enabled you to not know otherwise. And I don’t need to you to be sorry about it, because you didn’t create that. I’d just love for you to someday understand it.

It’s not much different over here in the UK with our political elite; educated almost exclusively in expensive schools they fail to understand why the proletariat think they’re an utter bunch of privileged, useless tossers. It’s almost like they’re living in another world that bears limited resemblance to the reality of existing in a normal job with normal problems.

A bit of empathy – from everyone – would go a long way to soothe much of the discontent that exists between people from different backgrounds.

Is The Cloud Too Expensive?

One of my current Open University modules (M362 – Developing Concurrent Distributing Systems) discusses “The Cloud” quite a bit, especially the Amazon solution. It is supposed to be cheaper and more scaleable than creating your own infrastructure.

Well, it seems that a few years down the line this may no longer be true, at least for some small businesses.

Eric Frenkiel is through with convention and conformity.It was just too expensive.

In Silicon Valley, tech startups typically build their businesses with help from cloud computing services — services that provide instant access to computing power via the internet — and Frenkiel’s startup, a San Francisco outfit called MemSQL, was no exception. It rented computing power from the granddaddy of cloud computing,

But in May, about two years after MemSQL was founded, Frenkiel and company came down from the Amazon cloud, moving most of their operation onto a fleet of good old fashioned computers they could actually put their hands on. They had reached the point where physical machines were cheaper — much, much cheaper — than the virtual machines available from Amazon. “I’m not a big believer in the public cloud,” Frenkiel says. “It’s just not effective in the long run.”

It’s funny that the Cloud is now convention, because it certainly wasn’t when M362 was initially written.

via Why Some Startups Say the Cloud Is a Waste of Money | Wired Enterprise |

Shut up and listen

I read Freethought Blogs quite a bit and came across this excellent post by Paul Fidalgo:

We do not like to be told we are being jerks. We do not like to be told we are being demeaning, or belittling, or discriminatory, or bigoted, even if by accident. Particularly we skepto-atheists, who so pride ourselves on our rationality, our grip on reality, our ability to coolly evaluate information on its merits.

But, inevitably — and especially if you are a white male — you will be called out. You will say something, you will write something, you will assess an idea or a cause or a feeling expressed. It will contain, in this assessment, this comment, or what have you, a word, a sentence, a supposition, a slant that causes offense. Someone, likely not a white male, will point out how this comment is hurtful, how it exacerbates a stereotype, how it reveals one’s unacknowledged social privilege, how it seems to minimize the grievances of another group.

You know what happens next. The blood boils, the eyes widen, the hackles rise, the jaw tightens. You argue back. How could you think this of me? How could you accuse me of such a thing? I am enlightened, I am sensitive, I am progressive, I am rational. I am not one of those white males. What I said was devoid of bigotry, it was not demeaning, it was not belittling, it was not in any way tainted by privilege.

This fits in with both my experiences as a white, able-bodied male and as a systems thinking student. My worldview is shaped by experiences, so it is difficult to understand the worldviews of those from different backgrounds. I’ve often said something that seems innocuous to me but could be construed as upsetting or insulting to others. It’s often impossible to discuss some subjects without upsetting someone, but I do think that it’s important to at least try to understand the arguments of people from different backgrounds.

Being aware that you might be wrong, or might have some gaps in your knowledge, is part of being epistemologically aware. We are part of our environment and we can only see bits of it – there are huge portions of our world that we are unaware of, but which is in closer focus of those around us. We should listen to these people when they air their grievances rather than just discount them as being unreasonable or part of the “political correctness gone mad” brigade.

We might learn something.

New Year, New Me?

Hello 2013, you snuck up on me a bit there. 2012 has been a bit of a busy year and has ended rather earlier than I thought. Still, here we are in a brand new year.

I had loads going on in 2012, although my (irregular, rare) readers wouldn’t know it due to the paucity of blog entries in the latter half of the year. I have been a rubbish blogger over the last six months and I would like to write a lot more in 2013. We shall see.

Last year saw me complete two Open University modules: M257 and T306. I struggled with M257 (due to both lack of time and interest) but did achieve a grade 4 pass, while I enjoyed T306 rather more due to the nature of the materials. I have found systems thinking to be an immensely useful too for all sorts of situations and I was fully engaged with the course over its nine months run, when I did well enough in the exam to get a grade 2 pass. This means that I am well on the way to getting a 2:1 BSc (hons) in Computing and Systems Practice once I’ve finished the final four modules over the next two years.

I have less than two years left of OU study! Hurrah! Also: shame! I’m enjoying this experience immensely, but it’s taking up too much of my spare time and I have other things I’d like to do, like spend time with my wife and daughter.

2013 brings two modules, both Java-based: M362 and M256. Netbeans is going to be getting a battering this year for sure. I struggled a bit with concurrency in M257, so M362 will need a bit of extra work, and the exams in these programming modules are hard. I should probably book a week or so off prior to my exams for some intense revision because I really want to do well in these modules, if only to improve the latent developer in me.

I will do better this year, I will. I was repeatedly behind with my OU work in 2012, I must not let that happen this year. I won’t. I must get more organised. Yes.

T306: Block 4

This block has been a real struggle. It’s not that the subject material was particularly hard, it’s just that my poor old brain has been unable to cope with such a packed few months. I finished M257 – exam done, just awaiting my final mark at the beginning of August – I’ve taken on extra responsibilities at work (I’m now the test automation “expert” – so help me…) and I’ve also been off on a very rainy holiday in Dorset for a week.

I haven’t particularly engaged too deeply with the course materials and haven’t done any of the activities for the block at all. Disappointing. M257 took up far too much of this block’s reading time and my brain’s processing power. I lost all interest in the block and had to painfully construct the resultant assignment from fragments of half-remembered course notes. I, somehow, got 73%. I’m not sure how I did, but I’m glad that I covered enough of the subject material to get a decent mark.

Even better, my superb tutor marked it within 24 hours of me submitting it and provided me with some extremely useful feedback. I now need to plough on with block 5, which is all about reflection and becoming an aware systems practitioner. There’s some material about Chinese Astrology, which I really hope isn’t going suggest that there’s any element of truth in it at all.

Better get a move on with that then…

Too much study, not enough time

I never went to university after my A-levels, unlike most of my friends, so I have no idea how much stress is involved with doing a proper degree. However, I can say from experience that doing a part-time degree with the Open University can be an immensely stressful experience.

I’m finding it a bit tough at the moment. I’m having to overlap modules due to the OU making the decision to withdraw my named degree at the end of 2014, and this is leading to intense crowding of assignments. I’m managing to get through my work, but I’ve had to ask for several extensions this year and I’m having to cut back on other things in order to make time for family.

I have just finished M257 but I hardly concentrated on it at all. I was hoping to get to grips with Java in a proper sense but T306 is my priority module this year and something had to give. I will be lucky to get a grade two pass, but my time is limited and it got just enough time for me to pass it. The exam was difficult but I’m fairly sure that I did enough to get over 55% and a grade 3 pass, but I would have loved to have done better.

I have a full time job and a family that I like to spend time with. Doing this is hard. I don’t go to band as often as I’d like, my evenings are often spent studying and I don’t spend as much time with my wife as I should. It’s tough, but enjoyable. I do enjoy the study and I’m doing this  degree to give me the kick up the arse I need to get on with my career. I should have done this years ago, but here I am in my 40s making life difficult for myself.

I have something to aim for, something to achieve. I want to do well and I’m finding it difficult, but I’m not going to give up now. I will pass and I will learn something useful along the way. The Systems Thinking material is life-changing stuff and the technical modules may give me sufficient programming chops to hop into a slightly different career path. We shall see. I do know that despite the stress and the sacrifices that I am finding this whole thing rewarding and worthwhile. It is worth it.

I know I don’t say this to Jo enough, but the support she gives me during my studies is very, very much appreciated. I’m sorry it cuts into our time but it’ll all be worth it in the long run. Love you very much!