Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Snake Oil Salesmen


    I reckon that, last week, I broke a World record. I managed to cycle through 38 TV channels in turn that were all showing commercials. OK, so I was in a hotel in the U.S. and maybe that's to be expected. And some of the commercials are more interesting than the programs. Of course, it's probably the same here in England now that we have "digital choice", but I just don't notice 'cos we let Media Center record anything we want to watch and then skip over the commercials. Mind you, we need some serious practice to make commercials that are as blatantly misleading as those I've been watching.

    I mean, here in the People's Republic of Europe, the concept of "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) is pretty much obsolete because trading laws are so strict that you almost have to refund people's money before they buy stuff. We have a whole Government department whose entire job is to guard the population against misleading advertisements. Yet, surely the whole point of advertising is to be misleading. I wouldn't be tempted to buy a car they described as "fairly good except when going round corners, and bits of the fascia come loose after a while." Or a new flavor of yoghurt where the actor says "we use fresh ingredients when we can get them, they don't taste too bad, and we very rarely send them out with dead insects inside".

    Yet, last week I was offered a new type of super high quality cleaning duster that magically cleans everything twice as fast as a "normal" duster, comes with an unbreakable handle, a replaceable head, lasts forever, and leaves all other dusters standing. And it was worth $40 but I was lucky because that week they were offering them at only $9.95. And for that price they would actually send you two! And not only that, but they'd also include two packs of replacement heads and a mini duster and free shipping worth a total of $70! I don't know why, but somehow I got the impression that they were being a little economical with the truth somewhere along the line.

    Even better, there was a famous actor (who I didn't actually recognize) explaining that - in his 25 years on TV - he'd never seen an easier way to make "hundreds of thousands of dollars" than the new "cash flow notes" program. No investment, guaranteed money back, and only $159 to "start earning". And if you order in the next 18 minutes "while stocks last", he said, you get the whole package at a one-time special rate. And there are two free gifts as well that make it a "total $295 value" - all for just $39. No wonder we have a financial crisis...

    And then there are the 20 second ones that flash past so fast it takes a while to catch on. Like the commercial for "top-up medical insurance" that covers you for stuff your existing medical insurance doesn't. Or the guy who says you can phone him now and get any three of his computer training DVDs completely free. Learn how to make money on EBay, or master Windows Vista. And, this week, he'll even allow you to order three extra completely free DVDs. You only pay $6.95 each for shipping. OK, so I'm not an expert in this area, but last time I had bulk DVDs made they cost less than two dollars each, and I'm sure it can't cost more than a couple of dollars to send a DVD by post in a padded bag. So their business model really consists of selling post and packing.

    More worrying, however, is the weirdness of some of the programs. Last time I was there I inadvertently watched, while eating breakfast, a program about the top ten retail stores in the U.S. One of them was a place called Archie McPhee, which is actually in Seattle! They sell novelties and daft stuff, and I just had to pay them a visit this time. I found some useful things such as an emergency reflective jacket and a brush for cleaning my fishpond filter. However, it's probably a good thing they didn't search my case at customs on the way home as it might have been difficult to explain why I needed several packs of plasters (bandages) with toast and ninjas on, some plastic model office cubicles (plus additional figures), a bag of Mini Devil Duckies, a roll of "Crime Scene Keep Out" tape, and a shopping bag that says "My wife said I had to bring this bag with me".

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Are You Offset Early Yet?


    I watched a program on TV the other night about how your body clock works. It seems that when you are young, your body clock is "offset late" so you are useless in the mornings and tend to be a bit of a night owl. I guess this is useful so you can go to those all-night parties and clubs. When you get old your body clock is "offset early", so you have to go to bed at 6:30 PM and get up in time to watch breakfast TV and those weird quiz shows that nobody has heard of. I suppose this means that there are only a couple of weeks around the age of 35 when your life is actually aligned with the world around you. That's going to be my excuse in future, anyway.

    And it seems that all this is the result of strict scientific investigation, and not just some university student making stuff up for his final exam dissertation. It's supposed to explain why extricating a teenager from their bed before lunchtime is about as easy as folding custard (or herding cats). In fact, there is a school in the North East of England where they are experimenting with delaying the start of lessons that require anything more than desultory half-awakeness until after 11:00 AM. Maybe this is a way to reduce traffic congestion - send kids to school for 10:30 in the morning so we can all get to work without being buried by a flock of 4x4s on the school run, and keep them there until we've had a chance to sit down after work and read the paper in peace.

    They also say that "body clock research" (which surely has to be a made-up science) can predict the best time of day to have a heart attack or stroke, provide the reason why you feel tired after a beer at lunchtime, and tell you when to have sex. Now, I'm no expert, but I reckon I could figure that the best time to have a heart attack or stroke is never, the reason you feel tired is because that's what beer does, and - well - I'll refrain from comment on the remaining point.

    Strange thing is that, in my advancing years, I should now be well into the "offset early" camp. According to a rough calculation on the back of a Notepad document, I should be drifting off to sleep at seventeen minutes past nine all this week. And be wide awake and furiously typing guidance and documentation by around ten to seven in the morning. I'd have to say that his doesn't bear comparison with reality. If I go to bed much before midnight I can't drop off to sleep, and I don't remember when I last saw any time prior to 8:00 AM on the bedside alarm clock. I've even tried following my wife's sage advice that "...it's about time you had an early night", but it seems to make little difference. Me and a zombie exhibit remarkably similar traits (and appearance, according to my wife) any time before about 9:00 AM and the second cup of coffee.

    I put it down to the fact that I live on GMT and work on PCT (Pacific Coast Time). So being a night owl is useful because I'm generally still around in the evenings trying to catch up on work while my colleagues are yawning and scratching their way into the office. As long as it's before lunch time their time, I'm generally around to answer panic emails, ignore desperate pleas for completion of the latest important document, and attend conference meeting calls where all I can hear is distant mumblings and trans-Atlantic crosstalk on the line. On one occasion last week, I think I was in three meetings at the same time. I remember agreeing to a new wholesale price for bulk crayfish shipments, and an updated schedule for delivery of some pork bellies to Nebraska. I think we agreed on the appropriate terminology for describing presentation layer components as well, but I can’t be sure about that part.

    Maybe your body clock influences your choice of employment. Or maybe it’s the other way round - your choice of career actually changes your body clock schedule. I mean, you'd have to assume that postmen (sorry, postal delivery workers) are offset early, and that night-club bouncers are offset late. So what about us in the IT world? I've noticed that the p&p office is not exactly bursting with activity at 8:00 AM, or even 9:00 AM, most days. Yet there are still plenty of people hunched over keyboards late into the evenings. Do you actually know any "offset-early" IT people?

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Miss Spellings and Bad Grandma


    I suspect that there is a crisis at our local council offices at the moment. They've obviously run out of things to waste taxpayer's money on, so they decided to publish a ten page full-color pamphlet containing really useful information about our local community. On page three, it says that - in case we hadn't noticed - work is underway on the open-cast coal mine just across the fields from where I live. Really? I would never have guessed that the brand new railway, dozens of huge trucks, and a hole half a mile wide and a hundred feet deep were connected with that.

    Of course, there is some less-blindingly-obvious information in there as well. Like the fact that the local post office has had to close because the postmaster is in prison (we live in an exciting area); and news that in the village next to us they are going to concrete over the field where all the kids play, then spend thousands of pounds making it into a kids' play area. But what struck me most was the incredible number of misspellings and serious grammar errors in the ten pages that - in total - hold no more than about 30 complete sentences. Does nobody read this stuff before they send it out? Or is it some covert scheme to try and make everybody think our local district is run by idiots? As if we needed convincing...

    Still, at least they put a nondescript photo of some unidentifiable area of countryside covered in snow on the cover to cheer us all up. Obviously they were ensuring they didn't fall into the "wrong city" trap like the council that runs the second largest city here in England did a while ago. Maybe you saw it in the papers - it even made it into the US Today newspaper (which they deliver to all hotel rooms in the US - whether you want it or not). Somebody probably asked a junior editor in the "community communication" department to search the Web for a picture of Birmingham. When the thousands of leaflets were distributed across the city, several people remarked that they never realized there were so many skyscrapers in Birmingham. Of course, there aren't. They'd put a photo of Birmingham Alabama on the cover (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/7560392.stm and http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2008/08/birmingham_england_officials_c.html).

    Anyway, coming back to the topic of this post (spelling and grammar in case you've forgotten), maybe it's the fact that I work with words and documents that means I tend to spot mistakes, and that they annoy me so much. But the best ones are often amusing in a silly kind of way. For example, I got very nervous reading about how you create Office Business Applications (OBAs) when I found a note in the documentation about how they are really useful "...when you have a rage of documents to handle". Now I have to keep checking if there are any angry spreadsheets on my computer, and I wonder if my virus checker will detect furious Word documents. Maybe there is an irateness rating for emails that my spam filter can use? On a scale of one to ten, move anything over 4.5 into the Junk Mail folder.

    I also came across an article by somebody who writes data access code the same way as I do - just gather together some keywords that sound like they might be appropriate, add a few randomly named variables, and mix it all up until it does something useful. At least that's what I assumed they meant when they said that "...the best approach is to use a stired procedure." But I reckon the best of all was the article that described how "Exception management and logging are often not sufficient in enterprise applications, and you should consider complimenting them with notifications". I tried this - but after half an hour, I ran out of accolades and flattering remarks without seeming to achieve any positive effect on the application.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Going to the Dogs


    I'm starting to worry that I can’t cope with the frantic releases of operating system versions. I just got settled with a couple of Vista machines and, more recently, two Server 2008 boxes, and now I'm being pushed to "dogfood" Windows 7. I wonder if I should install it on the machine I use for all my important work, or on the laptop I depend on when travelling. I know I tend to be somewhat conservative in terms of upgrading to the latest cool software, but neither of these options seems like a really good idea with a beta operating system.

    I guess it's OK if you work onsite - you can just throw the machine at the local systems admin guy if it toasts itself, and pick up another from the stores in the meantime. Mind you, I've seen a few of my colleagues using it and they seem happy enough that it does what it says on the Start button. Maybe I should install it in a VPC, or on a machine I don't use for anything important. But what good would that be, unless I also install all the tools and software I use every day, configure everything to work like it needs to, and then put up with using a machine that I had sidelined because it was too old or slow to be practicable? So I'm probably not much help as a dogfooder.

    Hmmm... I wanted to write "dogfeeder" there, but that sounds like someone who works in a kennels. Perhaps it should be "...not much help with dogfooding" (but not "dogfeeding"). Is there a conjugation (or declension) for the verb "dogfood"? Something like "I dogfood, you dogfood, he dogfeeds, we dogfed". Probably it’s the same as the one for the verb "impact". And people accuse me of making up words...

    Anyway, I'm not sure yet I've even got the knack of the "version 6" stuff. One of my Vista laptops decided to display two account icons on the startup screen when I changed my account password last time, and I haven't managed - despite a great deal of poking and swearing - to get rid of either of them. When it boots, it immediately displays the message "Incorrect password", but then logs in without prompting for a password when I click either of the icons. Despite endless fiddling with account management dialogs and saved password configurations, I can’t resolve it. Maybe I should install Windows 7 on this machine just out of spite.

    Though I did solve (partially) a Windows Server 2008 issue this week. Since I moved over to Server 2008, I've had endless problems with batch files and scheduled tasks. I have a series of batch files that use XCOPY to duplicate and mirror data around my network and onto various backup stores. Everything worked fine with Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 Server, but there seem to be some weird things with Server 2008.

    For example, my XCOPY batch file uses the /m switch to copy only files with the archive attribute set, and turn off this attribute after copying. But when run from Task Scheduler (either as a timed event or started manually) it copied the files but did not clear the archive bit. The result was that every night when it ran, it copied all the files again. I tried the /d switch, but it still copied files even when they exist on the target drive. I guessed it was because I was using the NET USE command in the batch file to get access to the NAS drive (see my previous blog post "Herding Buffalo" for an explanation). So I created a new separate batch file that just contained the command to clear the archive attributes on the source files:

    attrib -a d:\myfiles\backup\*.* /s

    When I ran this by double-clicking on it in Explorer, it worked fine. So I created a new scheduled task to execute this batch file a couple of hours after the XCOPY batch file had finished. But, even though I set up the scheduled task to run under a domain admin account, it simply reported "Access denied" for every file. So the fact that the XCOPY command does not work properly is obviously nothing to do with NET USE, or the fact I am accessing a Linux-based NAS drive as the target for the copy. It simply doesn't have permission to update the archive bit on the source files.

    Now, I kind of suspected that a domain admin account would be a good choice for doing domain administration stuff. Obviously that's not the case in Windows 2008. So I did what every amateur part-time administrator does in these circumstances - wandered across to TechNet and asked them the question of life, the universe, and why on earth I don't have permission to update files on my own computer. After some exploration, and fortunate choice of keywords (and swear words) I tracked it down to the User Access Control (UAC) feature.

    I know I'm a bit vague at the best of times, but I never knew that Windows 2008 had UAC built in. I know that it's been the bane of many people's lives on Vista, but it's not something you'd expect to find lurking in a box where the guy on the keyboard is most likely to be the administrator for most of the time. And it seems that there is a new Admin Approval Mode (AAM) configuration mode as well. If you go off and read the TechNet page "User Account Control" (it's OK to pretend that you understand most of it), you will probably grasp as I did that administrator accounts in Server 2008 get two security tokens. One is a low-trust token used for most activities to help protect against malicious code having full access to the machine. The other token is a full-trust one that is used, according to TechNet, "...when the user attempts to perform an administrative task." It doesn't say when or how the system knows which token to use, or how it knows if the request is a malicious one... but I'll accept that all this just works like it should.

    So maybe this is why I don't have permission to update my own files? Does Task Scheduler use the low-trust token for the administrator account I specify to run the task? Or does all this apply to just local administrator accounts and not to domain admin accounts? In fact, AAM is disabled for the built-in Administrator account in Server 2008, but not for other accounts. So Task Scheduler is probably starting all the backup scripts in low trust mode even though its using a domain admin account.

    How do I get round this? I did start reading about the Group Policy settings to manage it, and the Registry entries involved, but then noticed the checkbox marked "Run with highest privileges" in the General tab of each scheduled task. I figured it couldn't do that much harm (and I have a recent backup), so I tried it. And, as you probably guessed, it solves the problem. It forces Task Scheduler to start the task using the full-trust token instead. My backup script now works like it should.

    Except now I just noticed that the mouse pointer on my Hyper-V VPC has gone back to that stupid "thin up arrow" cursor again (see "Cursory Distractions" ). Oh well, I guess optimism and computers never did mix that well.

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