Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Too Clever By Four And Three Eighths

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    I'm fast coming to the conclusion that you actually need to be quite stupid to use a computer these days. Within a few years those with even a minor modicum of capability, or just a hint of innate common sense, or even mental agility that verges on a level around normal, will find themselves completely excluded from the ever-present, always-connected, online virtualness and technological future of man (and women) kind. We'll be reduced to writing on stuff called "paper" and sending these hand-written messages to others by buying "postage stamps". Or actually talking using ordinary words over a voice connection called a "telephone".

    OK, so this partly comes about as a result of my daily battles with software that is either so simplified and "user-friendly" that it's almost impossible to make it do what you want, or which seems intent on trying to hide from you anything that does not involve answering inane questions. Yes, I know I've ranted on about this in probably far too many blog posts in the past. And I appreciate that software should be as intuitive and easy to use as possible to open up our wonderful world of computing technology to the widest possible audience.

    But this week I've seen with some horror the effects of our attempts to achieve this in gory close-up detail as I've tried to help some friends get set up with their new computer. And these aren't stupid people trying to do difficult stuff. They have both run retail businesses before they retired from full-time work, and can quite successfully manage things like programming a video recorder, working the latest types of mobile phones, and eating gum whilst walking. And what's worse, they actually had another friend who is technically quite competent help them get their modem and Internet connection set up and working, yet fail to complete the job.

    So these people looked on in horror as I tried to get them started with a bit of basics on using a GUI, starting and stopping programs, and gentle Web surfing. Questions I never even anticipated, such as "Why are there so many different ways to do the same thing?" and "What are all these little pictures on the bottom for?" (the notification icon area which contains no less than 11 icons that do nothing when you click on them). And even "How do I turn it off?" They didn't seem to intuitively grasp that you need to click the button that says "Start" if you wave your mouse pointer over it when you wanted to stop.

    Then there's the free 60-day trial of Office that continually pops up a dialog asking you to register it, sends you (after several clicks) to a page that gives you a product key and tells you to copy it into the Office "register" dialog, but then sends you an email to tell you to do it all over again. Or the Norton program that nags continually until you click the "Fix" button, then does a few tricks, and then starts to "check your system" - at which point everything stops with no indication of what it's doing or how long it will take. And then it starts to "backup your files" to some online repository (no idea where). It says you can carry on working, but reports that the process failed when you close the nag window.

    On my first visit, I set up a Windows Live email account for them so they wouldn't have to keep changing their email address when they change ISPs (I've read enough horror stories about the one they are with, though I suspect that all ISPs have a reasonably equal number of these circulating the 'Net). But the next day they told me that they hadn't managed to get into it again because they couldn't figure out what to do when presented with the initial Home page. "Why do I have to wave my arrow thing all over the page to see which bits do something?" they asked. I'd explained that links were usually blue and underlined, so they were completely fooled by links that are black and only go blue and underlined when you move the mouse pointer over them; and doubly fooled by the main login one that lit up blue. Though no doubt, after a while, they'll get used to the strange and often unintuitive conventions we take for granted (like "I can understand Maximize and Minimize, but what does Restore Down mean?").

    Still, all of this is just a familiarization process, and they'll soon become proficient and inclusive members of our high-tech community. Though where the fun really started was trying to get their ISP email working so they could receive messages and online bills. My ISP (British Telecom) allows you to specify any email address to receive the "important information about our services" messages. But their ISP insists that you use their own email system, so we had to persuade Windows Email (a.k.a. Outlook Express) to talk to their mail servers. No, you can't just use the Webmail feature because the email setup process (which you have to do yourself) requires that you verify mail server registration using an "important information about our services" email that they send you before you can log in (?).

    You kick off this registration process through their own Web site, after logging into it with your "broadband account details" - which are different from your email account details they send you in the welcome pack with your modem (even though you don't yet have an email account). And here we come to the nub of the issue that drove me (and them) crazy. The ISP provides a password to log onto their site in the "welcome" letter. But after endless attempts we couldn't make it work. So we phoned the automated "password reminder" service. The nice electronic lady read out the user name and password - exactly the same as in the welcome letter.

    Now I don't know about you, but faced with a password (and this isn't the real one) such as "H6C2W9A3", and being canny enough to guess that - like most systems - it is case-sensitive, what would you type in? My guess is the same as we did over and over again: "H6C2W9A3". What you actually have to type is "h6c2w9a3". Yes, it's case sensitive, but to save confusion they print it in the welcome pack using "letters that look the same as the ones on the keyboard". And the automated password reminder service read it out as "haych for Henry, number six, see for Charlie, number two, double-you for Whisky, number nine, 'ay for Alpha, number three". Not even a suggestion that there might be some lower-case stuff in there.

    Now you see what I mean about stupid people? The only people who will be able to use the Internet in a few years time are those who WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS and don't even realize that there are such things as "small letters". And, after all that, when we finally did get to the "My Account" page, we found the following message (and note the interesting use of grammar): "My Account is currently unavailable. We making some improvements to our customer service and online systems over the weekend".

    Probably they're making them more compatible with stupid people...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    It Ain't Half Hot Mum

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    OK, OK, so one month I'm complaining that our little green paradise island seems to have drifted north into the Arctic, and now I'm grumbling about the heat. Obviously global warming is more than just a fad, as we've been subjected here in England to temperatures hovering around 90 degrees in real money for the last week or so. Other than the gruesome sight of pale-skinned Englishmen in shorts (me included), it's having some rather dramatic effects on my technology installations. I'm becoming seriously concerned that my hard disks will turn into floppy ones, and my batteries will just chicken out in the heat.

    Oh dear, bad puns and I only just got going. But it does seem like the newer the technology, the less capable it is of operating in temperatures that many places in the world would call normal. There's plenty of countries that get regular spells of weather well into the 90's, as I discovered when we went to a wedding in Cyprus a few years back. How on earth do they cope? I've got extra fans running 24/7 in the computer cabinet and in the office trying to keep everything going. I'm probably using 95% of my not inconsiderable weekly electricity consumption keeping kit that only uses 1% of it to actually do stuff from evaporating (the other 4% is the TV, obviously).

    Maybe the trouble is that, here in England where we have a "temperate" climate, we're not really up to speed with modern technology such as air conditioning. Yes, they seem to put it in every car these days, but I only know one person who has it in their house, and that's in the conservatory where - on a hot day - it battles vainly to get the temperature below 80 degrees. I briefly considered running an extension lead out to my car and sitting in it to work, but that doesn't help with the servers and power supplies.

    I've already had to shut down the NAS because it's sending me an email every five minutes saying it's getting a bit too warm. And I've shut down the backup domain controller to try and cut down the heat generation (though it's supposed to be one of those environmentally friendly boxes that will run on just a sniff of electricity). And the battery in the UPS in the office did its usual summer trick of bulging out at the sides, and throwing in the towel as soon as I powered up a desktop and a couple of decent sized monitors. It's no wonder UPS are so cheap to buy. They're like razors (or inkjet printers) - you end up spending ten times more than a new one would have cost on replacement batteries. Even though I cut a hole in the side and nailed a large fan onto it.

    Probably I'm going to have to bite the bullet and buy a couple of those portable air conditioning units so my high-tech kit can stay cool while we all melt here in the sun. In fact, my wife reckons I've caught swine 'flu because she finds me sitting here at the keyboard sweating like pig when she sails in from her nice cool workplace in the evening. At least the heat has killed most things in the garden (including the lawn) so that's one job I've escaped from.

    By the way, in case you didn't realize, the title this week comes from a rather old BBC TV program. Any similarity between the actor who played Gunner 'Lofty' and this author is vigorously denied.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Shadow in the Machine

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    There's some ethereal guy called "system" wandering around inside my servers stealing stuff. It's a bit like when you were a kid and your parents hid things from you. When my hamster died, my Dad told me it had gone to live on a farm. Of course, when I got a bit older and my Grandmother passed away I realized he was telling fibs because she suffered from hay fever and was afraid of cows, so there's no way she would go and live on a farm. Yet, even though I've now reached the age where people generally feel they can tell me the truth (often, worryingly, to may face), I discover that Windows Server 2008 is still hiding stuff from me.

    I suppose it's all related to the poor decisions I made when ordering my servers. Ever since I set them up with Hyper-V, and virtualized all the machines I find I need for my diminutive network here at chez Derbyshire, I've been struggling for disk space. It seems that 300GB is just an aperitif when you get serious about virtualization. OK, so the Server 2008 docs do say you need a minimum of 40GB for a standard installation, but I made the VMs only 30GB. My Windows 2003 Server VM that runs ISA is 30GB and has 22GB free. Though the Windows 2008 VMs that don't have very much at all installed are both showing only 8GB free of 30GB so maybe they were right...

    Anyway, although my math skills may have waned since leaving school, I managed to calculate that I could run four 30GB VMs on a 150GB disk (yes, I know you're supposed to put them on separate disks, but my network loading is somewhat less than heavy - none of the machines goes above about 3% CPU utilization). Yet I could never get all of them onto the disk. OK, so Hyper-V does use some extra space for each VM when it's running (about 2GB for a 30GB VM), but I should still have space for four of them. In fact, as one of the VMs is a tightly locked down copy of Windows XP used for browsing and troubleshooting while I'm pretending to be a system administrator, and its only 10GB, I should have space left to swing several cats round simultaneously. But I could only ever fit the three 30GB VMs onto the disk.

    I did try reducing the size of the VM with the 20+GB of free space using the Hyper-V tools, but (as they say in several blog posts I found) it's not a trivial exercise. You can convert the VM to a dynamic disk and compact it (it went down to 5.6GB), but when you convert it back to a fixed size disk there is no option to specify the size because it automatically grows to the partition size specified in its boot sector. You need to edit the partition size to reduce the physical disk size, and I didn't fancy playing round with that on a Sunday afternoon. Please, Hyper-V guys, can we have a tool to do this (and better docs that explain why you are wasting good gardening time playing with the existing tools).

    So I've put off dealing with this issue for the last few months since setting everything up, but now that we are suddenly experiencing tropical conditions here in Little Olde England I decided I needed to find a way to get this sorted so I could shut down the "spare" server and reduce the searing temperatures in my server cabinet (see last week's ramblings for details). So out comes the calculator: three times 32 (the three VMs on the disk) equals 96. Check the disk properties and it says 133GB used, 14GB free. So where did all the spare disk space go? Maybe it's got some lost clusters, so I schedule a disk check and reboot. After restarting, look in the bootlog.txt file and - lo and behold - around 40GB is described as "in use by the system". What on earth for? Is it hiding secret documents from me? Does it need some spare disk space for playing Mahjong when nobody is watching? Is it full of dead hamsters that never made it to the farm?

    So I did the usual, check the properties of each folder and add the total sizes together. 96GB. Then turn on "view operating system files" and do the same. Still 96GB. See what I mean? Most things made of metal expand when they get hot, so my disk drives should be getting bigger not smaller. I even considered looking underneath to see if there was a pool of congealed clusters that had leaked out of the bottom (OK, so not really). But then - "Aha!" - I remember seeing the occasional error message in Event Log about something to do with "Not sufficient disk space to create shadow copies". One of those messages that I've conveniently been ignoring.

    So after furkling through the properties of the disk, I find that Windows has allocated 41GB to shadow copies. I suppose the fact that you can see this in the Shadow Copies tab of the Properties dialog means that it's not technically "hidden", but where is the file? You can't see it in Windows Explorer, even with "show operating system files" and "show hidden files" turned on. And how do you stop it happening? After reading some online docs and blog posts, it became clear that the shadow copies are there because the disk has a share set up, and it allows connected users to get at the previous deleted or updated data that was on the disk. I have the disk with the VMs on shared at admin level to be able to do backups, so I can't really just turn off sharing. And according to the Shadow Copies dialog, they are disabled on the disk anyway.

    I had a go with the vssadmin command line tool that is part of Server 2008, but that said it couldn't find any shadow copies (that system guy obviously hides stuff from Windows as well). It seems that vssadmin can only delete shadow copies you create manually. And to make it worse, the more I tried enabling and disabling shadow copies, the larger the shadow copy got. After ten minutes it had grown to 55GB! In the end, more by luck that any administrative capability on my part, I found that by clicking the Schedule button and deleting the two existing scheduled shadow copy tasks, and setting the size to 300MB (the minimum you can specify), the shadow copies magically just disappeared. Suddenly I've got tons of spare disk space on all of my drives!

    Of course, now I can't sleep at night worrying that shadow copies aren't occurring for my shares, but seeing as how: a) I didn't know there were there before, b) I've never had reason to use them, and c) I can't see why I'd need to get a previous copy of a VM when they are all exported and backed up in multiple places regularly (and don't actually change that much anyway), maybe I'm just being as paranoid as usual.

    I suppose I'll find out one day when the sky does fall in, and I can't get to the Internet to update my blog. You'll probably be able to tell when this happens because the post will suddenly end in mid

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Tap, Tap, Tap, Bloop, Gone.

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    So here's an interesting approach to merchandising and pricing your products. Imagine, if you will, that you have set up a company to build sports cars, and you reckon your can sell 50 in the first year. Or maybe, closer to home, you have invented some fabulous new piece of software that you're convinced will sweep the world off its feet and find a home on every desktop and server out there (yes, when I was a lot younger I started out like that as well...). Anyway, after a year, you discover that you are only selling half what you budgeted for, and so you're losing money. What do you do?

    Well, you could decide to trim your costs to get back on budget. Or you could redouble your efforts in selling the cars/programs/whatever-it-is-you-do to reach your initial target. Or you might instead consider improving the product so it is easier to sell, making up the gap that way. It's a fair bet that one of these approaches - or, more likely, a combination - will solve the embarrassing "hole in the finances" problem...? Or, maybe, instead of any of these, how about just doubling the price?

    If that sounds like a daft idea, and may in fact result in reduced sales, you obviously aren't familiar with the way that Government departments tackle this kind of not-unheard-of problem. After all, they are a monopoly in many areas of public service and provision, such as the people who look after registering land ownership or issuing passports. Here in our little Communist corner of the People's Republic of Europe, the Land Registry and the Passport Office have both announced that, because people can't afford to buy houses or go on holiday any more, these two offices are both running over budget. It seems that the income from the fees they charge has dropped dramatically during the recession.

    In fact, one of my wife's friends works in the local Land Registry office and she's regularly been regaling us with tales of how they have nothing to do - and are having to look busy by reorganizing the filing system, re-sharpening their pencils every hour, and moving everything from one room to another and back again. She was worried that she'd be made redundant, but that's not the way they do things. Instead, they just put their price up for each registration. And no messing about with 5% increases here, add another 75% on instead.

    And then there's passports. Or, as they have now become, "combined identity and travel documents". Not only have they doubled the price, but it seems that the Government doesn't know enough about us already and now they need to put every detail on some database that they can then sell to make some extra money. Of course, it will be really useful in reducing crime and terrorism, and make us all feel safer because we'll have an extra plastic card that we can wave around to prove who we are. Maybe they'll be able to do all the fancy things you see on these TV forensics programs as well, like identify people from the perfume or aftershave they wear, or by the color of their socks. I watch C.S.I. so I know about these things.

    In fact, my favorite one was where they were at some big trucking company office where there was a huge map showing lots of red dots where all the trucks were wandering around the roads of the state. A pal of mine has been involved in this kind of project for a local council, so I know it can be done. Though I seem to remember they only did snow ploughs and grass cutting machines, so it was a bit less exciting. My theory is that they could afford only a limited number of geo-location devices, and they figured they wouldn't be doing much grass cutting in the snow.

    But I'm wandering off topic. So, as we watched these trucks on the big screen blinking their way around the map, the C.S.I. people started firing questions. "Can you remove all the ones where the driver never goes on route 17?" Three taps on the keyboard, a satisfying bloopy noise, and some of the red dots flash and then fade away. "Now remove all the ones where the truck was off the road last Tuesday". Click, click, click, bloop, gone. "How about all of the trucks with a dent in the passenger door?" Tap, tap, tap, bloop, gone. "Now remove all the ones where the driver has never had whooping cough". Well, you get this picture... after a few more iterations there's only a single red blinking light left, so that must be the murderer!

    But I still can't figure why, when you want to search some incredibly huge database of fingerprints, the system decides to make the most of its processing capabilities by retrieving all the ones that don't match and drawing a picture of them on the screen. Still, at least when it does find the right one, it flashes in a very attractive manner and all of the information you could possibly want scrolls across the screen. I wonder if they use an HTML Marquee tag. And our police will soon be able to do the same after we've all been photographed, iris-scanned, and fingerprinted like criminals for our new "combined identity and travel documents".

    That is, of course, if they actually get the stuff into the database with some semblance of approximate accuracy (supposedly most of the Government databases have at least 10% errors, and the driver and vehicle one has nearer to 20% errors). I even read this week that they've still not got a system that's supposed to transfer court records to the police national database working because "some of the information is too complicated". It was supposed to be up and running three years ago, and they've already spent on it, according to my rough calculations, a sum of money equal to the entire tax take from our village for the next 75 years. I can't imagine how us people that live in the real world (and obviously only have to work with simple information) would get a way with that - even by doubling the price.

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