Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer
One of the joys of living in England is the plentiful opportunities for amusement (and sometimes even amazement) due to the proliferation of daft laws and rules emanating from our near-expired Government. According to an article in last week's newspaper, it's now illegal to sell a grey squirrel. It's nice to know that the appropriate level of law and order is being enforced in these troubled times. But best of all are the ramifications of the "Elf and Safety" laws (as they are affectionally known) that now blight almost every aspect of our lives.
I suppose it's kind of related to the area of computing I moan so vociferously about on regular occasions - protecting people from doing stupid things. I can understand that when I buy a potted plant at a garden centre, the stick that holds it upright has to have a big flat plastic cap on the top so I don't accidently poke my eye out, and I suppose it's logical that a packet of peanuts needs to carry a "May contain nuts" warning.
So it follows that the computer software I use should also protect me from doing stupid things such as forgetting to save the document before closing Microsoft Word, or accidently formatting my system drive. Thankfully, with some very minor exceptions, we don't yet have multiple "Are you really, really sure you want to do this" dialogs. Though I wonder how long it will be before you need to tick a checkbox to agree to some legal contract each time you delete a file, in order to protect the software publisher from being sued for loss of data.
And I see that MSDN is doing their bit to help me avoid installing the wrong version of software, or even following inappropriate advice in TechNet that might not be compatible with my O/S version. Whilst browsing for a fix for a problem on my Windows Server 2008 boxes the other day, I was presented with a big warning sign saying "This article applies to a different version of Windows than the one you are using. Content in this article may not be relevant to you. Please visit the Windows Vista Solution Center".
Err... thanks. Yes, I do tend to avoid browsing any Web sites from the browser on the server. Especially as I'm usually logged on as an administrator (so I can actually do stuff), and the browser on the server has the Enhanced Security Configuration enabled so almost no Web site actually works anyway. Instead, I use my old non-domain desktop machine (which, perhaps surprisingly, is not running Windows Server 2008?) for general browsing. But I suppose you have to admit that maybe it does prevent some incorrect updates being applied.
I guess the question is: how far should a company or organization have to go to protect people from themselves? Should it be illegal to sell scissors to anyone who doesn't have suitable training in their use and a certificate of proficiency (issued, no doubt, by the Department for Protection from Sharp Kitchen Implements)? Likewise, should computer users be forced to sign a statement absolving the manufacturer of liability before they can edit the Registry. Should there be a law against fiddling with virtual memory settings unless you are a certified engineer (suitably registered on some national database)? Anybody want to take a bet on how long it will be before these actually come to pass?
If you think these are daft rules, how about the one that comes into force next year with regard to tobacco advertising. It will be illegal for cigarette packets and the associated display paraphernalia to carry any advertising at all. Somebody pointed out that the name of the brand is "advertising". I guess it will save the manufacturers money as all brands will be sold in plain white boxes. And, according to the new law, from under the counter. I'll probably have to sneak in to the shop in a large overcoat and dark glasses, and whisper conspiratorially to the shopkeeper. "Pssst... John... quick, gizza packet of the white things... here's a fiver... no questions asked...".
But I suppose what kicked off all of this wild holiday rambling was the following picture I recently came across in the newspaper. Tragically, quite a few passengers were hurt in the accident.
However, what caught my eye and got me wondering was the sign on the front of the bus. I can accept that, on "elf and safety" grounds, they'd need to display the warning that the bus was not in service so that people wouldn't hurt themselves trying to get on it when the door is ten feet off the ground and the seats are ninety degrees out of kilter with their normal position. But the bus was obviously "in service" when the accident happened (unless all the injured people were stowaways). So, who - and at what stage - did they change the sign on the front?
Is there a standing instruction in the London bus driver's handbook that says that the first task in case of accident is to change the sign? Maybe there is a team of London Transport elf and safely inspectors who shadow each bus in case of an accident, and can be on the scene in minutes to change the sign. Or perhaps the Metropolitan Police have a directive that enforces this as the first task when arriving at an omnibus accident. Or could it be that - like modern mobile phones - the buses are equipped with a motion detector that automatically updates the display when it detects more than a pre-specified angle of rotation?
I watched some property development program on TV the other week about a "contemporary" new house with a "streamlined yet powerful" design. The comment from the presenter was that it looked like "a big box with windows". Aha! That's what I've just bought! Though mine was delivered in a cardboard box with Dell labels on. But, at last, I'm Windows 7 enabled! Perhaps you can tell from the increased productivity and heightened user experience of this post.
Or maybe not. Probably because I'm writing this on the old XP box, while the new one laboriously installs endless patches and the several tons of software I need just to make it worth getting out of bed in the mornings. I mean, how can a new machine built only three days ago already need 15 patches just for the operating system? I imagine that, after I install all the applications and other stuff I need, it will spend the whole of next week installing patches for these. All I can say is "Thank heavens for WSUS".
Mind you, it's strange how - despite spending hours figuring out what spec you actually need (or just want) for a new machine - you can end up being surprised at what actually arrives. As usual, my recent purchase is a Dell box, configured through their Web site. You spend ages wondering if you can afford that extra 2GB of memory, what size drive to specify, whether you need a different DVD drive, and a mass of other features and add-ons. There's even an option with the box I ordered to specify any of more than a dozen better graphics cards, one of which adds over $1,500 to the total price. I guess you'd expect that to be somewhat "better" than the standard one I chose - but, there again, I don’t tend to play Tomb Quake or Halo Raider very often.
However, the one thing you probably don't look at in the basic specs is the physical size of the machine. OK, so I did when I ordered a couple of new servers last year, but that's only because my sever cabinet is not very deep and I needed to find something a bit smaller than the standard sized boxes. And you'd think I'd have learned my lesson after the contretemps I had with the old XP box that this new one is replacing. I bought that from the Dell Outlet, spending time choosing one that had the performance I needed at the time, without ever wandering what the "C" after the model number meant. Until it arrived in a padded envelope.
Well, yes, it is a big bigger than that. But not much. It turns out that the "C" meant "compact". It's a small and very pretty silver machine (Hawkwind, anybody?), but runs extremely hot and is incredibly noisy (again, a bit like Hawkwind if their last concert I went to is anything to go by). And it refuses to recognize Vista and Windows 7 as being anything other than programs designed to initiate the blue screen of death; which is why it's finally being retired after I've spent some five years coping with its various vaguarities.
So I made sure the new box is not some weird compact thing. It's described on the Dell site as a "Mini Tower" case with "Vertical Orientation" (you get to choose vertical or horizontal, through surely if it was horizontal it wouldn't be a tower?). But it turns out to be about the size of a football field. Well, at nearly two feet high and deep, nine inches wide, an weighing more than my old 24" CRT monitor did, it certainly is no compact machine. I don't know if they loaded it onto the truck with a fork-lift, but it took two of use to haul it indoors and upstairs to the office. I might even have to put blocks under the desk feet so I can fit it underneath. Thank goodness I didn’t specify "Horizontal Orientation" or I'd have had to move my desk next door to make room for it.
Still, it is a nice piece of kit. Running the 64-bit edition of Windows 7 and tons of disk space and processing power to spare. Though I suppose it will be out of date by next month.
I'm convinced that there are millions of Windows users out there who spend a large proportion of their time just sitting staring at their computer, without actually running any programs. Maybe they can't afford to buy the latest cool applications. Or the ones they've got don't work on Windows 7. Or perhaps it's a just a new incarnation of Zen meditation techniques. How else would you account for the increasing focus on, and proliferation of pretty background pictures and animated wallpaper? Even to the extent of having a different one every time you turn on the machine?
OK, so I spend plenty of time just sitting staring at a computer screen, but in most cases this is displaying either a recalcitrant chunk of code, or some half-written Word document that seems to be going nowhere (a bit like this post, I guess). Maybe that's the point where I should hit "Show Desktop" and just relax as the calming scenes of flowers and landscapes lull me back into a more productive and positive frame of mind. Though the fact that my new Windows 7 box just has a plain green Windows 2000-style background doesn't particularly promote that remedy. I remember reading once that using a wallpaper eats up valuable memory and slows down your applications. Though I guess, running 64-bit Windows 7 with 8 GB of memory installed means this may not really be an issue any longer...
However, there is one thing that I am weirdly particular about: drop shadows on desktop icons. Perhaps they make it easier to read the icon captions when you have a glorious full-color photo of the Grand Canyon on your desktop. But they sure look ugly and make it harder to read the text when you don't. Despite the natural tendency to look for the setting to turn them off in the various Themes, Colors, and Windows Appearance dialogs, everyone knows that you can get rid of them by opening the System Properties dialog, going to the Advanced tab, clicking the Settings button in the Performance section, and unchecking the last but one option. I mean, surely that's the obvious place to find the setting.
And, while you're in there, you can turn off other stuff as well to make your machine go faster; or just so it behaves in a way that you, the user, want it to. Do you need your menus to slide or fade? Do you really want your windows to animate when you minimize them? Is it vital to have your combo boxes slide open and scroll smoothly? I don't know about you, but these seem to be options that I, as the user, should be able to specify. It's hard to see why only an administrator can decide if I need to see shadows under my icon text.
But, if you have finally bowed to the pressure to stop running everything as an administrator, this actually is the case. You can only change system settings if you have admin rights for your account. That makes sense because the same dialog allows you to fiddle about with the paging file (virtual memory), restore the system, allow remote access, and change the computer name. All tasks that you probably don't want ordinary users to play with when they get bored looking at their wallpaper. Perhaps there is a Group Policy setting you can specify? I've searched the GPO templates and the Web, but I can't find one.
So on my new Windows 7 box, after several days getting everything installed and configured, I followed the usual route to the System Properties to turn off the awful black icon drop shadows; as I usually do on all my machines. But now I'm an enlightened non-admin user, I have to enter the admin credentials to get to the settings. Most of the settings in this dialog are applied computer-wide, such as virtual memory and the computer domain membership, so that makes sense. But some are user-specific display settings, yet I can only change them under the context of an administrator-level account. So when I get there, changing them makes no difference. Well actually it does, but not for me. As I'm running the dialog under the admin account context, the changes I make are - of course - applied to the admin account settings.
However, after performing my usual process of wildly clicking on (and swearing at) every part of the UI I could find, the answer became clear - if not exactly obvious. You just type Performance in the Start menu search box, select Performance Information and Tools and click Adjust Visual Effects in the left-hand list. All of the visual effects settings are available, and apply to the currently logged on user. The other settings that require Administrator permission to change are all disabled. Easy! Probably if I'd looked in the Help file first I'd have found the answer.
Of course, it's just possible that nobody else in the whole world cares about drop shadows on their icons. Except, maybe, the millions of people who will buy a computer this Christmas just so they can stare at the wallpaper...
I can't honestly say that I've ever been much of a patron of the dark arts. Mind you, a few years ago I was fascinated to see a chapter for a book on ADO.NET that I'd written come back from review with fifteen paragraphs about devil worship in the middle of it. I was about half way through editing this when I suddenly realized it sounded unfamiliar, and seemed to have little to do with asynchronous data access and stored procedures. I assume that the reviewer had got their Ctrl-somethings mixed up, and I still can't help wondering if there is a Web site out there somewhere that has a detailed description of the behavior of a DataReader in the middle of an article about witchcraft and sorcery.
Anyway, it seems that I have a friend and colleague who actually is a "dark arts" expert. At least he is when the dark art in question is Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). OK, so I long ago accepted that we needed a way of separating style from content in Web pages, and I don't know of any other technology that accomplishes this as well as CSS does. I mean, you can even do dynamic styling in response to UI events and all kinds of clever stuff with it. I'm still amazed at sites like Zen Garden where changing the style sheet actually makes you believe you navigated to a different page.
Yet all my attempts to use CSS to achieve a design that doesn't look like a 1985 Web site (with everything centered and in Times Roman font) seem to result in a page that only works on a 42" screen, or requires you to scroll a mile and a half downwards then read it with your head on one side and one eye closed. It's like they designed the language to be impenetrable to mere humans. I mean, I can fix DNS servers, edit the Active Directory, administer Group Policy, understand design patterns, and I even know a fair bit about enterprise application design and development. But I can't even get margins or padding to work most times in CSS (probably 'cos I don't know which I should be using), and end up with nbsp's and transparent GIFs all over the place. Or (horror), tables for layout...
So when I discovered that a site I manage for the local village residents group was broken in IE8 (and, obviously, had always been broken in Firefox), I put off trying to fix it for as long as possible. The site is based on the Microsoft ASP.NET Club Starter site, and a glance at the stylesheet with its myriad of clear thises and float thats meant I'd probably need to stock up with a month's worth of coffee and cold pizza. After a couple of hours randomly changing stuff (the usual geek's approach to fixing things you don't understand) I'd reached the point where the entire site was totally incomprehensible.
So I emailed my pal Dave Sussman, who has spent the last several years of his life doing clever Web stuff with CSS and other complicated technologies. I know he's good at this kind of thing because he hasn't phoned me for ages to complain about rounded corners and designers generally. And, you know what? Within ten minutes I got the answer. Just take out a clear something or other, or change a margin this to a float that, at it would "just work". And he was, of course, absolutely correct.
Mind you, he admitted he'd resorted to using one of his dark art tools - a wicked device called "Firebug", which does sound like something used by wizards or witches. I'm not sure if he dances around the fire naked at the same time, but I'm too polite to ask...