Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    A Sticky Situation


    I discovered this week why builders always have a tube of Superglue in their pockets, and how daft our method of heating houses here in the UK is. It's all connected with the melee of activity that's just starting to take over our lives at chez Derbyshire as we finally get round to all of the modernization tasks that we've been putting off for the last few years.

    I assume that builders don't generally glue many things together when building a house - or at least not using Superglue. More likely it's that "No More Nails" adhesive that sticks anything to anything, or just big nails and screws. However, the source of my alternative adhesive information was - rather surprisingly - a nurse at the Accident and Emergency department of our local hospital.

    While doing the annual autumn tidying of our back garden I managed to tumble over and poke a large hole in my hand on a nearby fence post. As I'm typically accident prone, this wasn't an unexpected event, but this time the usual remedy of antiseptic and a big plaster dressing didn’t stop the bleeding so I reluctantly decided on a trip to A&E.

    Being a Sunday I expected to be waiting for hours. However, within ten minutes I was explaining to the nurse what I'd done, and trying to look brave. Last time I did something similar, a great many years ago and involving a very sharp Stanley knife, I ended up with several stitches in my hand. However, this time she simply sprayed it with some magic aerosol and then lathered it with Superglue. Not what I expected.

    But, as she patiently explained, they use this method now for almost all lacerations and surgery. It's quicker, easier, keeps the wound clean and dry, heals more quickly, and leaves less of a scar than stitches. She told me that builders and other tradesman often use the same technique themselves. Obviously I'll need to buy a couple of tubes for future use.

    Meanwhile, back at the hive of building activity and just as the decorator has started painting the stairs, I discover that the central heating isn't working. For the third time in twelve years the motorized valve that controls the water flow to the radiators has broken. Another expensive tradesman visit to fix that, including all the palaver of draining the system, refilling it, and then patiently bleeding it to clear the airlocks.

    Of course, two of the radiators are in the wrong place for the new kitchen and bathroom, so they need to be moved. Two days later I've got a different plumber here draining the system again, poking pipes into hollow walls, setting off the smoke alarms while soldering them together, randomly swearing, and then refilling and bleeding the system again.

    But what on earth are we doing with all this pumping hot water around through big ugly lumps of metal screwed to the walls anyway? Isn’t it time we adopted the U.S. approach of blowing hot air to where it's needed from a furnace in the basement? When you see the mass of wires, pipes, valves, and other stuff needed for our traditional central heating systems you have to wonder.

    Mind you, on top of all the expense, the worst thing is the lump on my arm the size of a tennis ball where the nurse decided I needed a Tetanus shot...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    An Unmoving Experience


    It seems, from the regular emails containing instructions about the delivery of packing boxes and the matching status updates confirming the allocation of my new work area, that I'm about to move to a brand new office. Our beloved old Building Five (or, to use the correct terminology, "Bldg5") is about to be redeveloped to provide new facilities. They'll probably even concrete over Lake Bill.

    Obviously nobody told them that my current office is actually five thousand miles away, which is probably why the packing boxes still haven't arrived. And I've yet to find out where my new work area will be. I hope it's by a window. During the last four and a bit years as a full-time ‘Softie I've got quite used to looking out at the trees and the garden while I potter about doing my daily documentation engineering tasks.

    Building 5 is one of the original and iconic star-shaped buildings where Microsoft's campus started out, arranged around the lake affectionately known as Lake Bill. Supposedly the unusual design maximizes light and window space to provide the optimum working environment, though I reckon they just did it for a bet to see if people would get lost. I found it a nightmare trying to navigate once inside. The corridors meet at strange angles and it's almost impossible to maintain a sense of direction. All the times I've been there I've never managed to emerge from the same door more than once unless I follow the signs to reception first. Though it will be a shame if they decide to demolish them.

    But the move has certainly prompted some discussion amongst colleagues for whom the relocation will have a more fundamental impact. Some of them have long had a "proper" office in which they can equip themselves with all the peripheral accessories required to massage recalcitrant text into succinct guidance. Moving to "team-based communal work areas" is certain to have an impact.

    I know that, when I've spent the occasional fortnight ensconced in a team room within the mother ship, I never managed to get any real work done. I suppose it's because for the last 35 years I've always worked alone, in a car as a sales rep or in my home office as an IT consultant and technical writer. I just can't cope with noise and activity around me; even the cat asleep on my desk tends to cause loss of concentration (though that's probably due to the volume of her snoring).

    I often marvel, when I do visit people's offices on campus, how they have made them into a home-from-home with photos, posters, shelves full of books, and other assorted paraphernalia. There's an urban legend that suggests your office space includes half the width of the corridor as well. I can remember visiting Building 41 a long time ago and seeing some strange extensions of the occupants' personalities hanging from door frames and the corridor roof, as well as the occasional life-size Captain Kirk or Mr Spock cardboard cut-out standing guard.

    It all seems very odd until I look around my own home office and realize that I'm just as bad. Walls covered in photos of trains, airplanes, and all the cars I've owned; various awards and certificates; pin boards covered in masses of notes (most of which I have no idea what they mean); and piles of unused computing peripherals and other junk covering every spare foot of desktop. And a guitar and a telescope behind the door. They'll need to send me at least fifty moving boxes if I'm going anywhere.

    Though I doubt they'll even notice there's an empty desk allocated to me in some dark and dismal corner of a distant team room. It's not likely I'll be there very often - it's a long way to come home every day for my tea...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Is Digital Analogous to Analogue?


    It seems that, contrary to expectations, the few remaining record stores still selling old-fashioned vinyl LPs and singles are flourishing here in England. At first you might think this is only because old codgers like me just have an old record player, and we spend our days looking for rare copies of original Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath albums. However, according to a recent item in the newspaper, young people are now discovering the joys of thirty-three-and-a-third as well.

    Quite what young people are actually looking for wasn't made clear in the report. I doubt that much modern music is released on LP these days, but there are plenty of kids that are into classic rock, and even the older blues music of my teenage years. And there's always the argument that music sounds better in its original analogue form, with a more flowing and a warmer tone than the digital equivalent. Plus, as most people will have discovered, all those promises we were given years ago that CDs are almost indestructible have proved to be somewhat less than wholly fulfilled. I've got plenty that skip or where the music breaks up.

    However, the sheer ease of use and availability of digitally stored music, especially in a house full of computers like ours, means that we're never likely to go back to vinyl. In fact, I did make a start digitizing my collection of old LPs at one time. I bought a good quality pre-amp for my old record deck, and installed a selection of software for capturing digital streams. Then some more to break it into separate tracks, level the volume a little, remove the pops and scratches, and de-hiss it.

    Of course, every LP took hours to digitize. You forget how easy ripping a CD at 24x speed is; you can't do that with an LP. Instead it's an hour of recording, another hour of splitting the tracks and cleaning it up to get rid of noise, and then twenty minutes typing in the track names and details. Compare that to ripping a CD in three minutes, and having all the details filled in automatically by a remote music search provider.

    But after what seemed like a week digitizing some of my rarer albums and singles, I discovered that I can buy most of the less rare ones on CD at silly low prices. I probably paid about two hundred pounds in the equivalent of today's money to buy the Rolling Stones album "12 x 5" when it first came out, but I can buy a brand new remastered copy on CD from Amazon today for five pounds. And King Crimson's "In The Court Of The Crimson King" for eight pounds. Including post and packing.

    Even better, I can play the CDs in my car as well as ripping them to my server for listening in the house or on an MP3 player (hopefully this is legal - if not, I didn't do it. Honest). And, with my deteriorated sense of hearing, I doubt that I could tell the difference between vinyl and digital anyway. In the end I just replaced most of the LPs with new CDs, even getting the bonus of extra tracks on some. Meanwhile the old LPs are carefully stored away in the attic just in case, someday, they regain a value comparable with their original price.

    So maybe digital is better overall for your music collection. But what about for broadcast? I've written endlessly about the problems here in the UK with the change from analogue to digital TV (DVB). We never had a problem getting the old five analogue channels, but dragging enough digits to out of the sky assemble a TV picture, even with a huge multi-element high-gain contraption ten feet above the chimney top for the birds to roost on, seems impossible some days. They call the effect of the picture breaking up into large lumps "blocking". I call it "rubbish".

    And now they want to turn off the analogue FM signal in 2015 and force us all to use digital radios (DAB). Some chance. I have an eight foot antenna in the attic but all I can get is three digital channels and a dozen more hissy ones that might be playing music – but who could tell? It might as well be an endless tape of the sea and whales singing for all of the sense it makes.

    And can you really see this working in a car? It would be back to the days of CB radio where we all had huge whippy aerials stuck on the car roof, and it would probably only pick up a signal when you were at the top of a hill. Thankfully they can't do it until 50% of the population is already on DAB, and that's not going to happen any time soon.

    Mind you, I did hear about a guy standing at the side of the road on a sharp corner who suffered severe injuries when a vehicle with a huge whippy aerial went round the corner at high speed. The emergency medic said it was the worst case of van aerial disease he'd ever seen...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    A Busman's Holiday, or Just a Hard Drive?


    They say that plumbers typically have leaky pipes in their own house, and that the wives of painters and decorators all complain their own house could do with a lick of paint. When you do one kind of job all week, the last thing you want to do at weekends is the same job. Here in England it's what they call "a busman's holiday", though most bus drivers probably drive a car at the weekend and revel in not having to stop every five hundred yards.

    I suppose I experienced the same thing when I worked as a traveling salesman. Before then I would quite happily spend weekends with my head under the bonnet (hood) of my car, or messing about with something oily underneath, or installing all kinds of exciting motoring gizmos in it, or just polishing it until you could see your face in the paintwork. But once I started spending all week driving, I suddenly lost interest in playing with cars at weekends.

    And it seems that the same effect is operational now that I'm a documentation engineer. I spend all day reading and writing technical documents, so when I'm not at work I tend to avoid computers and anything associated with them. However, often this just results in some unexpected outcomes when I skip through lists of technical specs and product details. And it's also why, this week, I ended up with a three-quarters-empty drive bay in my Media Center box.

    The poor old machine has been struggling for ages, giving intermittent errors and stopping in the middle of TV programs. When Media Center tells you it can't find MFC2.DLL, when Internet Explorer can't display anything except a blank page because mshtml.dll has gone walk-about, when there are six copies of every channel in the guide, and when it tells you that the domain admin's password is wrong, it's pretty obvious that the operating system is not in peak condition. I suspected for a while that the hard drive was on the way to meet its maker (though I'm not sure Western Digital will actually want it back), but I didn't actually get round to doing anything about it until a mass of errors started to appear.

    Oh well, I have an image of the drive that I can restore onto a nice new one. The drive in a Media Center box that is used as a TV works hard - often it's recording two programs while playing back another one - so I can't really complain when one that's nearly five years old starts to get tired. Though it turned that the most recent image of the drive was five months old - my backup schedule usually coincides with periods when it's recording something vital such as all the soaps, and it tends to get missed.

    So I wander across to Amazon to order a new drive for next morning delivery. Of course, there's thousands listed. I know I want SATA 500 GB, preferably a fast one with a large cache. By filtering the options I finally got down to about twenty, sorted by price. I did my usual trick of jumping to the middle of the list (I don’t want cheap and nasty, but I can’t afford the best) and picked a WD one that seemed ideal. And the next day a tiny packet turned up that was just about large enough to hold a credit card, and weighed about the same.

    Yep, as usual I'd managed to avoid reading the complete spec of the drive and ordered a 2.5 inch one instead of a 3.5 inch one. It's so small that I had the read the label on it three times to convince myself it was 500 GB. Still, it's got the same connectors on the back, so why wouldn't it work? Except that it looks lost sitting in a corner of the drive bay and there's no screw holes to fix it with either.

    No problem. Stick it to the bottom of the bay with double-sided sticky pads, though it will have to go in upside down because there's only bare circuit board on the bottom. Is this a problem? Will the needle fall out of the groove, or will the heat rising from the motor melt the solder on the board? Turns out that the power wires are too short and not bendy enough to put it in upside down anyway, so I just stuck it to the bottom of the 3.5 inch floppy drive above. It has the added advantage that the foam sticky pads act as a cushion, and make it really quiet. Though it will probably overheat now because its not bolted to a big lump of tin drive housing... 

    Next job, fire up TrueImage and restore my operating system. And it worked! Well, it sort of worked. It seems I'd nudged the TV tuner card, so there were no tuners showing up in Media Center. Unplug everything again, take it out of the cabinet, open the case, firkle the card a bit, and put it all back together again. That's that problem cured. It even seemed to install the 47 Windows updates that had accumulated over five months really quickly, so that's a good sign.

    Of course, the machine now appears to the domain as though it's suddenly lost five months, and it can’t authenticate. It was only after I manually removed it from the domain and rejoined that I discovered the Reset Account option in the domain controller's Active Directory Users and Computers. See what not reading the manual does for you?

    Finally, I had to reset the TV signal and reconfigure the channels because they've all changed since the backup image was created. But, all in all, it was only a few hours' work; and a lot less than reinstalling from scratch. In fact, with the low price of hard drives, I'm seriously considering replacing my FDISK habit with just buying a new one each time. It would save the agro of doing all the reinstall and setup work, and then finding that the existing disk was near the end of its useful life.

    So we have TV again, and I'm about to image the drive now so that I have a new copy in case it all goes wrong again. No doubt that will be just when my wife is watching Coronation Street. There'll be a loud clunk followed by intermittent rattling when the sticky pads fail and the disk drops to the bottom of the drive bay. I suppose I can try to convince her that it's part of the soundtrack...


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