Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Who is We?

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    Windows and its applications are getting even easier to use, and work far better than ever before for most non-technical users. It's a fact, I'm sure; but it seems to be having some unfortunate (and annoying) side effects for the more savvy members of the geekdom.

    I've been ruminating on various aspects of this since I came over all Win8ish some months back, but an event last week prompted this in-depth exploration of my opinions. A colleague reported an occurrence of the Blue Screen of Death, though now it isn't. It's a smiley face and a "Something went wrong" message. Yes, you can still get at the info previously available if you are really interested (though how many of us actually were when it happened to us?).

    I suggested that Windows can now detect your mood from the way that you type and poke at the screen, and it displays the smiley face to cheer you up when it figures you're in a bad mood. Or maybe not. Though the smiley faces really annoy me in things like Outlook Web Access (OWA) when it's so pleased to tell me I don't have any junk emails.

    But are the new "apps" easier to use than the old ones we were so used to? The issue, as far as I can see, is the limitations imposed by modern devices. In many cases the annoyance is caused by the fact that it's now customary to have everything on one "window" or "screen" and avoid opening new windows. This obviously makes a poke and swipe interface easier to use. And it's probably why many of the features I use regularly in OWA have disappeared from the latest version.

    But it aggravates that, for example, in the Mail app when I want to see details of a contact it opens in the whole screen instead of as a pop-up window that you just close to go back to where you were. And if you want to copy information from one contact to another, you can't just pop up two windows and switch between them. Though I suppose, on a tablet or phone, you wouldn't want to attempt finger-powered tasks as complicated as this anyway.

    What's clear is that Microsoft made the right decision to leave the desktop and existing apps in place underneath the new app-based UI. Inevitably I find I live in the old desktop almost all of the time, using proper "applications" instead of truncated "apps". Then, when I just want to read the news or send a couple of simple emails, I can fire up the trusty Surface RT and do wiggly finger stuff from the comfort of the sofa.

    Though I still end up gritting my teeth at some inane messages in Office 2013 and other desktop apps. "We didn't find anything to show here" when my Sent Items is empty, for example. Who is "we"? Are there little men inside the computer working the controls and running around with bundles of 1s and 0s in each hand? And Lync's "Have a good meeting!" message is even more annoying than "Have a good day!" when I buy a latte from my local coffee shop.

    But I suppose Microsoft doesn't design software just to be compatible with grumpy old men like me...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Mister (Sometimes) Fixit

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    No I'm not talking about the clever "please mend my computer" tools that you can run on Microsoft's website. I'm talking about my regular tasks trying to fix all the things that break in our house, seemingly one per day at the moment. It's usually a wide and assorted selection of tasks; this week comprising a table lamp, a DECT phone, my fishpond filter, SQL Database, and Windows 8.

    Invariably my fixit jobs fall into two categories: "not worth the effort" and "fingers stuck together with superglue again." The second category tends to be associated with jewellery and ornament repairs (the latter typically being my fault), but the table lamp repair was in the first category - an IKEA lamp that originally cost twelve pounds new, but came from a jumble sale at a cost of two pounds. My wife had bought six new 12V halogen bulbs for it that cost more than the lamp did originally, but it refused to work. The transformer is a sealed unit, and the wiring is sealed inside the lamp. Do I spend three hours breaking it just to see what's wrong?

    But I had better luck with the DECT phone, a couple of new triple-A rechargeable batteries brought it back to life. And I managed to fix my fishpond filter using the typical handyman technique of a few bits of bent wire. These are the satisfying kind of repair jobs where you can carry around a big toolbox, and look like you know what you're doing. It works even better if you can arrange it so you didn't shave for a couple of days before.

    What's most annoying however, and has little capacity for appearing butch and manly, is the so-far-unmentioned third category of repair jobs: broken software. A year or so ago I parcelled up my locally-hosted websites and dispatched them to heaven - or, to be more precise, to live in the clouds of Windows Azure. Amongst them is our local village website, which is reasonably complex because it handles news, events, photos, and has a user registration facility.

    Yes, I know I should have adapted it to use claims-based authentication and Windows Azure Active Directory, but I just never got round to it; instead it has an ageing "aspnetdb" database sitting in SQL Database. There's only one role instance, and it works fine. Well, almost. Yes I did do comprehensive testing after deployment before the site went live, checking that I could add and edit all the items on the site, sign in and change my password, view lists of registered users, and see the error lists in the admin section of the site.

    I even made sure the site could create and remove users, and allow them to edit their details. But it turns out that my test coverage was a little less than perfect. For the first time since deployment I needed to use the functions of RoleManager to change the roles for a registered user. And everything broke. Even going into the SQL Database management portal and deleting the row in the data view of the table failed. As did executing a SQL DELETE statement in the query window.

    It took some searching based on the error message about SQL collation to find the answer. And the fix is so simple that it should painted in six inch high letters on a big piece of wood and nailed to the Azure portal. Simply open the stored procedure named aspnet_UsersInRoles_AddUsersToRoles and insert the text COLLATE Latin1_General_CI_AS into the DECLARE @tbNames... line as shown here, and then do the same with the aspnet_UsersInRoles_RemoveUsersFromRoles stored procedure.

    To get to the stored procedures, open the database management page from the main Windows Azure portal and choose the Manage icon at the bottom of the page. Sign into the SQL Database server and choose Design in the left-hand navigation bar, then choose Stored Procedures in the tabs near the top of the page. Choose the Edit icon next to the stored procedure in the list and do the edit. Then choose the Save icon on the toolbar. Repeat with the other stored procedure.

    Meanwhile, ever since I upgraded my trusty Dell E4300 to Windows 8 I've been plagued by wandering cursor disease. I'll be typing away quite happily and suddenly the letters appears in the middle of the next paragraph, or halfway along the next line. It's amazing how much something likeum. this can screw up your finely crafted and perfectly formatted text. It really is a pain in the b

    Of course, the answer is the same as most Windows 8 problems with older hardware. The jazzy new all-singing and all-dancing hardware drivers that come with Windows 8 don't always do the same as the wheezing and arthritic ones that came on a disk with the computer when you bought it. Thankfully, plenty of other people are having the same variable input position issue as me, and their posts led me to the updated Alps touchpad driver on Dell's website.

    Not that it fixes the problem - my touchpad still seems to think it's morphed into an X-Box Kinect - if I wave a hand anywhere near it the insertion point cursor leaps madly around in my Word document. But the Dell driver can detect when you plug in a proper mouse, and disables the touchpad automatically. Problem solved.

    Now I just need to prise my finger and thumb apart so I can mend a pair of my wife's earrings...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Missing The (Access) Point...

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    Let's face it, the only proper way to connect computers together is with real wire in the form of good quality Ethernet cables and switches. The current all-encompassing drive towards wireless was, I reckoned, just fad that would soon pass. At least, that's what I though a few years ago. The reality is, of course, very different now.

    I hard-wired the whole of our house when we first moved in; it has cavity internal walls and plasterboard covered external walls so it was relatively easy to poke the wires into them and cut holes for Ethernet sockets. I even put speaker wires into each corner of the lounge so that I didn't have cables tucked under carpets or nailed to the skirting boards.

    I suppose in the US what we call plasterboard would be called drywall. Though when a colleague based in Redmond happened to mention that he had water leaks in his bathroom and was having to remove all the boards, I couldn't help asking if it was now actually wetwall.

    Anyway, a compact 16-port switch in the study connects everything together, and links into the proxy server in the server cabinet in the garage. Reliable high speed networking, and plug in anywhere - what more could you want? Though this was more than ten years ago, and the discovery that where we live there is almost no FM radio or DAB (digital audio broadcast) signal meant that Internet streaming radio was the only way to satisfy our insatiable demands for loud rock music.

    And Internet radios rarely have an Ethernet socket, and end up being located in the kitchen - the one room of the house that doesn't have an Ethernet socket. So, some seven years ago I was forced into nailing a wireless hub to one of the protruding ends of my network. And there it's been ever since, blinking soulfully at me from a high shelf and generally minding its own business.

    Of course, over the years, the number of devices it feeds has grown. As well as the high-fidelity Internet radio streams that pass through it for most of every day there are now two smartphones, a couple of tablet computers, a laptop or two, and a bird-box camera. The wireless hub uses the old steam-powered radio standards with a maximum of 54 Mbps and so it's no wonder that, some days, everything slows down.

    So I decided that the time was right for a network upgrade. The 16-port switch in the study is only 10/100 so it was replaced with a new TP-Link Gigabyte model, and I ordered a new wireless hub that does dual 2.4 MHz and 5 MHz concurrently, with up to 450 Mbps on each. That should make everything fly!

    However, nothing ever seems to be as easy as you expect. I blame the manufacturer's naming policy, though doubtless my own non-capabilities as a network administrator are partially culpable. You see, I reckoned that a wireless router was something with an ADSL or cable modem built it, so what I needed was a wireless access point. But all the ones I found seemed to be for use as repeaters with an existing wireless router. Then I found the NetGear kit that is a "wireless router" but without a modem in it. It seemed to be exactly what I needed.

    And I expected that installing it would easy, just a matter of setting the same fixed IP address, the same hidden SSID, the same security mode and passcode, and the same list of MAC addresses as the old one. Until I looked at the installation instructions. For some strange reason the first six pages are full of dire warnings to power off your ADSL or cable modem, take the batteries out, turn round three times and count to ten, and plug the wireless router into it using "the yellow cable supplied in the box." I've had "yellow wire problems" before, and for the life of me I couldn't see what all this palaver has to do with tagging a wireless hub onto the end of my network.

    Instead, I plugged it into my laptop. But which of the five ports on the router should I use? The nice bright yellow one seemed too tempting to resist, but that didn't work. Turns out that it's supposed to be LAN port 1. And, amazingly, up popped the configuration screen. Which, of course, refused to do anything at all because it couldn't detect an Internet connection. Only when I found the Advanced Setup pages could I actually do anything with it (and by that time I'd thrown the instructions away).

    Not that the instructions or the built-in configuration help notes are actually much help when you need to figure out some of the settings. For example, do I use the same SSIDs for the 2.4 MHz and 5 MHz channels or different ones? I chose to use the same on the grounds that, most days, it would be nice to just connect to anything. I don't really care which. Or even if its my neighbour's. But a search of t'Internet reveals mixed opinions on this; it mainly seems to depend on whether you want to be able to tell them apart when you connect.

    After three configuration attempts that ended with the "can't connect to router" message followed by the obligatory "go find a paper clip" (to press the reset button) activity, I finally figured out to completely ignore the tempting yellow socket and any configuration connected with "Internet". After that it all went swimmingly. It's a shame that it was only after all the fiddling about that I found this page on the NetGear site that explains how to do it all when you just want a wireless access point. OK, so it's for older models than the kit I have, but it still seemed to be relevant.

    The important bit is where you suddenly figure out that you don't use (or need) the tempting yellow socket, and that you also spent twice as much money as you needed to because what you've bought is a "Wireless Router Without A Modem Even Though The Natural Meaning Of The Term Is One With A Modem In It" instead of a "Wireless Access Point That Is Not A Wireless Repeater And Can Be Used Standalone".

    So by now I've got a wireless hub that should be able to connect to the Internet and do magic things, but can't because the tempting yellow socket is empty; will quite happily connect directly to a USB drive to stream music, and even make files accessible over the Internet, but can't because the tempting yellow socket is empty; can do firewalling and provide a guest network, but can't because the tempting yellow socket is empty; has three spare Ethernet ports to connect other stuff to, but they're empty because I already have a proper wired network; can do 450 Mbps on 2.4 GHz but that will kill all my neighbours' wireless connections; and can act as a wireless repeater, but I don't need that capability.

    After a restless night dreaming about tempting yellow sockets, the next day I dug out the full PDF manual on the CD provided with the router, convinced that it must say something useful. A search for "access point" found the following help item:

    Yep, that's all it says about it. And the option is not even on that page of the configuration interface. But there is another page called "Wireless AP" (I suppose if I'd been thinking logically I'd have realized that AP stands for Access Point). And here's what that page looks like when you select the uninformative "AP Mode" checkbox. Notice the contents of the help page - the big black rectangle at the bottom of the screen.

    Aha! When you also check the next (uncaptioned) checkbox, which magically appears after you select AP Mode, you get text boxes to enter the long-anticipated IP address, subnet mask, gateway, and DNS servers. So I fill all that in, select Apply to reboot the router, and swap my network cable to the tempting yellow socket. And it works! Even the "Internet" page in the configuration now shows "Connected" and it sets the router's clock to the correct date and time. Maybe I've solved it?

    Except now all those fancy features I paid so much extra for are disabled in the menus - but at least now I know I can't use them. However, where are the other options I expected to find in a top of the range wireless router? Such as the ability to tune the signal strength (I ran my old one at half power both to avoid annoying the neighbors and for security purposes). Or the ability to disable remote access to the configuration pages over the wireless link. Surely this is an obvious attack vector?

    And, worst of all, I discovered that none of the wireless devices in our house can actually use the 5 MHz band...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Electronic Misroutability

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    For most of the morning Outlook has been glowering at me and reminding me that it can't connect to the server. Despite me patiently explaining that everything else that connects to the 'Net is working fine, it continued to sulk. Until suddenly an email arrived explaining that there was a major outage of the mail server network. Which, of course, arrived after they fixed it.

    And to make matters worse, the message dropped into my Inbox several minutes after one that said the issue had been resolved. That's the problem with being universally electronically equipped and online communication enabled. It's like sending a snail-mail letter to people to tell them that the post office is on strike. Or a hardware manufacturer posting an automatically installed firmware refresh to fix a problem with the previous one that completely bricked everyone's router.

    But maybe there's a neat reduction in consumer dissatisfaction if the bad news arrives only after the issue is resolved, or - like my experience this week - after the good news email to say it's fixed. A bit like that hackneyed phrase "Do you want the good news or the bad news first...?" Not that it works too well with jokes. Though if the doctor tells you that the guy in the next bed wants to buy your shoe, at least you can prepare yourself for the next statement that they need to amputate your leg.

    Of course, assuming electronic contactability and constant online presence can be risky. I'm in the process of switching my cable Internet connection to a new package, which doesn't contain the phone line that came free with the old package but is a chargeable extra on the new package. So I emailed them to cancel the phone line. They decided to phone me to confirm it, using the phone number of the line I'm cancelling. Which seems sensible except that the reason I'm cancelling it is that I never used it (I have two other phone lines with much cheaper call rates) and consequently there is no phone plugged in. That's probably why the guy who phoned me didn't get an answer.

    So they sent me an email instead, but sent it to my unused mailbox on their own system instead of the address I use for all my email (which is registered with them). Mind you, they're not the only people who do this; my other ISP does the same, but at least their email system allowed me to set up a redirection rule to my usual email account. The cable people don't seem to allow that. Luckily I found out about the message after phoning them back, and got a copy sent to the real me.

    Maybe the answer is for email to be extended to take account of these kinds of connectivity difficulties. Email servers could automatically copy each important message to an SMS text, and then print it out and send it by snail-mail as well. And maybe also phone you up and read it out. When my wife was away last week our home phone rang and, when I answered it, a nice automated lady read out the contents of my wife's text message. Including automatically converting the "XXX" at the end to "Kiss, kiss, kiss". Isn't technology amazing?

    Even more so because my wife depends on the predictive input capabilities of her phone without actually reading what it predicts. One day when I was out I got a text asking me to stop on the way home and get a beard. Luckily I was able to guess she meant to call in at our local bakers shop. And she hasn't yet discovered where the comma and full stop keys are, so reading the text is a bit like doing one of those word search puzzles.

    I wonder if the automated lady had to spend ten minutes deciphering the message before she actually phoned me...

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