Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Do You Have a Vision?

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    In the olden days, people with a vision changed the world. Scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell kicked off the entire revolution in harnessing electricity and magnetism to build our modern world. Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley started the silicon revolution that gave us the microchip, and Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web. But, sometimes, you have to wonder if being a visionary is going out of fashion.

    OK, so there are plenty of people still inventing technological things, but mostly its evolution now. Some people even say that we've discovered all there is to know about physics and our planet. And lack of vision seems all-pervading when it comes to things such as politics. Where are the visionary leaders (for safety and impartiality, no names mentioned) of the past? It's pretty much an accepted fact that politics these days is a case of "going with the flow." Focus groups to tell you what policies are likely to get the most votes, and sound bites to keep the population satisfied.

    So what about in the world of computing, user documentation, and guidance that I and so many others inhabit? Is vision still alive and well? And is it really important? When did you last hear of a new computing device/service/product/accessory that was really new and ground-breaking?

    Wearable computers? I had a digital watch with a calculator in it twenty years ago. User input devices? Touch screens and motion detection have been around for ages. Mobile phones? Do you remember the eighties and brick-sized boxes? Internet TV? Windows 7 Media Center had that as a Silverlight-based add-on, and it was hardly a new concept then. Facebook and Twitter? Just evolution of CompuServe and bulletin boards. Online shopping? See How Much Computing Power Do You Need? Quantum computing? OK, so this one is relatively recent - but it's really just about moving particles around instead of electrons because we need to do things smaller, faster, and in parallel. Something we've been doing with CPUs for many years.

    Maybe we have reached the point where there is nothing really new and visionary left to be invented in the world of computing. Though there's probably more chance of actually having a vision in our industry, and implementing it, than there is in the world of politics...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Why Is There Only One Monopolies Commission?

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    One of the old chestnuts you sometimes hear from disaffected and grumpy comedians is "How come there's only on Monopoly Commission?" They're not talking about the board game, but about the people who are supposed to guard us against being exploited by large corporations. And I'm going to hazard a guess that all these disaffected comedians are, like me, customers of our monopoly cable company here in Merry Olde England.

    I've been a cable-Internet-enabled customer of our national cable company for some four years. It would have been longer, but until the business division was surfaced as a separate entity within the all-encompassing media empire, they were seemingly unable to provide anything that resembled a business-level service of digital connectivity. And even then, as carefully documented in Cable Internet in 10 Easy Steps, the on-boarding experience was somewhat less than encouraging.

    Having said that, it's worked like a dream ever since and I've never had a complaint, except that I have to pay them extra every month just to send me a bill. But it was starting to look rather expensive, especially as we're assured that our local telephone people will have FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet, with the chance of proper "high-speed" ADSL) working here any day now. Well, sometime, anyway. It was advertised as being August, but slipped to September, then we were assured it was definitely October. And even though it's been postponed until the end of November, I'm still optimistic we'll see it sometime this year. Or next year.

    So, anyway, I'm on the phone to a really pleasant and helpful lady at the business desk explaining that they're looking a bit pricey these days, and she tells me that I'm actually on a legacy service that's way out of date. But she can move me to a new service for free, and I'll get double the bandwidth, and it will cost about a third less! You can imagine that I asked why they didn't manage to tell me about this at the point when I became a legacy service user, but I suppose - as with all big companies - you can't expect miracles. So I agreed to be upgraded. Even when she said that, although the upgrade was free, I'd have to pay fifty pounds for a new cable modem. Oh well, I'll save that in a few months with the cheaper service.

    At this point I started to ask the technical questions. The modem lives inside my server cabinet, so I need to turn off the wireless feature. I don't really want something generating tons of radio fallout inside a big metal box full of computers. But it seems not, they say, unless I have a fixed IP address which "automatically disables the wireless" (no, I don't know why). And that's an extra on the bill, so I'd end up paying more than I do now. Probably I'll just wrap the modem in aluminium foil instead.

    And when can they do the upgrade? The lead time is 25 working days after the site survey. When will the site survey be? They can't say. Do I need one seeing as they already know what I have, and they're just going to swap the modem? No. Can they send me the modem and I'll plug it in myself? No, it has to be configured by an engineer.

    Five weeks after I placed the order I still haven't even heard when the site surveyor might arrive, so I phone again. "We're a bit busy," I'm told, "but we'll get someone there next week." Of course, the proviso is that they need to do a line test and, if it fails for the new speed, they'll need to replace the coax that connects me to their green box. And they can't do that for "a couple of weeks."

    But surely my cable will be OK? I can't say, because the engineer never turned up for the installation appointment. Obviously I immediately emailed the guy I've been talking to, the one who managed to "squeeze in" the non-arriving engineer visit. But I just got back an automatic response saying he's on holiday now for two weeks.

    Ah, but only last week I had an "out of the blue" phone call from my new "business customer personal advisor" who assures me she will be "looking after my account" and "making sure I get great service from the company." It will be interesting to see if I get any more phone calls from her after she reads the email I sent to their office on Friday evening after waiting all day for the engineer.

    Mind you, I did manage to sort out the problem with the phone line that was installed by default with my legacy package four years ago. It's an "included at no-charge" service where I pay only for any calls I make. As I can't even remember where they put the phone socket, you can tell how much use I made of that. But the interesting aspect is, because it's not free on the new package I've just signed up for, I now need to pay fifteen pounds a month for something that I never ordered, didn't want, and haven't ever used.

    Yes, I told them just to take it out (if they can remember where they put it) or disconnect it. Did I realize that there's a 90 day notice period for cancellation? Strangely, even though the phone conversation included the words "you must be joking", nobody can supposedly do anything about it. It's my fault for not initiating a disconnection notice three months before I decided on impulse to upgrade. It only took two more phone calls, seven emails, and a long online chat to convince them that they had more chance of winning the lottery than me paying them any more money. I await next month's bill with interest.

    Coincidently, there was a great article in the newspaper last week about the biggest problems facing large companies here in the UK. Surprisingly it isn't an overbearing Government, interference by the faceless bureaucrats of the People's Republic of Europe, the price of electricity, or mad taxation rules. It's poor customer service. I bet the guy who wrote it is also a customer of the cable company.

    So, in the end, I'm not the least bit concerned that there is only one Monopolies Commission. I just wish they'd do their job so there was more than one cable company to choose from...

    FOOTNOTE: In fact the engineers did turn up the following week after a very apologetic phone call from the local manager, and did an excellent job. It was the same guys who installed it four years ago, and they took extra trouble to disable the wireless and check the speed: 49.7 Meg down and 5.8 Meg up. Wonderful! Their office even phoned afterwards to make sure all was well and, as a nice bonus, offered to refund the cost of the new router. I'm a happy bunny all over again.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    A Cloud Service By Any Other Name...

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    As a firm believer in freedom of expression, I guess I can't complain about the names that the Windows Azure team give to their services and features. After all, my responsibility is just to write about them. In theory that can call them whatever they like. The problem is that they keep calling things what they literally are.

    Mind you, it's not just the Windows Azure people. The same problem seems to raise its head with many other technologies. I suppose it's just that I encounter the Windows Azure ones most often in my daily working life. And using literal names for things seems eminently sensible at first glance. For example, when Mr. Heinz started putting things in cans he used the obvious names. "Baked Beans", "Spaghetti Hoops", and "Mushroom Soup". His business may well have been less successful if he'd decided to label the tins "Whizz-bang Nice Stuff", "Delicacy Number 3", and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious".

    But if Bill had decided to follow the Heinz approach way back in 1985 when Windows 1.0 appeared, he would have called it "Operating System". So everything written about it since then would have referred to "The Microsoft Operating System operating system". Obviously this would have been stupid. So why am I continually having to write "...stored in a Windows Azure SQL Database database" and "...hosted in a Windows Azure Virtual Machines virtual machine"?

    I suppose giving things names that are generic descriptions makes it easier to recognize what they do. Amazon chose to give their cloud services distinctive names such as Glacier, Beanstalk, CloudWatch, Redshift, and DynamoDB. I guess I might want to store my data in a DynamoDB, or have my application monitored by a CloudWatch (unless it's actually something you wear on your wrist). But as I'm not a polar explorer, a fairy tale treasure hunter, or an astronomer I'm struggling to understand why I'd want a Glacier, Beanstalk, or RedShift.

    Perhaps the other problem is that, like domain names, the world is running out of pronounceable combinations of letters that aren't already registered, or that don't mean something rude in some countries or regions. Like the unfortunate choice by the Japanese refrigerator company Fukushima Industries that my very respectable daily newspaper recently revealed...

    Mind you, it gets even more confusing as you delve deeper into Windows Azure and try to write prescriptive guidance that is accurate to the nth degree. I recently discovered that a Windows Azure Virtual Machines virtual machine runs within a Windows Azure Cloud Services cloud service in much the same way as a Cloud Services cloud service does. And I assume that a Windows Azure Web Sites website does so as well. So now I'm having to refer to Windows Azure Cloud Services web and worker roles to differentiate the hosting platform I'm discussing from the Cloud Services cloud service that a Virtual Machines virtual machine runs in.

    Of course, at the heart of all this is the strict writing style and capitalization rules we've traditionally applied here at p&p. Thankfully Microsoft is adopting a more modern style for technical documentation, which might mean that I can get away with just talking about "a Virtual Machine" or "a Cloud Service". With luck I can just use capitalization to differentiate between a virtual machine in general terms (a non-physical server) and a Virtual Machine that is an element of Windows Azure hosting services. Though, confusingly, I'm mandated to use lower-case for "web role" and "worker role", so I might be a little too optimistic here.

    Perhaps I'll just write everything in lower-case. Microsoft Word word processor will automatically capitalize the first letter of sentences, and I'm sure my editor will look forward to sorting out the rest...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Double Your Money

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    How would you like to be guaranteed a price for your products for the next thirty-five years, and at double the price you sell them for now? Sounds like a great idea. However, there are a couple of downsides...

    For example, you'll be allowed to sell only the lowest priced item, even if the customer wants a more expensive one. And you'll get severely castigated every time you make a profit, or when there is a shortage because you were refused permission to make any more. In addition, you'll find there might be periods of a couple of years when you aren't allowed to increase the price, but you'll get plenty of warning so that you can bump it up beforehand instead. Though every now and then you'll have to pay a dollop of cash into the official protection racket.

    Yes, it seems crazy - but this is exactly what is happening if you are an energy supplier here in the UK. Any day now the lights could go off because we forgot to build any new power stations to replace the ones that are slowly falling down or getting old. But now we've got no money to build new ones anyway, so we need to bribe other countries to pop over here and bring some with them. We pioneered commercial nuclear power generation as far back as the mid 50's, but we seem to have forgotten the recipe and so, even if we did have a few pounds hidden down the back of the sofa, it wouldn't help.

    Mind you, we have managed to rustle up the cash to build a new railway line - which it seems could cost as much as half a dozen new nuclear power stations. And we've got loads of shale underneath our seaside resorts that could be used to fuel cheap gas-driven power stations, but we're not sure if we have the nerve to dig it out.

    OK, so I've nailed solar panels all over our roof that, on a decent day, generate enough electricity to power most things in the house. Except I discovered that, when the mains electricity goes off, so do they. Something to do with not electrocuting the maintenance men from the electric company that come and dig up the street, they say. Nobody I asked can tell me why it can't be configured to disconnect from the incoming wires when the mains power dies, or why they can't wear rubber gloves and wellington boots instead.

    So I probably need to buy some new batteries for my server UPSs, keep my laptops fully charged, and check if the petrol generator hidden under a pile of rubbish at the back of the garage still works. I bought it a few years ago I when the local power company couldn't decide where the wires to our house came from, which made finding the intermittent fault (it broke when it rained, a fairly regular occurrence here in England) a somewhat long-winded (two years, in fact) process.

    Of course, what will be a real humdinger is if, when they finally get the new super-duper, high speed, all-electric railway built, they discover we don't have enough electricity to run any trains...

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