Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Herding Buffalo

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    Microsoft takes security seriously. I take security seriously. I don't have simple one-lever locks on my doors that you can open with a hairgrip, and I wouldn't use the name of my cat as my system administrator password. Well, maybe I would if my cat was called "g&e7532%dH$7", but imagine the fun I'd have calling it in for its supper at night if it was. Besides, I've got two cats, so it would only get confusing. That's why I wanted to call them "Bev" and "Kev" (but I was over-ruled by my wife).

    Anyway, this article is not about cats, it's about Buffalo. Or, to be more precise, the Buffalo LinkStation network drive. I've used one of these for some time, and I love it. It is joined to my internal domain as a computer, and it's easy to access from any machine while maintaining security and protecting the content. Though now it's not. Why? Because I switched my domain controllers from Windows 2003 Server to Windows Server 2008 (and why are the names the other way round now?).

    After the move, I just couldn't manage to connect with my Buffalo. While it might sound like something that demands counseling, I thought I could fix it by reconnecting to the domain - even though none of my other machines complained about the upgrade to the servers. Aha! It seems that the drive remembers the NetBIOS name of the domain controller (why?). So I set it to "WORKGROUP" mode and then filled in the details to connect to Active Directory. Just enter the DNS domain name, the name of the domain controller machine, and the credentials to connect to AD. Press Submit, and you get the message "ERROR: The Administrator password can contain 256 alphanumeric characters, a hyphen, and an underscore." My secure domain admin password is rejected because the guy who built the Web-based admin interface, while he might have been an expert in Linux operating systems, had no idea how to build Web stuff.

    So, I create a new domain account named "TEMP" with the password "temp" and give it every permission I can find. But it still fails. So I try the "Join NT Domain" option, but that fails too. As does delegating to an external SMB server. Even though my domain is still in "2003" mode and not "native 2008" mode. In the end, I'm stuck with having to use the built-in admin account to access the content. Oh, and by the way, you can stop trying to hack my server 'cos I did remember to remove the "TEMP" account again.

    Later I did the "visit our support forum" thing on the Buffalo Web site and discovered dozens of posts from people with the same problem. Some are of the opinion that Buffalo are "working on a fix", others report that they were told it wasn't due to be resolved and it was their own fault for upgrading to Server 2008. I suppose as the O/S in the drive is Linux, you're supposed to fix it yourself.

    As a temporary solution I just created a local user account on the drive with read/write access to the contents and got each machine to remember the login details. It's not ideal but it works. Except that all of my backup batch files now failed because they run under a domain account that accesses the source on the disks to be backed up. Thankfully, I remembered the NET USE command, which allows you to specify the credentials for accessing a remote machine. My batch files look something like this now:

    NET USE "\\LinkStoreName\ShareName" password /USER:username
    XCOPY "C:\MyFiles\Data\*.*" "\\LinkStoreName\ShareName\DataBackup\" /s/y/c/a

    You can even get the command to create and use a drive mapping, for example as drive Z:, like this:

    NET USE Z: "\\LinkStoreName\ShareName" password /USER:username
    XCOPY "C:\MyFiles\Data\*.*" "Z:\DataBackup\" /s/y/c/a

    However, now all I got was "Access denied" messages when XCOPY tried to access existing folders - though the actual error message is "Cannot create folder", which is a little confusing because it did create new folders where there wasn't one already. After fiddling about for a while, it was obvious. The existing folders were created under the domain account I used to use. I renamed the existing folders in Windows Explorer and XCOPY quite happily created the new ones. Where I knew the server still had all of the data in the backup folders, I just deleted the whole folder tree and allowed XCOPY to recreate it using the credentials of the new local Buffalo drive account specified in the NET USE command.

    OK, so it's not a great idea having credentials in the batch file, but at least these files are secured on the server away from public view. And it works. At least, it does until Windows Server 2010 comes out. Mind you, I calculated that I am due to retire the same week that support for Windows Server 2008 ends, so maybe I'll never have to upgrade again! I even asked Dell for a 10 year guarantee on the new servers so I was covered all round, but they seemed a bit reticent about that...

    So, the only bad news is that over the next few weeks my blog is likely to be full of boring stuff about the issues involved in moving to Windows Server 2008, configuring Hyper-V, getting your head round Virtual Networks and the Windows Time Service, migrating a domain from Windows 2000 Server (that might be two weeks' worth), and other related stuff.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    All Over Bar The Shouting

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    So they had an election ages ago in the US, but I still keep seeing that nice Mr. Bush on TV and in the newspapers. It seems like the even nicer Mr. Obama doesn't actually get the keys to the Oval Office until this year. I suppose that kind of makes sense. I mean, if you were employing a new airline pilot, you probably wouldn't want to give him or her the keys to a 747 until they'd had a few goes at landing one on a simulator, and proved that that they know which door to go in through when it comes time to do it for real. Especially if they haven't actually flown a plane before.

    Maybe Mr. Obama has spent the last few months getting up to speed on his new job. He's probably been taking part in reruns of "The West Wing", rushing about being talked at by six people at once. Or perhaps he's been locked away with a headset on working through a "presidency" simulator where he has to balance the economy and try not to start too many wars. I guess with a job as important as he's got, you need to be reasonably good at it from the start rather than spending the first few months messing about installing the software you need on your laptop, trying to remember important people's names, and discovering where the restroom is.

    All this contrasts with our somewhat lackadaisical approach on this side of the pond. When we have an election, we don't get to know the result until the next day. That's mainly because we don't actually trust anything that isn't written down on paper with a stumpy and blunt black pencil (usually tied to the voting booth desk with a piece of string for security reasons), so they have to get a heap of people to count them all by hand afterwards. Still, at least it gives the TV presenters plenty of time to play with their "swingometers" and other fancy CGI stuff. But I suppose they've had two years of that already in the US, so people are losing interest by the end of the process.

    Meanwhile back in the UK, once they do decide who won, the boss of that party has to drop in for breakfast with the Queen and see if it's OK for him or her to form a Government. Providing she says yes (I'm not sure what happens if she says no), the new Prime Minister can wander down the road to Number 10 and start running the country. Presumably, if they don't need any training, it must be relatively easy. Mind you, as they were most likely to have been up all the night before partying, they'll probably have a bit of a hangover. Probably best not to make too many huge impact major decisions on the first day. And ask someone where the restroom is.

    One thing I never discovered about the US election process is what the difference is between a "Soccer Mom" and a "Hockey Mom" (other than the lipstick). I'd assumed that Sarah Palin doesn't actually play hockey, and that the name comes from her transporting the kids to and from their hockey games. Then I found this post in which Lynn Wilhelm explains that there are other less well-known categories of parenting that I wasn't aware of. Such as the "NASCAR Dad". And as Obama is a basketball devotee, we'll presumably soon be seeing the newspapers full of "Basketball Mom" stories. Lynn even goes to the lengths of explaining that ice hockey is more popular in Alaska than it is in Florida (which doesn't seem surprising), and that ten times more "casual participants" (I assume she means kids) play soccer and basketball than hockey.

    Here in the UK, we've already had a political focus on "Mondeo Man" (Mondeo is the name of a mid-range Ford motorcar, and supposedly refers to the middle-class amongst the population). Though, if everyone is downsizing to save money and be green, maybe next time it will be "Focus Man" or even "Fiesta Man". Or maybe, instead, we'll continue our USification by seeing an increasing election-time focus on sectors of the population based on their kid's pastimes? Perhaps politicians will start to aim their policies at "Cricket Mom", "Rounders Mom", "Xbox Mom", "Reading Harry Potter For The Fifth Time Mom", or even "Hanging Around On Street Corners Getting Drunk Mom".

    And, after all this, I hear from a colleague in the US that their election might not actually be over yet. It seems that some people are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule that Mr. Obama isn't actually eligible to be President because his Dad was Kenyan, had a British passport, and dual nationality at birth. But don't panic - we can send over our nice Mr. Blair (he's not busy at the moment) to handle things until you make up your mind.

    So by now you're probably wondering what, other that a brief mention of Xbox, all this rambling has to do with computers, documentation, and software. To be honest, I don't have any idea either...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Agile Environmental Management

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    I'm not much into wearing daft T-shirts, or T-shirts with logos that proclaim my technical proclivities (such as being a Windows user, or knowing how to configure a DNS server), though one of my favorites is a T-shirt with a big picture of an organ donor card. It carries the slogan "DONER CARD" with the tagline "I want somebody to eat my kebab when I die". However, one of my other daft T-shirt logos came to mind the other day as my wife was trying to adjust from the relative warmth of a week away in Madeira to the distinct chill of an English December.

    The T-shirt in question explains that there are 10 kinds of people in this world - those who understand binary and those who don't. Now, I've rambled on many times over the years about our digital generation (see Derbyshire Does Digital and I Hear Voices - From The Planet Rock for examples), but I'm not sure I grasp all of the consequences. And it certainly seems increasingly clear that many other people just don't get that some things are resolutely digital in nature. Such as central heating systems.

    You see, my wife (and I'm sure many other people like her) seem able to judge the outside temperature by touching one of the central heating radiators in our house. I'll accept that she is an amazing woman with all of the talents that those of her gender tend to exhibit. As well as the ability to discuss three different subjects at once while preparing a five course meal and sending a text message on her phone, she remembers everyone's birthday and knows where I put the car keys.

    So how is it that, no matter how often I try to explain how central heating systems (and similar technological marvels) work, she still has this analog approach to things? She'll tell me that it must be cold outside "...because the radiator in the hallway is really hot". Or, it must be warmer than usual for the time of year "...because the bedroom radiator is only lukewarm". How do I explain that radiators are either on or off? They're digital. They go from cold to hot when the thermostat detects that the temperature in the hallway is below some preset level, and it turns the pump on. They go from hot to cold when the thermostat reaches the other extreme of its hysteresis loop and it turns the pump off again.

    Likewise, when we're watching TV at night and it's a bit chilly, she'll tell me to turn the thermostat knob up to full on the grounds that "...it will get warm quicker", and then turn it down to nothing when my chocolate biscuits start to melt. I've noticed the same in my car, in airplanes, and in most other places. Some people seem to insist on turning the knob all the way in the expectation that it will do stuff faster (or slower) than if they just set it to the required level in the first place, or delicately adjust it to meet changing requirements.

    Ah, but maybe this is "agile environmental management". Let's face it, agile is the big thing these days. Maybe this is how agile is supposed to work. You take a wild stab at what you might need to design and build, and throw it together as fast as possible (the programming equivalent of turning the knob to "full"). Then, when it performs like a goldfish in custard, you strip all of the gunk out of the code until it goes quick enough, like turning the knob to zero. Finally, you stabilize it by gradually adding and removing bits until it does what you need, and still tends to run fast enough to prevent users from falling asleep.

    Mind you, talking of falling asleep, I still can't figure why the digital controls for the lights in the p&p offices work like they do. If you stop moving for a while (such as drifting off to sleep) the lights go out. Surely they ought to work in a reverse hysteresis way. Come on really bright and beep a few times to keep you awake...?

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Christmas Presents for Geeks

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    I guess it's that time of year when I ought to acknowledge that the festive season is upon us. You can always tell when Christmas is on the way because computer magazines are full of "ideas for presents for computer users". I don't know about you, but a 2GB USB memory stick doesn't really seem like a present I'd want to give somebody, unless perhaps it came dressed in a Santa outfit and long flowing beard. Likewise, a Webcam. I mean, they'd probably expect me to start visiting their FaceDiggSpace page to see how ugly they look when viewed from eight inches away.

    However, when my wife asked me what I really wanted for Christmas, I suppose I unfortunately revealed an even deeper level of my geekability when I said I needed a new fan for a Dell 1400SC server. The one that was in it had decided to reach its MTBF and had started howling like a banshee. I can't trace one anywhere, but she has that wonderful knack of being able to find the weirdest things that we need in some charity shop, second-hand emporium, or bargain store. But I guess this quest was beyond even her legendary capabilities.

    OK, so I found a spare fan in my junk box and managed, using my vast experience in percussive maintenance, to persuade it to fit into the server. But it only has two wires instead of three, which means that the server doesn't believe there actually is a fan, even though there's more wind coming out of the back than you'd get from a flatulent elephant. So whenever the server reboots, it stops to ask me whether I want it to carry on and run Windows and do something useful, or do I want it to just sit there forever still running (and, you'd assume, overheating if there was no fan) but doing nothing.

    At one time it used to do the same if the KVM switch wasn't pointing to it when it booted (with the extremely useful message "Keyboard not detected, press F1 to continue"), but I found out how to disable that in the BIOS. But there seems to be no way to tell it to ignore the "system fan not detected" error. I did wonder about just shoving 12 volts onto the third pin on the motherboard, but even my non-averse approach to experimental maintenance suggested this was probably not a wise move.

    So, my Christmas present is a pair of cheap Dell Quad core Xeon servers with tons of disk space, 8 GB memory, and three network cards in each one. Yep, I'm going to have a virtual Yuletide and play with Hyper-V to see if I can drag my remote office server and network infrastructure into the 21st century. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get all the stuff I need, such as AD, DNS, DHCP, ISA, Exchange Server, and a couple of Web sites up and running again. If I seem to have gone very quiet over the next month or so, you'll probably find me in the garage with my head in the server cabinet emitting streams of expletives.

    It's probably a good thing that nobody gave me a Webcam for Christmas.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Under Compression

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    Last week I was creating short introduction videos for our Architecture Guide project. You'd assume that this would be easy enough - write some slides and record the commentary, and then generate a WMV file from the recording. I used Camtasia, which integrates with PowerPoint and makes it really easy to create the recording and edit it. Only then, when I generated the WMV file, did I start to appreciate just how large these kinds of files can be.

    You see, the problem is that we are limited to a maximum file size of 4MB and five or six minutes. Yet the first attempt using the default settings produced a 12MB file. So that's when I started digging around the settings, and reading up on video options and formats. You'd think that with the power and usability of modern software there would be some setting, like there is in Windows Movie Maker, saying "just make it fit into 4MB and be wonderful". No such luck.

    Yes, I did try taking the WMV and exporting it from Movie Maker into 4MB, but the quality was so bad you couldn't even read the slide titles. So I tried recording in AVI format and converting that, with approximately equally awful results. In the end, I used the "Slides and Audio (Medium)" setting in Camtasia and edited the commentary (such as removing pauses and superfluous waffle) until it was just below 4MB. And then repeated the process for the other ten presentations on my "to do" list. The final quality is acceptable, though the audio compression makes me sound like I've developed a lithp.

    Perhaps I just don't grasp the technicalities in enough depth. You can edit a whole range of audio and video parameters for the encoder, so in theory you can delicately tweak the settings to get an optimal output quality. But none of it seems to do quite what you'd expect. You reduce the frame rate from 10fps to 5fps and little dots start crawling all over the slides like a disorganized army of ants slowly eating the words. You change the keyframe interval from 1 second to 5 seconds, and you end up looking at the introduction slide for the first two minutes of the video. You reduce the audio bandwidth from 22KHz to 16KHz (mono) and it sounds like someone playing a kazoo.

    It's rather like if your TV changed channel every time you adjusted the volume, or if the phone company rearranged the digits of your telephone number whenever someone tried to call you. I even worked diligently through a set of recommendations from some clever people who do this kind of thing all the time. It took ages to locate all the settings and make sense of them, and I wish I'd read the instructions from the end backwards rather than starting from step 1. When I finally got it all set up, I discovered the final paragraph of the document contained the rather less than useful comment "Using these settings, I managed to get the file size down to below 6MB per minute!" Wow, that's a lot of help when I need to get 5 or 6 minutes into 4MB...

    Of course, after I finally did manage to squeeze my output into the required dimensions (if you'll pardon the expression) I thought it would be a good thing to document what I'd discovered. I mean, I work for the documentation team, so I probably ought to produce some dregs of documentation now and then - if only to justify my existence. Of course, in this brave new media-based world, it's actually "guidance" I create, not just boring old documentation, so I did think it would be neat to do a video on how to record videos. A sort of "guidance on guidance" thing. Only trouble is, I couldn't find a way to get Camtasia to allow me to record myself using Camtasia... There must be some way to do it, probably using a VM (or an ordinary video camera). Or by installing another video capture program to capture you using the original video capture program. I wonder if the guidance team at TechSmith (who make Camtasia) have to secretly smuggle somebody else's software onto their machines to create their guidance...?

    Mind you, even better, next week I'm doing "train the trainer" videos to teach people how to teach people to use our gleaming new Architecture Guide (I bet you'd forgotten that this post was about the new guide). So if I create some documentation on how to do that, is it "guidance on guidance on guidance"? It's all starting to sound a bit like Chinese Whispers (or "Telephone" in the US). You know, the game they play at the kind of parties I'm never invited to where you have to pass on a whispered message and then see what it comes out as after ten or twenty people have communicated it.

    I remember reading how, in the trenches during the First World War, supposedly they would pass commands back to the reserve lines in this way. Although it maybe won't make sense to any non-UK readers, the command "Send reinforcements, we're going to advance" is said to have been delivered to the reserve lines as "Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance". At least it would probably be more entertaining than the videos I'm creating.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Head in the Clouds

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    What is it with airports? I mean, if I built an airport in the town called Mansfield, I would probably seriously consider calling it "Mansfield Airport". It seems a good name since it identifies where the airport is, and what region or area it serves. The island of Madeira has only one airport (which, I guess, is not surprising as 95% of the island slopes at around 45 degrees), located next to the town of Santa Cruz. However, it's not called "Madeira airport", or even "Santa Cruz airport". It's called "Funchal airport"; I suppose because Funchal is the island's capital city. I wonder what they'll do when they finally bulldoze enough of the island to build another airport?

    Imagine if we followed that approach here in England - we'd have dozens of airports called "London airport". Strangely, however, we actually do have four called that already; "London (City)", "London (Gatwick)", "London (Heathrow)", and "London (Stanstead)". And only one of them is in London. Maybe they ought to rename a few US airports the same way. I can start asking for a ticket to "Washington (Seattle)", which will be really confusing because Seattle is in Washington state... I think I can feel jet lag coming on already.

    Mind you, renaming airports seems to be a growing sport. Here in England they renamed Liverpool airport to "John Lennon airport", just in case anybody that knew who John Lennon was didn't know that the Beatles came from Liverpool. And Doncaster airport got renamed to "Robin Hood airport", even though it's 50 miles from Sherwood Forest. In fact, Mansfield (just across the motorway from where I live) is within the boundaries of the old Sherwood Forest. I wonder if, when I build my airport, I can ask for the name back.

    Best of all, though, is the airport we flew from last week. For as long as I can remember, it's been called "East Midlands airport" (EMA). It's in the East Midlands, just inside the Derbyshire boundary and not far from Nottingham. Recently, however, Nottingham city council tried to get it called "Nottingham airport", though that meant they'd need to change the name of the existing airport at Tollerton that's called "Nottingham airport". But then Derby city council got upset, so they considered calling it "Nottingham/Derby airport".

    However, it's not far from Leicester either, so they obviously decided they wanted their share and that it should be called "Nottingham/Derby/Leicester airport". I discovered that they resolved the situation by calling it "East Midlands Airport Serving Nottingham, Derby and Leicester". It's a good thing they built the new arrivals hall, or they wouldn't have had enough room for the sign.

    Still, maybe the airports thing is just change for change's sake. Worse are changes due to stupid bureaucracy. Today, as I was reading Motor Cycle News while waiting for a haircut, I discovered that the nameless bureaucrats who run the People's Republic of Europe have stipulated that the new driving test for motorcycles will include a "swerve" test to be executed at 50 kilometers per hour. In real money, that translates into 31.07 miles per hour. Unfortunately, almost all of the existing driving test centers are located in built-up areas (obviously) where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. So, have a guess what the solution is:

    a) Allow the "swerve" test to be taken at 30 miles per hour
    b) Build 220 new driving test centers outside urban areas

    If you answered a), you obviously are not familiar with European bureaucracy. Yep, they stipulated that the test can only be taken at an urban test center. OK, so a few of the 220 new test centers are due to be ready (perhaps) when the change takes place. I wonder how many hospitals they could have built with the money...?

    After all that, it's good to know that we, here in the software industry, aren't tempted to change the names of things just for fun and for no reason. I'm absolutely convinced that the next version of Windows will be called "Windows 2010", or maybe "Windows XP Extra", or perhaps "Windows Vista II". And it will integrate seamlessly with Hotmail, or MSN, or Windows Live. And provide an architecture for building applications based on SOA, or SaaS, or S+S, or (like airports) it may have varying cloud cover.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Time Flies Like An Arrow, But Not At Frankfurt Airport

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    As a writer, I enjoy the weirdness of words. In the English (and US English) language, and particularly in technical writing, words often mean something distinctly different from their initially apparent meaning. When I'm looking at text provided by other members of the teams I work with, such as developers and architects, I often come across a word or phrase where the usage and context is obviously familiar, yet the real meaning is totally inappropriate. And fixing the text sometimes takes a determined effort as I try to bend my brain away from the obvious to look for the appropriate.

    For example, "Use a protocol like HTTP or TCP" or "May negatively impact performance". So what's wrong with these? Well, "...like HTTP or TCP" could mean "...have fond feelings for HTTP or TCP". In the same vein as the well-know expression "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana". And "...negatively impact performance" might be taken to mean it actually improves it. You see where I'm going?

    Bear in mind that everything we produce must follow strict style and word selection guidelines so that it is easy to assimilate by those whose first language is not English. And, of course, it must also be easily translatable by mechanized tools into other languages. OK, so the tools these days are very good. I read in a computer magazine last week about a guy who did the obvious test - he took some English text, fed it through an English/French translator, and then fed the result through a French/English translator. The result was understandable, if not actually fully readable, but it was "good enough".

    Of course, I immediately decided it would be interesting to push this a bit further by piping some text through several languages to give mechanized translation a real test. Time for an experiment I think. We'll start with this week's opening sentences:

    "As a writer, I enjoy the weirdness of words. In the English language, and particularly in technical writing, words often mean something distinctly different from their initially apparent meaning."

    The automated translation into Spanish gives:

    "Como escritor, gozo del weirdness de palabras. En la lengua inglesa, y particularmente en la escritura técnica, las palabras significan a menudo algo distintamente diferente de su significado inicialmente evidente."

    Interesting that they don't seem to have a word for "weirdness" in Spanish. Maybe it only applies to English people. Anyway, when translated back into English, it comes out as:

    "Like writer, joy of weirdness of words. In the English language, and particularly in the technical writing, the words often mean something differently different from their initially evident meaning."

    Wow, pretty close. And I reckon "joy of weirdness" and "differently different" are fine descriptions of most of my blogging activities. However, now we'll take the Spanish version and convert it into Russian, which produces this:

    "Как сочинитель, утеха weirdness слов. В английском языке, и определенно в технически сочинительстве, слова часто намереваются что-то по-разному отличающееся от их первоначально очевидная смысль."

    Which, when translated back into English comes out as:

    "As writer, the joy of weirdness of words. In the English, and definitely in technically the writing, the words frequently will intend that- t. p - different being differed from their initially obvious."

    Amazing. That's almost closer to the original. OK, so we got some extraneous letters in there that may affect the next step, but we'll push on regardless and stretch the bounds of reasonableness by taking the Russian version and translating it into Swedish:

    "Som författare uttrycker glädjen av weirdnessen av. I engelskaet och bestämt i tekniskt handstilen, uttrycker vanligt ska ämnar den t. p - olikt som skilja sig åt från deras initialt tydligt."

    And, finally, back from Swedish into English:

    "As authors, the blessing expresses of weirdnessen of. In engelskaet and certain in the technical script, expresses commonly will intends it t. p - different that divide itself at from their initially clear."

    I don't know about you, but I reckon that's a pretty remarkable demonstration of automated language translation. OK, so the original was not exactly complicated but the results are not a million miles away in meaning, even if the grammar could do with some attention. No doubt that, if a native speaker of those languages had edited the intervening versions, they would have been even better. All of these translations were performed by the online translator available at WorldLingo.com.

    Anyway, talking of words, one that struck me as odd the other day was "stereotype". My first thought was that "stereo", being our shortened word for "stereophonic", means "two" or "double". Especially as we use "mono" for musically-oriented stuff that isn't stereo. So how can "stereotype" have the meaning of "all the same" or "the same as all others of its type"? And deeper exploration reveals that the original meaning of the word "stereotype" is thought to be the name for a duplication made during the printing process (see Gale Cengage Learning). Again, reinforcing the "two" or "different" meaning.

    It was only after some research I found that "stereo" is a prefix that comes from the Latin word meaning "solid". Aha! The people who dreamt up the concept of piping music through two different channels obviously meant it to have a more solid sound, so they called it stereophonic (where "phonic" means "acoustics" or "relating to sound"). Maybe they invented "monaural" afterwards for people who could only afford one speaker, or - like me - are deaf in one ear. And it fits with "stereotype" actually meaning "a solid type" or "of the same type".

    So while we're talking about stereotypes - the topic I originally intended to discuss when I started this post (which seems like several weeks ago now) - I never considered that I was affected by stereotypes of people or places. OK, so stereotypes are useful as a staple ingredient in stand-up comedy. Let's face it, a joke that starts "There's these three ordinary guys who do ordinary jobs, and have no obvious distinguishing marks, in a boat..." would have some way to go to be funny. And, when you travel a lot, you soon discover that people don't really conform to some stereotype for their country or nationality anyway. What I found really surprising, however, was that airports don't either.

    I mean, you'd assume that Schipol airport in delightfully laid-back Amsterdam would be populated by people smoking various brands of weed, so it would all be a bit disorganized and your luggage would probably go via Outer Mongolia and the Faroe Isles. Meanwhile, Frankfurt airport in extremely efficient and organized Germany would be so well designed and run that you wouldn't even notice you'd been there.

    Ha! No chance. Travelling to Redmond via Amsterdam was totally painless. Same terminal for arrival and departure, no security lines, arriving and departing on time, and luggage waiting on the belt after clearing immigration in Seattle. Meanwhile, Frankfurt was three (yes three) security barriers, recheck your passport and re-enter all the information even though you've got a boarding card because the computer is playing up, and nowhere to sit down meantime. And the departure was late.

    But worst of all, they insinuated that I own an iPod and they think that my passport is a dangerous implement. I travel regularly, and am relatively organized about the security check thing. My watch, belt, phone, wallet, loose change, and other stuff are in my carry-on. I wear slip-on shoes to save time. And I have my laptop out of the bag ready. So in Frankfurt they don't let you put stuff in the plastic trays yourself - you have to wait for an assistant - and they keep asking if you've got an iPod. Maybe it's a new security scare?

    Then I was surprised when the scanner bleeped like crazy as I walked through when the only metal near me was my wedding ring, the zip on my trousers, and the fillings in my teeth. Turned out, after a "pat-down", to be my passport that set it off. OK, so it's got a biochip and half a mile of aerial wire in it, but I've never known that happen before. Meanwhile, the guy kept saying "iPod" until I finally gave in and showed him my non-iPod MP3 player - at which point I was frog-marched off into a separate area while they tested it for a whole range of dangerous stuff. Maybe the X-ray machine had detected the rather potent 70's punk music it contains, or it objected to my comprehensive collection of classic Goon Shows. I suppose I can't blame it for that.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    On The Road To Nowhere?

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    Back in June, when I signed my life away and made my pact with the blue badge, it seemed like a good idea to restrain my exuberance in one or two areas. Wandering aimlessly around the world attending conferences, and pleading with Web site editors to buy my articles, were obvious first steps. And a quick sanitization of my own Web site seemed like a good idea - trying to tempt any unwary dev shop I could find to give me a job was probably not a good idea either. And, in particular, losing the PowerPoint presentation that grumbled about the lack of inspiration and direction in the Web world seemed like a really positive move. Especially as it was robust enough to need words with asterisks in.

    Then, at the p&p Summit a few weeks ago, I watched Billy Hollis do a wonderful presentation that echoed so many of my own subversive tendencies. His session, called "Drowning in Complexity", revealed through audience participation how few people actually know about, understand, and use the huge number of new technologies coming out of Microsoft. I mean, I work in a fairly small division and I have only a passing familiarity with many of our products, never mind the mass of stuff coming out of the many other divisions.

    But what really made me smile were his comments on the way we seem to be piling more and more stuff on top of a document collaboration mechanism that was already revealing its failings way back in the late 1990's. Yep, what on earth are we still doing playing with Web browsers when we're trying to implement rich, interactive, and accessible user interfaces for business applications? I have absolutely no intention of getting involved here in a discussion of Flash, Chrome, and the like. What I want to know is: where is the next Tim Berners-Lee?

    Over the years, I've bored almost to distraction a significant number of people by rambling on about how we need something new to decouple our dependence on HTML and Web browsers, where everything you want to do seems to involve inventing some new kludge, or several hundred lines of JavaScript. I mean, if you were given a choice of any language to use when developing your next major application, would you choose JavaScript? And run it inside an interface that stops you using many useful key combinations, allows the user to view a cached copy of the previous screen in your carefully crafted process flow any time they like, and prevents you using many of the obvious UI niceties you expect in a "proper" application?

    And where is the comprehensive managed security framework that allows you to properly interact with the hardware and the user? Or the mechanism to handle data locally in a sensible way? Or, and here comes that awful cliché, "write once, run anywhere". It seems that the only reason we battle on with Web browsers is because there is no other "write once" that does "run anywhere". Or is there? PDF seems to work fine, and it was developed by a single manufacturer. You can use a nice lightweight (and free) PDF reader such as Foxit, or you can use the full-blown (dare I say "overblown") real thing from Adobe. And there's no shortage of tools you can buy to create and edit PDFs, or do most anything else you want with them.

    So I guess this diatribe has finally reached the point where I can no longer avoid the "S" word. Here at Microsoft, we're hiding it behind the exciting concept of the Rich Internet Application (RIA). But at the heart of it are, of course, XAML and WPF. One of the announcements by Scott Guthrie at the Summit was the aim of continuing convergence of Silverlight and WPF to achieve the "write once, run anywhere" nirvana. WPF that runs on a desktop, on a mobile device, on a tablet, and everywhere else as well; and with full support for ink, stylus, touch, rich media, and interaction with all the bells and whistles of the hardware.

    Where I still have an issue is with Silverlight. Yes, it gives us a bridge to the ubiquitous Web browser to maximize reach. But we can do pure WPF and XAML in a host on Windows, just like we do with PDFs. Maybe the fact that WPF and XAML come from Microsoft will mean that it can't get the support from other platform manufacturers and the open source community that HTML did so many years ago. So are we forever condemned to using another browser plug-in? Another layer of "stuff" on top of the already inappropriate "stuff"?

    There's an old story about the guy driving through some small village in the middle of nowhere, and he stops to ask a local yokel the way to his planned destination. The yokel replies "If I was going there, I wouldn't start from here". I just hope that we haven't gone so far down the road to that dead-end village that we can't actually get to where we want to be.

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