Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • 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.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Take Two Aspirins And Call Me In The Morning

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    I seem to have spent a large proportion of my time this month worrying about health. OK, so a week of that was spent in the US where, every time I turned on the TV, it scared me to death to see all the adverts for drugs to cure the incredible range of illnesses I suppose I should be suffering from. In fact, at one stage, I started making a list of all the amazing drugs I'm supposed to "ask my doctor about", but I figured if I was that ill I'd probably never have time to take them all. They even passed an "assisted suicide" law while I was there, and I can see why they might need it if everyone is so ill all of the time.

    And, of course, it rained and hailed most of the week as well. No surprise there. They even said I might be lucky enough to see some snow. Maybe it's all the drugs they've been asking their doctor about that makes snow seem like a fortuitous event. Still, I did get to see the US presidential election while I was there. Or, rather, I got to see the last week of the two year process. It seems like they got 80% turnout. Obviously, unlike Britain where we're lucky to get 40% turnout, they must think that voting will make a difference. Here in the People's Republic of Europe, we're all well aware that, if voting actually achieved anything, they'd make it illegal. I wonder if the result still stands if nobody actually turns up to vote?

    Mind you, it does seem surreal in so many ways. You have to watch four different news channels if you want to get a balanced opinion. And one of the morning newsreaders seemed to have a quite noticeable lisp so that I kept hearing about the progreth of the Republicanth and the Democratth. A bit like reading a Terry Pratchett novel. Or maybe it was just the rubbish TV in the hotel. And they didn't have enough voting machines so in some places people were queuing for four hours in the rain to cast their votes. Perhaps it's because there are around 30 questions on the ballot paper where you get to choose the president, some assorted senators and governors, a selection of judges, and decide on a couple of dozen laws you'd like to see passed. Obviously a wonderful example of democracy at work.

    Anyway, returning to the original topic of this week's vague expedition into the blogsphere, my concerns over health weren't actually connected to my own metabolic shortcomings. It was all to do with the Designed for Operations project that I've been wandering in and out of for some number of years. The organizers of the 2008 patterns & practices Summit had decided that I was to do a session about health modeling and building manageable applications. In 45 minutes I had to explain to the attendees what health models are, why they are important, and how you use them. Oh, and tell them about Windows Eventing 6.0 and configurable instrumentation helpers while you're at it. And put some jokes in because it's the last session of the day. And make sure you finish early 'cos you'll get a better appraisal. You can see that life is a breeze here at p&p...

    So what about health modeling? Do you do it? I've done this kind of session three or four times so far and never managed to get a single person to admit that they do. I'm not convinced that my wild ramblings, furious arm waving, and shower of psychedelically colored PowerPoint graphics (and yes, Dave, they do have pink arrows) ever achieve anything other than confirm to the audience that some strange English guy with a funny accent is about to start juggling, and then probably fall off the stage. Mind you, they were all still there at the end, and only one person fell asleep. I suppose as there was no other session to go to, they had no choice.

    What's interesting is trying to persuade people that it's not "all about exception handling". I have one slide that says "I don't care about divide by zero errors; I just want to know about the state changes of each entity". Perhaps it's no wonder that the developers in the audience thought they had been confronted by some insane evangelist of a long-lost technical religion. The previous session presented by some very clever people from p&p talked about looking for errors in code as being "wastage", and there I was on next telling people all about how they should be collecting, monitoring, and displaying errors.

    But surely making applications more manageable, reporting health information, and publishing knowledge that helps administrators to verify, fix, and validate operations post deployment is the key to minimizing TCO? An application that tells you when it's likely to fail, tells you what went wrong when it does fail, and provides information to help you fix it, has got to be cheaper and easier to maintain. One thing that came out in the questions afterwards was that, in large corporations, many developers never see the architect, and have no idea what network administrators and operators actually do other than sit round playing cards all day. Unless they all talk to each other, we'll probably never see much progress.

    At least they did seem to warm to the topic a little when I showed them the slide with a T-shirt that carried that well-worn slogan "I don't care if it works on your machine; we're not shipping your machine!" After I rambled on a bit about deployment issues and manageable instrumentation, and how you can allow apps to work in different trust levels and how you can expose extra debug information from the instrumentation, they seemed to perk up a bit. I suppose if I achieved nothing other than making them consider using configurable instrumentation helpers, it was all worthwhile.

    I even managed to squeeze in a plug for the Unity dependency injection stuff, thus gaining a few brownie points from the Enterprise Library team. In fact, they were so pleased they gave me a limited edition T-shirt. So my 10,000 mile round trip to Redmond wasn't entirely wasted after all. And, even better, if all goes to plan I'll be sitting on a beach in Madeira drinking cold beer while you've just wasted a whole coffee break reading this...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Top 10 Tips for New or Nervous Computer Users

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    It may seem like this week's disjointed ramblings follows on from last week's topic, in some lexographically eerie and unexpected way. I can assure you that this wasn't intentional - the capability to avoid straying off topic during the course of a single short article has so far always eluded me, and I see no reason for that situation to have changed. After all, there's no sign yet that I'm actually getting the hang of this blogging thing. Still, at least I'm not frightened of computers, as are some people in my age group...

    No, what actually prompted this week's ramble was something I came across recently while researching obscure software design patterns. Part way through one document, I found this enlightening and interesting line: "Use a common data format to perform translations between two desperate data formats." Now, I'd have to admit that I don't do that much actual programming these days, but I do tend to deal with quite a lot of data. And, thankfully, none has yet come to my attention as being "desperate". I'd go with "wrong", "strange", and even "useless" as descriptions of the data I encounter, but none of it has shown any signs of criminality, or suicidal tendencies.

    However, maybe it's just that I don't notice. Perhaps there are some Int32s in there that are really, really keen to escape into 64 bits. Or lumps of serialized binary that just can't bear not being an XML document. Could it be that they actually mean "desperate" as in "criminal"? Is there a gangster-style DataSet roaming through the layers of my applications stealing rows and leaving a trail of empty tables? Or perhaps the author of the page I was looking at actually meant "disparate", not "desperate".

    But, coming back to people being frightened of computers, just image how much more frightened they'd be if they thought there really was desperate data flying round inside. So, to put such people's minds at rest, I've been touring the Internet and have assembled a list of the Top 10 things that you may not know about computers:

    1. Experts will tell you that you cannot "break the computer" just by pressing the wrong key. However, bear in mind that there is one key (the one with the funny "~"squiggle on it that nobody knows what to use for) that connects directly to the mains power supply and injects 5000 volts into the main computer chips when you press it. You should only use this key when a program stops responding.
    2. Computer keyboards work the same way as remote controls (as discussed last week). The harder you press the keys, the faster your computer will work. When it doesn't seem to be responding, and the "~" key makes no difference, the chances are that you haven't pressed the keys enough times, or you are not pressing hard enough. Mouse buttons also work this way.
    3. Your computer will occasionally download and install "updates" from the Internet. This is required because the programs you use most often wear out more quickly than those you don't use much, and so they need to be replaced. You can tell when a program is showing excessive signs of wear, and is ready for replacement, by looking at the window. Ones that are nearly worn out have the corners rounded off.
    4. Most computers have a "USB" socket. "USB" stands for "Unexpected System Behavior". When you plug something into this socket, the computer will display a series of helpful messages designed to lead you to believe that it knows what you plugged in. After a few minutes, it will tell you that it has found your elephant, and loaded the correct drivers. When you remove the plug, the computer will warn you that you should have turned your elephant off first, and that it may now have lost its memory.
    5. In computer terminology, the word "minute" (as used in the previous item) bears no relation to the 60-second periods measured by your watch or kitchen clock. "Minute" is an ethereal measure based on scientific principles related to internal clock speed, bus width, memory configuration, and the proliferation of highly-efficient CPU registers. To the layman, what this means is that a message such as "This make take a few minutes..." is actually a suggestion that you leave the computer turned on and come back in the morning.
    6. If you use a laptop computer, you will have noticed how hot the desk (or your lap) becomes after a while. This is because file names, especially those containing spaces, are particularly fragile and prone to melting at the high temperatures found inside a computer. After a while, they tend to seep out of the bottom of the computer and heat up the desk (or lap) below. This also explains why you cannot find the files that you saved yesterday.
    7. After a while, computers get full up of data. You can usually tell when they are full by looking to see if the sides have started to bulge out. Or, if you use a laptop, you may find that the lid does not close as easily as it used to. Be aware that, if you have purchased a new digital camera that has more than "6 megapixels", the pictures are very large and must be stored in the computer diagonally. This means that they take up a lot more space.
    8. After a few weeks, your computer will know everything about you. It does this by attracting dust onto the screen and then running a special program when it "boots up" that converts this dust into greasy fingerprints. It can then identify you from your fingerprints. You can tell this is true because, when you visit an online book store, it knows that you need to buy an electric toothbrush, a garden spade, and a DVD of the latest movie with Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley in it.
    9. Some years ago, the people who own the Internet made it illegal to have more than nine things in a list. This was because they discovered that over 30% of Internet traffic was caused by people reading "Top 10" lists of things. Since the ban, there has been a 37.48% reduction in traffic on the Internet. This is why, these days, it is so fast.

    You may like to print out this list and keep it somewhere handy ready for when your son or daughter gives their old computer to your mother. Or for when you become senile. Meanwhile, if you have any useful tips for new or nervous computer users, you can send them to us.

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