Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Royal We Is Working On It...


    I really am trying to get used to the dumbed-down (sorry, I should say "user-friendly") move towards simple language and a less technical description of the options and features in modern software UIs. Messages such as "We're working on it" and "Something went wrong" feel like they would have been programmer's jokes only a few years ago, but now they are the accepted way to communicate with the "average user".

    I came across another today on my Surface RT: "We've found new updates today, and we'll install them for you soon." No option to say "Well just do it now" or any indication of when "soon" might be. OK, so I can fire up the old Windows Update dialog from the Start screen and get all the usual functionality. But it's more the use of "we" that I find odd.

    In the days when I wrote for Wrox Press here in England we used "we" extensively as a way to involve readers, and help them feel we were sharing their pain when programming or administering software. But when Wrox closed down and I started writing for US publishers I was told that you talked to readers, not worked with them. It was "you" not "we".

    So does "we" in the software you use, rather than the books you read, mean something different? Are the programmers who wrote your O/S actually sharing your pain? I reckon the use of "we" is designed to make users think that there's a huge group of vigilant technical operators just waiting for them to turn their computer on and do something.

    Maybe it's a bit like you see on those TV programs about nuclear power stations, or in NASA mission control, with hundreds of people fervently staring at banks of computer screens with slowly decrementing counters that determine when "soon" becomes "now" and they can "install them for you". Mike at desk 93 has just hit the big red button to install the latest updates for Mrs. Smith at 17 Willowlessgrove Avenue in Walmington-on-Sea, while Sarah at desk 426 is about to let Mr. Jones in Longleaf, North Carolina know that we've finally finished working on it.

    Of course, what I see in real life is that the new simplified interface paradigm actually benefits most average users. And I'm sure that there's been a ton of research and market testing to prove it's only us technical geeks that find it annoying. In fact, I probably wouldn't have been quite so prompted to write this rambling diatribe had it not been for perusing the management UI of my Virgin cable modem to see if there was an update available (more on that next week).

    As I was exploring I found the firewall settings page, and decided to check the configuration. Even when you choose "Advanced" mode, all you get is a drop-down list with three options: "Low", "Medium", and "High". And a pop-up help tip that says just "This will set how aggressive your firewall protection is". There's no indication of whether the setting covers inbound connections, outbound connections, or both, and what ports or protocols it affects.

    The default aggression setting is "Low" and I wasn't sure if it would snarl at me and take a bite out of my leg if I chose "High", but I tried it anyway. Which resulted in nothing being able to connect to anything on the ‘Net. And on "Medium", everything seemed able to connect to everything (the same as on "Low"). In the end I left it set to "Low" – I've done a penetration test to prove all inbound ports are closed, and I have a configured firewall behind it in the load-balancing router, so I guess it's not really that important.

    Mind you, I came across an interesting view on the use of "we" recently when talking on the phone to some sales guy. He said that you can tell the size of a company from whether people say "we" or "I". If it's a large organization, especially one with hundreds or even thousands of employees, the person talking to you will say "I" and "me", as in "send me some details of your interesting new product". If it's a tiny company or a one-man band, the person will say "we" and "us", as in "send us a free sample of your exciting new product" (i.e. no corporate gift policies).

    But that's enough rambling from us for this week – we'll be working on it and writing again soon...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Idempotent Photographical Categorization


    It's been many years since I switched from film to digital by selling my old Pentax SLR, extensive selection of quality lenses, and bag full of assorted attachments at some ludicrously low price. Since then my photographic arsenal has included several Olympus digicams. Yet I still haven't got the knack of successfully categorizing our ever-growing collection of photos.

    At first it's easy, you just drop them into suitably named folders. Like most people, I suspect, I never quite get round to adding all the tags and other info that helps you search for photos. The problem comes as the collection grows. In our house, we use Media Center as the main TV, with a modified version of an old Coding4Fun screen saver sample (see "The Screensaver Ate My Memory") so that we get slideshows of photos at random when the system is idle. Yes, we actually get to see our photos regularly rather than them gathering virtual dust hidden away on a hard disk somewhere.

    The screensaver presents them like the old Polaroid instant photos, with a caption containing the folder name and the date the photo was taken. However, increasingly I noticed that sometimes the date is wrong - usually because I fine-tuned the photo, scanned it from an old hard-copy print, or some friends sent it to us long after it was taken. But what really screwed things up was when, a few weeks ago, I was forced to reduce the total storage volume. I did it by running a macro in Paint Shop Pro that removes digital camera noise and shrinks most files by up to 60%.

    As you can imagine, the result is that all of the photos now displayed that date, because - as I discovered by digging out the old source code - the screensaver reads the last-modified date of the file. No problem, I thought, just change it to read the created date instead.

    If you haven't tried this, here's a tip: don't bother. I started off using the .NET File.GetCreationTime method, but that just gave some random result. So I dug back into the past and tried the old FileSystemObject we used to use in ASP scripts before the days of ASP.NET. And got the same result; obviously they use the same O/S functions. And if you get round to reading the blurb on the MSDN reference pages for the methods, you'll discover that you can't expect them to work. It says that NTFS caches the creation date, so it is only correct if you actually set it in code first - which is great if what you actually want to do is find out the date because you don't know what it is. Supposedly it only caches the value "for a short time", but waiting a day and rebooting the computer had no effect.

    So, no problem, the cameras all know the date and time that the photo was taken and it will be in the EXIF properties of the file. Well it seems that everything you never really wanted to know, such as the aperture setting, shutter speed, quality setting, flash mode, lens manufacturer's name, and many other undecipherable values are there, but not the date and time - the field in the Origin settings for Date Taken is empty in every one. Err, why?

    Ah, but the file name is a weird combination of letters and numbers (such as P0146752.jpg), which surely must be the date in some form of encoding. Well, after several hours looking at files, taking test photos, and playing Bletchley Park code-breaker, I couldn't figure it out.

    In the end, I admitted defeat and decided that the obvious answer was to include some kind of tag in the filename that showed the month and year, and which could be easily extracted in the screensaver code for use in the caption. For some unaccountable reason I chose to add a tag of the form [t-MMM yyyy], so that the photos would have a filename such as P0356381[t-May 2013].jpg. It was easy to modify the screensaver to use the current folder name and the tag so I get a caption such as "Garden Birds May 2013"). The biggest job, of course, was going through all the photos adding the appropriate tag.

    But it was worth it, now we get an accurate date for each photo and my wife tells me when I got one wrong. The nice thing is that whatever I do with the file in terms if modifying it, copying it to some device that doesn't properly handle dates, or some other so-far-unforeseen action, I will always have the correct date.

    So, did marital harmony return to our house? Not quite. As my wife pointed out, when you try to view the photos in Media Center (or on any other connected device) they come out in some random order. The default alphanumeric filenames aren't in ascending order by date. So when you add new files to a folder, you have to search all through to find them. Oh dear.

    What I should have done, of course, is put the date in the form yyyyMM at the start of the filename. But no problem, I can write a simple utility to rename the files automatically. In fact, I can even get it to both add both a suitable prefix (such as "201409") by reading the tag in the filename, as well as including an option to automatically generate the suffix tag for the screensaver by using the last-modified date of the file when I run it over new photos as I add them to our collection.

    And, purely by luck, I've just finished working on our Cloud Design Patterns guide, which regularly reinforces the need to consider idempotency for operations that may be repeated. In my simple file renaming scenario, the issue is if I run the utility again over files that have already have a tag, or both a tag and a prefix. Obviously I don't want more tags and prefixes adding to the filename, so it's vital that the code checks if the filename already contains a tag before it creates one from the last-modified date, and only translates this into a prefix if the filename doesn't already contain one (I haven't got round to implementing any actions that would update a tag or prefix).

    But after all this effort, I suppose I should have thought out the solution more thoroughly first, and just used the date prefix yyyyMM - and modified the screensaver to use that. But after a few days it occurred to me that I can put anything I like in the tag, not just a date, while the prefix will ensure that the photos still appear in ascending date order. So the effort wasn't totally wasted.

    Though, afterwards, someone mentioned that I could just as easily have changed the name of the file to something meaningful and displayed that in the caption...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    I Can See Patterns In The Cloud


    Well, we finally did it. After many months of redesign, reconsideration, rewrites, and recombination we've let loose on the web our first release of the Cloud Design Patterns guide.

    The guide is a combination of design patterns that are especially applicable to cloud-hosted applications and services. It explores the patterns in detail, provides good practice advice for when to use each pattern (and the issues to be aware of), and many have a working code example based on Windows Azure that you can download and play with.

    We also included a series of guidance topics that describe specific areas of concern around building applications for the cloud, particularly on how the distributed nature of these kinds of applications has an impact on design and implementation. These guidance topics include messaging, autoscaling, metering, and multiple data center deployment. There's also a series of topics related to distributed data management such as replication and synchronization, partitioning, consistency, and caching.

    We had a huge amount of feedback from the product groups, advisors, and customers during the development of the guide. This not only helped us select the most useful and popular patterns and topics, but also ensured that the topics provide good practice advice and cover the edge cases that may not be immediately obvious in cloud applications.

    For example, implementing features such as load-levelling and autoscaling require you to consider many aspects of how this can affect your operations and costs, while partitioning data can have a big impact on maintenance and the performance of queries if you don't plan ahead and choose the appropriate partitioning strategy before you start.

    Over time we expect to extend the range of patterns and topics in the guide. Let us know what you think. Or if you have a favorite topic or pattern that you think should be included, send me a note.

    "Cloud Design Patterns" from Microsoft patterns & practices is at http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dn568099.aspx.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Re-balanced and Re-routed (a.k.a. Wanna Buy An Old Modem?)


    Maybe it's because I was a boy scout when I was young that I have this need to be prepared for every eventuality. Or maybe it's my default paranoia mode that assumes stuff will just break without warning, typically on a Friday evening. It's probably why you can't move in my office for piles of spare things.

    In fact it's so bad that, when a friend phoned and asked if I could lend him an ADSL modem for testing a line that was playing up, I was able to offer him a choice of Cisco, DLink, or Netgear. Not to mention the old BT one that came with the original ADSL contract. I like to keep a spare in case the latest Netgear one I'm using dies. And, to get to them, I had to move two old 8-port switches, three 4-port ones, and a 24-port one. These are all 100 MB types that got replaced with 1 GB ones, but I keep them as spares just in case.

    Thankfully the ADSL modems weren't buried underneath the three second-hand 15" LCD monitors I bought as spares for the server cabinet when it became clear that they were becoming as rare as chocolate teapots. Though I did have to shift the boxes containing two PCMCIA wireless cards that no longer fit in any modern laptop (but you never know if they'll come in handy one day) and the vast selection of old hard drives, all less than 150 GB, which may be useful if I ever need a very small disk for something.

    Of course, almost none of these essential spares will ever get used. They are all out of date, incompatible with the kit I have, or useless. Except maybe the 15" monitors, though they'll probably have stopped putting VGA sockets on servers by the time I get round to using one. And if something does break I know full well I'll be straight onto Amazon to order the newest, cleverest, fastest, and complete with more fancy flashing LEDs than the last one, and pay for next morning delivery. Perhaps by miniature helicopter if they ever get that to work.

    Since I replaced the wireless access point on top of a cupboard in the dining room with the new Netgear one, our neighbours think we've started running a nightclub. It's got so many flashing green and blue LEDs that it lights up the room at night. There's even one that flashes alternately green and orange to indicate that it's configured in "access point" mode. Isn't modern technology wonderful?

    But the one vital piece of connectivity kit I don't have a spare for in my junk pile is the load-balancing router than joins me to my two ISPs. Since I got rid of my proxy server, the router acts as my network firewall - as well as sharing traffic between the ADSL and cable connections. And it's some years old now, so to soothe the oncoming attack of paranoia I invested in a super-duper new one to replace it (and, of course, to provide a spare). I chose the Cisco RV320 based on the extra speed and 1GB Ethernet ports. It actually cost about the same as I paid originally for the old Linksys RV42 it's replacing, and only took the best part of a month to get here (see this post).

    One of the problems with the RV042 is that the firmware is very old, and the updates won't install because I have a "Series 1" model with insufficient memory. So at least with the new one I can be sure I'm up to date in that department. Though I was a bit surprised to discover that the firmware in the new one was out of date already. Out of date out of the box! But I soon got it painlessly updated from Cisco's support site.

    Mind you, reading the release notes was a little worrying. One of the fixes in the update is, reportedly, to solve the problem of the router suffering a memory leak and locking up after it's "been running continuously for several days". It didn't say how long "several days" might be - a week? A month? I don't know about you, but I kind of expect to plug a router in, turn it on, and leave it running until I decide to buy a new one. Hopefully there are no more unresolved issues of similar gravity waiting for the next firmware update.

    Actually configuring and using the RV320 was, however, quite painless in most areas. The UI is very similar to the old RV042, though the RV320 supports IPv6 as well so I'm ready for when that comes knocking. Setting up the firewall and the custom rules was easy, and it certainly boots and runs faster than the RV042. So far it's been up for nearly a week with no problems to report.

    The one annoying thing is that the UI doesn't support the "&" symbol that I regularly use in my complex passwords. I guess it's because the login screen is web-page based, but every other router, modem, wireless access point, and device I own allows an ampersand symbol in passwords. Including the old RV042. Still, if that's the only problem I'll be well chuffed.

    I suppose the one thing left now that still needs to be replaced with a newer and more efficient (and definitely prettier) model is me...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    We're All Professional Publishing House Operatives Now


    OK, yes, I was tempted to find a title based on Slade's famous hit song Mama Weer All Crazee Now but finally caved in to the demands of the Word spelling checker. Not that this has anything at all to do with the topic of this week's ramble, which is about how home publishing has changed.

    I occasionally get requests to produce a booklet, poster, or other printed material to celebrate friends' weddings or christenings, for local events, or as publicity material for colleagues. Probably it's because they think I'm "good with computers", even though I have almost no artistic design capability. However, while producing a small booklet for some friends this week it struck me just how much easier it is now to produce professional results.

    When I first started doing things like this, very many years ago, the process involved more driving around in the car than actual computing. My dot matrix printer could never output good enough quality so all the text was created on my Mother's ancient typewriter. Text for hymns and psalms came from a hymn book borrowed from our local church. Photos came from prints done at the local chemist's shop, or by my Dad in his darkroom. Heading text was often Letraset rub-on transfers. All of these bits were cut out and mounted on card, then photo-copied at the local library.

    Of course, it wasn't long before I purchased my first mono laser printer that, in combination with a DTP application, provided endless opportunities for different fonts, text sizes, and layout. I could even incorporate the rather grainy and washed out images that early home scanners could extract from photographs. It really felt like you were doing proper publishing. Except that, without some artistic ability, everything came out looking like a church newsletter. Which was OK when I was actually doing a church newsletter, but a bit boring if it's to promote the local gardening club show.

    At times, in the days when I actively wrote and sold my own software, I would create professional leaflets. The layout and design were usually copied from something I saw in a magazine. The big problem was getting the design from screen to paper with the kind of quality I needed, and in large volumes. Luckily the DTP program I was using then could generate three-color print files that my local print shop could feed into their huge print line. They cost a fortune, and I doubt ever paid for themselves in increased sales, but they looked beautiful.

    So this week, as I was creating a small commemorative booklet, I realized just how easy it has all become. Microsoft Publisher contains a host of attractive design templates, and there are more online, so generating the outline was easy. Most of the text was provided by the friends, sent by email so I didn't even need to type it in. And they emailed the digital colour photos taken on their phone, which I could quickly tidy up, crop, and adjust in Paint Shop. The words of the hymns, psalms, and songs they wanted are available on the web, so I didn't need to type these in either.

    And then, before committing it to print, I generated a PDF and emailed it over so they could check it. Adjustments to content and layout are easy, and after three or four electronic interchanges I could simply dump the whole thing as a print job to my double-sided color laser printer; onto photo card for the cover and nice buff-colored pages for the inside. The result is startlingly professional, and all without ever needing to go out of the house.

    Except that I had to go out to a local print shop because I still haven't got round to buying a long-arm stapler. Maybe the next leap forward will be home printers that can fold and then ultrasonically bind the pages together...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    I Wished I Was ... in Iceland


    Birthdays are usually celebrated with a day off work, perhaps a trip to a garden centre, or just a lazy afternoon with a good book. However, as the milestone 60 loomed it was decided for me that I was going to have a week's vacation and go somewhere exciting. Somewhere that really had that "Wish you were here" effect. Trouble is, most of it turned out to be "I wish I was a..."

    For example, this day I wished I was a surfer:

    Dyrholaey beach and cliffs

    And this day I wished I was a mountain climber:

    Solheimajokulsvegur glacier

    On this day, I wished I was a rally driver:

    Near Gulfoss on Road 30

    And on this day I wished I was a geologist:

    Dyrholaey caves

    And, of course, on this day I wished I was an astronomer:


    The Northern Lights seen from near Hella

    But at least, on this day, I could just relax and soak up the steam and sulphur fumes:


    The Blue Lagoon, Grindavik

    Iceland is a really amazing place. Especially as, since I'm still suffering from the after-effects of a spine injury that makes long trips and walks difficult, it's only two and a half hours by plane from a small local airport and I had a rental car waiting. And driving there is easy, although it's on the wrong side of the road - until you decide to explore a little. Driving on solid-packed ice, or gravel tracks with 1 in 3 inclines, is fun. Thankfully the car was 4-wheel drive with studded tyres!

    Iceland is also an ideal destination for those that have a fetish for waterfalls. This is the famous one:


    But we managed to find plenty more:


    Seljalandsfoss and Merkifoss


    So, yes, we did the usual tourist things. Bathing in the Blue Lagoon hot springs (where they have to keep adding cold water to keep it below boiling point). Listening to the waves echoing round the caves at Dyrholaey and marvelling at the incredible rock formations. Driving miles over rocky unmade roads to see a glacier (the bits that break off do, in fact, look rather like a Fox's Glacier Mint that been loose in your pocket for a few weeks). Driving the "Golden Circle" tour to see the lakes, Gullfoss falls, the geysers and hot springs at Geysir:

    Some geezers looking at a geyser at Geysir

    And looking across the Mid Atlantic Ridge where two tectonic plates are gradually tearing Iceland apart (but there's a pretty church to look at):

    Tectonic plate boundary in Pingvellir National Park

     More Pingvellir National Park

    Iceland also has the most amazing sunrises and sunsets in wintertime:

    Sunset near Hella, South West Iceland

    And it's nice to know that the people have a sense of humour as well:


  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Gimmie The Code!


    It seems like a question that has an obvious answer: How should you show code listings in guidance documents? I'm not talking about the C#/VB/other language debate, or whether you orient it in landscape mode to avoid breaking long lines. No, I'm talking about the really important topics such as what color the text is, how big the tabs are, and where you put the accompanying description.

    We're told that developers increasingly demand code rather than explanation when they search for help, though I'm guessing they also need some description of what the code does, the places it works best, and how to modify it for their own unique requirements. However, copy and paste does seem to be a staple programming technique for many, and is certainly valid as long as you understand what's going on and can verify its suitability. I've actually seen extracts of code I wrote as samples for ASP 2.0 when it first appeared (complete with my code comments) in applications that I was asked to review.

    But here in p&p a lot of what we create is architectural guidance and design documentation designed to help you think about the problem, be aware of the issues and considerations, and apply best practice principles. As well as suggesting how you can implement efficient and secure code to achieve your design aims with minimal waste of time and cost. "Proven practices for predictable results", as it says on the p&p tin.

    But even design guidance needs to demonstrate how stuff works, so we generally have some developers in the team who create code samples or entire reference implementation (RI) applications. These are, of course, incredibly clever people who don't take kindly to us lowly documentation engineers telling them how to set up their environment, or that the code comments really should be sentences that make sense and have as few spelling mistakes as possible.

    In addition, Visual Studio has a really amazing built-in capability that we've so far failed to replicate in printed books. It can scroll sideways. These esteemed developers often prefer to have four or more space character wide tabs to make it easy to read the code on screen (the Visual Studio default is four). By the time you are inside a couple of if statements, a try/catch, and a lambda statement, you're off the page in a book. Two spaces is plenty in a printed document (where we have to replace the tabs with spaces anyway), but I've never yet persuaded a developer to change the settings.

    And now Microsoft mandates that we have to use the same colors for the text in listings as it appears in Visual Studio (I guess to make it look more realistic, or at least more familiar). The old trick of copying the code into Notepad, editing it, and then pasting it into the document no longer works. But copying it directly from the Visual Studio editor into a document is painful because it insists on setting the font, style, margins, and other stuff when I just want to copy the colors. Yet if I do Paste | Special | Unformatted Text in Word, I lose the colors.

    And then, when I finally get the code into the document, I need to describe how it works. Do I dump the entire code for a class into a single code section and describe it at the start, or at the end? If the code is a hundred lines or more (not unusual), the reader will find it cumbersome to relate parts of what is likely to be a long descriptive section to the actual code listing. I can break the class down into separate methods and describe each one separately, but often these listings are so long that I have the same problem.

    And, of course, explaining how the methods relate to each other often means including an abridged version of some parts of the class or one of its methods, showing how it calls other methods of the class. But do I list these methods first and reference back to them, or explain the flow of execution first with the abridged listing and then show the methods that get called?

    Typically I end up splitting the code into chunks of 30 lines or less (about half a printed page) and insert text to introduce the code before the chunk and text to describe how it works after the chunk. Something like:

    The GoDoIt method shown in the code listing above calls the DoThisBit method to carry out the first operation in the workflow. The DoThisBit method takes a parameter named thisAction that specifies the Task instance to execute, as shown in the following code listing.


    The DoThisBit method first checks that the task is valid and then creates an instance of a ThisBitFactory, which it uses to obtain an instance of the BitHelper class... and so on.

    After going backwards and forwards swapping code and text, breaking it up into ever smaller chunks, and trying to figure out what the code actually does it's just a matter of editing the code comments so that they make sense, breaking the lines in the correct places because they inevitably are longer than the page width, and then persuading the developer to update the code project files to match (or doing that myself just to annoy them).

    Sometimes I think that putting code listings into a document takes longer than actually writing the code, though I've never yet managed to convince our developers of that. But I've been doing it for nigh on twenty years now, so I probably should be starting to get the hang of it...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Doing the Right Thing


    So after I was castigated by Cisco's customer support people for buying from Amazon, who they class as a "grey importer", I decided to do the right thing this time. And look where it got me.

    I decided to upgrade my load-balancing router, and chose one that is relatively inexpensive yet has more power and features than the existing one. Yes, it's a Cisco product - the RV320. It looks like it's just the thing I need to provide high performance firewalling, port forwarding, and load balancing between two ISPs.

    On Amazon there are several comments from customers who bought one, indicating that the one supplied had a European (rather than UK) power supply. Probably because those suppliers are not UK-based. That does sound like it's a grey import, and - like last time - means I wouldn't get any technical support. However, there are UK-based suppliers on Amazon as well, so I could have ordered it from one of these, and easily returned it if it wasn't the UK version.

    But, instead, I used the Cisco UK site to locate an approved Cisco retailer located in the UK, and placed an order with them. Their website said they had 53 in stock and the price was much the same as those on Amazon, though I had to pay extra for delivery of the real thing. Still, the small extra charge would be worth it to get technical support, and just to know that I had an approved product.

    And two weeks later, with two promised delivery days passed, I'm still waiting. The first excuse was that their suppliers had not updated the stock figures over the holiday period. So in actual fact they didn't have any in stock, despite what the website said. Probably the 53 referred to what the UK Cisco main distributor had in its warehouse. And, of course, they sold all 53 over the holiday period. Maybe, like me, all network administrators choose the Christmas holiday to upgrade their network.

    A query after the second non-delivery simply prompted a "we'll investigate" response. So much for trying to spread my online acquisition pattern wider than just Amazon. I could have ordered one from Amazon.co.uk at the same price and had it installed and working a week ago. Or even paid for next-day delivery from Amazon, sent it back for replacement twice, and still be using it now. In a world that is increasingly driven by online purchasing and fast fulfilment, an arrangement of the words "act", "together", "your", and "get" seems particularly applicable if they want to remain competitive.

    But I suppose I should have remembered that you can't believe everything you read on the Internet...

Page 4 of 41 (325 items) «23456»