Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Agile Government

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    I was talking with a colleague the other day about how a pre-agreed plan can morph over time so that the final outcome bears almost no relation to the original specification. I tossed into the conversation my opinion that he should think of it as being like a Government election. The truth changes over time, based on requirements. Perhaps it's a bit like an agile development approach to software development. And, by some fortuitous coincidence, we're having a general election here in Britain in a couple of weeks time!

    Could it be that software development, especially when undertaken as an agile process, is somewhat akin to the process of Government? When you need to get approval for the project, you can promise almost anything; although ensuring that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the perceived needs of the company and the customers will obviously improve your chance of winning approval. Especially if you can locate some highly selective statistics that prove the need.

    Let's face it; this is what prospective candidates and political parties do. We no longer seem to have parties built around a central tenet or a specific vision for society and the country. You often hear people say that the dinosaur statesmen with a firm belief in making the world a better place and working tirelessly for the people have been replaced by career politicians whose main aim is get elected, stay in power as long as possible, and feather their nest to a sufficient extent that occasional after-dinner speeches and personal appearances will keep them in the luxury for their remaining years.

    So, step one is to establish focus groups and engage advisors who can tell you what your political beliefs or software design specialties are this week. Step two is to ensure you never exhibit any strong opinions or technical proclivities that may not be in accord with whatever the perceived public opinion or online fad will be next week. Step three is to conceal all deep-rooted beliefs or development shortcomings that may impact your chance of success. Step four is to major on policies or vertical market segments that will generally make no difference at all to the majority of people, or are so vague that they can morph - rather like an agile software development process - to match the ethereal and ever-changing aspirations of the electorate or customer at any point in time.

    Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, and we have seen politicians and software houses, both recently and in the not-so-distant past, that offer their own firm vision for the future - irrespective of the headlines in the day's newspapers. Though evidence in the last few years indicates that these usually don't last long. A couple of contentious statements that reveal their innermost belief, political leaning, technical capabilities, or actual level of market penetration are usually enough to have them unceremoniously ejected.

    So, working from the premise that you can promise anything at the start, when you need to get the "Go" or when you are trying to garner sufficient votes to become the next incumbent Government, what about some examples of well-designed promises that sound specific and attractive, yet have sufficient wiggle-room that an almost diametrically opposite outcome will still fulfill them:

    Pre-election: "We definitely won't raise taxes"
    Post election: "National Insurance Levy technically isn't a tax"
    Pre-Go approval: "We will provide the ultimate in user guidance for our product"
    Post release: "It's so intuitive that, technically, you don't need documentation"

    Pre-election: "We will implement small Government"
    Post election: "You need a huge number of staff to achieve a major reform like that"
    Pre-Go approval: "It will comfortably handle hundreds of users"
    Post release: "Yes, but not all at the same time"

    Pre-election: "We will implement open Government"
    Post election: "Except for the things that we need to keep secret"
    Pre-Go approval: "We will implement an open and extensible framework"
    Post release: "That only works with our own patented extension technology"

    Pre-election: "We will dramatically and aggressively reduce the national debt."
    Post election: "Over the next twenty five years"
    Pre-Go approval: "We will dramatically and aggressively reduce the release bug count"
    Post release: "In the next version"

    Pre-election: "We will implement fast broadband Internet connections for all"
    Post election: "Obviously this does not include the 15% who live in the countryside"
    Pre-Go approval: "We will implement robust algorithms to ensure the consistency of your data"
    Post release: "The good news is that only 15% of your data is corrupted"

    Pre-election: "We will focus on improving health care for all"
    Post election: "Obviously this doesn't apply to people who are already ill"
    Pre-Go approval: "We will focus on improving the performance of our application"
    Post release: "Obviously this doesn't apply if you have less that 32GB of RAM"

    Pre-this post: "I will take the time to make this the best post I've ever written"
    Post this post: "There was good stuff on TV"

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    How Broad Is Your Band?

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    I'm glad I'm not a doctor or a dentist. They say that, if you are, every conversation you have with people who know you starts with a description of the pains in their feet, or asking for advice on which tooth-whitening product is the best. It's bad enough with the business I'm in - once people find out I work for Microsoft I can pretty much predict how long it will be before the conversation comes round to a moan about Windows crashing, advice on getting rid of a virus, help fixing their CD-ROM drive, or a discussion on how they get their favourite photos back after their hard drive died.

    But worst of all - the ones I really dread - are the broadband questions. "Which is the best broadband supplier (that charges the least per month)". Or ... "Fred next door says he gets twice the speed from his connection after he installed a program called xxxxx". And, of course, "Why does my connection keep dropping just as I get to the page where I click Place Order and I have to go back and do it all again?"

    In fact, I had just this conversation the other week with a friend who seems to think I can remotely diagnose the problem while we are all sitting in a restaurant eating dinner. Mind you, I suspect it might be something to do with the fact that his semi-detached neighbour also has a wireless router from the same company and, as the telephone sockets in the two houses are located in the same place next to the stairs and only separated by a party wall, it's just possible that they might be interfering with each other. Besides that, everyone and their dog seem to have wireless broadband routers in their street, and insist on running them on full power, so it's amazing that anyone can actually connect at all. I did think about suggesting he did a deal with his neighbour and they shared the connection. But that probably violates some condition of the agreement with the phone company.

    Mind you, he called me today to tell me that he has changed his broadband supplier, and everything is working wonderfully now. And they only charge nine pounds a month compared to the previous supplier who was charging fifteen. And, best of all, the new supplier actually gave him four months free because he had to pay the remainder of the rental for the contract term with his old supplier to be able to switch. That works out at six pounds a month average for the year. How on earth can his new supplier make any money out of that? Is it so hard to get business now that companies have to almost give stuff away? I wonder what kind of technical support he's likely to get. And then, amazingly, the original supplier actually came back to him with an offer to reduce their price to stay with them!

    Here in England, we keep getting promised high speed broadband (which they define as "at least 2MB") available to everyone so that the Government can close down all their offices and call centres, and just communicate with the great unwashed online. They even considered adding a tax onto fixed phone lines to pay for it. So it was interesting to read last week about a guy who was quoted 57,000 pounds to have broadband installed in his remote cottage. Mind you, the phone company did point out that they were being extremely generous in that they would pay the first 8,000 pounds, and just charge him the remainder.

    Meanwhile, almost everyone I know also moans about the speed of their connection. They paid for "up to 8MB broadband", yet the Web pages and emails trickle in at one and a bit meg on a good day. I suppose its enlightening to see that the Advertising Standards Authority are trying to make broadband suppliers tell the truth in their ads, but it seems like they (the ASA) might as well be banging their head against the wall. Though they did recently win a case against the company who were advertising their 512KB service as "full speed broadband". And, as the FCC define broadband as being an "always on" service, I wonder if I can claim for the seventeen hours that my service was not "on" due to a major failure at the local exchange?

    It pains me to compare the cheap deals with the amount I pay each month for a dual failover connection via ADSL and cable - though it would be rather difficult to actually do my job without connectivity. Any maybe I'm just a born pessimist, but I can't help thinking that you only get what you pay for in this life. My experience with cheap computers has proved this time after time. I've discovered that buying well-known brands means I generally end up getting rid of machines to a worthy cause that are still working simply because they are too old to run the latest software or support the peripherals I need for my work - and not because they've given up the ghost and need a new motherboard, hard drive, or power supply.

    Yet almost every time I get asked for advice about buying a new machine, the advicee listens politely and then gleefully phones me a week later to say they bought a wonderful new computer from the local supermarket or some back street dealer at half the price. And then, a few months later, phone again to ask me why the light doesn't some on when they press the button, or if I know what the message "Cannot find NTLDR" means...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Recovering Old Memories

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    There's an ongoing discussion about how we, as a society, should be archiving our heritage to make it available to future generations; that is, if global warming, financial crises, and energy shortages don't finish us off before then. I suppose, for most people, the main focus for domestic memory archiving is all about video, still photos, and music. One of the topics that regularly surfaces is whether a digital format is better, or the old-fashioned "hard copy" approach.

    The argument seems to centre on whether we'll actually be able to access the archived data once the storage or encoding format is replaced by newer technologies. Will we still be able to read CD-ROMs when even Blu-Ray becomes a legacy format? Will data on a USB drive still be readable in 50 years time? Will there be viewers or converters for JPEG, MPEG, WMV, and WMA? Or should everything be stored in RAW format?

    In one respect, I can maintain the integrity of the digital files simply through the fact that the entire folder trees of our videos, photos, and music on my servers are regularly backed up, and moved as I upgrade machines. So I always have reasonably fresh copies on several disks and CD-ROMs. And I assume, based on the fact that you can still get conversion programs for very old picture formats, I'll be able to convert at least the photos to any new formats that come along.

    However, I recently got drawn into the quandary of how to actually preserve old materials rather by chance. It started from conversations with two of my colleagues. One is an avid aircraft fan, and the other a railways enthusiast. As I fit quite neatly into both categories, I thought I'd collect together some of my better old photos from both worlds and pass them across for perusal. Of course, the actual prints are now well dog-eared or lost, but I discovered that my Epson flatbed scanner has a film attachment - and so I set to scanning the original negatives with the idea that this would produce first-class reproductions of the originals and allow me to preserve them for the future. And also view them more easily any time we like on our Media Center with just a few wafts of the remote control.

    So it was with horror that I discovered both the degraded state of the original negatives and slides, and the lack of quality from the old cameras that I used over the years to take the photos. Even a borrowed semi-professional film scanner (the PlusTek 7600i) struggled to produce anything even remotely close to the quality of a cheap modern digital camera. Weird color shifts, graininess, scratches, ingrained dust, and general fading resulted in something that my more resembles the results from my rather aging 1 megapixel camera phone.

    Each photo requires considerable tuning with an image editor to get something even remotely acceptable. But at least I discovered a good use for the Paint Shop Pro Photo program I was grumbling about in a previous blog post. It's amazing what the digital noise reduction filter, color balance adjustment, sharpness, and other effects can produce from an only half-recognizable image.

    Of course, it takes ages to scan, sort, and edit the packets of negatives that go back over a considerable number of years. Thankfully, I'd labeled each set with the location and date, and it is wonderful to see them again after so many years. Definitely a good excuse for an evening reminiscing, wondering where that youthful figure and lack of gray hair went, and marvelling at the interesting sense of fashion we seemed to have in those days. And how we managed to cope with trans-Atlantic travel to conferences and meetings in Redmond, Florida (twice), Palm Springs, and Las Vegas all in in one year. Maybe that's the problem - I'm still suffering from jet-lag.

    So far, I'm only around half-way through the stack of negatives, and itching to get started on the boxes of slides. Though I've managed to restore some amazing aircraft photos that go way back to 1986 and 1987 - especially some of the NATO Tactical Fighter Meet held at RAF Waddington, and the air show there the following year. So at least I have something to keep one of my colleagues happy for an hour or so. Here's some samples:

    NATO Fighter Meet 1986, RAF Waddington

    NATO Fighter Meet 1986, RAF Waddington

    Lancaster Waddington Air Show 1987

    I'll post some for railway enthusiasts in a few weeks time, after I investigate the large box full of slides...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Drowning in Vagueness, Maybe

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    Life was a lot more positive when my grandfather was alive. If he felt ill, he simply had to pop into the local pharmacy, explain his symptoms, and they would sell him a bottle of liquid or a box of pills that were guaranteed to cure him. No prevarication or hint of doubt. The bottle or box would say that "Mr. Smith's Patent Stomach Medicine is guaranteed to cure wind, bloat, queasiness, cramps, and sickness". It probably even cured baldness if you rubbed it on your head, and was also useful for removing boy scouts from horse's hooves.

    Compare that to today. I bought a raincoat a while ago, but the label inside studiously avoids saying that it is waterproof. The material is only "water resistant". So if I end up wetter than a white water rafter next time we get a few faint spots of rain, I can't blame them. Likewise, my wrist watch is not longer "shockproof", just "designed to minimize damage from accidental contact with other objects". I wonder if bulletproof vests are now advertised as being "useful in minimizing critical injury from fast-moving projectiles". And, of course, my anti-virus software will only "help to protect me against malware". Like it will just pop up little windows full of soothing phrases the next time I get hit by some virus attack. How long do you reckon it will be before the File menu in my word processor program contains "Attempt to Save (with no guarantee of success in case of write protected files or disk errors)".

    And, of course, everything now has to carry more warnings and explanations than it does positive encouragement. Unlike Mr. Smith's medicine, whose packaging happily omitted to mention the fact that it contained arsenic and might make you go blind, almost anything you buy these days seems to be adorned with reams of warnings and get-out clauses almost to the extent of putting you off actually using the product at all. All due, no doubt, to our society's constant drive for "Elf and Safety".

    A typical example is when you see a TV advert for a new car. Some impossibly handsome young man drives through country lanes at 90 miles per hour, magically reappears in an Amazonian rain forest, does a couple of turns around the Sahara, and then is seen screeching to a halt inches from the end of the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the caption on the screen says "Professional driver on closed circuit - do not attempt"... just in case you decide to go out and buy one, and try this yourself. But imagine what it would be like if the motor car had only been invented last week, and they were now trying to sell it. The advert would go something like:

    Now available, a wonderful new way to travel! Faster than any horse and cart, smoother than any stagecoach! More relaxing than any armchair! Now you can go wherever you want, whenever you want, and arrive in style!

    Then, below the glorious full color picture, would be the small print:

    Note: Driving at speed incurs considerable risk. May not always be faster than a horse and cart, depending on local surface conditions. Ride may be less comfortable than advertised. Does not imply that you will find the experience relaxing. Driving may be a considerable source of stress, resulting in a heart attack, mental disorder, and premature death. Does not imply that all routes are available for travel or that all destinations are available. There may be limitations on the time of travel depending on weather and road conditions. May frighten livestock. Requires considerable maintenance and will regularly require expensive spare parts. Cost may impact your credit rating. Ask your doctor if driving is right for you.

    I don't know about you, but staying with a horse and cart sounds like a lot better idea to me. And just think what the list of warnings would look like if you had just invented the PC...

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