Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bank of America: little problem with duplicate descriptions leads to accidental past due

Although on my blogs I don’t “complain” about specific companies much (for reputation reasons), I will go on with another bout of constructive criticism today. The previous post was about Microsoft and maybe NVidia; today it’s about Bank of America.

I have an MBNA Visa and an MBNA Master Card with BOA, and BOA purchased this business from the Delaware MBNA bank about two years ago.

When I make my payments onlne, my checking account detail online shows “MBNA Credit Card” as the payee. It doesn’t say Master or Visa in the description. So, after looking at my payments, if I accidentally go to the wrong payee, I won’t catch it. This happened, as I paid Visa twice, and now see I owe Master card a $39 late fee, and down goes my FICO score.

I’m fixing it to erase the past due, and then when that processes I’ll call them and ask them if they will credit back the $39, as this is partly a system problem.

I could say that if the descriptions come off a relational database and it is properly normalized, this shouldn’t happen.

I have to mention that the “Outgoing Payment Queue” in Bill Pay does name Master or Visa, so it doesn’t use the same descriptions. I don’t know why.

The duplicate description problem is more likely in an arrangement where a company processes legacy data on an IBM mainframe (probably with DB2 and CICS and conventional batch cycles with programs largely in COBOL), and then replicates to a midtier and uses something like a java data analysis layer and a GUI, perhaps in PowerBuilder.

If BOA would fix the duplicate description (for customers who have Master Card and Visa cards), past dues would go down (as mistakes would be caught) and the BOA’s statistics would look better to stock market investors. It’s a little thing, but good IT means paying attention to the little things. It’s in their self-interest to fix the duplicate descriptions promptly.

What you hear about more often is problems around cash advances, with multiple overdraft fees on debit cards.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Windows Vista gets blue screens on device drivers: bad auto update today?

Well, I have my first Windows Vista crash. It took two tries to reboot, and so far the two symptoms are (1) a new message from Dell in IE, and (2) another crash happened as a turned off a camera connected.

So I did the backup and created a restore point, and that all ran OK.

Windows had pushed an update this morning, and the system had been restarted properly, as by directions. The KB updates were 973879, 970653, 972036. On successful restart, the system did generate a crash report and send it to Microsoft automatically.

So far, leaving IE off there have been no more crashes, but I’ve noticed that IE hangs once in a while. And I have a persistent java error in IE.

Spysweeper was clean, except for the usual spy cookies.

Here’s a couple references that I found so far:

Alexander Wolfe of Information Week has “Little Known Recovery Strategies” including the “Complete PC Backup”. He says that Vista Home doesn’t include it, but my copy in 2009 seems to include it. Here is the link.

Here’s a Download Squad report from May 2008 that says that 29% of Vista crashes are caused by Nvidia drivers.

PCStats has a “Beginner’s Guide” to crashes, and it looks like anything but a “Beginner’s Guide”, here.

Later the “problem report” told me it was a “device error” but I didn’t install any devices. It seems to be related to a fix this morning.

Later in the day I learned at Best Buy that Microsoft seems to have released a questionable patch Wednesday. They store had been removing patch files. But it seems that the machine becomes stable if it is shut down normally and then cold-booted.

Here's your typical crash report:Here’s the crash report:

Shut down unexpectedly

8/27/2009 12:51 PM

Not Reported

Problem signature
Problem Event Name: BlueScreen
OS Version: 6.0.6001.
Locale ID: 1033

Files that help describe the problem

Extra information about the problem
BCCode: 1000007e
BCP2: FFFFF80002024B81
BCP3: FFFFFA60017F5798
BCP4: FFFFFA60017F5170
OS Version: 6_0_6001
Service Pack: 1_0
Product: 768_1
Server information: 54aa7cb8-909b-41a1-bbf8-a5a56994921f

Update: August 29, 2009

Microsoft's help screens led me to this solution "harish.kuppm". It's pretty longwinded, but here it is. It's dated late in the day Aug. 28, so it seems that this problem has happened to a lot of Vista users the past few days. Harish writes that the problem comes from a video driver (NVidia?), possibly a wrong version, that leads to this behavior: "The kernel attempted to access pageable memory (or perhaps completely invalid memory) when the IRQL was too high." The problem is a bit like an S0C4 on an IBM mainframe (protected storage), but it's odd that Vista can't trap it and just force the application to abend. This kind of baby stuff used to happen witn Windows ME.

I've seen IE fail a few times, when the help screen says that IE generated a memory exception and had to close (probably in interfacing with the driver). Once it failed on Google's accounts page, but probably had nothing to do with Google. I could restart IE, do the same thing, and everything in Google would work correctly.

I've had two BSOD's when coming back from sleep mode, and other users report this; so I increased the time till sleep mode. A sleep mode problem does sound like nVidia. I also had a problem when disconnecting a camera.

I may walk this over to Best Buy/Geek Squad next week; I'm not sure how to get the right versions of the drivers myself. If someone has another reference, please comment!

Later Aug. 29

Well, I reproduced the BSOD. I closed all browser windows, connected my Samsung digital camera as drive F, and copied a few new images onto C. The instant that I turned off power to the camera, I got the Blue Screen with the same dump and codes. This isolates the problem. That is, since Microsoft pushed an update Thursday morning, I cannot detach a drive.

A couple other anomalies: upon reboot, the boot doesn't finish unless I am connected to the Internet (odd). Then, if I shut down normally, and do a cold boot, the first "good" cold boot, Vista is slow to allow programs to load, but after about a minute starts to work. On successive boots it is quick, as usual.

It also helps to work "simply". When using Word, save it yourself rather than letting it save unnamed documents -- somehow that sets off a driver problem, too.

The other symptom is occasional memory errors from IE -- I don't know if this is part of the same bug.

I do appreciate comments if someone else knows exactly what is going on.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Job interview tips: watch table manners, keep your car clean

NBC Washington today (August 25) aired some job interview tips and a few of them were a bit personal.

Interviewers may try to test an applicant’s behavior with a “gossip test”, to see if they can draw an inappropriate comment. Another is to take the applicant to lunch and observe “table manners” (Emily Post, please), try to see if the applicant uses alcohol on the job (don’t), or orders unhealthful food. Still another trick is to walk with the applicant to his or her car and see if it is clean (inside and out).

The last two steps sound appropriate only for jobs dealing a lot with the public or with clients. I wouldn’t want a job driving clients around and schmoozing and pampering them with my own car and house. I’m too introverted for that.

I remember that when I started interviewing for my own career (around 1969), I would hear comments that companies would nudge you and tell you what kind of car your were expected to drive. I don't think that's true now (even in the auto industry).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Vista's performance: laugh a little, cry a little

For what it’s worth, Vista (on my Dell XPS) has been pretty good about automatically finding drivers on the appropriate vendor’s website (as long as it has a business relationship with Dell and Microsoft) and installing them for new hardware. The A940 printer took a while to find, ask for permission and license, and load; the Iomega zip drive found the right driver at Iomega almost instantly the first time.

I hope that this means the days of keeping cd’s around for drivers “in closets” (pun intended) are over.

Sometimes, if the Comcast Internet connection stalls for ten minutes or so (rather frequent), I find that Internet Explorer hangs and spins, and Windows Vista tries uselessly to fix it.

Believe it or not, I’ve seen people balance check books with adding machines.

And I recall the “slide rule accuracy” of physics tests in the 1950s (attribution link on Wikipedia). Look how far we’ve come since then. Maybe too far.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Redux: did we really have to switch "from" mainframe?

Why was it hard for a lot of mainframe people to make a “switch” to client-server and open systems programming ten or more years ago?

That was the question you always heard.

Actually, if you look at the mainframe jobs today, many of them have open systems components, including direct connect, SQL server, XML, various specific packages, replication. So the switch was never as melodramatic as programmers made it sound.

Nevertheless, one issue stands out: with “procedural programming” the thinking style was more sequential or linear in nature. Client server and OOP programming skills tended to emphasize layered styles of thinking.

People in the late teens and early twenties are still going through the last stages of brain development, called “pruning.” Thinking styles and agility develop then much more readily than late in life. So, for biological reasons, it’s easier to pick up the “hang” of OOP at 18 than it is at 50. (That’s why extreme musical talent must be nurtured early.) That may be one reason why a number of Internet entrepreneurs started out very young indeed, and made innovations out of proportion to their apparent resources. They were just solving “real” problems among their own contemporaries – like how to share music with or network with their friends – that occurred very naturally in their worlds but not those of older people. It’s interesting that one of the guys (Aaron Greenspan) involved with Facebook would found a company called “Think Computer.” By comparison, my own “do ask do tell” innovation was not so much a technical one but a sociological one, ultimately linked to my own personal psychological necessities, in my 50s.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Should application programmers be bonded? Should they have regular production access?

The other day, I was in a conversation about bonded home contractors, and I recall a debate back in the 1990s, over the issue of not allowing application programmers (then in a mainframe environment) update access to production files, without specific access requests. Likewise, elevations were done through change control packages (CA-Librarian, CA-Endeavor, ChangeMan) with specific protocols, so programmers could not ordinarily directly update production source or libraries.

I found this practice, that started to become common in the late 1980s (with packages like Top Secret and RACF) reassuring. Production systems have to process millions of transactions perfectly. There is no possibility of being blamed for causing a problem when the systems are used properly. There were loopholes, such as when IDMS was accessed in batch through the CV (Central Version), or sometimes when Information Expert (Dun and Bradsteet) was invoked. The buzzword for this kind of security was “separation of functions.”

Yet some programmers found all this protocol annoying. Why not simply have all application programmers bonded, one would ask.

I think we were bonded on the New York State Medicaid project in the late 1970s, because we had to be fingerprinted. But nothing was ever made of it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Your work environment can affect your "social responsibility" radar screen

One thing about being “retired” and in my current circumstances is that I have cause to consider how dependent I am (or “we” are) on jobs done by others that I wouldn’t want to do myself. That may sound like all the political “cultural revolution” stuff. Just look at the posting yesterday about the “10 jobs that don’t require much experience.”

When you’re working as an individual contributor in an I.T. shop, you think of your corporate environment as your “world”. That segments your mind a bit if you have outside interests, as I did with my political book publishing during the last four years of my career. But in any corporate environment there are weird and layered office controversies that tend to take up your attention. The idea that the world needs more nurses doesn’t get on your radar screen. That would even become true of subsequent environments in interim jobs, like in the symphony orchestra, the collection agency, and school systems.

Friday, August 14, 2009

North Dakota is exception to the jobs recession; some jobs require little experience

So, "you" need "a job". Just a job. An "interim job".

CareerBuilder and AOL have a story Aug 13 on “10 legitimate jobs that don’t require much experience”, link here. Some of them are familiar: debt collector (maybe $12 an hour with commissions), nursing home attendant. Some of them are less familiar, such as car traffic coordinator.

The on Friday Aug. 14 The Washington Post had a story about a relative jobs boom in North Dakota. The story, by Eli Saslow, is “Road to Recovery: Woman's Path to Work Ends in Rural, and Job-Rich, North Dakota”, web URL link here. She (63 years old) winds up with a telephone support job in Glenfield, ND, population 75, 45 miles from the nearest grocery store.
I worked for ING-ReliaStar until 2001, and it had some operations in Bismarck and later a customer service center in Minot. “God’s country” they said. ("Why not Min-ot?") I visited the Bismarck area once, in 1998.

Can people get cable and wireless in such remote locations yet?

Wikimedia attribution link for picture from downtown Bismarck

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tips on networking: how about online reputation?

Tech Republic and editor Jason Hiner wake us up today with five tips on networking for IT professionals. He says that IT people aren’t known for this, and his presentation includes in-person networking as well as the use of social networking sites.

One important tip is to get involved locally, with volunteering. Another is to ask for introductions.

The link is here.

He doesn’t cover the issue of networking outside IT, into an area of specialty interest. But it’s obvious that some synergies can live there. One might be interested in the technology of film and network with independent film people. Or obviously get involved in mentoring at schools.

He doesn’t get into the topic as to whether it’s harmful to have a shrarp edge because of political materials on the Web. Ten years ago (before social networking sites came along) everyone would have said, that’s “your” business. Now, with so much work clientized, it’s not so clear.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Women for Hire" CEO lays down the ditigal law for jobhunters

On Sunday Aug. 9, Tory Johnson, founder of “Women for Hire” (link ) talked on CNN with Ali Velshi about the dedication job seekers need to show right now.

“Get rid of your digital dirt” she warned. A lot of that is reputation-damaging material online. A couple years ago that was mostly about drugs, underage drinking and nudity; but the concerns are contagious. Employers rightfully worry that sharp-edged blogs and profiles will drive away clients in some businesses. Later she talked about using Linked In and Facebook in an integrated way.

The other big topic that she hit was perfection in resumes. A lot of recruiters will discard a resume with even one typo, she said. Have several pairs of eyes look it over.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Should job seekers blog publicly?

Here’s a good Career Builder article on Dell MSN today (Friday Aug 7), “Why you should blog” (aka "why blogging is good for your career"), from Anthony Balderrama.

The article goes in to the recommended (with reservation, as there still are no “rules” yet) way to provide links to blogs, through Linked In.

The “problem” is that he’s talking about blogs that are narrowly focused, on specific technical topics. I don’t know how well that would work, for example, in the erratic mainframe market, but it’s easy to imagine blogs about how to combine mainframe code with database tools or various client-server reporting or control mechanisms. One could imagine blogs about the intricacies of the Vantage link deck and control modules (on the mainframe -- remember how "Vantage rules the World"?).

I came into blogging in the late 1990s for an entirely different reason – my “outside” political and social interests, which gradually moved “inside”, so I think my post-65 career is going to have to be about the confluence of social media, law and technology – that’s essentially what these 16 blogs are about. The picture that I chose (from my own voyaging) for this post was taken at Colonial Williamsburg, and has at least a vaguely "political" meaning.

It’s also important to remember (on the “Day After” the Twitter and Facebook outages) that social networking and publishing are somewhat differently motivated activities. Social networking can be done somewhat privately, out of sight of most of the planet (even if you have to be careful about how others can sabotage your “reputation” with one loose video), but typically blogs are broadcasts. They’re there, and they’re intended to influence things just by being there. That’s their strength and someday that could become their political demise.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

IT needs more "social engineers" and fewer technologists?

Tom Austin, of Gartner in an article by Kermit Pattison in Fast Company (link), argues that information technology is going to have to focus more on people interactions and less on techie-stuff for its own sake in the future. The link is here. The web page offers an old video interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (then 21) as a bonus: he says that he was too lazy to put Internet access in his studio apartment two blocks from his office (but all you need is wireless).

Jason Hiner summarizes all of this in a video on the Tech Republic blog today (the eye-catching “does IT need more social scientists and fewer technologists?” here. (The video link in the TR email this morning went "dead wire": I found the video with a search.)

Hiner summarizes the three parts of IT (sort of like the eight parts of the Elizabethean theater that you have to know for English lit tests): operations/infrastructure; solutions/project management; end users. Most application programmers work in the second area.

Systems development philosophy thirty years ago talked about “computer procedures” and “manual procedures”, the latter of which were developed by “methods people” (now called "business analysts") with scripted structured English. (Bryce Associates said that any subsystem had to include at least one manual procedure.)

End users have been manipulated by GUI systems, with access to legacy data through “direct connect” or, often enough, through legacy replication cycles that update information daily. But in some cases end user departments want more control of their own processing (at least “workflow management”). Back in the mid 1990s, some users at one company wanted to reproduce the entire mainframe billing and collection environment for a salary deduction system on PC’s with DOS applications (in the days before Windows 95) and Microfocus COBOL, and relatively loose security, in the grand scheme of things. It is in the area of securing processes and data that “people skills” seem so important, as attitudes vary and evolve so much.

Is what Austin calls a "social scientist" really a business analyst?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

After layoffs, many people never get back to former earnings

Michael Luo has a story in the Tuesday Aug. 4, 2009 New York Times, “Years after layoffs, many still struggle to match old salaries,” link here.

The story gives numerous anecdotes of people way behind their previous earnings years after a layoff.

I had a layoff after a year on my first job in February 1971, and took a slight cut when I went to the government. But by 1972 I had surpassed the salary when I went to Univac. In 1981, I took a cut when I left a job where I believed a project would be shut down (it was). But by 1984 I had surpassed the old level. But in December 2001, at age 58, I took retirement with a layoff. For a variety of reasons (discussed elsewhere on the blogs), I worked mostly in interim jobs at much lower income and would like to reinvent myself in solving problems in the law v. technology area (sort of Lawrence Lessig’s idea that “Code is law”).

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Video on troubleshooting Windows XP boot problems available

Bill Detwiler offers a very useful eight-minute video on Tech Republic on how to diagnose Windows XP boot problems, which presumably include slow boot-up, which many users report on the Web. The discussion starts with running MSCONFIG and walking through the many supra-tabs. The utility offers a number of boot options and memory limitations when memory or hardware problems are suspected.

The article also includes a user survey as to experience with user startup in various operating systems. Windows Vista scored low in the survey, but over 50% considered XP to have the best boot process.

Here is the Tech Republic blog link.

I have had some occasional problems in Vista with the system being very slow in allowing the user to start programs; this happens about one out of every ten boots on my Dell XPS 16 laptop.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Yes, job offers get rescinded

CareerBuilder , CNN and Rachel Zupek have an interesting article today on job offer retractions. The teaser line is “You’re hire: just kidding” and the article title is “Six things to do if they take the job offer back”, with link here.

It’s also called “fired before you’re hired” and happens sometimes when staffing firms tell clients that they have jobs from clients, and then the client has “miscommunicated” and suddenly says it still has a freeze.

This happened to me after an interview on September 11, 2002 near Minneapolis. The hiring manager had said “he tried too hard” but was going to hire me, but then we learned that she didn’t have an authorization to go outside for mainframe COBOL and DB2 programmers at all. I’ll decline to name the companies (staffing or client) – you never know, I could have an interview again with one or both of them some day.

The job seeker may have few legal resources because of "employment at will" in most states. The article encourages people to keep looking when they have offers until they actually start their new jobs. I haven't done that.

Picture: unrelated, but there is an interesting tunnel on the Colonial Parkway near Williamsburg, almost like a PA turnpike tunnel.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Will society always need geeks? Your future boss may be a geek

“Will society always need us geeks?” That’s a Tech Support blog entry by Bill Detwiler Jul 31, 2009. The entry is here. The entry has an embedded 60 Minutes video (Steve Croft reporting), 12 minutes long, about the Geek Squad, where the black tie agent uniform imparts some humility.

But consumer items have become cheaper, and more user friendly, and that suggests that eventually there will be less need for customer service engineers. However, the video indicates that some tech items, such as high definition television, designed overseas by engineers, are often very difficult for novices to set up. Competitive pressures have forced overseas companies to come up with even more “innovations” that may get past consumers. Some refrigerators even need Internet or wireless connections.

The video concludes with the comment “Geeks may inherit the Earth, but they have no desire to rule it.”

When I was substitute teaching, an English teacher had a sign in his room, "some day your boss will be a geek." I think it came from tips from Bill Gates.