Friday, October 30, 2009

ICANN will allow domain names with non-Latin characters


ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) will allow Internet addresses to be spelled with non-Latin (that is, English and Roman alphabet, as in most Indo-European languages) characters, starting in the middle of 2010. The New York Times story is by Choe Sang-Hun, “Internet Addresses Can Use New Scripts”, web URL link here. For example, domain names with Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Japanese or Korean characters will exist.

ICANN has a video on the announcement on its website and a PDF position paper on how it will implement the change (to the process for developing and submitting an “IDN ccTLD” here.

ICANN also displays an “Affirmation of Commitments by the United States Department of Commerce and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The IT market: the Darwinian workplace and hyperindividualism: is the pendulum swining back?


Well, do we still have a Darwinian (or Spencerian) workplace today, given the recession, with workers lowballing each other to keep their jobs? Or will employers have to become kinder and gentler, given the needs of communities as a whole?

It's true, that some of us took hyperindividualism to an extreme and actually benefited from the changes that led to offshoring of old jobs on the one hand and new opportunities for self-promotion (on the Internet) on the other. Now the pendulum swings back, as we become concerned with "systemic risks" and the need to pay attention to sustainability of whole communities, not just individuals.

We see this problem with the presenteeism debate. Twenty years ago, in some shops, employers tended to punish employees for taking legitimate sick days. With salaried employees it was, get your job done or else. Today that may be counterproductive, as sick employees (with H1N1) can cause more absences, although that may change if the vaccine supply improves. HR people are looking more closely at abuse if exempt people, as are lawyers. And the same goes for “background investigations” based on what people post on the Internet. Although everyone was talking about this two years ago, now lawyers warn that this can lead to discrimination claims.

Despite the economy, this may be a good time for younger IT workers who developed the right skills in high school and college. Compared to how things were when I came of age in the mainframe IBM and Univac world of the 1970s, today’s market requires much more mental agility and non-linear learning. IT, “created by the kids”, is changing who we are, and how are brains work. The irony it is that IT was born out of individualism and a desire to become mentally self-sufficient, but social networking is bringing us back together.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On-call responsibilities still provoke workplace controversy, and sometimes litigation risk


Workforce has an important issue on a testy topic in the I.T. world (as well as medical world, as discussed here), being “on call”.

Yes, employers can require salaried, exempt employees to be on-call and not compensate them for the time, unless it provides major intrusion into the use of the employee’s own time. Geographical restrictions on the employee’s whereabouts could be an issue, and forbidding employees to trade onccall time could also be risky. In some shops, some employees with family responsibility (after pregnancy, for example) will not be able to perform these duties, leading to resentment among other employees (especially single or childless or even LGBT) who must pick up the slack without being compensated. (This gets into Phillip Longman’s concerns about “social contract” and childlessness.) Yet, there are “exceptions”: some people with several kids still do more than their share of the oncall “sacrifice”.

Of course, a weak ecnomomy, and the possibility that and employer can offshore work more cheaply, can make salaried workers feel intimidated and willing to "sacrifice" or "work for free" or even lowball other employees (those with more family responsibility at home) to keep a job. It's easy to imagine how this could lead to discrimination or EEOC complaints. No wonder unions push "solidarity".

Contracting companies are often paid by the hour, but some contractors are paid salaries (corp-to-corp) by staffing companies, whereas others are paid W-2 and can charge for overtime (usually straight time), including taking calls.

Even some federal IT jobs at USAJobs warn applicants that on-call is sometimes required.

The shop that I worked in Dallas in the 1980s (Chilton Credit Reporting, now Experian after a couple of mergers) had an arrangement where you were always strictly responsible at night for your own system (in my case, daily and monthly billing, COBOL and ALC systems). So these sorts of tensions never arose. I was able to keep the system reliable and stable enough that in general there were few problems. (There was a bizarre problem one time when not everything got billed because of the way ALC halfword boundaries work after another programmer had done some maintenance; I still recall this 1986 incident!)

The Workforce article is titled “On-Call Disputes Create Litigation Dangers”, link here.

Workforce also has an article of litigation regarding workers being forced to work through meal breaks, here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

It's not a plane: it's a computer, it's an echocardiogram!


Last week, I had the “privilege” of watching part of an echocardiogram. The room was darkened, and the “PC” lit up, with all the keyboard keys and additional buttons, more or less matching electrocardiographic leads, lit up in garish orange. I kept thinking how much medicine has come down to “playing with computers” or devices that are like video games. Appeals to kids, doesn’t it.

I don’t mean to belittle the jobs of medical technicians. Actually, the jobs involve both technology (basically appealing to workers brought up to be computer literate and to enjoy working with computers) and people, in this case, placing a few stickers on the person, applying a gel and passing the transducer wand, and creating the “Youtube-like” video images of the function of various portions of the heart.

Jobs in medical technology require a people-sensitivity that ordinary technology jobs don’t. It’s an important thing to bear in mind in looking at the new job market, where personal medicine and nursing is something you can’t offshore.

Here is a UC Television video on the topic.


Attribution link for Wikipedia p.d. image of an echocardiogram.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Windows 7 available Thursday Oct. 22: it's official


Windows 7 was officially released as available Oct. 22, 2009. Microsoft advises Vista and XP users to run a “Windows 7 adviser” to make sure that their systems are compatible, link here. Visitors will also want to follow MSDN’s blog ("Engineering Windows 7") here.

Some users have been playing with Windows 7 since it was leaked through BitTorrent in December 2008.

The October 22 date had been confirmed as far back as June 2, as with this story in PC World.

Amazon sells Windows 7 upgrade for $119. The upgrade requires a PC-like machine running XP or Vista and it should pass Microsoft’s Upgrade Adviser, above. Other users require a full version. It’s not clear if the MacIntosh will eventually be able to run Windows 7 emulation the way it runs XP emulation now. Some users, as those who want to edit video, will need to purchase an additional package called Windows Live Essentials (wiki link here).

Some consumers may have maintenance contracts with sellers offering them free upgrades to Windows 7. Best Buy offered this with some laptop sales this year.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Recruiters and employers should be careful with conventional background checks (as well as hidden BI's on social networking sites)


Workforce Management has advised its subscribers of another trend in employer background checks. Recall that back in September it had advised recruiters against careless use of social networking sites for “background checks.” It also advises against misuse of conventional background information, including credit scores. The link for the story by Fay Hsnsen (which it advised its subscribers by email Oct. 22) is here.

Some employers still do regular drug screenings and credit checks. It is important that employers don’t use these in a way as to cause as disparate impact related to a suspect class. It’s also important that the screenings be legitimately related to a genuine security concern. (For example, it would never be acceptable to day to examine an associate’s sexual orientation.)

The article discusses a company called “Hire Right”, which has many white papers and services, with this link summarizing what the company checks applicants for.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Do prolific bloggers face "online reputation" issues when job hunting?


How does blogging in volume (as opposed to use of social networking sites) affect the “online reputation” of job applicants in HR?

Because publishing, as opposed to “meeting people”, is seen as a “fame-seeking” activity, the4 psychological impact may be more challenging. What I wonder about particularly is when a staffing company hires an information technology professional to send to a client, and the possibility exists that the client as well as the HR company can surf the web with search engines for what the applicant or contractor (after starting work) does online at home.

It is common for bloggers to discuss nettlesome incidents (especially “political” problems in offices) that have happened at past workplaces. Most of us know that ranting about the boss (or about the employer as a whole) online can get you fired (go to the Feb. 26 2002 archive entry at “dooce.com” and read about how Heather Armstrong’s experience invented the verb “to dooce” -- and by the way, I'm surprised if Heather was eligible for unemployment!). But the problem can be more subtle. If a client found a lot of material about past workplaces, the client could become concerned that at some unspecified time in the future the contractor will write about the client. (This sounds to me like the “logic” behind the “propensity” concept of the “rebuttable presumption” clause of the federal law known as “don’t ask don’t tell” regarding gays in the military.)

I know that I am “guilty” – in retirement, although I might go back to work soon, maybe in a different kind of environment (more about that later). But generally I don’t identify a company unless the work environment in which I performed has long since changed radically because of changing business conditions (mostly because of mergers and acquisitions or major downsizings or offshorings). And I don’t “name names” of people. This sort of problem could occur with other situations, like the delivery of medical or nursing care (as I’ve discussed on my main blog).

The other rub with clients might be a tendency (“propensity”) to talk about controversial political issues in an unsupervised (without third party due diligence) blogging environment. If the issues (even when presented as abstract "ideology") are really sensitive (say, affirmative action, or some of the nettlesome “personal responsibility” arguments being made in today’s health care reform debate), and particularly is the issues are connected to historical personal narratives, a client could fear a legally significant “hostile workplace” element developing, especially if the contractor managed employees of the client (which happens a lot in practice). The client might fear that the posts had no real purpose other than to snicker or communicate some level of contempt for certain persons.

I wonder what experiences IT pros have seen with this issue. I really haven’t seen a blog or video posting on Tech Republic about it yet. What's the solution? The HR and Staffing World needs to develop detailed "business privacy" agreements that work prospectively, for openers. And Staffing companies and clients do need to develop blogging policies.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Watch your Blackberry's "back": it's is a magnet


I noticed this morning that the Blackberry device (even outside the holster) is magnetic. The top portion on the back will hold a paper clip (it happened by accident). I did find a link on the web about the “magnetic holster”. Only the upper back is magnetic; the front portion is not. Actually, I'm surprised that the paper clipp got magnetized; sounds like a middle school science experiment.

Does this mean it could be harmful if next to a laptop or PC in order to use Verizon Wireless? I haven’t noticed any problems. But I always thought you should keep anything magnetic away from a PC.

Likewise, I’ve wondered if driving right past power stations (or along major high tension power lines) could harm a laptop in a car. I’ve done it many times and it’s never hurt anything.

Any feedback on this?

Even the President’s Blackberry is a magnet, probably.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Windows Vista Home Edition hangs when installing updates, which apparently are miscounted; have others seen this problem today?


Today, when I tried to shut off my Dell XPS with Microsoft Windows Vista Home Edition (purchased Ju,y 2009) the system applied nine automatic updates, and then hung with “Please do not turn off or power off the computer; installing automatic updates” or words to that effect, while applying the 9th of 15 updates.

After over an hour, I powered off the machine, and rebooted. Dell run a couple of registry repair scripts automatically, and after thirty seconds of that, the boot process resumed and the “registry” of the updates (3 steps) went normally. I checked Windows Update Center and found nine updates installed successfully (the last one was a .NET update which may have been rather large). There were no important updates to install. There was optional update available. I don’t know why Microsoft thought there were 15 updates during the shut-down process when all the evidence says there were only nine.

This problem may happen today with Home Vista users. It might not happen on networked machines as in a corporate office.

I don't think this is related to the Dell-imaged Recovery Space being low.

Has anyone else seen this problem recently?

Update: Oct. 29

If you witness the update prompt and use it to restart the computer immediately, it seems that this does not happen. But during the "Shutting Down" phase of the restart, the computer appears to be doing the installs; that can take up to 45 minutes in some cases. Thwe update procedure in Vista still takes too much time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Should IT consultants warranty their work forever?


Chip Camden has an interesting Tech Republic article Monday Oct. 12, concerning “Should IT consultants provide warranties?” (web URL link here).

After all, in the old salaried workplace, you stayed at your job until you got it perfect.

Consulting, however, follows the mantra “under promise, over perform”. He makes up a theoretical example of a (java) utility class, that only a few years down the road is used in a multi-thread environment and experiences thread death. A consultant can never pin down exactly what the client will do after he leaves.

But a consultant should fix for free any problem that is clearly his “fault.”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cisco innovations, offering server-like features to routers, could help create jobs


The New York Times Bits Blog on Monday, Oct. 12 has an interesting piece “Making Routers Act like Servers”, link here. The online story by Alshee Vance is “Cisco teaches routers to act like servers” and as correction to note that the product uses low-power PC chips.

Cisco has developed a feature called AXP, or Application Extension Platform, which adds some firmware to the router which invites programmers or developers to develop tasks normally taken on by servers.

This could provide a source of new jobs.

It’s not as clear how this could affect the stability of networks, when router failures, for example, cause some Internet sites available at home to be unreachable for a while.

Attribution link for Wikimedia picture of Cisco router.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Should employers maintain absolute bans on cell phones at work?


Here’s another good one: a total cell phone ban at work. Although it’s understandable that someone in customer support should not respond to personal calls (or make personal calls), it sounds as though an employee ought to be able to have a phone in vibrator mode to respond to family emergencies. I can recall an episode of the WB show “Seventh Heaven” where an intern in the operating room did not know how to turn off his cell phone!

The article appeared in the Jobs section of the Washington Post on Sunday Oct. 11, but Lily Garcia has a “how to deal” article from Sept. 17, 2009, “issues arising from a cell phone ban at work,” link here.

Friday, October 09, 2009

More attention given to abuse of "exempt" IT contractors and employees


Toni Bowers has an important article on Tech Republic (on October 7), “Why programmers are not subject to protective labor laws,” website URL link here.

She, along with Justin James, argues that programmers should be covered. The article gives several reasons for what the authors see as abusive and probably illegal labor practices by contracting companies, including H1-B visa mills or “puppy mills”, along with psychological pressure related to competitive pressures from overseas markets. In the past, there was a cultural issue because programmers were seen as introverts who did not belong to the “real world” and should “pay their dues.”

Hopefully the political climate under the current administration will improve and programmers will be better off.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

DOJ looks at IBM "monopoly" on mainframe side (it's been going on since the 1970s)


Here’s a good story for mainframe programmers: Cecilia Kang has a brief "Post Tech" story, “DOJ Probes IBM on Mainframe Monopoly,” in The Washington Post online Oct. 8, link here.

The article says that there is an issue with IBM’s refusal to license its mainframe MVS or OS/390 to run on competing hardware. In the past, however, MVS has run on Amdahl and Hitachi mainframes.

Around 1970, IBM had mainframe competition from Sperry Univac (where I worked 1972-1974), Burroughs, CDC, and NCR, as well as RCA (where I started my “career” in 1970, which emulated much of IBM’s DOS). Univac lasted the longest, but gradually these all fell (today Unisys, still in good old Blue Bell, PA, is a contractor company). Later smaller mainframes like VAX and Data General came along, and Univac emulated IBM DOS mainframes with small reduce instruction set minis in the 1970s. IBM also had the Silverlake and AS400 machines (at one time particularly popular with mortgage applications) in the 70s and 80s.

IBM so dominated the mainframe market that programmers needed to switch from other manufacturers to IBM, and them aim for IBM-specific software expertise in areas like IMS-DB/DC, CICS, and only later DB2. IBM usually used EBCDIC instead of Octal or Ascii (check this comparison site).

IBM introduced its "360 architecture" in the 1960s, and Ross Perot took it up almost immediately when he formed EDS. IBM also had earlier computers like the 7090, which the military used a lot (like the David Taylor Model Basin, where I had summer jobs in the 1960s).

Picture: Older mainframes at the NASA Udvar-Hazy Chantilly VA museum.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Windows 7 will offer Problem Steps Recorder, could revolutionize tech support jobs; many other benes


Bill Detwiler has a video today “5 Features that will make you love Windows 7” (link here). For some of them, it’s about time. The features include allowing you to create a system restore CD yourself along with much better control of system backup options (apparently not dependent on the manufacturer’s imaging of the main hard drive – solving the out-of-space problem); the ability to make an ISO CD; easy-to-learn Unix-like scripts from the command prompt (the “Power Shell”); a Problem Steps Recorder (PSR).

The PSR will be very helpful in help desks, of systems engineers or programmers who must take calls of “bugs” from users. The PSR allows the user to enter a simple command and then reproduce the problem. The engineer can analyze a log of the commands entered. Some of this technique for problem solving is common today (support people often look at Unix or Linux logs to analyze user freezes or failures or incorrect results).

Many people who bought computers recently have contracts that allow free installation of Windows 7 in January 2010. It does sound as though Windows 7 solves many of the problems slowing down Vista users, and that corporate IT support departments (even customer service departments in ISP’s and cable companies) will find the PSR a tool to resolve many kinds of problems much more quickly; but end users will have to be trained to use it, too. These features could change the nature of IT and customer service support help desk jobs in the future.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

"As the World Turns": my own focus on my workplace could make me obsolete


Ever notice how a workplace becomes a “world” or a universe. The arcane ways of doing things in your own shop generate controversies, exercises in pickiness and second-guessing, both technically and in terms of office politics.

I can remember all kinds of things that were issues in their day: leaving “DISPLAYS” for safe sleeping in programs even in production, the use of packed unsigned numbers in ALC programs, the proper use of automatic integrity checking in elevation procedures, all the way to the wisdom of using a replication and midtier design to combine the results of various legacy applications for end users at one customer service center.

On the outside, there is only “as the world turns.” Technology marches on, leaving behind workers too focused on the arcane intricacies of their own workplaces, making them valuable only as long as their current operations continue. But business models change, and workers have to change.

My own mode of change was to move into self-publishing, and explore all of the sharp-edged controversies that result in a world where “free entry” is the norm and the previous rules of due diligence are suspended, but maybe not for good. But the freedom for me to do so would be my only way to save myself.

I note also that the world is turning away somewhat from jobs based on individual contribution and precision, toward more involvement with people, something that goes back to a presumption that social orders matter again. I did not have to deal with this until "retiring."