Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Windows vista weirdness: what happens when you (just) want to replace a Dell ink cartridge

More weird stuff happens on my Vista machine. Last night, for the third time, Webroot prompted me to increase my backup space, but kept saying that the selected backup set was too big, even after Restart, and even when the actual set is only 5 G and the allowance according to the purchased spaces is 35G. Maybe I have to give it more time –will get back to it.

But the main oddity occurred when I tried to order my Dell A940 replacement ink cartridge. The printer is obsolete (I think it’s A944 now) but the cartridges are still available. The printer used to be hooked up to the older Dell XP desktop. Now it’s connected to the Vista laptop quasi desktop, with auto-install of drivers, etc. But when I try the link to order, I get a message from Google Chrome saying it cannot create a required directory. I get it even if I close all Chrome pages, and in fact Internet Explorer is still the default browser. Weird! Webroot antivirus, just run, finds no problems. Suddenly, guess what, I get another notice from Vista that it wants me to install the latest security updates. Oh, well.

I ordered it from Dell's website, and for the first time ever a commercial website told me that it had to standardize my mailing address into "Code 1" format (putting box number on the same line as street"), a concept I had become familiar with in 1998 when I worked on NCOA (National Change of Address) with Group-1 software, and with clientization.

Stay tuned. There’s more to look into.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How good is the "open source" Open Office advertised with java updates?

Today Sun updated my Vista computer with a new version of Java (Webroot complained about one step, but it seemed to be a false alarm). The applet did not show in Mozilla until I restarted the machine (I shouldn’t have needed to) but what was really interesting (to me) was that Sun displayed an “ad” for Open Office as a free “open source” and essentially “creative commons license” for use (loosely borrowing from EFF’s suggestion) of the word processing, spreadsheets, and some databases. The word processor is supposed to be able to save PDF documents.

The main link is here.

I haven’t tried it yet. Is that what a co-worker called “an astonishing lack of curiosity” back in 1999? I don’t download new things onto my system quickly, but I may try it soon. I wonder how other users have found it to work.

The product would be useful to people with multiple computers, for example laptops (or probably notebooks) for travel. No longer would you need multiple-computer licenses or separately licensed copies.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Recalling a "legendary" mainframe IDMS project: how it took so much to do so little (1991)

It’s good for me to review my own IT career “mentally”, and back in 1991 I completed one particular mainframe project that seemed legendary at the time (as in the spirit of the name of Eduard Tubin’s Second Symphony) but would seem trivial today.

This regarded a salary deduction billing system for a life insurance company. The home-written system was called EPIX (P meant payroll) and was written in COBOL with IDMS, but the IDMS ran with the VSAM transparency. The project consisted of taking all the reports that got mailed to client companies, stacking them onto an IDMS database (but actually a VSAM file), and laser printing them in a certain format that made it possible for one clerk to get them all mailed in one business day. A year before we had done something similar with commission systems with just sequential files.

Typically, about 100 bills ran every business day, and what we found was that the IO on the print-image “database” was very slow. One large bill with 26000 print-images would take almost 2 clock hours to run in the print step, while clocking few excp’s. The machine was a Hitachi clone of IBM (3090 something then) . A hardware change made it a bit better in a few months. But the throughput of all the jobs simply improved gradually over the years with technology. When the shop was lifted to Minneapolis after a corporate merger, it got so all 100 bills could run in about an hour in the early morning, including the random-IO VSAM stack. But in the early days there was the practical risk of following seriously behind if there was ever a mishap. So I had to watch things closely. It became compulsive and a kind of "gratification", like a blogger watching his statistics today.

Although the bills could run multi-thread according to the VSAM SHR options, there seem to be occaisonal problems with "unexplained errors", causing the last step to be rerun (part of the database would have to be restored). 

In the same shop we had the issue of transmitting bills electronically. In those days there were products like TRACS and Super-TRACS, mainframe system to system. Nobody was thinking about the Internet yet or downloads or anything that resembles the way most consumers today get regular software updates (from Microsoft, Adobe, anti-virus companies, and the like). How times have changed.

Ironically (for me), the acronym “EPIX” would actually get to be the subject of a trademark and domain name fight, totally unrelated to this company or project. See my trademark blog entry April 14, 2008.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Compose" and "Edit" modes: what will end users think these terms mean

Yesterday, I discussed the change in Blogger, and now have gotten it to work with the new panels. But there’s something interesting: If you go to “create post” you may wind up in Edit mode if that’s where you were before.

“Compose” mode sounds like it was intended for original key entry of text. But you can copy from Word into it – but Blogger, or Vista, will ask for permission.

The “moral of the story” is reserved for systems analysts. When designing user-interfaces, the terminology chosen may make the end user believe some other purpose is intended, and a user may think that a product or a change is not working properly when actually it is.

Bear this in mind for interviews.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

There are multiple ways to upload pictures into a blog: Picasa itself is pretty effective in my view; also a workplace "machine dream"

From Bill on the Information Technology job market

I had written about managing blogs as a part of an integrated web presence and connecting them through hosting service providers that specialize in blogs (especially in Wordpress) on March 11.

Yesterday afternoon (March 24), I noticed that suddenly my Blogger upload button disappeared from the toolbar. I noticed problems in the Help Forums “Something is Broken” section referring to issues for Blogger in Draft, but mine issue occurred with both versions. I had signed up for Amazon Associates on my Book Review blog and that worked fine, about an hour before I noticed this change.

I found a problem in a Vista environment with IE-8 (Security with Webroot Spysweeper), and in a Windows XP Home environment with Chrome (security with Kaspersky).

I found a workaround. Go to Picasa, upload the picture there directly (it required allowing Active X to run, the giving permission to Vista security to install an ap), follow the steps carefully, look for “links” on the right after bringing up the picture, and selecting the embed code (chose “medium” 400 px) and pasting the embed into the blogger text. It worked fine. It does give an extra link to your Picasa album; maybe a stray visitor would actually look at the entire album.

All in all, it’s not much more work than the “upload”. I didn’t see anyone else document this on the Help Forums, so I will shortly.

It’s a good idea to add a caption to the Picas picture – particularly on a movie review blog, so the copyright folks know the picture is yours and didn’t come from an illegal screen shot in the movie (particularly with movies shot in very public locations, like around Washington DC monuments). And, by the way, those 10 megapixel digital cameras get cheaper all the time (at Best Buy, Radio Shack, etc).

One other thing. “I had a dream” last night – and I want to “capture” it – something about setting up DB2 tables temporarily in a project for a “workaround” and then “dropping” the tables later. I don’t remember actually doing this at work. What I do remember is being expected to be resourceful and curious enough on one’s own to work around something.

Update: Someone posted an answer in the Help Forums. See comments below. But doing the Upload with Picasa seems to work and may be a workaround when the Upload breaks, as it sometimes does. Also, I get spurious Windows Data Exception protection errors from other sites that are open, probably an IE-8 bug under Vista (not on Chrome or Mozilla); this can't happen when doing it in Picasa.

Update 2:

I tried Compose mode on the movies blog later today and everything worked. You can "edit" in "compose more. If you click "new blog" you will stay in edit mode until you change modes manually. More discussion tomorrow on the "philosophy" of communicating changes to users in the workplace.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why would Vista hang during start-up?

Last night, my Dell XPS laptop with Vista (Home) hung once during bootup. The musical signature did not play as Vista started, and the circular cursor stopped spinning after the icons on the desktop loaded. The PC frooze. On de-powering and repressing power, I got the question on a bad previous shutdown from the Bios screen, and the restart was normal.

I’ve noticed that in different boots, different events occur in random order. Sometimes Webroot starts first, sometimes its Microsoft messenger, sometimes it’s the gadgets. It seems that the warning about the Recovery Disk space has to come up, with “cancel”, for the startup to complete.

Sometimes, during the first few minutes, Internet Explorer will hang once (and freeze the PC for about a minute) and then fix itself, and there are no more problems the rest of the session.

Automatic updates run, and last summer there was a known BSOD problem with one update, which was removed (related to device drivers).

I see some other problems out there on the Web about problems during startup, such as here with devices added, or here.

Perhaps I need to convert to Windows 7.

Do others have experiences with freezes during Vista bootup?

Friday, March 19, 2010

FBI is way behind 8-ball (and amateurs) with its own information technology: how does this affect their jobs?

The F.B.I. is dragging its feet in its overhaul of its information technology, according to a story by Eric Lichtblau in the New York Times today (March 19), p a12, “F.B.I. faces new setback in computer overhaul”, link here. The article discusses contracts with Lockheed and SIAC.

The FBI had to communicate by courier after 9/11 because it could not handle email attachments, and newer systems still have to work with slower response times and inadequate ability to deal with more controversial parameters of investigation, like ethnicity. This could be a serious problem when it has to “connect the dots” with information at other agencies, particularly when it gets tips from the public, sometimes from private citizens with much more advanced Internet searching skills than government investigators.

There have occurred some disturbing crimes reported in the media in the past few years, and in a few cases information about the victims is available on social networking sites, blogs, tweets, and various other logs. From this story, it appears that the FBI and perhaps various police or sheriff’s departments don’t have the skills or tools to hunt down clues that amateurs do, even though police departments are sometimes very good at setting up Internet stings (as on NBC Dateline). An ABC 20/20 story (the second half) on March 19 about a bizarre Internet love triangle reinforces that perception.

It would seem that computer and Internet forensics ought to be a promising career area for those starting out in IT while finishing college, but law enforcement needs to get its systems in order. The military services seem to have done a much better job, as has the CIA (just look at Jesse Ventura’s latest book).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Information technology tends to appeal to people with Asperger's syndrome

I saw a story popup on MSN or AOL about Asperger’s Syndrome in the workplace, and how a candidate with Asperger’s should handle interviews. I couldn’t get the story to re-appearm but I think it is this story by becca Spjute at Career Advice, link here.

The attributes of some people with Asperger’s Syndrome – exactitude in reasoning, and detailed long term memories, can look great in resumes, but can come across poorly in interviews. The person may not seem to “get real” to the interviewer, partly because of a mismatch in social relevance and eye contact. People with Asperger’s often do not process things quickly in interactions or conversations. They may seem like a large computer application that takes a long term to load. They may see some social exchanges as gratuitous, infringing or unwelcome.

I suppose some people with Asperger's might present themselves online differently, with much more detail about esoteric subject matter.

Another link is at Healthmad, here.

The issue has become more timely because recently Asperger’s has been reclassified officially as part of autism spectrum disorders.

CBS 60 Minutes recently reported that the failure of the subprime mortgage mechanism was discovered by and the “credit default swap” was invented in part by a physician with Asperger’s who had left medicine over discomfort with patients and who preferred to work on computers.

People with Asperger’s often do like to work in information technology and programming as individual contributors, and might have picked up programming at young ages. There are cases where software professionals have younger siblings with full blown autism.

There can be more issues today for Asperger's in the workplace even in I,T., because more jobs, relatively speaking, require customer interface than in the past, partly because of the outsourcing

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Remember the good old days, pre-IT? (EAM). Remember all those old technologies?

Remember how things were done in the bad old days, even before the IBM 360 or even the 7090/7094?

When I worked for NBC as an applications programmer on their General Ledger system (1974-1977) in New York, on the Spectra 70 and then Univac 1110 (ASCII COBOL -- remember that?) one of the jobs was to convert the general ledger from owned stations from EAM equipment. This is called “Unit Record Equipment” or the “Electronic Accounting Machine”, as described here on Wikipedia.

Operators had to keep track of decks of punched cards, and manipulate the wiring of plug-boards. These had been common since WWII. Even when I went to work for an insurance company in 1990, a few people remembered how a few of the old ALC accounting applications had at one time been on plugboards.

As late as the mid 1970s, sales of keypunch equipment was a significant marketing activity at Sperry Univac, where I worked 1972-1974 in New Jersey.

Then, in the 90s, programmers who had been working in the savings and loan industry, which had gotten decimated by an earlier financial crisis in the late 1980s, told me of old technology, working with access methods like “UFAM”.

There were a lot of smaller companies in the 80s that had stuck with older technologies (the old IBM mainframe DOS with its DTF’s) and their programmers were often ill-prepared for the fast changes, relatively speaking, of the 90s, let alone today. I saw a lot of these resumes in the 90s.

And remember the PC job market around 1989 or so? People had things like dBase4 and rBase then, and FoxBase.

Wikipedia attribution link for IBM 402 plugboard picture, here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How to link blogs (Wordpress or Blogger) to your own domain, and how to choose the best ISP: the references

If someone wants to develop a coherent web presence with a detailed, well cross-referenced and labeled blog at the heart, it’s a good idea to look over the service providers and see how they link from domain names (or subdomains) to blogging platforms like Wordpress.

In fact, Wordpress itself gives some recommendations here. What strikes me is the range of bandwidth offered, with Blue Host appearing to be the most generous, at least at first glance. BlueHost also offers a “one click” Wordpress install.

There is a site called “Desndev” which is a “blog about building sites with Wordpress” (link) and also has a link “3 Things to Know before Choosing a Wordpress Hosting Provider.”

Larger companies do not seem to make Wordpress as critical a piece of their strategy. But there are plenty of references available. For example. “Fresheventure” offers the video “Network Solutions Easy Wordpress Installation” here.

An example of Network Solutions own discussion of the interface is here.

For Blogger, Google offers a help page “How do I create a CNAME record for my custom domain?” CNAME refers to “canonical name”. It lists a number of major and well-known Internet service providers, including GoDaddy (also important in the Wordpress world) and Yahoo!Small Business, and lists the procedural steps for establishing the proper domain name mapping. The link is here.

“JimmyZ” also has a technical guide for connecting Blogger to your own domain here.

There is a site “Already Hosting” that lists major providers and links to reviews of the services in a comparison chart, link here.

Update: March 25:

Blogger does offer the ability to link to your own domain under "settings" and "publishing", regular and in draft. I don't know whether you can go to a subdirectory for the blog (that is have multiple blogs to one site, each blog to a different subdirectory).

Update: Dec. 24

It's probably a good idea to consider whether you host your own copy of the blogging software, which would give you better protection from aribitrary cutoff due to incorrect accusations of spam.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

MSN publishes Powers's "6 Job Search Mistakes"; don't count on social media too much

MSN has a useful connection with “careerbuilder” now called “MSN careers”, and today the feature was “6 Job Search Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make” by Dr. Paul Powers, who I believe appeared on Larry King Live recently. The link is here. I hope this stays with the "new MSN" site.

He discusses the use of social networking sites, to the extent to say not to overrely on them. There is no one right way to network. But probably a coherent online presence is more important today than it was ten or even five years ago.

The job market, he says, thinks short term. “What have you done lately. What can you do for me now?” The stock market is like that, too. This could be a bigger problem for moms returning to work or people out of the force because of long periods of caregiving, if they want to get back to the world they were in before. I believe I heard the speaker say on CNN that employers actually are sometimes more likely to hire the people they interviewed more recently, not first.

Picture: don't know if many job interviews happen at major league sports events. As for Nationals Park later this year, the Nats have to do much better.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Workforce Management tackles social media for employers, also FTC rules and HR blogging

Gene Connors has a piece on Workforce, “10 Social Media Commandments for Employers”, link here. They appear to address only the issue of use of social media at work, for purposes reasonably connected to work. They don’t seem to address “online reputation” of employees from what they do at home (although this could affect relationships with clients).

But there is a link on the right side of the page about the Federal Trade Commission and HR blogging (Ed Fraunheim and Rick Bell) which indicates that the FTC may require bloggers to disclose potential conflicts of interest, or gifts of items for review, as these could confuse consumers as to endorsement. (See the “BillBoushka” blog piece on Oct. 15, 2009 for my most recent on the FTC policy.)

There are also links to important pieces about giving employee references online, to texting at work, and preventing employee “Youtubing” at work – a common sense approach starts with a “no cameras” policy in many cases.

Monday, March 08, 2010

IBM offers DB2, dynamic server products for "cost containment": more skills for resumes

On Monday March 8, Tech Republic offered subscribers an e-book PDF document from IBM, “IT Budget Killers: And How You Can Fight Back”. The download link was here.

Oddly, the link used the FTP protocol to present the PDF document on your computer; I haven’t seen a website do this in ten years!

Some of the biggest problems are “sprawl”, “system complexity” and particularly compliance. The system complexity often occurs as a result of corporate mergers. Direct connect and GUI interfaces are built on midtiers, which may be based on replication of legacy data, or more modern database technologies may connect to legacy directly. If you go to your bank these days you may see this; employees are likely to have a variety of GUI interfaces and mainframe CICS screens to look at your accounts. (I still think CICS is more secure; I like to see it.)

IBM is selling DB2-9, Informix Dynamic Server (IDC), and ROI tools like DB2 Dynamic Compression. Professionals will need to show proficiency in these on their resumes as time passes.

IBM’s paper doesn’t quite merit a book review, but it’s an interesting offering (and not a “burnt offering”).

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

When do programmers contribute to "the bottom line"?

Patrick Gray has an intriguing Tech Republic blog article, “Is IT a profit center or a cost center? Who cares?”, with link here.

The article discusses creative accounting or allocations that try to justify or quantify what an internal IT department produces for an organization. The idea comports with the idea of “internal customers”, and a customer service culture even internally in a company, particularly companies that set up centralized customer service calling centers.

Of course, over time (spanning decades) a higher percentage of IT professionals have become employed by “staffing companies” for which the consultants actually bring in revenue in the form of billable hours. The development of purchased systems (like Vantage for life insurance) has contributed to this trend.

Career consultants talk a lot these days about quantifying results on resumes, and showing how one as an individual contributed to the "bottom line". Sometimes the quantification is indirect: by automation, positions can be eliminated and costs reduced (and it sounds brutal, doesn't it?)

In one consulting company for which I worked around 1989, “computer costs” in terms of disk space and excp’s were accurately tracked between divisions to show “profitability” of particular operations.

Sometimes within a company individual departments want more control of their own “end user computing”. Back in the mid 1990s, “client-server” end-user applications, standalone, sometimes coded in Microfocus COBOL, were seen as a way around mainframe cost allocations. One problem could be that security, when applications were decentralized, would become much weaker. In time, however, external Wall Street pressures caused companies to consolidate, using mainframe legacy replication with Unix or Linux mid-tiers, direct-connect, or sometimes consolidating applications altogether after mergers, ultimately eliminating internal programming jobs (particularly after Y2K).

Monday, March 01, 2010

Baby Boomers v. GenX: Do age discrimination laws really work?

Here’s an interesting column published today by US News and World Report, by Emily Brandon, “7 Tips for Working for a Younger Boss”, link here. What’s really interesting is the tone of the long comment that follows: “Boomers: You Need to Rethink Seeking Full Time Jobs With Gen Xers.”. The visitor points out that younger managers often have weaker leadership skills than management skills, and that age-discrimination laws in the US have backfired. Why hire someone over 50 if he or she is so hard or dangerous to get rid of? Good point. I also think that there is apperception that Baby Boomers should focus on sales jobs, where their compensation is directly related not just to performance, but to a lifetime of social contacts – maybe. Or maybe Facebook changes all that.

The March 1 issue of the magazine has a long issue on employment, suggesting that people may be racing too quickly o jobs that supposedly can’t be outsourced.