This and that

The Thinker by Rodin

So much happening in my life these days that it is hard for me to even catch my breath, let alone find time to blog. But blogging has been preying on my mind. I’ve wanted to blog but couldn’t because there was all this more important stuff! So this entry will be a bunch of random thoughts and concerns running around my brain at the moment.

First, my wife’s job with the Software Productivity Consortium will be ending in October. Has the Software Productivity Consortium, whose mission it is to improve the practices of the software community (or at least its members) stopped using computers? Hardly. Has she been fired for some sort of malfeasance? Not at all. She’s being outsourced. Yes the pointy haired bosses are firmly in control at SPC and have been for about a year now. Someone apparently had the “clever” idea to outsource the help desk. The mind reels. SPC is not some huge conglomerate; it has about 100 employees, most of them in Herndon, Virginia. People are intimately attached to their computers and their laptops. They depend on the help desk staff to keep all the infrastructure working and to get their computers fixed pronto. After the outsourcing is complete only a token contractor will actually be in the building. Most of the work will be done offsite, adding delay and frustration to SPC employees. It’s hard to imagine how SPC can save any money; it’s not like my wife is bringing home the big bucks. Anyhow the few remaining IT Help Desk staff were largely shown the door midweek. My wife gets to stay and try to do the work of four people until October 8th, which is her last day (if she stays there that long).

Meanwhile on Monday a contractor arrives to try to learn their business. My wife is a highly skilled IT troubleshooter. This is a woman puts together computers in her spare time for friends because she thinks it is fun. She can fix the most obscure Windows errors. So I’m not worried in the least about her job prospects. In fact I think we are both glad her job is coming to an end. Some company around the Reston area with savvy apparently lacking at SPC will likely snatch her up pretty quickly. In the event the economy is worse than I thought my GS-14 salary could carry us forward indefinitely. So the only real losers here are the people who work at SPC. They get to watch a stream of likely underpaid and largely offsite contractors cycle through their organization. Not one of them will do a lick more work than called for by the contract. I should know. I’ve seen many a contracting debacle in my years as a federal employee. I figure the SPC CEO must have marbles for brains or be a big George W. Bush supporter. It’s the only thing that explains such a complete lack of common sense. My wife is not alone. The employees, tired of working 80-hour weeks because their CEO wants them too, are leaving right and left. It used to be a great place to work. It’s hard on SPC employees to see dysfunctional management take over and drive a great organization into the ground.

Second, medical issues with my Mom are not getting any easier. It’s not appropriate to get into too much detail here but my poor 77-year-old Dad is being run ragged. It is good that they are in Riderwood and their life is somewhat simpler. Unfortunately my Mom pretty much cannot even boil water at this point. They really depend on that gratis daily meal in one of Riderwood’s many restaurants. My 84-year-old Mom seems increasing scared and paranoid. I hope my Dad will start getting some adult day care for her so he can get away from it for a while. I help when I can but I have my own family to take care of. In fact I see my mother as very close to needing a nursing home. Fortunately Riderwood has an excellent nursing home called Renaissance Gardens. I’m hoping her visit next week to see a shrink will help her get a grip. But with all the medications she’s on I’m not sure if antianxiety medicine or even an antidepressant would do her much good.

Third, school has restarted for my daughter Rosie, now in 10th grade. My wife and I have been dealing with all those school startup issues: new clothes, books, raids on Staples, endless forms that need to be filled out and checks that must be written. Her teachers increasingly require onerous “contracts” with students that we parents must sign. One small sign of improvement: the information form with all the relevant names and phone numbers is now actually entered into a computer. We got a preprinted form with last year’s information on it and all we had to do was correct it. It’s a small step but one of these obvious steps that should have been done years ago. All this contact information could be submitted and updated over the web.

Fourth, I’m getting a new computer! The parts arrived today. I just need my wife to assemble them. My current computer is about 3 years old and arrived with (shudder) Windows Me on it. The new one is nothing fancy because I don’t need fancy. What I do need is something that doesn’t take three minutes to boot, so my excellent wife worked hard to meet my requirements. The result: my computer will have a fast motherboard and disk drive. My computer will also have a writeable DVD drive. I don’t need a fast CPU. I have learned that fast CPUs mean little: it’s the memory, motherboard and disk drive that are the pokes. So I’m getting a 1.8GHZ Athlon XP AMD chip, which is still 2.5 times faster than what I am using now and likely overkill for my modest needs.

We’ve been feeling very geeky lately. August was our flush month for cash since we each got three paychecks. We budgeted about $1200 for new computer stuff. By buying parts we’ve gotten some amazing values. My computer will cost about $600. Rosie gets a 17-inch flat panel monitor (about $350 after rebate). Terri gets the computer toolkit she wants. And we purchased another printer because the old Epson C82 died almost immediately after the warranty expired. The new one is an Epson C84. Since our first Epson experience wasn’t good we bought this model somewhat reluctantly, and only because it got a Consumer Reports Best Buy recommendation. It had better last longer! Look for a rant on our disposable society coming up in my blog in the weeks ahead.

I also now have a 128MB USB flash drive. Boy, these little suckers are great and so cheap. (Mine was $25!) They are sort of like what PDA’s were in the 1990s: you don’t know you need one until you’ve got one. What’s on mine? Not much yet, but I have 14MB allocated as a backup for my Quicken data going back to 1992. I am looking forward to doing geeky things like installing the Firefox browser on my flash drive. I can take it with me wherever I go and have my browser of choice and all my bookmarks available! The possibilities of flash drives is yet another topic for a blog entry in the weeks ahead.

I’m still deeply involved in political blogging. I’m trying to make sense of these polls showing Bush getting a double-digit bounce coming out of the Republican convention. I’m torn between feelings of despair if these are real and my gut feeling that these polls are meaningless when other polls are showing perhaps the weakest bounce from any political convention in history for Bush. I actually woke up at 5 a.m. this morning worrying about this stuff.

It is so obvious to me that Bush is bad for the country on all levels. He has succeeded in nothing. Yet I have to wonder if our electorate likes to elect morons. Or maybe it’s the moron vote that Bush is counting on. My hope is that Gadflyer is correct and that the vast majority of people made up their minds months ago. If so it may be a nail biter of an election, but it still favors Kerry. Anyhow it’s no time for us Democrats to be complacent. If you don’t like Bush and you aren’t registered to vote please get registered if you still can. Dig into your pocket and support liberal 527s organizations like ACT. Spend some time if you can possibly find it to work in a precinct, make cold calls and go door to door. The election won’t be handed to Democrats on a silver platter. We’re going to have to work for it with every last ounce of our strength. But when victory arrives it will be all the sweeter.

Boxed in by my computer

The Thinker by Rodin

My office came together this week. On Tuesday I had it repainted and on Thursday I had the furniture people come in. They removed the 70s furniture and assembled modular furniture. I can now sit at my desk without my thighs touching the bottom of my desk drawer. I don’t have to elevate my arms to use the computer keyboard. All this is good and I appreciate the improved ergonomics. Clearly the computer is the means by which most of my work is accomplished so I have to be comfortable. I’m fortunate to have a boss more than willing to outlay a couple grand to make sure I can be productive. This would have never happened in my old agency.

But for someone whose job it is to be a web chief I find that in many ways a computer is a seriously inadequate tool for doing my work. Despite 25 years or so trying to perfect the personal computer using it is still a tedious, difficult and frequently frustrating means for accomplishing my work.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than with my computer monitor. I have a 17-inch monitor, which is standard these days. But it’s not nearly enough space. What I really need is for one whole wall of my office to be a gigantic computer monitor with 600 dots per inch resolution. That’s because like most people in the management business I multitask a lot. I have way more things on my plate that I have to manage than can fit on a 17-inch monitor or can be managed using an Outlook Task list. I can, of course, ALT-TAB to numerous other screens to get the same information. But what I need is a big picture of all my work and literally hundreds of tasks I must coordinate. And I can’t get that from a computer.

So instead I’m ordering the biggest whiteboard I can find and having that installed on one wall instead. It’s low tech, but it works. People can come into my office and we can discuss things and we can doodle on the white board until we come to a common understanding. But even this is not quite sufficient. And that is because my team is geographically disbursed. I have three employees working for me in Reston, but I have two other full time employees working out west (Montana and Alaska), and a number of part time employees scattered across the continental United States. It’s not often that I will be able to get them into my office. So instead they fly into Reston a couple times a year where we work from large whiteboards with periodic forays to our networked PCs.

It’s not that industry is not trying to respond. We’re a Lotus Notes shop (not a good thing) and part of the Notes suite is this Sametime collaborative software. It lets us have a virtual workspace. It includes a whiteboard and a chat window. We can display PowerPoint slides to each other in real time. I can also share a program and they can see what I am typing into an application. It’s a pretty cool technology and a step in the right direction.

But what I really have to do is manage a lot of disparate ad-hoc requests from all sorts of people. Right now I simply write them down on a piece of paper and cross things out as I do them, but I am reaching the point after four weeks on the job where it’s not enough. Hence I need a white board. I need one huge mother of a white board. I need to scribble my tasks on the white board, erase them, rearrange them, prioritize them and basically see things from a high level macro and a detailed perspective at the same time. I can’t do that on a 17-inch monitor, at least not very easily. I need to be able to glance from one set of tasks to another set of tasks and see the relationships between them. I can’t do that with current computer technology either. And most likely I’ll be retired before that happens.

In Neal Stephenson’s novel “The Diamond Age” he talks about electronic billboards that are floor to ceiling. You can see them emerge today in places like Times Square, but these are still very primitive and lack the resolution I need. In the 2002 movie “Minority Report” actor Tom Cruise plays detective John Anderton who interacts with a computer by standing up and stretching his hands out into space. This is more like what I have in mind. But even this is not ideal. It still requires a lot of physical movement that is time consuming.

Instead I have to live with what the current technology permits. It increasingly feels constraining. While I am not a big fan of Windows technology at least it is reasonably consistent. That’s why it drives me nuts when I have to use a product like Lotus Notes that completely ignores Windows graphical user interface design principles. Something as simple as selecting a block of messages using Shift-Click then pressing a Trash Can icon doesn’t exist. I average at least 200 emails per day. But right now I have to manually delete each message. (Naturally the messages aren’t deleted immediately. They are marked for deletion. If you actually want to get rid of them you have to hit the refresh button (F9) and say “Yes” to a message asking you if you really want to delete them. More of my time is needlessly wasted by a bunch of designers who never envisioned how I would have to use their product.)

And that’s just Lotus Notes. Every software package has its own peculiar and annoying quirks. The Lotus Notes Sametime program, for example, does not start automatically when I start Notes, even after I configure it to do just that. I have to remember to turn it on after I start Lotus Notes. Computer viruses and new security mandates have made it impossible for me to shut down my workstation, or even install a new software package without someone from the help desk coming to my machine. At home my new and improved Quicken software keeps asking me every time I start it if I want to learn more about their bill-paying feature. I never do and tell it to remember this fact. But it never learns. I took the time to talk to their technical support people who shrug their shoulders and say it will be fixed in a future release. Meanwhile: deal with it. My antispam software (ChoiceMail) occasionally sends me duplicates of the same email. Pretty much every program I own, no matter how much I like it, has annoying quirks. They have the effect of continually interrupting my concentration. Instead of focusing on a larger task, I am down in the computer weeds trying to make my software behave like a human would want it to.

Increasingly the whole Windows graphical user interface feels annoying. Why does it have to be so hierarchical? I can understand the logic of putting programs in a Programs folder and my data and settings in a Documents folder but I so often find myself drilling up and down folders to where I want to. Why is it so stupid? With hard drives holding ten gigabytes or more routinely these days, does an old fashioned hierarchical folder based system make any sense at all?

A computer should be like a screwdriver. Using it should be instinctive. I am grateful that my Windows 2000 operating system at least doesn’t crash on my several times day like Windows ME did. But you shouldn’t have to be your own software mechanic to continue to use a PC. Security should just work. Viruses should be automatically detected and squashed. Hardware firewalls should be built into a card on the back of the PC. Software upgrades should be tested by a certification service and installed automatically. I shouldn’t have to know what file extension things are stored in. I shouldn’t have to traverse folders or have the computer spend minutes using a Find function to locate a file. I should give the computer itself no more thought than I give my car’s dashboard. When I am driving I never think, “Gosh, I should press the accelerator” or “Maybe I should press the brake to avoid crashing into the car ahead of me”. My computer should let me manipulate it instinctively.

Clearly we have a very long way to go. Meanwhile, I will have my old fashioned whiteboard. I will continually erase it manually and rewrite it. It will require me to periodically buy new dry erase markers from the supply store. But I will be able to at least track my work, prioritize it in a way that makes sense to me, and meet my deadlines. I doubt many of us can truly do that with our computers alone.

Modern Technological Miracles

The Thinker by Rodin

I am in Michigan again, but this time my wife Terri and daughter Rosie came with me. (You may recall that last month I came up here by myself to help nurse my Mom through a difficult hospitalization and recovery.) We plan to sit down tonight with my parents and my aunt and uncle for a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

We drove to Midland from our home near Washington DC in about ten hours over two days. We’ve done this trip many times before since my parents moved to Midland in 1989. But I was struck by how the drive was both the same but so much different this time, thanks to technology.

For one thing, we never owned a laptop computer before, so we never had one to bring with us. Terri used most of her bonus money to purchase a laptop computer. It’s a neat computer which suffers from one fatal flaw: it appears to be defective. But she so wanted to bring a computer with her to Michigan that she delayed returning it for a defect free computer until we got home from this visit. Since the problem was that it was hard to get it to turn on sometimes, she has basically left it on all the time. It was the last thing to be put in our minivan for the trip north.

In the past the ten hours of driving would have been very tedious. When Rosie was really young it was especially a challenge to keep her amused. She quickly got bored with the books and games we provided. It meant lots of rest stops to give her a chance to run around. Now that she is 14 her tastes are somewhat different. A laptop computer in the car provided her a perfect entertainment device. Built into the computer was a DVD drive, so any of our many DVDs could be played. Her mother and I didn’t have to listen to the noise either because she had headphones that plugged into a port on the computer. She watched a number of movies on the way up, and we didn’t have to entertain her at all. She kept herself amused. When she wasn’t watching movies on the laptop, she could work on her writing with it, or listen to her music that she had copied to the laptop.

When she got bored with the laptop I had an opportunity to play with it myself. One of our projects for the trip was to work on our Christmas cards. What better opportunity to put together a family newsletter than while rushing up I-75.

Battery life would normally be a constraint for a laptop, but was no problem on this trip because of a power converter we purchased that that plugged into our otherwise unused cigarette lighter. Except when the car decelerated or wasn’t producing enough RPMs, the laptop ran off the car’s alternator. In fact it fully charged the battery before we arrived at our hotel near Pittsburgh.

Business men and women have been using laptops on the road for years, but we haven’t used one before. Our hotel offered high speed internet for $10 a night. We declined that option, but did use the phone in the room to dial up to a local Earthlink number and connect to the internet. So a few hours after leaving home I was able to check my email and surf my favorite sites from our hotel room.

Cell phones are another technology we have finally adopted. Both Terri and I have prepaid cell phones that we otherwise rarely use. Both came with us. I realized that our cat sitter didn’t really need to know the hotel we were staying at. It was simply a matter of making sure she had our cell phone numbers and we were instantly available. It is true that my phone for some reason could not pick up a signal where we stayed near the Pittsburgh airport, but Terri’s phone worked fine. All along the turnpike and into Michigan our cell phone signal was strong. While passing through Toledo I took advantage of it to call my parents to let them know when they could expect our arrival. A concern about getting a prescription refilled was speedily answered when my Dad called me back on my cell phone with a list of potential pharmacies at which we could stop.

All of this is really not that remarkable these days, but from my perspective it all seems both magical and amazing. One of the reasons I didn’t like driving long distances was my fear of getting stuck on the road in the middle of nowhere. With a cell phone this fear has largely receded. We can get help conveniently should we need it from the safety of our car.

As I noted there were a few technology glitches. Terri’s new laptop is defective and will have to be replaced, but it was functional in a marginal sort of way for this trip. The power converter from our engine to the laptop made annoying sounds when it wasn’t getting enough current. But traveling by car with a family doesn’t have to be a chore anymore. We are enjoying the fruit of twenty years of steady progress in the personal computer and electronics revolution. These really are modern day miracles, but most of us don’t appreciate them.

It occurred to me while driving that within a few years it will be not only possible, but affordable to travel and always be online. With increasing numbers of high speed wireless internet providers out there, and with options like Wi-Fi hot spots we should be able to find a last minute deal on a hotel reservation as we approach a city, determine if there are traffic delays on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in real time, or even do something as mundane as read our email while in the car. In Rosie’s case she could stay on AOL Instant Messenger while chugging down the thruway.

We’ll be always connected all the time. I guess this is a good thing and if it isn’t hopefully we will always have off buttons on these devices. When we were in Yellowstone National Park in August I was struck by how inaccessible the park was, both geographically and electronically. Most cell phones did not work in the park because there were no cellular phone towers. If you needed to make a call you usually had to queue up at the pay phone in the lodge. But even when I was in range I noticed that my cell phone was very smart, and noticed that I was in a different time zone and changed the time accordingly.

As Paul Simon sang, “These are the days of miracles and wonders.” I am enchanted.

Crying in my bier for Microsoft … NOT!

The Thinker by Rodin

Microsoft is beginning to cry uncle.

Admittedly this is a strange thing to hear from the “innovators” at Microsoft. But it appears they are starting to realize that their software is, well, massively overpriced. It’s not very good either, but that’s not something they are going to admit, despite almost daily press articles about the latest security holes found in their products. Their web server, Internet Information Server, is so riddled with security holes that you have to be more than a bit nuts to install it today.

Anyhow according to this article in its SEC filing Microsoft is warning its earnings may be lower in the future because of the growth of the open source movement. For those of you who don’t know, open source is software that is free of license and cost, and is maintained and written by volunteers. Microsoft is having a real hissy fit about open source software. They are calling it unreliable, which is hardly ever the case. They are calling it anti-American because no one is making a profit from it. (Not quite true. Open source software is often a platform upon which companies add value by creating customized packages that work with it. Oracle is laughing all the way to the bank.) They are even pressing for laws and regulations that would forbid governments from using open source.

This would be laughable if they weren’t so serious and were not stuffing so much money into the pockets of congressmen. Nonetheless many federal agencies have figured out that open source software is not only free to use, and of much higher quality than what can be maintained commercially, but can actually be inspected and modified. Yes, users can actually fix their own problems! What a concept!

The Microsoft approach is, of course, to make you pay for the privilege of talking to one of their technical support folks and maybe, if you are lucky, getting a patch or a work around to allow you to get things done. Release their code so you can inspect it and fix it yourself? Not a chance.

But Microsoft is beginning to understand it may not have a choice. European countries are looking at using open source software exclusively. The article I referenced above says that Microsoft has come up with a “Government Security Program”. This will allow governments like the United Kingdom to actually look at Microsoft’s source code and maybe fix things themselves.

Clearly it takes a lot of clout to get Microsoft to do something like this, and governments are one of the few institutions large enough to tell Microsoft to piss off.

As a federal employee working on information technology issues I can tell you that using open source software is a no brainer. Not that all open source software is great, but much of it is excellent and of extremely high quality. Even if it is unlikely that I personally will go in and inspect the software if an error is found, it’s easy enough to hire people or a service that can do this if needed. But the main reason open source is a no-brainer is because you are no longer locked in to a vendor. No or low cost, higher quality software, and the ability to actually make permanent fixes sounds like a winning combination to me. Open source is creeping into my agency. We have some Linux machines. Some of our software is written in PHP, an open source scripting language. We also have a comments database written in Perl. Our Linux web servers, for some reason, don’t seem vulnerable to so many security flaws.

I’ve been playing with open source software for a few years now. It’s amazing what is readily available for free. On one domain I put up a free content management system. When it no longer suited my needs I replaced it with an even better free content management system. On a forum I run, I am using phpBB bulletin board software. It works great. And I’ve been able to do in and tweak it to do things I want it to do. This blog software is not quite open source, but it is free to use for personal use. And it’s easily inspected since it is written in Perl. And if Moveable Type no longer suits me there are plenty of quality open source alternatives I can choose instead.

I doubt Microsoft will go into bankruptcy court. But if they fail they will have only themselves to blame. Meanwhile I sense that their desktop monopoly is likely to crack in the next couple years. The software is there to do away with Windows and its whole Microsoft Office suite. It’s free and programs such as Open Office work seamlessly with Microsoft Office. I would not be surprised at all if Microsoft realized Windows can’t be viable operating system much longer. Perhaps like Apple they will build a new Windows around a solid Unix interface. I know I would be happier. At least my computer is more likely not to crash and work predictably.

Karma seems to work on many levels, including the corporate level. Microsoft: beware. What comes around goes around.