The Computer Whisperer

COMPUTERWHISPERER

My dears, for many years I have laboured under the tyranny of silicon, woman and girl, battling the forces of Intel to bring order to the chaos which is personal computing. I have hewn the mighty forests of Novell and delved the mines of Microsoft. My wandering star has led me through the valley of CPM to the heights of Oracle via Linux lakes and OS/2 shores.

As a humble scout of the Web, a weaver of mysteries of the first and even second circles, I have many a tale to tell that would freeze your blood or perchance light fire in your eyes, and occasionally crinkle your lips with amusement and wry amazement. Truly you would not believe the half of it!

In days of yore when this technology was still fresh and new, it is the unassailable truth that when I asked a colleague to copy a disk they did it on the photocopier.

I once worked in a central London location where the Circle Line ran beneath the building and caused power spikes and cuts at random intervals. On a day of a power cut I raced up and down flights of stairs making sure everyone knew how to recover draft files when the power came back on. A little later, in a corner I found a colleague in tears. She had spent several hours working on a document of infinite complexity and had not been saving as she went along. All was lost!

I droned on about how to get back the draft.

There was none to retrieve.

Was she sure?

Oh yes.

Why was she sure? (You have to check.)

Because it was switched off when the power cut happened.

Ah…. I have good news!

In another job I worked with colleagues in various parts of what we then called “countries of the South” (aka the Developing World). In particular, Sudan. There were the obvious difficulties when my ability to explain the more esoteric concepts of Windows in Sudanese French met a wall of baffled silence, but we coped. Good humour and pictures are wonderful things. The biggest problem though was the locusts laying eggs in the nice warm, dry, sheltered interior of the computer casing. It was an interesting insurance claim.

Later I took a job with a charity that had around 250 PCs in its possession, of which about 8 were Year 2000 compliant as of January 1999. It was an interesting year and somehow I became embroiled in the wider project to ensure our residential clients were safe in the event of Armageddon on 1 January 2000. If nothing else it was a useful exercise in planning for disasters. The security systems were set to open all doors if power failed, for good reasons. We merely had to be ready to prevent clients who were often mentally confused or learning disabled from wandering off and becoming lost or injured as a result.

I have talked people through opening up computer cases to remove CDs inadvertently inserted (with some force nevertheless) through a gap in the casing, or in using the command line to delete a file (like they do in the films as if there are no computer mice in Hollywood – what is all that typing about? They aren’t writing a blog! I’m pretty sure Microsoft / Apple will have thought up Spaceship Destruct Sequence Wizards by now), or through plugging in a keyboard. This last was very traumatic for the poor person involved. She was convinced I was trying to electrocute her.

I’m going to break ranks and let you all into a little secret. The lovely patient people on your favourite helpdesk have an acronym for the more challenged computer users out there. Not the average person like me who forgets their password because they have been on holiday or can’t find the right printer or needs to find a file they saved last week. Those are normal run-of-the-mill things that can happen to anyone. We all have days when the brain cells desert the sinking cranium.

I have had my share of lonely home-based workers who just wanted a chat. I offered that service gladly. I have been called up to find out the date of Easter next year or the translation of Latin phrases or a recipe for vegetarian haggis. It’s all part of the service.

No, this phrase is for the frequent fliers who have been talked through how to switch the computer on seventeen times this week and it’s only Wednesday. Or the ones who can’t put a CD into the “cup holder” the right way up until the 3rd attempt. (What was he doing? Balancing it on its edge? And it happened every time!).

I have sorted out the virus infestation caused by letting a teenager use the computer to download illegal music. I had the Director who filled up the corporate shared drive with Dido CDs because he liked to listen to music while he worked and could never remember where he saved it last time. I had the Professor who kept installing a different word processor to the corporate standard then wondering why it crashed. He did it over and over again, despite the fact that the same thing always happened. I had the person who decided he wanted to try Windows NT because his mate told him it was better than Windows 98 (that much was true), bought a copy at a car boot sale and installed it only to discover it was a French version. Merde, as they say.

We use it for the ones where we suspect it is deliberate attention-seeking behaviour, for people who are just not trying properly.

It’s PEBCAK.

I suppose after that build-up I should probably tell you what it stands for. But the devil is in me today and glinting from behind the screen. “Make ‘em guess!” it cries.

What do you think? Should I?

It could stand for “probably errant behaviour causing anomalous Kafka-ism.”

Or maybe “potentially embarrassing bigwig chasing attentive kindness.”

What about “purely erroneous banter cheapening all knowledge.”

You may suspect it’s “patience ended by considerable altercation. Kill!”

The interpretation my team has actually used in the past is merely “problem exists between chair and keyboard.”

Feel free to join in below with your own ideas. Keep ‘em reasonably clean; IT workers are fragile creatures really.

Namaste.

 

Advertisements

Well Meaning Buffoon Next Door

Gaming diceI seem to have created a nightmare. Not a dripping-fanged, snarly-throated, blazing-eyed, scaly-tailed nightmare, at least not on this occasion. That other time was just a mistake and won’t happen again. Oh no, this is just one of those nightmares that gets into your mind like an ear-worm from the radio playing a catchy jingle that buzzes about for days. You play your loudest music or your saddest songs but as soon as they end, there it is again, gently tum-te-tum-ing in your head.

I suspect this is just what happens when you are a bit of a dreamer like me. I spend half my life living in a fantasy world, like Walter Mitty. I visualise. I imagine. And it’s all so real.

Recently I wrote a post having a dig at people who think they know all about IT. It wasn’t kind but that’s life in EBL Towers. Nature red in tooth and claw, and all that. However I was then prompted to consider how the poor Well Meaning Buffoon from Next Door might feel as they confronted my Nerd Army.

To validate my prejudices I checked with the local WMBFND and this is what she told me.

“Well, EBL, I have to be honest. I was a bit anxious about bringing the draughts board in but it was something I felt quite strongly about. I mean, why do your games have to be so complicated? It all seems so unnecessary.

When I mentioned to my husband that I was coming over he was really cynical. He said people like you think you’re so clever, what with calculating your credit card interest in hexadecimal, whatever that is, and talking in another language to make yourself look smart. I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, I really enjoyed learning Spanish at school.

You see, I just know you are deep down OK, and I thought perhaps we could all play a different game together, one that I understand and could join in. My grandmother taught me to play draughts and we had such lovely times on Sunday afternoons playing. I thought you might like to give it a go.

But then that chap with hairy knuckles and a bandana, Kevin was it? Anyway, he said his old Mum played draughts and he preferred something more challenging. Mind you, the other lad, the one in the torn denim and studs, he said he thought draughts was as complex as you made it so perhaps Kevin was just a bit simple. Well, I didn’t want to start an argument, so I just set the board out on that funny cloth with pentagons on it…sorry, were they hexagons? I don’t know the difference, I’m sure. Does it matter?

So I set the board up and the girl with the piercings asked me to show her how it worked and we soon had a good game going. Although Kevin and the other lad went and sat in the kitchen rather than watching.

I would find that A&D game too complicated, and isn’t it all about worshipping Satan anyway? I’m not sure I want to get into all that. Is it a requirement?

I do realise only two people can play draughts at a time though, I admit I hadn’t thought that through. Perhaps next week I could bring Monopoly instead?”

Honestly, being smartarse about knowing more than your neighbour is like kicking a puppy before you throw it into the well. The deep, dark, cold well.

So thank you to all my Buffoon Neighbours who, as it turns out, are wiser than this foolish EBL.

How do you deal with people wanting to play Monopoly – either literally or metaphorically?

Namaste.

 

Peeve

One of the things I try hard to stop myself doing, and fail miserably to achieve, is getting wound up over silly little things. Life is really to short to worry about the fact that the books in Waterstones are not shelved alphabetically, or that some nincompoop newsreader doesn’t know the difference between a mountain and a molehill, or that the well-meaning buffoon next door (WMBND) has never actually played Dungeons and Dragons but thinks they are an expert on it because their younger cousin’s best friend’s boyfriend once borrowed a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide from his next door neighbour.

I have played Dungeons and Dragons.

I’ll have you know my Illusionist was quite exceptional.

And don’t let me get me started on my amazing Ranger.

Although the incident with the wolf cubs eating our Paladin was a little embarrassing….

Anyway, picture the scene. There you are trying to coordinate a day of sparkling entertainment, and you have been asked specifically to set up and run a game of Dungeons and Dragons for old times’ sake. You dust off the DM’s Guide, break out the Monster Manual and unearth the Deities and Demigods. You spend a nostalgic weekend prepping a dungeon, supplying back-stories for all the orcs and goblins, setting intricate traps and hiding treasure. You plan out complex tricks and puzzles to stimulate your players. You order in snacks and drinks. You sharpen pencils, dust the dice and produce copies of character sheets.

The team gathers and cracks their collective knuckles in anticipation of a great session. The air is electric with anticipation.

Then the WMBND arrives with a draughts board and disrupts the party.

How does that make you feel?

That’s how I feel when someone utters the dreaded phrase “Oh, I know how to fix that database error! It’s simple. ”

Just saying.

Namaste.

 

Live

It’s live.

I’m not saying it’s perfect.

But it’s live.

What am I talking about? Well, I have just finished the first phase of a project for a new IT system, and made the deadline. There were casualties along the way – mainly functional requirements. Most of those will follow over the next few weeks and months. By March it will be a lovely little system.

Today we are happy with good enough.

The final checks were followed by coffee and chocolates, then a long country walk to clear the cobwebs and ease the aching back. I may soon be back to blogging a little more often but first – a break.

Namaste.

 

What I did on my holidays

Did you miss me? I know, I know, but I’m very proud of how you coped without me, and I’m back now.

Lindisfarne Abbey

I went on a little holiday, a few days up north on the Northumbria coast just opposite Lindisfarne. It’s one of my favourite places and we had a wonderful rest. We forswore the Internet for five whole days. Somehow when I got back home I found I didn’t want to go back on-line. The thought of all the blogs and emails and news and social feeds and stuff was just too much.

Sigoth felt similarly so we decided to spend more time de-cluttering when we got home and have made many trips to the dump and to charity shops with our un-necessities. I even resigned from Governors. We feel like we are entering a new phase of our lives; it’s an age thing I suppose.

In any case, here in the northern hemisphere the world is turning its face to the sun and the evenings are filled with light until bedtime and the birds are up and shouting outside my window before 4 am. In those circumstances my mood changes and I want to be doing different things, or perhaps similar things differently.

Does that happen to you? In the summer I like to work more with my hands. Even though it’s hotter (well, a bit; this is England after all) I still want to knit. Fortunately I seem to have numerous young colleagues procreating so baby items are the order of the day. I take the camera out and about to photograph yet more trees and fields and birds, fuzzily and with a tendency to a slope down on the right.  I bake scones for Sunday tea in the garden.

In the winter I read and write and spend time on-line. I knit still, blankets and chunky jumpers. It’s all about cosying up in front of the fire with the lights on as the sun teases me with a quick game of peek-a-boo for a few minutes around lunchtime, then goes off to play with the more popular clouds in the South. If it’s not too cold I take photos of frost on spider webs, or the snowy lane. I make soup and casseroles.

This summer the Internet just felt winterish. I can’t explain it any other way. So I took extended leave and did the other things for a few more weeks. Today I have spent a larger than usual amount of time reflecting on things, with a quick spot of meditation after waking up, some meditative circle dancing, and then meetings for worship and for business (these latter two being Quakerly activities). I realised that I don’t want to stop blogging and that I needed to ease back into it at my own pace.

So that is that and here we are. It felt odd not to miss the blogging but to miss the bloggers. I hope you are well. I don’t think I will have time to catch up properly with you all, but I have been thinking about you nevertheless, wishing you peace and joy and perfect happiness.

No doubt come the solstice as the Great Wheel turns again, I will find my way back to keyboard more often. EBL at her computer is as seasonal as the Canada Geese on the reservoir. Some winters they stay longer and some they leave sooner, but every year they return.

Namaste.

 

Gang Agley

OK, OK, if you are not familiar with the Bard of Scotland, then that post title may look a little suspicious. Your trusty EBL does seem to have a penchant for quoting odd bits of schoolgirl poetry. I swear I don’t know where it comes from, I work in IT, for goodness sake.

The poem on question is “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”, and the bit I am referring to is

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

It’s just saying that things don’t always turn out as we expected and hoped.

Today was my last trip into the office for a while as tomorrow is The Operation, and I needed to go in and ensure I signed off The Project so everyone could crack on with it while I was out of action for a couple of days.

Well, the warning signs were there. When there are that many capitalised nouns in the schedule, something is bound to give. It’s one of the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Long story short, I did not sign off. On the plan I don’t sign off until Friday anyway, so I am leaving the goodly folk on the team to work a miracle tomorrow and will dial in for a sign off call on Friday afternoon, hoping that by then I can see well enough to press the right buttons, and will be recovered sufficiently from the general anaesthetic to be coherent and decisive.

It’s a bother.

Never mind, chin up me old muckers! The mantra for a Project Manager on my position is “No one will die!” My career, however, may not survive the business, not that it is a particularly robust or flourishing specimen. It may be best to put it out of its misery.

Oh look, everyone! EBL is catastrophising again!

On the plus side, I may have achieved agreement to proceed with a new project today. There’s nothing like looking someone in the eye and saying “We can do that!” with conviction and confidence. There is some kind of phrase about it: straws, drowning…I forget. The fact is I am confident we can do it, or at least do what is needed. The difference between want and need, there’s a thesis right there! Anyway, we’ll get that sorted next week when I am back.

I also managed to take some things into the office which needed to be there on time.

So not too agley, in retrospect. Perhaps more “fashionably late” than “ohmygodwe’reallgoingtodie!”

In fact, I am not completely distraught. Take note, my dears, that was a flash of optimism. In fact, my project officer said today “The new system has optimism built in!”

I must have caught some.

So here I am to pass some on to you. Catch!

Namaste.

 

The Reading Life

This week’s Mind the Gap: How do you prefer to read, with an eReader like a Kindle or Nook, or with an old school paperback in hand? drew my attention….stand by your screens.

My name is EBL and I am a Geek. I work in IT and have done for too many years to admit. OK, it’s more than 25. Actually it’s 26. Some of you weren’t born when I set up my first server in Novell Netware and learned Edlin to handle the batch files.

Read the strap line: this is a nostalgia blog!

I am also a Book Nerd. I had read all the Junior Library books before I was ten and progressed to the Adult section under the watchful eye of the Lady at the Library, who was like a surrogate mother to me. I have no idea of her name, which now strikes me as odd, although it didn’t at the time.

I love books and I love gadgets. So e-readers should be a no-brainer.

And yet, and yet…

I only bought my device in April last year. I had not been impressed by the demos I saw in shops and was a little addicted to the smell of ink. You know the smell I mean; the smell when you open a new book, fresh from the publisher, and riffle those virgin pages. That inky scent wafts out and you are carried away in a haze of antici……

…pation (as Tim Curry would say), the first eyes to scan those pages, the first hands to turn them, smoothing them lovingly until they settle like anxious birds. Or is it just me?

The promise of being able to carry a reasonable library about in my bag seemed pretty appealing; I travel for work frequently so I could see where it would be helpful. I wouldn’t have to carry multiple books or face running out of something to read on those long, dark nights in the hotel room.

The ability to download instantly was a threat to the bank balance; but the option to trial a sample chapter addressed the risk of hasty and regrettable purchases. An e-reader would have saved me from some serious pain by letting me realise that just because some books are popular does not mean I am going to enjoy them (Dan Brown, I am looking at you).

The green credentials were appealing. Save those trees! OK, producing the actual thingummybob would have environmental impacts, but paper is a toxic process too, and we need forests to breathe for our sorry planet.

The final decider was the fact I could resize the text which was important because of my eye problems last year; I had built up three shelves of books which I couldn’t read during that time. It was physically painful to see them piling up and gathering dust, forlorn, unread, despondent and pitiful. One day, I promised them, one day….

So the e-reader was purchased and Project Gutenberg was raided for beloved classics at no cost. I discovered that I could get a newspaper delivered every day for less than the cost of a Sunday paper in the pulp. That was fantastic because where I live there is no newsagent accessible on my way to work, and who wants to read the paper at night?

I have been using the thing for about nine months, and I am using it less and less every day. As soon as I was able to read normal books I started doing so and rediscovered a love of dead tree. I love the feel and smell and heft of a book. What I have learned is that I integrate it all into the reading experience. By which I mean, I want to know how far through I am, really, not by looking at a progress bar. I want to be able to flick back and forth between chapters and stick my finger on a page two chapters ago because I remember a description or an event which is relevant to the story: what was he carrying; where was the car parked; what time did the clock on the mantelpiece say; what colour was the doctor’s coat, or hair, or front door? Sometimes it’s because the writer has made a mistake and jarred my reading, like a continuity error in a film; more often it’s a clue or a link that is important.

My e-reader presents the words, but not the sensory experience of a book. It has no personality. Whether I am reading Lord of the Rings (about 1700 pages) or The Snow Goose (about 50 pages) or a newspaper, the look and feel is the same. I left the thing lying around for over a week because I forgot about it and read a paper novel instead. I don’t forget paper novels, even when I want to (Dan Brown!).

I re-read one of my favourite books on the e-reader. I was completely unengaged. It was a shock. That is a book I read at least every couple of years because I love it so much, and every time it produces something new and interesting and beautiful I hadn’t noticed before. This time – nothing. I only knew how far through I was because I know the book so well. I had no real sense of progress while reading, no early heightened tension that I was nearing the end because the pages were running out, no feeling of achievement (not quite the word I want – perhaps commitment or solidarity with the writer?) as I looked back at pages read and a shared journey.

Immersing myself in a book is a complete and utter abandonment of the daily routine. I let go of the world around me and enter another, with all my heart and mind and even soul. It’s a risky business, opening a book. If you choose the wrong author they can scar you. It’s a drug, and you want to get the good stuff, not the stuff cut with something cheap and nasty and damaging, like the time we gave a friend a crumbled Oxo cube and told him it was top quality grass. He smoked it and told us it was really good shit, and couldn’t understand why we fell about laughing. Bless teenagers for their pranks. You don’t want an Oxo cube novel.

I’m sorry, dear little e-reader, I know you tried really hard. I do have some use for you, but it’s more restricted than either of us hoped. I still admire your sample chapters. I still like your text resizing when I am having an off-day. I appreciate being able to buy trashy novels really cheaply to fill my time, or download classic texts for nothing to enjoy. Let’s stay friends. Sadly you will never be able to replace my many shelves of dusty, crumbling books, some with pages yellowed and crumbling after only 40 years. You can’t replace my reference books yet, although one day one of your descendants will try.

Several years ago I read a book by Nicholas Negroponte about his vision of the future for technology and he talked about electronic newspapers. The e-readers we have don’t come close to what he recognised as essential – the feel and convenience of something you can roll up, fit into a pocket, that weighs almost nothing. My newspaper subscription is now cancelled. The thing doesn’t even update through the day. I was still reading the news websites to find out the latest on stories I was interested in. I now consume news on the go, and even an electronic newspaper fails to meet my learned expectation of instant gratification to know the latest regarding Richard III’s skeleton or the results of a by-election or the progress of snow from west to east. To be fair, that’s what “news” means.

I tried, my friends, I tried so hard to commit utterly and faithfully to my dear little e-reader. It was not its fault, it can only do what it can do, as can we all. Its limitations were built in and it performed mightily within them. We aren’t compatible for a full-time relationship, but I think we’ll keep in touch and spend the odd evening in each other’s company.

And in the end, is this the wisdom I have found? To work within the boundaries of what is, to work creatively and joyfully to find my way in reading to the fullest extent that I am able, and not to bemoan or begrudge what is not possible. I have choices I never used to have, and if the world does not meet my exacting expectations, then I can still obtain pleasure from what is around me. Those three or so shelves (maybe four, who’s counting?) are still waiting patiently for my time and attention, and it shall be theirs.

Namaste.