Humbled at the altar of computers

Computers can be very humbling. I have worked with them for 25 years and almost every day I run into a situation where I feel like an absolute idiot because of one little thing. Life with computers as a profession is full of “Homer Moments.” D’oh!

I spent 45 minutes on Tuesday trying to get a firewall working for a new remote office, I finally found the problem and I felt that it was both a D’oh! and a “Why did they do it that way?” Yes I should have known better, I guess, but the one thing that didn’t work was one of 20 things that have to be set just perfectly in order for the firewall to work. Everything else I configured was dead-on perfect, including some VPN wrinkles with two other offices.

I often go back and forth between that humbling moment and that frustration of not having that last piece of the puzzle. Both emotions really can put one in one’s place in one’s relationship with computers and technology. In that 45 minutes where it is not working, you start questioning your skills, your intelligence (limited anyway,) and what the heck you are doing here right now. You never know if you are going to get it working, and you have people in the main office and the new office hearing that the data service is installed but still they can’t email.

This is the time to settle down and refocus and know that this is normal and carry on the best way you can. This is why you are where you are and doing what you are doing. Usually, the problem solves, and you can get a feeling of extreme relief that you still have a job and you can move to the next crisis. One thing I try to do is take the experiences I have and remember that frustration when I deal with other folks who are having computer problems whom I have to help.

Tom

Figuring things out

If you have been paying any attention, you have noticed that I love Anne. Thing is, while we refer to ourselves as husband and wife, we aren’t. We have had a very nice church ceremony and everything but we didn’t call it a wedding and we didn’t file the paperwork with the Great State of California. This was to protect the kids.

Both of us had children from previous marriages, and we could tell from the beginning that blending this set was not going to be in their best interest. So, rather than having any of the kids move away from any of their parents, we do the travelling. We’re the adults, and it’s our relationship that would cause the issues, so we decided not to join houses or families while the children are still in school.

Logistically, this is a real pain in the butt. While only 30 miles apart, this is LA, and that means anywhere from 35 minutes to 3 hours. That last number is not an exaggeration. There have been times that I have had to stop for dinner and go to the bathroom on the way to Anne’s house from work, also 30 miles away. There are those times that you wish the other person was there, but isn’t. There are times when you question your commitment to the other person because you feel you “should” be able to see them more often.

At those times, I just have to sit back and realize that, right now, my son comes first and this is the best thing for him at the moment. Is it really the best thing? Who knows, but it feels like it to me and that’s what you have to go on sometimes.

It’s a crazy way to have a relationship but it works for us for now. We had the ceremony 4 years ago, having gotten together 3 years before that. Once we realized that we were going to have a pretty non-standard relationship from a living perspective, it very much freed up how we deal with everything that comes up. There really is no “because that’s how normal people do things” in our problem solving. We don’t have the time nor the patience for that. Nor would it fit the situation.

Tom

Extroverts are evil

There is this personality inventory called Myers-Briggs (or Briggs-Meyers) that follows, to some degree, Jungian personality types. One of the measures that this test or profile uses is a scale of introversion and extroversion. One of the questions relating to this usually is worded like “When I am with people, I feel energized.” and then you would scale your answer from strongly agree to strongly disagree. There is often a complementary question that is worded like ” When I am with people, I feel drained.” I have seen this test enough so that I can come out as anything I want, but when I take it honestly, I rank on the more extreme side of introversion.

From statistics on this test I have seen, Extroverts outnumber Introverts by about the ratio of 67% to 33%, or about 2:1. Being somewhat of a geek, I related this to the law of the conservation of energy, and realized that, because the amount of energy is static, that if an extrovert gains energy in a group, that means that he or she is getting it from somewhere.

That somewhere is me! Not only that, because Extroverts outnumber us 2:1, that means that from an energy perspective, I am being sucked dry by two people. No wonder I hate crowded places.

Tom

What this blog is about

This blog came about because I finally figured out what somebody was asking for. Almost as an aside, someone at work asked me about blogging and if and how it would be useful for some project they might be entertaining at a later date. This is a very standard kind of inquiry that I might get.

At first, I thought they wanted to know how a blog technically operates on a server and how to maintain it, etc. On further questioning, I really found out this person needed to know how a blog operates in a more organic sense.

While I couldn’t write a blog on the subjects that this person was interested in, I could write this blog as a protoblog, as it were. It shows the amount of time involved, and that person knows me well enough to understand what is being blogged about.

That’s how it started, but that’s not where it is going. I really don’t know exactly where, and that’s OK with me. I just know that at this point I am enjoying it more than I expected to, and like housekeepers, it’s cheaper than therapy.

Tom

Straight Arrow

As I mentioned in a previous post, Anne and I really don’t have that many issues between us. We do have minor differences in degree.

In their family, all of Anne’s siblings have this deal where as aunts and uncles, they can “spoil and corrupt,” doing things with the nieces and nephews that are good things to show them, but parents may not be the best ones to do so. It’s an open secret in the family that this is happening. By the time the nieces and nephews get to be teenagers, they have pretty much figured it out, too.

Well, Anne and her sister Delia were talking about one of these “corruptions” and I said I don’t think that’s a very good idea at all. You should never do that. etc. etc. etc. Anne gave me this little “Yes, dear” look.

I thought about that for a bit. I came back about an hour later and told her that one of the reasons that she loves me (I think) is that I am a “straight arrow guy. But part of that is sometimes the arrow seems to be up my butt.”

She just smiled a little smile and kept her mouth shut. I told you she was smart.

Tom

Two little words

Every department and company can develop its’ own nomenclature. Our department certainly falls into this. In fact, there is a couple of associated terms where two little prepositions make all the difference in the world. The terms are “working at home” and “working from home”.

Like most companies now, we have IT infrastructure in place so that employees can access enough IT resources remotely so that a good chunk of the people can do a good chunk of their work remotely. I was the one who did that at our place.

When I first started at my current job about four years ago, there was this one road warrior who was so frustrated with the connection methods and limitations that when she came into the office (every two months,) she was almost in tears with frustration. I couldn’t stand that anymore. Nobody should have to put up with that. Not if I could do anything about, which I could.

I took a server that was taken out of first line service, but still in pretty good shape, and put together a Terminal Server in about a day or two. I expected this to be a demonstration project and then I would rebuild it and do it “for real.” Well, it ended up going live in about a week, and we have been using TS on multiple servers to run the road warriors, two new remote offices, and folks who need to perform work tasks within their abode ever since.

My goal for remote service has always been 85% of the people able to do 85% of their work remotely. Why not 100%? Because that last 15% /15% segment would be at least twice as expensive as the first 85%/85% segment, if it were possible at all. Some of this is from legacy programs that were never designed to run in either multi-user or via a slow remote connection. Some of this is from massive file transfers that a T1 just won’t handle.

Another reason I did this was that I was being lazy again. I wanted a way where I could check on things – and fix things – at my house so that I did not have to get in the car and drive to work at 2:00 in the morning to fix something simple on a server that stopped a crucial service.

Getting back to the “home” thing: Now that we have a platform that allows working in the house pretty efficiently, we in the IT department take advantage of that. There are two basic ways that occurs.

The first is something is wrong, somebody called us, it’s 2:00 am and we’re going to be doing something pretty darn ugly that nobody likes to do. The other variant is that we plan to do something at 10:00 pm so that effects the fewest number of people. That is “working at home.” At is the bad preposition.

The good preposition is from. If I am “working from home,” it means that I have made it so that I don’t have to go to the office that day on a day that I normally would have. Sometimes this is recovering from a working at home session, sometimes this is a personal scheduling thing, sometimes it is because the task I have to get done can be done better out of the office. This is by no means a day off., but it really is nice when it is possible to do it.

There have been times when I have turned on my computer to check things out before going to work, and I just kept on rolling. By the time I look at the time,it was 4 hours later. No sense driving in then, unless I had a specific appointment.

The big thing for me on those “work from home” days is just not facing that LA traffic. Chances are, I will spend more actual time on the computer and doing real work when I am working from home than when I am in the office.

I do have problems when working inside my home (from or at) that I don’t have when I am in the office.

  • The refrigerator is too close at hand.
  • “Harry” the cat does not understand the difference between “work time” and “lap time” and thinks my laptop gets all nice, warm and cozy when I use it all day. This is not the worst problem in the world to have, I admit.
  • It’s a long walk to the server room if something happens
  • I lose track of time at home. I end up working longer.
  • I lose separation of home and work. That’s a real yucky one.

These truly are just random thoughts. I have no quip or ending paragraph or statement like I normally do. If I come up with something better to wrap up this post, I’ll edit it later.Tom

I’m going to miss Memorial Day

Memorial Day is this coming Monday. I’m going to miss it. I’ll be working – not the first time, nor the last, I am guessing. But that’s that not the real reason that I’ll miss it.

For the last nine or 10 years, my son and I have done something for Memorial Day together. He is now 16 and is now starting (continuing) that breakaway stuff. He doesn’t want to do the Memorial Day thing anymore.

We really didn’t do that much. I live in the Los Angeles area. Memorial Day is just not a big thing around here at all. It may be that way everywhere. When my son, Patrick, was in 1st grade, we were in the car on Memorial Day and I asked him why he had the day off from school. He hemmed and hawed, but didn’t really know.

I pulled the car over into the local supermarket’s parking lot (much better than pulling “the car over into the local supermarket,” which was in the first draft), picked up some flowers, headed across town to the Los Angeles National Cemetery. Remember, this is LA, where “across town” could be 35 miles.

We get there and I tell him to “pick a guy,” someone (actually, gravestone) that we were going to visit and remember every year. He did – Walt Allen Smith. I know nothing about him other than that, but that’s OK. So we started the tradition of going every year. We specifically did not want to be there for the speeches that took place every year, but we often saw some of the festivities, like the shooting of old artillery and canon, by recreation groups. We could be there for 10 minutes or an hour. It didn’t make a difference. We just had to show up and do it.

This was before I met Anne. At the time she and I got together, she was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force with 23 years of service, active duty and reserves. She thought that this was a neat thing that Patrick and I were doing, and started joining us for the pilgrimage, in uniform. She retired from the Air Force two years ago with 28 years of service.

This is not a big thing, I guess. But not doing it with Patrick marks the passage of time. You can always hope that your kids take up your traditions, but you can never be sure which ones are going to “take”. It’s the kind of thing where you have several traditions and hope that something sticks.

I may get over to the cemetery this weekend before I get on the plane for work. Maybe it will be next weekend. But it won’t be the same. That’s OK. It’ll just be different.

Tom

Thai Roulette and truly random events

I was at dinner last Saturday night with Anne, her daughter and two other very recent graduates of Harvey Mudd College. It was a hole-in-the-wall Thai place, where every entry on the menu has an associated number. The numbers ranged from 1 to about 100, if I remember correctly.

Everyone had ordered different things and we all were able to share, which is pretty standard for this kind of Asian restaurant. The food was quite good and quite reasonably priced. About 2/3rds through the meal, I thought that this would a good place to come with some people, a debit card, and a random number generator to order the dishes from. I mentioned this to the table and everyone thought it would be a great idea.

No one even blanched at the mention of the random number generator. It was that type of crowd. The recent graduates were either engineers or chemists. I work in IT. Anne works as a satellite engineer. I was clearly the dumb one at the table, though I don’t think that is difficult to accomplish normally.

Thinking about this later, I realized that I would actually need one of my old statistics books instead of my laptop, because the stat book had truly random numbers, while the laptop would only have pseudo-random numbers. Here I was, worrying over the vagaries of random number theory in relationship to cheap, but tasty, Thai food.

I think I need a life sometimes.

Tom

Taming the (cookie) beast within

Here’s the deal. I am a very boring person. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t gamble. I don’t do drugs. I don’t cheat. I don’t know how to do any of those things. I don’t have a boat, or an RV or an old car. I don’t play golf. I am so boring that one of my hobbies is baking cookies. Now that’s pretty darn bad.

It all started because I hated spending $3.00 to $4.00 for a bag of crumby, crumbly, shortening-laden, tasteless chocolate chip cookies at the store. Yucky stuff. So, I tried the refrigerated cookie dough. That was an improvement, but it just wasn’t right. It still tasted a little too…industrial.

That left me with no choice but to try my own hand at it. So it was off to that heretofore foreign part of the store where things “from scratch” were made – the baking section. I grabbed the yellow bag with the recipe that would become my sweet-tooth salvation.

I had to buy everything – I didn’t have the flour or the baking soda, or the eggs or the butter or the brown sugar. I might not even have had the white sugar. I know I didn’t have the vanilla. That was a killer in price the first time. I was thinking that all of a sudden that $3.50 a bag is looking pretty cheap right now. I got everything home and pretty much followed the recipe as written. While this first batch didn’t look that great, it certainly tasted great. Enough to say good bye to bags o’ cookies.

Then all of a sudden things started showing up in the kitchen. Like better half-sheet pans. Then a better hand mixer (which I ended up killing.) Then specialized cookie scoops. First the small one, then large, then the medium one to round out the set. Then a digital kitchen scale (used for gram weights, of course). Then silicone mats for the sheet pans. Cooling racks. Self-compiled spreadsheet with US volume to metric weight conversions for flour, sugars, cocoa, and other ingredients. Then, finally, the Beast, the shortened form of the Cookie Beast. I just found (and ordered) some neat flame decals for it.

Long ago, the cost of the cookies was no longer in the food budget, but in the hobby budget. I just hadn’t realized it.

I don’t make cookies every day, or even every week. But I know that I can. I always have all the ingredients on hand. In fact, I have the proper sugar mix and the dry ingredients in separate containers with the gram weights required for half – and full batches on labels. It’s very nice to know that I could make them anytime I wanted.

I have since branched out to other baked goods, especially brownies, where I end up spending way too much on cocoa. Am I a strange, boring fellow? You decide. But the cookies are good.

Tom

Tech at night means I’m not sleeping anytime soon

I don’t know if this is a tech thing or an ADD thing, or just I’m plain old nuts. Any of the three are equally possible.

I can’t do any technical reading or programming or anything like that after 7:00pm. If I do, I will not sleep very much at all. I’ll end up dreaming in Perl or C++ or, worse yet, in something like SMTP, if I am playing with a mail server.

It’s a horrible thing. I have to make sure that I watch 2 – 3 hours of television (the more mundane the better) after doing anything with computers at night. I just can’t shut it off in my brain.

This sounds like a funny thing, but just wait until you have your first dream about regular expressions or how you messed up your company’s sendmail.cf file and how you are going to lose every piece of mail ever sent – even when you don’t use sendmail as your main mail server.

I am apparently not the only one like this. While I haven’t had this exact dream, I have had this dream’s cousin. This is why some programmers just stay up all night to program. They’re not going to sleep well anyway, so they might as well accomplish something.

Tom