Category Archives: Old articles

Old articles dug out of the archives

Your host for this evening

Ages ago I had meant to post some old articles from 1997/98 that I’d found on a floppy disk. For some reason I only did two, but I’ll resume re-posting, as some of them are mildly interesting and/or entertaining.

The field of computer systems development always involves decision making. To make a decision requires discussion, postulating, debating, and yes, arguing. And there is one issue in the field that is probably subject to this process more than any other. Although it may arise in less than half of the system development projects that run, I suspect that most computer professionals have at one time or another found themselves sitting in heated discussion around a table trying to answer the question:

“What are we going to call the box?”

There is no more thorny issue than this. A new computer has arrived. It’s a server, so practically everybody will need to use it. It has to be installed, and somewhere along the line, it has to be named.

Naming children is easier. Trust me, I’ve been through both experiences. At least when children are concerned, you’re limited by their sex, and generally by social considerations, such as giving the poor kid a name they’re not going to hate, and that people know how to pronounce and spell. Plus there’s usually a maximum of two people who really have a say in the decision.

But naming a computer is much, much harder. Everybody wants to use their favourite cartoon or sci-fi character, or their favourite planet, or their favourite name from some obscure piece of mythology. Apart from four letter words (you know the ones I mean), just anything goes.

Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s easy. This is when some boring corporate standard comes into play, and the project manager decides that he or she is too gutless (or at least, lacks the political clout) to buck the corporate standard, no matter how boring it is.

It’s during these times that new computers end up with boring names like “nus202” and “vax24”. And while they may be lacking in personality (and they are often almost indistinguishable from their siblings in the computer room), at least they’re usually easy to remember and spell.

But if upper-management doesn’t dictate something, what do you do? I’ve been on projects where just about everyone had their opinion, and we ended up having to do a kind of informal vote. It was either that or a pie fight, and a pie fight would’ve left the conference room in a less than ideal state.

Some organisations have a series of machines to name, and so they work out a theme. Planets is popular (though people tend to shy away from Uranus), and I’ve also encountered fish. One place I worked, we used characters from The Simpsons (Homer is common), but we got bored with it after a while, and switched to other cartoons.

In the end it doesn’t matter. But it definitely helps if everyone knows where the name comes from. Once the mail server I used was called “Banjora”. I still don’t know what that one means.

Mails behaving badly

(Originally written 1997)

There’s no doubt about it, electronic mail is a truly wonderful thing. Using it, I can sit at my desk all day sending trivial messages to my friends, colleagues and family, whether they’re across the world or across the room.

But I have the feeling that some people just don’t quite “get” e-mail. There are people out there who, it seems, don’t quite use it in a logical way. Or at least a way that I think of as logical, and I generally consider myself to be a reasonably logical person, although some of my friends would beg to differ.

This illogical use of e-mail especially seems to be the case in the corporate world, where so often few objections are made to the over-enthusiastic obliteration of time, disk and paper resources.

Take, for example, those people who for no good reason, will not read e-mail on a screen. Yes, there really are people in the world who have to print out all their e-mail onto what remains of a dead tree before they’ll read it. In fact, I knew a guy who, having to clear out his e-mail, printed it all out onto paper. I’m not sure what he did with it – perhaps he hired a truck to take it home, or bought a new filing cabinet to store it all in.

Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t printing out the mail defeat the purpose somewhat? Once it’s on paper, okay, you can read it, but after it’s filed away somewhere, how are you ever going to find it again? If it’s still in the e-mail system, you can file it, sort it, search for it, reply to it, forward it, and even chop out a bit that contains a really good idea and send it to other people claiming that you thought of it. Not that I’d ever do that, of course.

Another thing that some people do is to send every single message, big or small, important or trivial, as “high priority”. High priority on mail systems doesn’t actually send the message any faster; it simply flags it to the receiver to try to indicate what is important and what isn’t. I’m not sure why these people flag them all high priority, but I’ve seen them do it, and I think it’s almost a subconcious thing. They write their message, and clicking on the high priority icon or button seems like second nature – it’s just something you do before you click Send.

At one job I had, we used an e-mail system that allowed an “extra extra high priority” flag to be set. I got my mail program to automatically bump messages with this flag down a priority point. What could possibly be THAT important? The building burning down? The imminent arrival of the Queen Of England? Chocolate biscuits in the biscuit jar? I don’t think so. News that important never travels by e-mail.

People in corporations also tend to send mail to far too many people. Okay, so there are the times when everybody might need to know about a meeting or something. But sometimes it’s just something that’s come down the line from above, and they feel they have to tell absolutely everybody they can – no matter how irrelevant it is.

Some people feel like they have to make elaborate use of attachments, because they think, for whatever reason, that their message has to be written in Word, or some other application. Most of the time when I get an attached Word document in my mail, I open it and find a message that is completely plain text. No bold or italics, no superscript, no fancy fonts, nothing!

Fact is, these attachments increase astronomically the amount of stuff being flung around the network. You can see the LAN and Mail Administrator guys sweating every time that somebody does something like this.

At one job I was at, someone decided that everybody needed to see a new freeware screensaver that he’d got hold of. Did he put it on a shared drive, then notify people where they could find it? Heck no. He mailed it – all 7 megabytes of it – to everybody. A masterstroke, I’m sure you’ll agree. It clogged up the entire mail system for hours, as I recall.

But the ultimate in irony was a document somebody wrote detailing how to use the mail system in such a way as to avoid overloading it. It was a beautifully prepared masterpiece, with colourful illustrations throughout, and the file came out to about half a megabyte. [At the time, a lot.] The author then sent this to all 200 people in the organisation, once again, clogging up the mail system.

So there you have it, a whole range of ways to misuse your e-mail system and harrass your Mail Administrator. Which will you choose?

Backup, backup, backup

I was sick at home for a couple of days last week, and while pottering about the house blowing my nose, found some old floppy disks. I decided to move all their data onto CD, and in the process found some old articles I wrote in 1997 for an abortive gig as a columnist for a US-based magazine. Some of them are still relevant, so I’ll re-post them here every Monday for the next few weeks.

In the computing world, stories abound of people losing large chunks of work. This never used to happen, because people used to use far more reliable, but arguably less productive, methods of working. Like paper. Okay, so if all your work was on paper, you could lose large chunks of it, but this tended to be because of something disasterous – an enormous fire, perhaps – and in that situation, life and limb is going to be the first priority, not your work.

Modern technology however, has brought with it a multitude new and exciting ways of losing all your work. Hard disks can crash, or develop errors. They can be accidentally formatted. Your files can be moved, deleted, corrupted, overwritten. This is why you need to take very good care of your files. Back them up regularly, or the day may come when your work is lost and you don’t have any way of recovering it.

A few years ago, I was working writing software for a big company. My colleagues and I had performed a true miracle of coding, and had delivered a piece of software that would change for the better the lives of hundreds of people working in that particular bit of the company. Okay, so it wasn’t going to solve third world hunger or bring world peace, but we were very pleased with it.

One Friday afternoon, I was looking on our shared network drive at the files that made up our masterpiece, when I noticed something odd. Some of the files and directories that I expected to be there, weren’t. I looked again. More were missing. They were disappearing before my very eyes.

I, not to put too finer point on it, panicked. I sent a system broadcast message asking anybody who might be listening “Why are the files on N: disappearing?” I looked again. The files stopped disappearing, but most were already gone. The phone rang. I answered it.

“Uh oh”, said the quavering voice of the LAN Administrator on the other end of the phone. He had been given the task of clearing up one of the file servers. He had used a utility’s PRUNE command to do it. A flawless plan. Just one small snag. Wrong server.

No problem, right? Go to the backups, right? Wrong. It just so happens that the LAN people at this place had been a little lax in the backups department. For about 3 months. Yes, THREE months. It was when we realised this that we decided to call this day “Black Friday”, and we spent most of the rest of the afternoon moping around the office looking miserable. You can bet that if there had been supplies of alcohol available, they would have been consumed quite rapidly.

As it happens, there was a consolation. I had copied many of our more important files onto my hard drive, a mere three weeks before Black Friday, “just in case”. Three weeks’ work lost wasn’t exactly a cause for celebration, but it was better than three months’.

I didn’t feel vengeance towards Mr Pruner. Mistakes happen. What wasn’t forgivable, in my book, was the conduct of his boss, whose responsibility it was to ensure that the backups happened, so that when mistakes like that happen, the files are recoverable. It’s just as well that he’s substantially bigger than me, otherwise murder might have been committed that day.

The moral of the story is this: Make sure your files are backed up. Frequently. Double-check that it’s actually being done. Triple check, even. If someone else does it, make a spare set yourself occasionally. If you don’t, then make sure there’s plenty of alcohol in the office fridge. Because when Black Friday hits you, it might be the only help available.