Friday, January 22, 2010

Body scanners don't work

As I have said repeatedly - Perimeter security at airports is a joke. Or as Bruce Schneier calls it "security theater". No matter what technology you throw at it or how badly you treat the passengers it will never be effective. All it does is make dumb people think they are safe - in spite of spectacular failures like 9/11, and the shoe and underwear bombers...

The only solution is to make airplanes un-hijackable. Separate the flight deck from the passenger cabin and filter all communication between the two via ground control. Done.

This video is from German tv (and hence in the German language) but still illustrates the point to English only speakers. It's a good watch.

Bruice Schneier's comments.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Death Metal Rooster

I guess today is "Give music the bird day" on Tainted Guac...

Birds on the Wires

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What my dog did today

What my dog did today...

Wolves among dogs

This probably isn't the post you think it is.  It's another in the geek vs normal series I occasionally ramble on about.   I'd like to point out something to my fellow geeks that might save you some frustration. 

We all go on about the id-10-ts we support.  At least in some capacity.  You know you've done it.  It's human.  We also take on a lot of stress trying to figure out how to get through to these said "pebkey" users.  I want you to look at this from a different point of view.  Most of these users are so abstracted from our "world" that they literally don't know how to help themselves.  I'll illustrate with several examples:

Case 1. Someone on your email list (lets call her "Debbie")  doesn't know what the key term in a joke means.  You sent out a very funny missive revolving around a well known sci-fi or comic book character.  Maybe it was a clever one liner about math done in hex.  Whatever the case.  In Debbie's world her only recourse is to embarrass herself and ask for an explanation.  It does not even occur to her that she has the power of Google and Wikipeda at her fingertips.  Even though you've told her before.  Her experience and daily tool set do not include such things.  (she's one of the 10 people that still use phone books too)

Case 2.  Your parents.  They still insist on asking you if you read some story in the newspaper.  Even though you haven't subscribed since - well, since you moved out of their house.  They still insist in finding that said newspaper to look up movie listings.  Even though every time the subject has come up for the last 10 years you just look them up on your phone and answer before they can even find the paper.  You have to explain to your mom why resetting her cable modem fixes her telephone and you have to tell her "yes I got your email" when she invariably calls to check.

Case 3.  End user calls to ask you what your fax number is so they can send you a copy of the error they got on their screen.  Or a user calls you to tell you that a website is being blocked.

This happens to all of you.  Admit it.  You are frustrated every time too.  Mostly because "Debbie" actually works in the IT department, and your mom has gone out of her way (and yours) to read the "dummies" book on home networking and regularly attends a "dealing with modern gizmos" class at the local library.  Your users should engage their brain and understand that you need the EXACT URL not a general description,  and that the process of doing a screen print so that you can fax it is just plain stupid.  They should know better - right?

Nope.  They are normals.  They literally do not know how to help themselves.  Nothing you do will fix this.  Your dad will never look to the internet for help fixing anything.  Your mom will never trust that email thing or txt messages to get to you.  Debbie will always call someone else for help. The users will always find a way to shoot themselves in the foot - especially if it can involve a fax machine.

The reason - these are the tools in their world.  Debbie is probably pretty and sweet - or once was.  People have always helped her so calling someone else is her default tool.   Your parents have always had newspapers, and libraries, and you.  The users live in a telephone centric world.  When you want to communicate with someone not in the room.  The telephone is the primary choice.  Yes they know about email but then they would have to call you anyway to be sure you got their message...

It won't matter how much training you give these people.  They have their toolbox.  They are comfortable with what's in there because those tools have always worked for them.  It's the same reason that your dad never uses the laser level you got him for Christmas 5 years ago.  The worn out stick with the bubble in it has been his reliable friend for longer than you have been around.  Why learn how to use a new tool?  Because he is not capable of seeing the advantage of leveling an entire project at once (or why you would want to).  That's why.

I've done this to myself.  Not very often, but I have.  A great example is the DVR.  When they first came out it seemed like nothing more than an overblown VCR to me.  Yawn.   When a DVR with more than one tuner came out though - I immediately saw an advantage in not arguing with my (then) wife about what to watch / record.  Dumb reason to get one.  After I'd had one for a week or so it became obvious.  The DVR's big advantage is that you are suddenly in control of your tv viewing.  I don't have to stay up late to watch my favorite shows and I no longer have to decide which show I'm going to miss because they are on at the same time on differing channels.  My parents still refuse to use the program guide and choose to channel surf.  They saw a TV guide in the grocery store once and it didn't impress them as being useful.  How is this different?

Now to explain my metaphor.  There was a study done with wolves and dogs.  The wolves were "domesticated" - i.e. raised as pets by humans.  The researchers did several experiments.  Putting the animals in a situation where they needed to escape, or solve a simple problem in order to get to a treat.  In every case the wolves solved the problem themselves.   In all but a very few cases the dogs always gave up almost immediately and looked at, or barked for their humans to come solve the problem for them.  Dogs have been in the company of man since - well since there have been dogs and men.  We are their tools. 

My advice is simple my geek friend.  Relax and be the wolf that you are (and strive to be when you aren't) but recognize two things.  You are a wolf among dogs.  Dogs will never be wolves.

A Year Alone

January 13 will mark a year that I have been working remotely.  It's been interesting.  I looked back on some of my posts during this time and remembered how I felt when I wrote those posts.  Since June I've been working remotely - but in the same city as my office.  This has allowed me the best of both worlds and I highly recommend remote working in this way. 

I thought that after a year I would jot down some of what I've learned and a few tips for those in similar shoes.

  • If possible, use a VO/IP connection to your office so that your co-workers just need to dial your extension.  If VO/IP is not possible arrange to keep your extension and forward it.  Either use the capabilities of your employer's phone system to forward seamlessly (Avaya calls it EC500) or forward to Google Voice or similar (if you need a GV invite send me an email.  I've got a few).  The goal is to make contacting you as easy as possible for your co-workers.
  • Become a virtuoso on your phone system.  Of all features - know how to make conference calls for cripes sake!
  • Don't expect your co-workers to provide you with any information about what's going on.  They are used to seeing you in the office and assume that you know the full story.
  • Have at least a weekly meeting with your boss and specifically ask him/her what is going on.  What projects are in play that week. What meetings are going on. Who is doing what.  Put it on your list of questions and maybe explain why you always ask the same questions.  I'm terrible at this and always think I'll remember.
  • Call your buddies in the office a couple of times a week (put this on your calendar) just to chat for a few minutes.  Ask them the same questions that you ask your boss.  You are missing about a half dozen "walk by" meetings a day.  You have to make up for that.
  • Find and use remote meeting tools.  Don't force them on anyone else.  If you are attending someone else's meeting remotely - it's your job to contact them and setup the meeting tools for your use.  (my favorite is DimDim. Works like gotomeeting but it's free for meetings up to 20 - including a conference bridge!)
  • Don't waste too much time on video conferencing.   Skype is great.  The screen sharing feature is great and the voice quality is outrageous but unless you are doing an interview,  forget the video.  It's intrusive, and makes both parties self conscious for some reason. I've found that it's actually detrimental unless there is more than one party on one end.
  • If you can arrange it - have someone setup a PTZ web cam in any meetings you attend. (Thank you Rob!)  For some reason my personal understanding of what happens during a meeting goes from about 60% to about 90% when this is available.  There is also the added bonus that those in the room see the camera move and it gives you a physical presence on their end as well.
  • When you are on the phone.  Close your door and hit Mute when not speaking.  Just this morning I got to enjoy the sounds of a mother "whispering" to her daughter and some jackass eating (crunching) cereal during a technical troubleshooting call.
  • Realize that by working at home you have just gotten back the time it takes to dress for the office, as well as the commute time.  Use it.  Sleep late.  Work in your PJs. Get in some extra reading time, or arrange to drive your kids to school and get that little bit more time with them.
  • Working at home also gives you back the time that you would spend in "walk by" meetings and general BS contact you would have at the office.  Replace this with minor home tasks (or by calling your "buddies" at the office as above).   If not you will find that you have issues.   I actually have a hard time remembering to eat lunch since there is no-one around to remind me.  I also had difficulty early on - working myself out of a job.  I would sit down and concentrate without breaks and then find I had a weeks worth of work done only a few days into the week - and my back was excruciating.   Now I (try) to get up once an hour, at the end of phone calls, or when I complete a task and go fill the dishwasher,  change loads in the washing machine and sometimes go out for lunch.  This makes my day match up better with the office (and it helps to keep my house in better order).
  • Control your hours.  This sounds obvious but is MUCH harder than you think.  I have been reminded many times by my kids Saturday morning - or at 9pm when they have been waiting patiently for dinner...  Watch yourself.  If it starts to be a problem I suggest setting an alarm for say 6:30pm everyday.  make a deal with yourself to turn off the PC no matter what at that time.  I personally have to shut down my workstation.  If I leave it running the temptation to "just check" on things is too strong.
  • Exercise.  You get more than you think working in an office.  Running up a floor or two for a meeting.  Going to the lobby to visit the caffeine pusher.  Walking to the printer and on and on.  Mitigate this.  Schedule a dog walk mid afternoon.  Move your printer downstairs. Whatever will get you out of your chair and moving for 15 minutes every once in a while.  If not - join a gym or just go for a walk with a friend and meet them every day.
  • If you can work from home in the same city with your company.  Find a place to land in the office - take your laptop and keep regular office hours every week.  Let everyone know when you will be there.  Pick a meeting or two in your department and attend in person.  Done appropriately no one will even know you work from home.

I've made a few mistakes but overall after a year my co-workers have adjusted and are used to including me via speaker phone.  My telephone setup has been so successful that I now regularly get asked where I'm at.  Ive been so available that the only downside is that I get calls at times that I never would have in the past.  Maybe it was living in a different time zone that caused this.  I often get calls on my office line at 8 or 9pm - or worse 5am... 

Overall this has been fantastic for me.  I've been able to be available for my sons.  I get the dream (for a geek) of having the quietest office possible.  Now that I'm in the same city with my home office I also have the luxury of being in the office when I need to physically touch stuff or when I just need human interaction for a day.  

I think it's been great for the company too.  They don't need to provide the office to me (even though they do keep a small area just for me anyway - thank you!) and they got to keep a long time - trusted - employee, that might otherwise have had to change jobs due to life circumstances.  I'm not trying to overstate my importance to my employer here.  If you've never managed a group you won't understand how important this can be.   Just do a little googling on "employee retention" and you will start to see - at least from the monetary aspect. 

I also want to make sure that I make it clear - my boss at the time my life required such a dramatic change - was many things.  A good boss, interested, compassionate, a good friend, and above all, smart.  I want to publicly thank him for being so forward thinking.  I also want to thank my current boss (who's been with me for most of this past year) for the things he's done to help make this a success.   Which brings me to my final tip:

Working remotely when you have been an office worker for years requires more than the right equipment and a willing employee.  It requires a team.  An engaged employee willing to put extra work into the arrangement.  Searching for solutions and being creative.  It requires a manager that wants the relationship to be successful and co-workers that know and trust you.  If you are missing any of the above...  Well, good luck.

Thank you to my team!