Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Trying to give Microsoft my money goes 5 for 5

Update: This has now resolved; 
The issue is between Azure and VisualStudio.com, which has a black hole where payments disappear into for an inordinately long time before it's reflected on the other side (this is alluded to as a possible cause further down in this post). 

If you don’t know my previous experiences at trying to hand over my money to Microsoft (all documented in this blog) in the past, here’s a quick run down of the silliness I’ve encountered:

  • You can't order a Microsoft Windows Kinect sensor for delivery to your home without a Live account.
  • If a bricks-and-mortar Microsoft Store does not have the Microsoft hardware you wish to purchase, you can't ask the store to order it so you can come in later and pay for it.  (This was documented in some length here)
  • A Microsoft help chat representative told me in November I can't order a copy of Windows 8 to run under Parallels on a Mac (this was reported immediately to Microsoft as that's just really bad advice).
  • You can immediately buy a Windows download - except they only give you stub that is useless if you've not yet gotten a copy of Windows to run it in.
So today I went to purchase a subscription for Visual Studio Online.  The initial stumbling block was Microsoft wanted a credit card number, but then told me I might already have the supplied number on file (it’s not explicit about whether it is or isn’t there) or that there might be another error - but won’t let you look up if there is a card on file or not…   Hitting refresh and this went away.  Magic, eh?

I wanted the Professional version of Visual Studio.  I linked Azure to my Visual Studio account, selected the subscription quantity and it charged my card.  At least it said it did…  

There’s three versions of Visual Studio Online:
  • Basic
  • Pro
  • Ultimate.

I clicked the new subscription I had created, went to downloads and I’m presented with options to “Try Ultimate” or download the free stuff that I’m trying to upgrade from.  

The middle one (the Pro version that I just bought) is not an option.

I checked the billing page and the card charge doesn’t show up yet.  Now, I know Microsoft has an internal time-continuum that can lead to things being paid for that haven’t been paid according to other internal systems - so I know I shouldn’t try again just incase I get charged twice.

So, I now have to twiddle my thumbs and wait to see if Microsoft did actually take the money or not, because they’re reporting I have a professional subscription that doesn’t show up on Visual Studio, but does in Azure - except for where the real proof is, which is on the billing screen.

Why does giving my money to Microsoft always have to be this difficult?  That's 5 times I've tried to hand them money and 5 times something has gotten horribly complicated.


Spring Cleaning and IT

Now that spring is almost here, it’s time to do spring cleaning.  What does this mean from an IT standpoint?   Depending on what areas of IT you’re in, this could mean anything from cleaning physical hardware like grungy keyboards and screens, to finding files that no longer have to be kept around for compliancy reasons. 

Cleaning hardware is easy.  There’s a myriad of solutions from dust blowers and vacuums to solutions, so it doesn’t take long to find out what needs to be done for each individual piece of equipment.

Cleaning out data is a little trickier.  When you keep data around for a long time, you have three things to consider:
  • How long to keep it.
  • How to access it if you had to retrieve it.
  • What to do with it afterwards.

In the case of information that you’re often required to keep around for 7 years or more, this can get especially tricky.  Ask yourself if you can open your accounting files you last touched in 2007?  How about opening on your Mac, those Wordperfect documents you wrote on your PC in 2004?

It’s a major problem.  

The solution is usually to stick to well-supported document formats, but sometimes this just isn’t an option.  Word 2013 will open up Word documents going back to 1997 with no problem, and some Works files that are even earlier, but if you’ve changed platforms then this means either shelling out for Windows and running it in a Virtual Machine to get access to old data, or migrating it to a new format.

If you have to migrate, this can get tricky as you may find the direct “Format A to Format B” migration path isn’t available.  Sometimes, you have to take a “Format A to Format B, then Format B to Format C” option through an intermediary software package.

Finally, there’s the issue of what to do with old data.  In the old days, drive space was much more expensive than it is these days, so a lot of data would be archived to new media and removed, or destroyed.  These days, it’s simpler to just put it aside - that way it’s still on hand for reference purposes.  Also, data that is easily accessible is likely to be used more, and thus less susceptible to becoming obsolete as it will more likely be upgraded to remain in a current format. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

9 to 5 Customer Service Departments

Why do some customer service departments constantly call me to resolve issues between 9-5 on Mondays to Fridays when I'm at work, yet people who really want to reach me (collections departments, survey companies, etc) have known for forty-plus years that you call people at dinner time when they're more likely to be around the phone.

What can we deduce from this?  We can deduce the priorities of the caller.  

If someone is working with success based on metrics based (dollar amounts, numbers of surveys filled, etc) then they align themselves with this goal of actually reaching the customer, but if a bank for example has a customer service department that only calls you during business hours, we can deduce that resolving the customer issue isn't the priority.  

Instead, something else is the priority and it puts the department at a discord with its customers, because the customer service department has a "higher priority" that forces it to operate on the 9 to 5 working hours of other more important dependancies than the resolution of it's customers issues.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The TTC, Wi-Fi and Impression Fraud

For those that don't live in Toronto, here's a quick primer:  We have a transit system known as The TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) and for the longest time, us subway users have been screaming that we want data when underground.  So, the TTC met us half-way and started installing Wi-Fi in the stations only.  

Right, as you are aware by now, we have a new Wi-Fi system called TConnect being rolled out on the subway system.  It's plenty quick, and I do use it to refresh my twitter feed before jumping on the subway train, or to tell the house I'm coming home from work.

But, I've found a problem.

In advertising, you have metrics that show you how many people you're reaching.  These metrics are usually based on numbers in the multiples of 1000 - and for reasons I still don't understand, we use the Latin version (mille) instead of English (thousand) so the "Cost Per Thousand" eyeballs, or listeners, is usually represented as "CPM" (Cost Per Mille).  Thus, a CPM of $10 means it's costing you a cent per person reached.

Understanding this is crucial, because advertising is based on a simple premise.  An advertiser pays a certain amount of money based on this CPM and the advertising system reaches that many people.  This is why a Super Bowl advert is way more than a daytime weekday ad spot - you're reaching more people.

In the digital advertising world, you have a slightly altered version of this.  Whereas TV and Radio can't say "OK, you've reached the 10,000 people you wanted to reach, now we're cutting you off", the digital systems can record an exact count of the number of times an advert has been played.  This is known as the "Impression Count".  It's supposed to be more accurate than a TV or Radio system, so it's trusted more.

Now imagine you are purchasing advertising space on the new TTC TConnect system.  Imagine you are paying a cent per impression (so a CPM of $10)... You would expect that when you're presented with a $500 bill for reaching an impression count of 50,000 that 50,000 people have actually seen your advert, right?

Not on TConnect.  

They've left the ability to scrub through adverts (FFwd through them) enabled.  So, if you are required to watch a 30 second video to get your free connection because an advertiser is paying for it, you just immediately FFwd to the last 2 seconds so it records reaching the end of playing the advert - then you're in.  Meanwhile, the advertiser still gets billed for showing an advert that hasn't actually been watched.

That is basically Impression Fraud.

A Primer On Basement Flooding In Toronto

Basement flooding is one of the realities of living in Toronto.  There's three major problems here:

  • The houses are often built over the top of aquifers, flood-plains and other places with a naturally high water table.  This means the water rises until you find it coming up under the floor.
  • The infrastructure wasn't designed to handle what the city planners threw at it.  A perfect example is the street I currently live on.  The storm sewer was laid in the 1950s and it's plenty big enough to handle our street, but in the 1960s and 1970s when the city planners decided to pave over 100 acres of nearby fields to turn it into car parks and big box stores, that's 100 acres of storm water catchment with no ground to seep into.  The water runs into the drains, and those are connected to the storm sewers that run towards the lake.  On its way, it runs past our neighbourhood, which is also connected to the same sewers and so it barrels back up into people's basements.
  • The homeowners are at fault, for not fixing up eaves-troughs, downspouts, soil-grading, disconnecting weeping tile, etc.

As a home-owner, you end up having to play detective - trying to work out what combination of the above is causing your flooding.

The current house I live in, which was built in 1952, was purchased by me in 2011.  In 2012, we got flooded in our basement after 50mm of rain fell in one hour. That cost $26,000 to fix (thankfully, we had sewer backup and flood insurance!).  The main cause there was the city sewers backed up.  This was easy to fix going forward - install a back flow preventer.  In 2013, we had a storm where over 70mm of rain fell in one hour, and our flooding was reduced by 95%... the back flow preventers were doing their job.

The new problem we could see was whilst we solved the problem of back-flow, the water table would rise so fast it was breaching the basement floor.  Now it looked like we needed a sump pump to relieve the hydrostatic pressure (the pressure from the rising water table) by pumping out the water before it gets high enough to breach the basement concrete floor.  Thankfully, I already had a 1/2hp submersible pump, so I threw that down the hole where the back-flow preventer was - thus I had jury-rigged a sump pump to remove most of what had still entered, but we didn't need to call the insurance company.

The next issue was the downspouts and eaves-troughs.  I emptied those, got everything ship shape, and we survived another 50mm an hour downpour with just a little puddling.  However, I'd still not saved up enough for the sump pump. 

Then, I made a silly mistake...

My partner had ordered some eaves trough cleaning company from Groupon to come and empty everything in the autumn.  They got so overwhelmed it's now spring and they're still not coming for another month.  In the meantime, I didn't brave the cold and go up there myself.

So, we arrive at today, and where the eavestrough overflowed down the wall, we have another huge puddle in the basement.  Further, because I'd still not got the sump pump in, we had more puddles in the family room.

Whilst I couldn't fix the horses that have bolted, I could prevent one more catastrophe - the 3ft of snow round the house had to be dug up and shifted, so it's not melting against the foundation walls.  That appears to have relieved some of the downward flow to the puddles.

I'm now entertaining estimates for the sump pump, and come spring, will re-grade the soil where necessary.

The moral of the story is this:  I've got 99% less problems now, than I had when I first bought the house.  Further, most of the issues now are preventable.  Whilst the sump pump is expensive (they have to break through the basement floor, go down a good metre or more and install the well wall and drop in the pump, then go through the external wall and install a discharge pipe), the rest is free - it's just a case of taking the time and planning when to do preventative maintenance. 

A good 75% of today's issues in my basement could have been prevented for free, but I would have to have put in the effort last year, then moved some of the snow as soon as it fell.  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Government Rant

As most people know, I live in Canada as a "Permanent Resident", but I'm actually still British and not a Canadian.  What this means is I have a British Passport, but I live in Canada and have every obligation that a Canadian has, such as paying taxes and abiding by all laws without exemption, but I have have the added benefit in that I can't be blamed for anything the government does, because taxpaying residents aren't eligible to vote.  

Unlike governments, I'm a product of the modern era.  It was through helping North Americans from my base in the UK during the mid-90s that brought me here.  However, like governments, I have a habit of integrating myself into many things.

I'm intimately familiar with four governments.  

  • The UK Government is the one that raised me - and I don't have too much respect for the top level, though I do for the local levels.  The reason for this is simply that once I worked with the upper levels, I felt like there wasn't much substance to it.  Meanwhile at the local levels, people don't shuffle around so much and so they actually try to make a difference.
  • The French Government is the one that I have never forgiven after they tried to pin blame on me for something that required the services of American forensics experts to prove I wasn't the cause of the issue.
  • The American Government is the one that (border control people excepted) always appears to be in sync with me.  I explain how something can be improved and they listen.  I also never hit a problem where things just "stop" because of "not my job" mentality - if I needed to be handed off to someone else, they hand me over.
  • The Canadian Government is the one that has been my host for the past 15 years.  It appears to be a cross between the UK one and the American one.  It inherited the disjointedness of the US System, and the arbitrary anchors of bureaucracy that hobbles the UK one.
There's one additional "government" I am very very familiar with: Toronto's municipal government - meaning the City of Toronto.  My face is probably on a dart-board at City Hall, because I don't actually deal with City Hall much; choosing instead to find the name of the person responsible for each problem and then dealing with them directly. 

I look at the role of government as very simply being a framework that helps it's people to prosper.  How it does this is through silos of health, education, economics and safety - and all of this is paid through taxation.  The way it should work is like this:  The government helps you, and you prosper thus giving money to the government to help it help you further.  It should be a symbiotic relationship.

However, it's not actually like this.  More often than not, the government doesn't want to help and it offloads the responsibility to the people.  This then leads to the observation that the government only exists to further the government.

Anyone that knows me well will know that I have a habit of integrating into all things.  Sometimes, I end up in some strange places that I didn't expect to be in.   I also keep an eye out for things that need fixing, and I'm more than happy to voice my opinion or show people a better way.  

Sometimes, I fix or make things work in sensitive environments.  This ranges from Air Forces and Armies, through to Home Offices, Police Forces, Supermax Prisons, Nuclear Facilities, Presidential Libraries, and local authorities.  In the case of Canada, one particular example of my tinkering is that Canada has an industry silo called "Industry Canada" and that has an R&D department called The National Research Council of Canada.  The very top of this chain are top advisors to guide the national effort.  Who has been called to help them?  Me.

So, in Canada, I've already managed to achieve the situation of being simultaneously above the top of the government chain whilst also being ignored at the bottom of it.

Contrast this with the USA:  There, I'm a nobody as I don't live there and I'm not American, but I'm a nobody that gets listened to.  They understand I'm actually trying to help.  This has led to humorous situations where my receptionist has in the past come to my desk in a state of disbelief saying that the White House, or Andrews AFB, or Fort Bliss is on the phone.

Of course, this level of tinkering like a one-man-band/loose-cannon couldn't go on forever, so I was put into the Joint Certification Program to have a few house rules put around me.  Cutting a long story short, that path culminated with me becoming a one-man NATO codified C4ISR R&D mobile software engineer, which just pushed me even further down the path of being taken seriously by the Americans.  

This resulted in a new "at the top and bottom at the same time" scenario where I'd gotten people from Fort Bliss calling me about running prototype software at White Sands Missile Range and this was brought to a successful resolution, whilst in Canada I was trying to tell Service Ontario to put twins birth certificates in the same envelope to save postage costs and to this day (I checked) Service Ontario hasn't listened to me as I heard from another parent of twins that their's recently arrived in two envelopes.

Fast forward to today...  

Today has a common theme:  Government Finance.  I'm working on fixing an American taxation system that ran into a spot of bother.  Again, I'm able to call people and if it's not someone's job, I just wait ten minutes and someone else calls me back to resolve the issue.  You help me and I help you.

Today, I also walked into a Service Ontario centre today for the first time (I usually use the website) to ask a question about my Social Insurance card as I was passing, having just left a meeting.  After suffering a wait through a very loud rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way", I get to the desk and I'm told that this is a Service Canada problem.  Further, their solution was to go to another city (Scarborough) to resolve it.

I'm sorry, but this is Toronto - there has to be a sodding office in Toronto.  That's just bad advice from Service Ontario.  So this little tale ends, where I'm both helping one government and being brushed off by another... again.

I can't be bothered today to track down a responsible human being at the Government today, so I'm going to just leave an idea here - someone will find it eventually.

What Canada needs is this.
First you create an office, let's call it a "Service Centre" or something similar. It's purpose is to act as a coherent link between the government and the community. When you walk in there, you should be able to do simultaneous things like get a new health card and a new Social Insurance card... Believe it or not, you can't currently do this as the system is too fractured to handle even related things like this.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hey Parallels - You have our money, now leave us in peace!

Imagine this...

You bought a General Motors car last year.  Today you jump into it, turn on the radio and before you get to hear the station that you normally tune into every day, today is different because of instead of hearing the radio, you get some General Motors sanctioned advert intruding in your car experience.

This is precisely what happened today with my copy of Parallels (which allows me to run Windows and other OS's on my Mac).  Having purchased the product some time ago and always being able to start and use it without interruption, this screen appeared.

I don't know why some software companies feel this type of intrusion is OK.  I've bought the product, now leave me alone to use it in peace.

My rage with this type of "squeezing advertising into every nook and cranny" grows when I think about how this interruption was obviously tabled by Parallels staff and some executive there actually thought that putting tawdry advertising on the desktops of customers who've paid $80 for their product already was a good idea.  

That's just not professional!