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Is it wireless or something? February 18, 2008

Posted by Steve in General Wittering.
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In the pub, during a power cut.

Girl: “I can hear some really quiet music, where’s that coming from?”
Me: “The DJ’s laptop”
Girl:  “Oh.  How’s that working with no power then?  Is it wireless or something?”

in hindsight I wish I hadn’t simply pointed out that laptops tend to contain batteries, that could have made for a great wind up!

Don’t you just love being in control? February 11, 2008

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants.
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At the start of the year I changed my gas and electricity supplier to British Gas, partly inspired by an offer of a £60 backhander from Quidco to do so.

Last week a letter turns up telling me that as I haven’t had my gas meter inspected in the last 18 months they were going to come today to inspect it, and if wasn’t here to let them in and I hadn’t called them to rechedule the appointment to a time that was convenientthey would have to consider applying to a magistrate for permission to enter the property.

Somewhat taken aback by the arsey tone of the letter I phoned to have words, and was assured that it was just the wrong form letter which had been sent out, and they were able to reschedule the appointment for this evening between 18.00 and 20.00.

So I get home from work to find a card stating that they turned up at 8.20 this morning. Pillocks. So back on the phone to have further words. “Ah, there’s a note here that they tried to contact you to tell you that they couldn’t make the appointment but couldn’t get through”.

“So given that you knew the original appointment was no good for me and I wouldn’t be here, you turned up anyway rather than cancelling it?”

“Umm… yes. It’s this computer system, it doesn’t let you cancel things very easily”

Sigh. We’ll see how badly they cock up the newly rearranged appointment for Thursday. Otherwise we’ll be seeing how well the system lets them cancel other things… you know, like accounts.

If your only hammer February 9, 2008

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Moans, Whinges and Rants, Techie Stuff.
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There’s a saying in IT circles that “if your only hammer is Microsoft Office, it’s amazing what looks like a nail”.  And it’s quite apt, lots of technologists get irritated seeing people struggling to do things because they’re using the wrong software.  But I think there’s more to it, and I propose an update to the proverb – “if your only software is Microsoft Excel, it’s amazing what looks like a spreadsheet”.

The problem with the way some people use Excel is that they think it’s a database.  I was asked by one of the admin staff at work for some help identifying rows on a spreadsheet in which one of the columns values also appeared in a second worksheet.

To me Excel’s VLOOKUP function is a pain in the arse.  To use that, you’re almost certainly dealing with relational data.  So why not do the job properly and use a database, where you can craft an SQL query and get much more flexibility?

Until very recently I had a severe dislike of Access, but I’ve found a great feature in it – Linked Tables.  These turn out to be fantastic for getting out of the kind of problems where some well meaning but misguided person has used Excel when they neded a database.  You can use their Excel mess as a table or tables in your database.

Using Linked tables means that you can continue to update the Excel file and the queries will have access to the updated information.  This came in very handy with a ridiculous system where a friend of mine was having to enter some information onto a spreadsheet from a pile of paperwork, then trawl through it to create a seperate report which aggregates the data into a different format.  Because it had always been done that way, naturally.  Of course because both reports were compiled manually there were discrepancies and a lot of stress.  By adding some extra fields to the  spreadsheet outside the printable area, it could be linked to a database and the second report generated automatically, with no possibility of the two reports having totals which disagreed.

A modern fable? February 2, 2008

Posted by Steve in General Wittering, Techie Stuff.
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Working in IT, users who can be difficult come with the territory. But for every few cretins who seem to think they way to get things done is to email you (with insufficient detail to know what the problem is)  CC’d to your boss, your boss’s boss and their boss, there’s usually somebody really nice who couldn’t be more appreciative of your work.

And so it was that on Friday one of my fellow IT guys mentioned that a particular lecturer had commented that it was hard to see a projector if you were sitting at the back of one of the computer labs.   Since we’d upgraded to a Smart board, the size of the screen was limited, to make sure that short arses vertically challenged users would be able to reach the top of it.  We’d considered a number of possible ways to fix it, such as a plasma screen suspended from the ceiling halfway back, but not come up with anything that seemed workable that wouldn’t require spending money.

But this time the “complaint” came from one of the nicest blokes you could ever meet, a true gentleman, the kind of guy who is embarrassed to cause a fuss and complain about things.  For him to be complaining (albeit in the weakest possible terms) there was clearly a problem, rather than somebody whinging for the sake of it.

So an idea I’d floated that VNC with listening clients might just work was resurrected.  We hadn’t tried it before in case it brought the lecturer’s PC to a crawl.  A couple of hours tinkering and the lecturers’ PC had two sparkly new shortcuts on the desktop – one to start broadcasting its output to the 12 PCs at the back, and one to stop.  Fairly elegant, and it cost absolutely nothing, and doesn’t seem to be a significant performance hit.

So I guess the moral of the story is that being a nice guy can get results a lot faster than being a pillock.