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June 24, 2009

Insourced

[This post concerns primarily the nerdly arts, so feel free to skip it if that's not something you're interested in.]

So it's taken a little while to figure out how best to put me to use, and that is going to be in two areas: first, teaching some introductory computer courses for hospital staff: very basic stuff for those who have used computers very little or not at all, and a bit more advanced for those with some experience or who use them day to day but want to learn a bit more about particular applications, etc. Second, being a jack-of-all-computer-trades, assisting with various issues around the hospital. At the moment, the latter means banging away at an existing MS Access database. You database weenies will recognize the symptoms: Access used as a big Excel spreadsheet, without any validation of entered data, and Excel reports for outside organizations generated by running Access queries/filters by hand and copy/pasting the results into Excel. So I'm creating forms to make data entry easier, faster, and more accurate, and reports that make it possible to skip at least one monkey of the current report generation solution.

[In case anyone who's read this far this wasn't at some point in time connected to WGBH Interactive, the monkey scale refers to the number of humans involved in some sort of technical process that really should be completely automated, but for some reason isn't. A three-monkey solution requires three people where ideally there would be none involved, etc.]

Last year at this time: my own air-conditioned office with stable electricity, a honkin' big Macintosh multiprocessor computer running OS X, dual LCD monitors, finely chilled Diet Mountain Dew in the refrigerator a few paces away, and only occasional use of MS Office software. This year: an un-airconditioned closet (with lizards!), power that goes out several times a day (and at least one lightning strike since I've been here), a CPU of uncertain vintage running XP, a small out-of-focus CRT monitor, the nearest Diet Mountain Dew probably several hundred miles distant, and up to my ears in MS Access all day. Karma-wise you'd think I'd spent the last 12 months loading kittens into catapults or something.

Which doesn't mean I've been able to avoid breaking things. A few minutes after sitting down at and powering up that PC of uncertain vintage for the first time, I got one of those "You're making a huge security mistake" popup messages - apparently the firewall wasn't turned on. So, being both security-conscious and Windows-ignorant, I turned it on. I didn't realize until later that the PC of uncertain vintage was the official mail server, and I'd clobbered mail traffic by activating the firewall. Yeah, the firewall can probably be configured to be active and allow necessary mail connections, but for the moment at least, I'm leaving it alone, rather than wreaking further havoc.

But, as Molly would put it, it's all good. Suman, who's overseeing my work, may still consider it up in the air as to whether I'm making any kind of net contribution around here (he was the one who asked, "Hey, you didn't by any chance change the security settings on that computer, did you?"), but I've got a couple of weeks to convince him. Meanwhile, I seem to get a person or two a day who comes to my door thinking I'm the person to talk to regarding employment at the hospital. I've considered reviewing CVs and looking a little gruff while hiring everyone on the spot, but figure that's going to be a pain to sort out in the long run, so I redirect them to Suman's office.

Actual teaching began this week, with staff figuring out when and if they can come to classes. I'm supposed to have a different group each day of the week except Saturday, for an hour or so in the early evening. I'm starting to hit my stride with the beginners, but I'm still figuring out what to teach the more advanced folks, some of whom have certainly spent more time with MS Word, Excel, etc. than I have.

Connectivity, continued, or things we already knew about internet communication but forgot until recently:

  • Weather can affect satellite connectivity: I'm guessing that whatever satellite is used for providing the internet connection here is a geosynchronous satellite, and thus isn't wandering around the sky relative to the fixed satellite dish on the roof of the admin building, but from my vantage point in the telephone closet, I can watch the connection lights on the satellite modem blink on and off (they should remain lit when the connection is strong), and they looked like the starting lights at a drag racing event yesterday morning as heavy cloud cover (followed by a thunderstorm) rolled in. And here I was blaming the chicken. This contributes to...

  • The simpler the web page, the faster and more reliably it loads for users with slow connections. And the converse: the more stylesheet, javascript, AJAX, etc. heavy the page, the less accessible the site. Yeah, I know you're sitting there with your DSL line or your cable modem or what have you, and you don't care, but after you've had gmail time out 12 or 15 times just while trying to refresh the inbox (and yes, I'm using the HTML version for slow connections), these things become important. At the moment, gmail is the most twitchy, with Facebook a close second ("Damn you, static.ak.fbcdn.net! Deliver my packets unto me!"), and the New York Times site coming in third. A couple of days ago I was trying to view some random NYT article that was taking its sweet time loading (that's you, graphics8.nytimes.com), and while waiting I took a peek at what had already arrived: 27 external CSS and JS files requested by the page. I'm too lazy to have done straight page-weight comparison, but so far, between a JS- and AJAX-heavy page and a simple page twice or three times the filesize, give me the latter every time. Low-overhead sites load pages every time. And don't get me started on multimedia ad banners.

  • You don't have to boil your laptop battery to use it. I hear our ancestors used to have to do that to get them to work, but I haven't seen it done myself.

  • My school's not the only institution blocking YouTube. Laid hands on my first local iPhone today, and no, not one of the just-announced ones with the engraving of Steve Jobs' new liver on the back, either. The owner was asking why the video (YouTube) button didn't work, I was giving it a try, and the search button was "Suchen" instead. Further examination revealed that the phone was language-localized for German. Wondering by what path it made its way here...

  • SPAM is indeed everywhere. More of a housekeeping note than anything else: I've got commenting here on the blog set such that I have to review comments before they show up on the public site. That's cause the ratio of SPAM comments to actual user comments is currently running about 20:1. I try to check in, review new comments, and post them at least once every 24 hours. Just in case you were wondering whether comments disappeared into a black hole.

Posted by Brenden at June 24, 2009 9:13 AM


Comments

Hey Brenden, nice pictures, nice posts (I dare say your writing style captures a better image then a Nikon could)... I'm here to up your spam to friends ratio... but while I'm at it, would you like to find out ways to enhance your performance? If not, perhaps I could interest you in helping me move my late uncle's (a wealthy oil merchant) millions out of Nigeria?

Posted by: Bryan at June 24, 2009 12:04 PM

Well, give me a moment to set down this crate of acai berry juice and take off all three of my Rolexes, and then I'll be right with you to assist with the millions.

Posted by: brenden at June 24, 2009 10:21 PM

Now you see what it is like to switch religions (aka MAC/PC views)! Wish I could be there to help with some of the technical challenges. Love your posts. Dad.

Posted by: Mailen at June 26, 2009 2:48 PM

Who said anything about switching?

(Posted from a Dell Mini 9 running a certain Cupertino-originating UNIX-based operating system...)

Posted by: brenden at June 26, 2009 10:08 PM

Oh ho! You have a hackintosh? Sweet as!

See how handy all that prior expedition work is turning out to be? Granted, the Everest team wasn't cursed with Access...

Remind me to tell Kevin L. that you're feeling especially grateful for his desire to defend the low-bitrate user these days.

Posted by: *molly* at June 29, 2009 11:30 PM
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