IT ball and chain

After a very intensive year (which means a lot of work and a minor amount of sleep) at least I have been on vacation a few weeks this summer (in chunks). For two weeks I totally abstained to use a computer. I only used the smart phone from time to time for a phone call or checking mail / searching something in the internet (in total not more than approximately 2 hours) or reading the news. That has (again) increased my awareness that a computer does not always increase the quality of your life. Coming home I experienced some of the biggest annoyances of IT:
  • Maintenance work
    • System and application updates - they take a lot of time and attention (e.g. permission check on Android during application updates).
    • Declutter and free space on drives (to download pictures from the camera to the computer in my case) or on Dropbox to get the pictures uploaded that my wife took with the smart phone.
    • Delete spam or less interesting emails.
    • Make secondary manual backups.
    • Fix hardware defects (change old-age harddisks etc).
  • Trouble-Shooting
    Be it end-user support or administrative support. Errors may happen during updates, some passwords might be expired while you have been away for too long without logging in, some features (after an update) suddenly not working any more as you expected or - after not using for a while - you might not remember well how to accomplish a task seldom needed.
  • React to changes in IT world
    In my case during the updates on my mobile devices I have seen that many applications do want new permissions regarding device ids and call information. So the first action was abort a lot of updates and search the internet for possible reasons and for options to restrict this alarming trend against privacy. Lately there were plenty of news causing administrators to take action, like the SSL heartbleed bug or other alarming information, e.g. leaked by whistle blowers (like Edward Snowden). Not to speak of more long-term changes like technology shifts (those do not happen just during a single vacation, but while reviewing the past year you might notice a trend that needs to be evaluated).
The longest-running tasks during my vacation were washing dishes (no dishwasher in the rented appartment), sweeping and disemboweling fish (take out guts) as well as brushing away the fish scales (adhesive bonded onto the wall), but none of them took longer than 45 minutes. Last weekend I tydied up the storage room in about an hour. In my IT work I can be very happy if something can be done under an hour.

And now take the annoyances mentioned above and multiply with the amount of devices you have... - I fear the time, when even my washing maschine needs to download updates and doing reboots before it can start washing - super annoying...

As a child, one of the main reasons why I got fascinated by the computers, was the fact, that it can help you making a lot of tasks faster and more efficient. Nowadays you have to pay attention that the total cost of ownership with maintenance work together with the velocity of change does not outweigh the benefit of the automation.

Related post: The truth about software.


Dropbox Icon missing in Ubuntu

On Ubuntu 12.04 as well as 14.04 with recent versions of compiz, dropbox or whatever other module the Dropbox icon may be missing in the upper right corner (system tray) after login.

This is in general just an annoyance because Dropbox is still running in background (you can check this by opening your Dropbox folder and you will see the checkmark icons and the dropbox context menu entry when right-clicking a file - which are only visible when Dropbox is running).

However, I found several forum and blog posts mentioning that
sudo apt-get install libappindicator1
solves the issue or
sudo apt-get install nautilus-dropbox
solves it. I already had libappindicator1 However in reality the latter is obsolete as the nautilus integration is no separate thing any more. So both did not solve the issue for me.

I solved it permanently only by writing a short shell script (which i put into /opt directory):
 sleep 60s  
 dropbox stop && dropbox start -i &  
(mark as executable) and then click on the Ubuntu button on the left upper corner, type "startup" and there add an entry to call that start that shell script /opt/dropboxrestart.sh.


Reinventing the wheel

There are three kind of developers when it comes to library use:
  1. Those who extensively use existing stuff to avoid reinventing the wheel,
  2. those who do code the stuff on their own and try to reduce as many of the  external dependencies as possible and
  3. those who do the easy stuff on their own and only for big topics (like PDF or MS Office file handling etc) they use existing libraries.
If you want to avoid reinventing the wheel completely then you will end up with a lot of library dependencies which often even do not fit well together (just think of the many different java logger frameworks available).

Neither the first nor the second extreme will bring the optimum result - at least not when you think long-term.

For example I was using ini4j to load inifiles (because I was under pressure) but later I noticed that the sections are internally stored in a way that you can not rely on getting them loaded back in the proper order. For the project where I was using it, order of the sections previously wasn't really relevant (that's why I didn't either recognize that ini4j was mixing them up occassionally), but then things changed and now order of some sections is relevant. So I had to change the underlying library. I took the chance to implement the inifile handling on my own. Why? Would I have been the developer of that library I could have changed the internal implementation who the sections are loaded in an instant. Without being really involved into the project I would have needed to read into the foreign source code (which unfortunately is always more difficult than reading your own code - if you did it well) and doing code changes that hopefully will not be rejected by the project owner (loosing it again with the next patch). I would have done this probably, if it wasn't urgent and if inifile handling wouldn't be such a core thing for me (I deal a lot with inifile style files).

And here it comes to a related topic:
You can get your code being written almost everywhere around the world, but the important questions are: If you need a fix or an enhancement,
  • do you have a chance for direct communication with the developers (or how many levels of communication are in between)?
  • how fast can you get what you need?
Of course, when using a big library that is widely used you may get a very good and stable code base, but bigger changes will not be easy to get quickly.

I have seen it plenty of times, that having the full source code available at hand is the only guarantee to get fixes or enhancements in time when you need them!

And there is another related topic: Progress
Sometimes it makes pretty good sense to reinvent the wheel - and indeed if you look at the wheel itself, it has been reinvented (or at least adapted) many times and looks very different depending on the core usage and environment. For IT or source code this means that for instance the same stuff must be programmed again and again when you change programming language or when newer and better technologies can only bring benefit when you partly rewrite the application.

I write this because often the thought of reinventing the wheel is labeled so negatively. Rewriting code parts or writing them yourself instead of using an external foreign library can make really good sense!

Related post: Bronze age of IT.


IT Dependencies

Lately at a customer I got introduced to an application written by an employee which should be replaced. There were some special features that have been implemented for the exact needs of the company. After a while I began to wonder why they want to replace it. I thought by myself: "What could be better than an application written exactly for their needs by a person who is actually in that company for a long time now?"

Finally at the end of the meeting after the others left, I asked the project manager at the company what the real reason is that they want to replace that program. The answer was: They want to get rid of dependency of that piece of individual software development and dependency of a particular person. They want to use a standard software.

While this sounds quite reasonable, I want to clear-up potential misunderstandings:
  1. Even betting on the biggest companies and their products does not save you from the risk of software being discontinued or services shutting down.
    For example here is a list of software products discontinued by Microsoft. And this does not seem to be a complete list because from the first look I already miss the Visual Basic Classic which is also dead (and I have A LOT of experience with that which will be dead know-how in a few years).
  2. Even the largest company-group sends you individuals that do the work and guess what: In most bigger IT projects (even when using standard-software) you usually end up with an individually customized piece of software and often with several project specific extensions. And who knows best your system? - The one who has done it! Change the person and the person needs time to analyse and get into it.
  3. As time goes by most companies, when they start to buy external know-how or services, they begin to loose control. To reduce dependency you would need the source code, the know-how and the access. One effect of extreme outsourcing often comes with loosing your privacy and security.
So by switching to a standard product it is not very likely that you are reducing dependency. Often you save internal IT manpower for other things but you trade it for dependency or for privacy. Paying a developer for permanently being ready for implementing your business needs may not be the cheapest solution but you get flexibility and often reduce communication flows.

For many very tiny companies it might be perfectly ok, accepting the dependency from external services when they don't have to bother about their server-backup etc then. And so privacy is also traded (e.g. free web service for providing your personal data).

It is a matter of your values, your priorities, your time and budget etc. if you better have a server in-house or use some online-service in the web.

So what can you do?
  • Be aware of your values
  • Be aware of your business focus
  • Be aware of your (human) resources
  • Remove resolvable dependencies
    which means: Prefer forward-looking software products and plattform-agnostic open-source software over more limited alternatives.
  • Distribute work and risk (e.g. have an external partner helping you but also have an internal administrator/developer who can do the work).
Related posts:  Priceless Developers, Surveillance, Privacy (NSA, PRISM, ...) and encryption, The truth about software.


LibreOffice v4.1.* and Ubuntu 12.04 Unity-Integration

As I use Ubuntu on my productive work+private machine, I prefer to use stable versions - so I switched to use LTS versions only. However, for LibreOffice I have enabled the LibreOffice repository using

# Adding repository for getting most current LibreOffice # (taken from https://wiki.ubuntu.com/LibreOffice) add-apt-repository -y ppa:libreoffice/ppa
 That slurps the current LibreOffice release into my Ubuntu 12.04 LTS stream of updates (the poor Windows users don't have an idea of such a comfort).

The reason for this was mainly to get the latest additions for Microsoft Office formats support (Microsoft is still good in their attempt to squeeze people into staying with MS Office).

Unfortunately with LibreOffice v4.1.* a unity-related problem (users of other flavors of Ubuntu can stop reading here) was introduced that has not been addressed yet by the Ubuntu folks - at least not for 12.04 LTS:

When opening several documents in Writer, Calc etc the windows are not grouped to a single Unity icon.

As you might know from earlier posts I like the Unity desktop very much (and it also has become very stable) and so I am very glad for the workaround that has been posted to the according bug report at https://bugs.launchpad.net/bamf/+bug/1026426 (comment #166 by Marco Trevisan) which is just one command in the terminal window:
sudo sed '/StartupWMClas
s=.*/d' -i /usr/share/applications/libreoffice-*.desktop
(all one line).

Problem solved, thank you very much, Marco!

Related posts: Open Office and Libre Office starts slow, Normal.dot in OpenOffice or LibreOffice, Default Paper Size in Open Office.


Maintaining multiple Calendars

While I have to put the Outlook Calendar entries into the office calendar I do have my own private calender on Google that I share with my wife and vice versa. I want my wife to know when I am at customers or in foreign countries. That enables her to make appointments for us without the need to call me several times a day.

There are two problems:
  1. And this is a general problem of the crappy Outlook*): With version 2007 or 2010 they changed the style how invitations are sent and this means: When on an Android phone for example or you do not allow HTML display in your mails due to security reasons you don't see the Outlook appointment information on your phone or mail-client. Both is given in my case.
  2. I need to create each work-related calendar entry twice - once in the Outlook Office 2010 calendar and one on my Google calendar.

Solution for problem 1: Install Invitation Processor Pro on your Android device as unfortunately by default Microsoft Outlook inviations cannot be processed by Android (while gmail invitations and those sent with Thunderbird+Lightning which are also distributed as .ics file are displayed fine so this is not a general problem with event invitation mails). Say thanks to Microsoft.

Solution for problem 2: I thought of several possible solutions, but a) I am not using the Desktop Outlook at all (so all Outlook plugins for syncing calendars are irrelevant for me) and b) I do not want extra hosting for calendar syncing. You might be in a similar annoying situation so here is another still a little annoying, but acceptable way:
  1. Create two rules via Outlook web access 2010:
    a) Forward all mails of type meeting request to your private gmail address:
    Rule Name: Forward event invitation
    After the message arrives and...
    the message is Meeting Request.
    And my name is in the To or Cc box
    Do the following...
    forward the message to 'you@gmail.com'
    b) Delete your own meeting responses from yourself (confirming events on GMail side):
    Rule Name: Meeting response from Google Calendar
    After the message arrives and...
    the message was received from 'calendar-notification@google.com'
    And the message is Meeting Response.
    And the message includes specific words in the subject '(YourFirstName YourLastName)'
    Do the following...
    delete the message
    And stop processing more rules on this message
  2. Use Outlook (web-access) 2010 to confirm appointment requests (at work for me the 90% case). When creating appointments on your own then invite yourself (your private or your work email address).
And the good thing when solving problem 2 this way: You also solve problem 1 as GMail is able to display the invitation details (date and time) even for the .ics files originating from Outlook. I installed the Invitation Processor Pro anyway to see the event details also when currently in K-9 Mail on Android.

There are four different use cases:
  1. Co-Worker sends me a meeting request:
    => I confirm in the same way using Outlook web access 2010 and GMail. This way I have to confirm two times, but don't have to recreate the appointment twice manually (and using wrong dates or times) so I can be sure they match. And just to see it in GMail I don't even have to respond to the meeting request because on arrival in GMail I can see it in Google Calendar.
  2. I have to create a private appointment:
    => I simply create this event in my private Google Calendar.
  3. I have to create a work appointment that is completely irrelevant to my private time planning (maybe just a time blocker or reminder):
    => Just create this event in my office Calendar (using Outlook Web access).
  4. I have to create a work related appointment:
    => Create the appointment in my private calendar and invite myself (send invitation to my work/office email address) and
    => confirm the incoming message with the Outlook web access.
    => Create the calendar entry in Outlook web access calendar and invite myself (send invitation to private email-address) and
    => Confirm invitation in GMail.
The remaining little annoyance with this solution is: As I usually use Thunderbird to access my Microsoft Exchange Mail account from the office, I need to switch to Outlook web access for confirming meeting requests.

Related posts: Outlook Calendar Meetings, Outlook 2010 Meeting Requests, Thunderbird and the Outlook global address book.


Priceless Developers

When I get contacted by headhunters they are usually searching either for a developer or for a consultant and there is an interesting observation which I do see confirmed when I read forums or talk to friends:

Companies are willing to pay much more for a consultant than for a developer.

I am both - developer and consultant - and I can tell you: The best consultant cannot solve the issues that have been introduced by bad programming and software design mistakes. In a software company the whole business depends on the quality of the software released to the customers.

Only in very rare cases in my consultant role I have access to the source code of the base products in use at the customer. My daily job includes customizing bricks of software and tying them together. Of course this often means writing code on my own to make everything work together. So I am dealing a lot with APIs of software products.

During implementation of projects the vast majority of time goes into dealing with bugs, unfinished features and bad software design (or a software design that simply does not fit the needs)! And is pretty irrelevant which software product I am thinking of, it's the same everywhere. It would be better if I could focus on the customer needs and on building solutions instead.

There are people who have the opinion that most problems are just organisational problems or can be solved on the organizational level. I do not really agree with this. Of course, in most companies there is room for improving the organisation, but a software flaw should not be the reason for implementing workarounds on the organisational level.

Software vendors and their customers depend on stable, secure - good quality software. Those, who are building the software, often are poorly paid. Most of my ex-class-mates stopped the programming work completely in the meantime. In the same time I do not know any software vendor having enough good quality programmers. Instead bug lists are only getting longer over time. Really strange.

Related post: IT Dependencies.