The Peelian Help Desk

22 March 2016
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve worked in IT for more than twenty years. Along the way, I have worked in a lot of different realms: academia, government, finance, publishing, manufacturing. What’s strange is how each of these very different fields—any field, really—is pretty much the same from an IT standpoint: provide user and systems support, manage improvement projects, and enable data flow. It almost doesn’t matter what the data is, as long as it flows quickly and smoothly, and as long as the users can do their work, what the work itself consists of is immaterial.

Much has changed in those twenty-plus years, yet some things don’t, and primary among those is the fact that IT, in particular the help desk, is all about customer service. It’s also an unfortunate fact, and an even more unfortunate stereotype, that many of the people who find themselves in IT due to their technical skills lack some of the all-too-essential people skills to maximize their potential in that role. I have therefore long striven to improve my own abilities in that respect, and have likewise tried to improve the people skills of the IT teams I have led.

At one point in my career I supported the law enforcement community, which was an interesting and eye-opening job—I could tell some stories. But one thing I came across during that gig has stayed with me more than anything else: Sir Robert Peel and his nine principles of community policing.

Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet, FRS

Sir Robert established London’s Metropolitan Police Force—hence the nickname for London cops, “bobbies”—and in the process created the concept of modern policing. The Peelian Principles are still essential to law enforcement today, more than 180 years later. (One can find the Peelian Principles in their original form many places online, such as here.)

Now, IT support techs are not cops, even those techs who act like they wish they could be issued a gun and badge. That said, IT support is much like law enforcement, in that both are essentially public service roles that strive to minimize the troubles of the community. Therefore I believe that the Peelian principles apply as well to the IT help desk as they do to a police force.

We can take the nine principles and in each case replace “police” with “help desk,” “public” with “users,” and “the law” with “good computing practices.” Replace “crime and disorder” with… well, with all the disorderliness of IT: bugs, errors, downtime, crashes, and yes, even user error. Lo and behold, at least on a conceptual if not strictly literal level, Peel’s principles suit IT very well.

Here they are, rephrased for IT:

  • The basic mission for which the IT help desk exists is to prevent computer problems.
  • The ability of the help desk to perform their duties is dependent upon user approval of IT actions.
  • The help desk must secure the willing co-operation of the users in voluntary observance of good computing practices to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the users.
  • The degree of co-operation of the users that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force. [Think of “physical force” as the more drastic (if not Draconian) methods of IT, such as user account lock-out, restrictive computing policies, and unscheduled shutdowns.]
  • The help desk seeks and preserves user favour not by catering to user opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to good computing practices.
  • The help desk uses physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of good computing practices or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  • The help desk, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the users that gives reality to the historic tradition that the help desk are the users and the users are the help desk; the help desk being only members of the users who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every user in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  • IT help desk should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of upper management and corporate policy.
  • The test of IT help desk efficiency is the absence of IT issues, not the visible evidence of help desk action in dealing with them.

I particularly like that last one. What it says to me is this: help desk efficiency is not about how many trouble tickets you can clear, nor how quickly. Efficiency is the result of actively working to improve the computing environment, not only with better and more reliable systems but also with user education and involvement: training, documentation, and open communication are all essential.

In fact, open communication may be the most important element of all. I often reiterate to my teams: communicate it first, fix it second. When something is broken, five minutes of radio silence from the help desk can seem like a catastrophe, but one well-timed and well-written email to the users, explaining that the help desk is aware of the issue and working on it, can buy untold amounts of leeway to work the issue and come up with a solution.


Laura: Out of a Misty Dream

27 September 2014
Categories: Film buff

Watching Laura on TCM tonight… I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but… in the middle of the film, just before the big twist in the plot, Lieutenant McPherson (Dana Andrews) is in Laura’s apartment late at night, going through her personal items in what he wants to pretend is a search for clues to her murder, but really is an attempt to know more about the dead woman with whom he’s falling in love. He pours a glass of Pinch Scotch and sits in the armchair beneath her luminous, magnetic portrait. Soon, he falls asleep.

McPhersonAt this moment, director Otto Preminger trucks in on a close-up of the bottle and Andrews’ sleeping face, pauses there for just one beat, then trucks out again to show Andrews, unmoved—though by now the glass has vanished from his hand. (Presumably, he has dropped it… or has he?)

He wakes up, and… well, you know… spoilers.

But here’s the thing: in cinematic shorthand, that kind of camera move, so obviously showing the director’s hand when no other shot in the film is quite so arch, opening out to a scene where everything is exactly the same except for a few minor, almost imperceptible details, could be used to indicate the passage of time—or it could be used to connote the start of a dream sequence.

What I’m saying is—and this is something left unmentioned in TCM’s “Essentials” discussion of the film—maybe everything that happens after Lieutenant McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment is a dream. Certainly the film ends (bit of a spoiler) with what I’d say is McPherson’s version of a happy ending.

Maybe it’s all in his head?

“Get some sleep. Forget the whole thing like a bad dream.” –Mark McPherson to Laura Hunt

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for while, then closes
Within a dream.” –Waldo Lydecker, quoting Ernest Dowson

Well, sure enough. According to at least one source, the original script called for it to all have been a dream. And of course, that’s part of what elevates this film above its B-movie-noir source material. To flatly state “it’s all a dream” would be crude and obvious. To leave all those clues in—the many references to dreams, that dolly shot—and then never even mention that it might be a dream: brilliant.

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Ballpark, in Six Easy Steps

14 June 2013
Categories: Chicago, Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

Step 1: Acquire a professional sports team that plays in an aging but hallowed and much-beloved stadium.

Step 2: Declare the team incapable of financial solvency if it doesn’t receive a new stadium.

Step 3: Threaten to move the team out of town if it doesn’t get everything it wants.

Step 4: Hire a top-dollar design firm to create a stadium plan that pays lip service to “tradition” and “history” but satisfies neither.

Step 5: Demand millions of dollars in public funding to build the new stadium.

Step 6: Overhaul—or raze—the old stadium, replacing it with something that is both an architectural monstrosity and a soulless fan experience.

Am I joking? Let’s see…

Comiskey Park, built in 1910 for the Chicago White Sox. A classic of the early modern era albeit with its share of obstructed views. Itasca and Addison, Illinois are among the threatened move-to cities. The replacement, U.S. Cellular Field, is built at a cost of $167 million by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, a government agency. For supposedly historical reasons, the new stadium puts home plate nearest 35th Street—since that’s where it was in Comiskey, which stood a block to the north. As a result, the view toward the outfield faces some of the city’s most notorious housing projects (now razed and vacant lots) instead of the spectacular skyline to the north. A dozen follow-up renovations in as many years can never fix that.

Soldier Field, originally built as a memorial to fallen American servicemen following World War I, and home of the Chicago Bears since 1971. After a proposal for a domed replacement tanks, Hoffman Estates and Aurora are floated as options. The Chicago Park District, which owns the stadium, pays about 62% of a $660 million renovation. The resulting transformation retains the original colonnades but dwarfs them beneath an enormous and incongruous silver alien-spaceship-looking structure. Meanwhile inside, the stadium *loses* 5,000 seats, so that after a two-thirds-billion-dollar reno it is the smallest in the NFL.

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule… that being Chicago Stadium, home of the Blackhawks since its opening in 1929, and the Bulls since 1967. A grand old edifice and site of many historic events—but really not much more than a glorified barn. You know, the kind of place hockey is meant to be played in. Owners Reinsdorf (Bulls) and Wirtz (Blackhawks), neither one a saint, nevertheless do not (so far as I have found) threaten to pull out of town. They build the United Center without using public funds, getting only various tax breaks in return. I say “only” because the estimated $5 million per year in property tax savings seems a pittance compared to… say, Soldier Field’s cost to the rest of us taxpayers. And the UC is not a bad arena, though it’s much, much better for sports than it is for concerts.

So be prepared for the worst, Cubs fans. Because the Ricketts have already completed steps 1 through 5 like clockwork, as if they have read the Gimme a New Stadium Handbook cover to cover. Step 6 is inevitable. And as much as they want to pretend that their Wrigley Field overhaul will be sympathetic to the landmark structure, that it’s a “restoration” to some supposed (but unprecedented) historic ideal, that it’s all for our benefit, nothing about a massive Jumbotron is meant to improve the fan experience—it is purely for profit.

This for a team that is “incapable of financial solvency” (my words, but strongly implied by numerous public statements by the owners), despite having the highest operating income—and fourth highest revenue—in Major League Baseball.

The Trib’s Cheryl Kent wrote a well-reasoned overview of the Wrigley Field plan from an architectural and urban-planning standpoint, revealing that despite including several good improvements it suffers from a severe lack of authenticity and a shortsightedness that runs counter to any claims by the owners of being “in it for the long run.”


“Be Alert for Foul Balls!”

19 September 2012

Sunday, September 16, Cubs versus Pirates at Wrigley Field, bottom of the 7th inning. Chris Leroux pitching, Luis Valbuena at the plate. On a 2-1 count, Valbuena hit a screaming foul ball down the right field line and into the stands just beyond the visiting team’s dugout. WGN briefly showed a woman sitting in her seat, shocked, surprised, quite still, surrounded by people all looking her way with concerned looks on their faces. Then the television cut away, and Len Kasper made the usual-yet-earnest comment about “we hope that fan is all right.”

Umpire crew chief Joe West, stationed at first base, called “time”—and for a few minutes Kasper, Bob Brenly, and “guest conductor” Lee Smith vamped about the wisdom of suspending play momentarily while the fan could be checked out, and more importantly while everyone around her was distracted by the activity. It was a smart decision by West, whose 34-year tenure makes him the most veteran of active umpires in the majors. After all, no one wants to be the umpire that called “play ball” only to have another fan get hit by a ball because they were watching the stadium crew help someone else. Meanwhile WGN, like most sports broadcasters, took the courteous and privacy-respecting route and did not show the (possibly injured) fan again.

Of course there is no mention of the incident in any coverage of the game, no way of finding out what happened or if she’s all right.

There’s nothing unusual about any of this, but what set me to thinking about it was a moment an inning or two earlier. As a left-handed batter approached the batter’s box the television showed, in the background, a family in the front couple of rows just to the home-plate side of the visitors’ dugout. Mere feet from the short brick wall—and beyond the protection of the backstop safety netting—were two little kids. Each about three years old, goofing around, having a blast at the ballpark, their elders amused by their antics, just a little scene of pure, “take me out to the ball game” joy.

And yet—both of those children had their backs to the field. They had not the slightest clue of what was happening there. If the foul ball blast that hit the woman an inning or two later would have gone toward one of those kids, no one would have been close enough or have had time enough to react. That ball at that velocity hits a kid in the back of the head, that kid is dead. Period.

It raises a question that has been raised by many before me: how prevalent are spectator injuries in baseball? Among the big-league sports I suspect that baseball and hockey are the two most dangerous with respect to spectator safety, and I’ll wager that baseball is more dangerous than hockey due to my anecdotal impression that more balls than pucks leave the field of play.

How dangerous? Hard to say. Major League Baseball has never undertaken a study of this—or at least never made one public—and for good reason. For MLB to pay close attention to the phenomenon it might give the impression that the league thinks there’s something of an epidemic, and that could cast a harsh light upon MLB’s “assumption of risk” defense.

Warning sign at Wrigley Field. I am not a fan of these signs; in my opinion the levity of the image undermines the seriousness of the warning. Photo by wallyg.You see, MLB ballclubs (and minor-league and independent ballclubs too) engage in what’s generally considered to be a reasonable level of spectator safe-keeping: backstop netting; plexiglas shields atop low, close-in walls; signs and public address messages warning about the risk of foul balls, etc. But beyond that the assumption of risk all lies upon the fans. It’s even printed on the back of every ticket, in boldface albeit extraordinarily tiny letters: “Holder assumes all risk incidental to the game of baseball… including (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by or in connection with any broken or released bat or any thrown or batted ball. Holder agrees [ballclub, et al.] are not liable for any resulting injuries.” In other words you enter the ballpark at your own risk, and your use of this ticket constitutes agreement to those terms.

Personally, I think that’s fair. I know the risk, yet consider the entertainment value of attending a live game to be worth that risk. On those (rare) occasions I get seats close to the field, I am acutely aware of the danger and make sure to maintain a high level of attention to the game. If I wanted to go to the game more for the social aspects, to hobnob with friends and shoot the breeze and enjoy Wrigley’s vaunted “huge beer garden” atmosphere, I’d prefer seats much farther from the action so I don’t have to worry about high-velocity foul balls (and broken bats, another issue altogether).

But back to the question: How dangerous? Well, one frequently cited study—which everyone cites but I cannot find online—“gives the incidence of injuries to MLB fans from foul balls as 35.1 injuries per every million spectator visits.” One site that mentions it equates this to 350 injuries in one season for a ballpark with 10 million total visitors, but I think this figure is—aside from dumbfoundingly obvious math—as disingenuous and obfuscating as the original. No ballpark, not even Yankee Stadium, comes close to even half of that 10-million total.

How about this, instead: at Wrigley Field, with a typical near-sold-out attendance on the order of 40,000 fans, there would be an average of 1.4 injuries PER GAME.

In other words, every game that’s played at Wrigley results in an injury to a fan. On average, that is; and assuming that study is accurate.

But who knows? Because MLB isn’t saying, and the broadcasters are keeping mum, purportedly out of politeness to the injured. (A cynic might point out that the broadcasters undoubtedly want to play nice with their teams with which they have such lucrative contracts, and I would not be surprised if there was some kind of gentleman’s agreement there, however tacit, like the good old days when newspapers refrained from printing photographs of FDR in his wheelchair.)

Which is not to accuse anyone of some sort of evil collusion. Like I said, in my opinion the ballclubs are doing what’s appropriate with regard to fan safety, and it’s encumbent upon us as fans to take some personal responsibility for our own well-being.

That said, I would most definitely subscribe to a weekly newsletter that published a run-down of all the fan injuries in Major League Baseball. Something simple, not too detailed or privacy-invading… “Sunday, 9/16, Pirates v. Cubs at Wrigley Field, bottom 7th, Luis Valbuena batting; woman struck in arm, refused treatment.” Or (and this is for real), “Friday, 7/6, Reds v. Padres at Petco Park, bottom 2nd, Will Venable batting; man struck in shoulder WHILE UPDATING FACEBOOK STATUS, nothing broken.” (That guy’s lucky not to be in the hospital or worse, and he knows it.) Heck, even just a stats line would be interesting: “This week: 95 games played, 3028 foul balls, 6 minor injuries, 1 injury requiring treatment, 0 deaths.”

This is not something meant to call out MLB for a possible epidemic it’s ignoring—serious injuries are, it seems, relatively uncommon, and deaths are exceedingly rare. Instead it would be meant to raise public awareness of the need for alertness while at the ballpark. Best of all, maybe it would save us all from the day when we find ourselves watching and enjoying a game, only to see some family’s day turn instantly from joy to tragedy as their little towheaded lad’s skull is crushed by a ball that would otherwise, under better and more attentive circumstances, be merely a “line drive out of play,” and a game-day souvenir.


Canning the “smart cans” for a while (if not longer)

10 April 2012
Categories: Chicago

Vanishing actEarlier this week, the trash can disappeared from the street corner near my office. The only sign of its prior existence: two quartets of severed bolts protruding from the darkened pavement, their shiny tops a bright testament to their recent rendezvous with a reciprocating saw.

Chicago Tribune article explains the disappearance: it was a BigBelly “smart can,” and it was deemed a potential hazard to next month’s NATO summit.

This raised all sorts of questions for me.

Are the BigBelly cans a good idea?

Yes, I think so. They’re solar-powered, so they require no infrastructure to install: just plant and go. Their internal compactors mean that they have much greater capacity than ordinary cans, and their output will take up less space in a landfill, which is a huge issue for the city these days. Also, according to the Trib, they send an email when they get full, a system that appears to result in quick response—in addition to its labor-saving benefit to workers that only have to empty cans that need emptying. Fuel savings and reduced air pollution are other positive factors. This is a technology that works.

How much of that labor-saving benefit is now being negated by having to remove the BigBelly cans, and later re-install them?

A lot, I’ll bet. Most of it, maybe—the cans were only installed a year ago. And yes, the work is being done by city workers so we’re all paying for it. Meanwhile who knows when, if ever, the smart cans—which cost nearly $4,000 each, part of a $2.5 million deal—will return to Chicago’s downtown streets. (“When the city’s public safety departments have deemed it appropriate to do so,” says the Streets&San spokesperson. Uh-huh.)

But isn’t the city right in thinking them less easy to check “for anything dangerous”?

Are we safe yet?Well, yes, I suppose so. With their drop-box hatches it’s not all that easy to view the contents of BigBelly cans. But aside from that, they’re not all that much more opaque than old-fashioned wire baskets, as the photo at right shows—the wire baskets house solid plastic inserts. Let’s be realistic: it is, unfortunately, not that difficult to make an effective, er, “dangerous anything” that can be readily camouflaged as innocuous-looking garbage, such that any wire basket more than half-filled with trash will conceal it from all but the most thorough checks (i.e., dumping everything out and sorting through it).

So, if it’s not likely to make much of a safety difference, why do it?

Here’s the rub: if something hidden in a wire basket goes bang and hurts people, the word is that it was hidden “in a trash container.” If it goes bang in a BigBelly can, that brand name is splashed all over every headline—right above a big colour photo of mayhem and destruction. In short, this is all a matter of pre-emptive face-saving on the part of the city, which has an option to buy many more BigBelly cans in the future.

I don’t blame the city for doing this; I really think it’s in our best interest, although I’m still a little disappointed to see these neat pieces of smart tech vanish from the streets. But let’s not pretend it’s going to make anyone any safer. It’s no substitute for what’s really needed, which is for every member of the public to take personal responsibility for public safety: to maintain awareness, to report suspicious activity, to “see something, say something.”

And finally, the big question few in this town ever seem to see fit to ask…

Which of former Mayor Daley’s friends and/or family made a buck off the BigBelly deal?

Come on, you know that’s what makes this “The City That Works.”