Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

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 PeelSir 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.


How to make the perfect grilled cheese — without killing yourself

3 March 2012
Categories: Uncategorized

In Episode 45 of the ever-entertaining, always-informative podcast How To Do Everything, guest contributor McKay Marshall gave his technique on “How to make the perfect grilled cheese.”

I found his method to be dangerous and scary. Not saying it’s wrong, but it is for experts only. Grabbing ingredients on the fly, using a pan that’s “as hot as you can get it,” his inversion technique for flipping—these all need someone who knows what he or she is doing and can work at a short-order cook’s pace, not to mention a spatula that is shaped to allow you to invert a pan over it without the risk of burned fingers.

One of the How-To guys (Ian, I think) said this “high-action method” was “making [him] tense.” It did me, too. They likened it to mixing a drink à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail. But when you screw that up, you spill booze and break bottles. Screw up Marshall’s grilled cheese method, and you’re throwing around scalding hot oil and melted cheese. Next stop, burn unit.

My method takes only slightly longer, but anyone can do it with very little kitchen expertise. To paraphrase “The Tortoise and the Hare,” low and slow wins this race.

Start with your mise en place—a French chef’s way of saying “get your shit together.” Butter one side of bread, set it butter-side up on your work surface, then butter the next slice and set it on top of the first, buttered sides facing each other. This back-to-back layout keeps you from getting butter on everything, and now you have an open-faced area on which to put your cheese—grated cheese will melt better than slices—and any add-ons. (As an aside, my favorite addition is roasted green chiles from a can.)

Meanwhile, heat up your pan at a setting only one or two notches above simmer at most. I highly recommend a cast-iron pan, which does the best job of grilling and also avoids the health risk of dry-heating a non-stick pan. If you must use a non-stick pan, either put the sandwich into a cold pan, or use Marshall’s butter-in-the-pan-not-on-the-bread method.

When everything’s ready, and the pan is hot but not searing, pick up the entire back-to-back sandwich and place it into the pan as if you’re cutting a deck of cards: take the top slice with its cheese and put it on the bottom, and the bottom slice and put it on top, so your sandwich is now fully assembled as it starts to grill.

Cover the pan very loosely with a lid—enough to trap some heat and speed the cheese-melting, but not enough to trap steam and make the bread soggy. By the time the bread is nicely grilled, which will only take a few minutes, the cheese will have begun to melt—this will allow you to flip the sandwich normally. Grill the second side uncovered. While this is happening, you’ll have time to clean up without risk of overcooking the sandwich.

Ten minutes, start to finish, and with any luck no calls to the fire department.

Feedback loop

3 June 2011
Categories: Uncategorized

Last weekend, that chilly rainy Sunday morning before Memorial Day, I walked over to the local bakery to pick up a few treats for a stay-at-home brunch. There was a bit of a line. Ahead of me was a man in his early 30s; ahead of him, a woman about the same age. They were not together. The woman was holding an infant maybe nine months old. The baby was whining and fussing and close to tears; she was looking over her mother’s shoulder at the man between us. The man, meanwhile, stared fixedly into space with a quiet glower of grouchiness.

It was a feedback loop: the man was grouchy because he was stuck in line next to a crying baby; the baby was crying because of the grouchy man. The mother, used to the noise, had—like most mothers would in similar conditions—tuned out.

I figured I alone had a chance to break this vicious cycle. I caught the eye of the baby and started making my usual goofy “hello, baby” face: wide, smiling eyes, puffed-out cheeks, a look of joyous surprise. It took the baby about half a second to switch from fussy to happy, and when she switched, the change in her demeanour was almost instantaneous.

At that moment, the woman shifted the weight to her other arm, meaning the baby was now looking over her mother’s other shoulder. The baby could no longer see me, her view blocked by the man in front of me—but her happy smile remained, and now was directed at the man. Within moments he was smiling too, and saying hello to the baby. The mother turned around and struck up a friendly conversation with the man, and by the time they were done ordering everybody was in a cheerful mood.

Neither the man nor the woman had any awareness of me. They never had a clue how my input had improved their Sunday morning. That it also saved me from standing in line with a crying baby was just icing on the cupcake.

Two appliances, two different design universes

21 April 2010
Categories: Uncategorized

In our office lunch room, we’ve recently had a pair of appliances installed: a coffee maker and a hot/cold water filtration unit. In using both, it struck me how divergent their designs are from each other.

On the right, the fancy filtration unit dispenses both chilled drinking water and hot water for tea, instant soup, etc. As a safety measure, to get hot water from the unit one must push two buttons at once: the red button above the graphic of a steaming glass—and another button labeled “hot safety.”

Of course it’s meant to keep children from scalding themselves. I suppose that justifies its intent, if not its necessity.

As an aside, this safety feature defeated our lead programmer, who is brilliant and intelligent and tech-savvy, but who skipped the hilariously elementary (example: “Take one coffee filter…” [hold filter up for all to see]) orientation session for these appliances.

On the left, the coffee maker will also dispense hot water for tea—via a big, red-handled spigot.

If a child walked up to these two machines, what’s the first thing they’d do? Press the little red button—or pull the big red handle?

I’m not saying the coffee maker’s spigot is unsafe. Not many (if any) children spend time in our offices, so it’s a moot point. And if nothing else it enabled that aforementioned staffer to get hot water for her tea.

The filtration unit is not, however, exempt from my ridicule. See that blue light that shines down on whatever container you’re filling? At first I thought it might be one of those ultraviolet lamps that kill bacteria. Not so. This light is decorative—in fact, it’s not merely decorative, it’s purely decorative.

Why? Because if it had any function at all, it would make a lot of sense, while dispensing hot water, for that light to turn red. But no, it doesn’t. Instead, it’s counterintuitive: dispense piping-hot—nay, scalding—water that glows with a light that stays cool, cool blue.


14 April 2010
Categories: Uncategorized

Although the abuse that the English language takes on this weblog could be seen as a contraindication, I delight in wordplay. So when last week—on April Fools’ Day, appropriately enough—I came across the Bad Translator website, I was hooked.

The site performs a simple task: it takes a phrase of 250 characters or less and passes it through the Google Translator, from English to another language and back to English again, over and over. In the process, the original words and meaning are completely mangled. As the site explains, “Machine translations are useful for getting a general idea about what text written in a foreign language means.” But beyond that “general idea”—watch out!

Song lyrics are good fodder; it seems like their meter and prose are prone to very odd results. So, after a few small tests, I fed it the chorus of the Michigan State University Fight Song. Bad Translator responded with:

“Michigan, my son, ‘Sparta’ We see a strong team that won the game! Less! Less! Less! You can see a weak team and the sport and the game won! ‘Just below! Crew! University of Michigan Winners!'”

It starts out pretty good, but finishes horribly—somehow the word “State” has been lost. To a Spartan, there’s little worse than being conflated with that other university, down the road in Ann Arbor (something that other school has attempted many times in the past 150 years or so).

So I tried again, using the alma mater, “MSU Shadows”:

“University of Michigan, in a cool, dark, black pine Plyushchev faith, our Alma mater, distribution of time dog wallpaper, admiration, respect and love the sound of the University of Michigan.”

Ouch! Again, it has converted my school’s name to (ahem) those other guys. And, insultingly, it managed to expand “MSU” into “Michigan State University” before obliterating “State” and flipping it around (ptui). But still, this is great fun. I mean, who the heck is Plyushchev? And who can beat the absurd surrealism of the “distribution of time dog wallpaper”?

Smarting from the co-optation of two songs dear to my heart, I decided turnabout is fair play, and fed it the fight song of that other school, “The Victors”—and that’s when I fell out of my chair, laughing.

Hot! This cream is a problem!
Long live the fighters,
if in the interests of the Hot!
Michigan best pilot!

Hot! This cream is a problem!
Long live the fighters,
if in the interests of the Hot!
Uesutotshanpyon Michigan!

Holy crap, that’s funny. I imagine that opening line preceded by a spit-take—someone taking the first tentative slurp of a cup of steaming coffee, then suddenly spewing it out in a cloud of mist and shouting an indignant non sequitur, “Hot! This cream is a problem!”

Then, a left turn: the original lyrics’ notion of supporting one’s warriors is retained—but only if that troublesome cup of coffee approves! “If in the interests of the Hot”… if not, well, too bad fighters, you’re at the mercy of that oh-so-fickle Hot.

Then, finally, that awesome word: Uesutotshanpyon. It’s a totally non-existent word; a Google search returns zero results. For some reason the translator, having gotten to the point where “Champions of the West” had become “West Champion,” failed to translate that phrase into Japanese and instead transliterated it phonetically. It came back to English the same way, and remained intact through numerous other translations. I find that hilarious.

Having taken State’s arch-rivals down a notch, I played with some other stuff. Robert W. Service’s “Cremation of Sam McGee” was delightful, starting off indecisive (“Sunday lunch or after work…”) and occasionally turning Mr. McGee into Montréal’s McGill University. “O Canada” wound up being about Brazil. The description of one of my company’s products included something about ferrets.

Bad Translator could be improved a bit. It always runs through the languages in alphabetical order, starting with Afrikaans and ending with Yiddish. I think it should take them in random order—then the results would be different every time. If I were more Javascript-adept I might be able to do this myself.

After some more play, with mixed results, I gave it one of my all-time favourite songs: “Alone Again Or” from the 1968 masterpiece album Forever Changes by Love. It distilled the whole thing down to two lines, and while it’s terse and a bit inscrutable, it retained a sense of poetry:

I remember well, we decided
Yes, I know who I am, what people think, a little love today.

Intrigued by how much it shortened the song, I got to wondering if it could get down to one word, and what it would be. It only needed two more iterations:

I know very little memory.

Which reduced to: