Not in Chicago anymore

Mundane life from rural Minnesota.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thank you, Target

The security environment for credit cards in the US has lagged behind Europe for years. We willingly hand our plastic to our server in a restaurant whereas in Europe the transaction is done at the table using a portable wireless reader. Our cards use magnetic stripe technology that's decades old; their cards have a chip. But that's changing.


Today I received the replacement for my Sam's membership card.  Not missing a trick, Sam's has always required their members to establish a credit card that doubled as the membership card. My new card has two big changes:
  • It is a MasterCard, not a Discover card. I have to assume that this is because MasterCard cut a better deal with Sam's, not because Sam's has any interest whatsoever in providing me better service.
  • It is a smart card. I had already noticed that Walmart and Sam's have installed readers for smart cards.
That makes three smart cards now living in my wallet. Not that I ever use the Sam's plastic as a credit card, and changing it to a MasterCard is unlikely to modify that behavior (unless Sam's institutes a new restriction that the only way they will accept payment is via that card, which would not surprise me).

Finally. I have been speculating for years what it would take to motivate vendors and the credit card companies in the US to spend the money to upgrade their technology. Maybe it was the high profile of the Target hack. Maybe it was just the passage of time. We've been talking about this for a couple of decades now; it's overdue.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Progress, but not consistent

As the years have gone by, the overall sophistication of what we use every day has increased and in most cases the ease of use has improved. We take for granted many things that only a few decades ago even the most imaginative computer scientists could not even imagine. With a couple of clicks I can chat with a friend on the other side of the Earth. I have instant access to vast amounts of information, and I can actually find what I am looking for using search techniques that were unheard of before today's search engines.

Then there's the whole aspect of computer hardware and the magic of making it all work together. When I buy a printer, I take it out of the box, set it up, and my computer finds it and starts to use it. That seems like a simple concept, and we take it for granted today, but not that long ago I would have been looking for tiny switches to configure the printer and installing drivers on my workstation. What takes seconds today took hours (and a lot of expertise, not to mention luck) in the fairly recent past.

When I was getting my start in this field, computers filled rooms. If you added disk storage to your system, you had to essentially rebuild the operating system to support the new configuration. It was pretty much an all-day job. Today we plug in the disk and the operating system starts to use it. (Not to mention that there's more storage on your USB stick than was on the early mainframes.)

But then you wander into the backwater of a product and stumble on a function that somehow was missed, and it's a huge shock because everything else works so well. Outlook is Microsoft's email product. It also does calendaring and some other functions, but I use it primarily for email in my "day job". I use it a lot. It's typical of today's sophisticated software products — many versions have been released, each building on the function of the previous.

But somewhere along the way, the part of Outlook that takes care of mail distribution lists (called "groups" in Outlook) has not received the same level of attention as the other parts of the product. For one thing, there's no way to search — either in a collection of groups or in a single group. And there's no way to change an entry in a group, other than deleting it and re-creating it.

So here's the scenario. We have a dozen Outlook groups, one for each Region in the Division that we serve. These groups range in size from ten members to about a hundred. It's not unusual to need to send email to everyone in the Division, and Outlook makes it easy to do that — just select all the groups, toss them into the BCC line, and off you go. The rub comes when you get a non-delivery notification after sending one of these "blast" emails, and this is something that happens a lot because people leave or change their email address.

So the first step is to figure out which group they're in. The only way to do this is to open each one and eyeball the entries. They're supposed to be in alphabetical order, but that's not reliable because the "display name" may not match the email address, and the email address is all you have to work with. Any modern application would be expected to have a search function which would automate this, but it's not there.

Once you find the offending entry, normally you'll just delete it. But today the problem was a typo; a single missing character in the email address. So just change the entry, right? No. You can't change an entry. I'm mystified as to how this basic action could be missing. But it is.

So delete the entry and re-create. Easy, right? You've got the information you need in the non-delivery notification, so just copy/paste. No. You can't do that. Once you begin the entry-creation process, the only window you can access in Outlook is that window. You can't switch focus to the window that has the data you want to copy/paste.

So here we have an amazingly sophisticated product, and we're trying to do something basic, and the product is making it unbelievably difficult because basic functions simply do not exist. Outlook has bells and whistles that I'll never use, but I can't do a simple "find" or change an entry in a group.

As much as I love to pick on Outlook, this issue is common in today's products. Perhaps none of the developers or designers use this particular function, so no one pays attention to it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Laptop surgery

Just over a week ago, the hard drive in my laptop began to make a noise. I've been in this business long enough to know that when your hard drive "speaks" to you, it's silly to ignore it. Even though the noise went away after a while, I decided that action was in order.

So I did a little research and was astounded by two things:

The price for "hard drives" for laptops continues to decline. And the price for solid state disk is declining even faster. Only a few years ago it wasn't reasonable to equip a general-use laptop with SSD; this has reversed and now it's unreasonable not to. In fact, one article that I read pointed out that Apple only has one model left in their lineup with traditional spinning disk, and that one isn't competitively priced.

And Amazon is starting to scare me in the same way that Walmart scares me. Their price on the replacement unit that I decided on was $100 less than my usual source. A Facebook post directed me to another vendor who had the unit on sale; it was still $50 more than Amazon. For a small extra charge I could have the device the next day, Saturday. So I ordered it.

And sure enough, Saturday morning it arrived. I found a few articles on the net about how to replace the hard drive in a MacBook Pro. One of them warned me that I would need Torx screwdrivers, so I bought a set of Torx screwdrivers (and ended up using one of them exactly eight times, to remove and replace four mounting brackets).

The other task was to build a bootable install USB stick for OS X. There are several articles on the net on how to do this. It's a little tedious but not difficult.

And finally, I took a full backup to an external hard drive that I routinely use for backup. This second-level backup turned out to be critical.

Saturday evening I took the bottom plate off the laptop and replaced the hard drive. Absolutely routine. Took about fifteen minutes.

I then booted my laptop using the above-mentioned USB stick. A moment of panic as it didn't recognize the newly-installed hard drive, but Disk Utility did recognize it and formatted it just fine.

Then I picked the option to restore from a Time Capsule backup. This took a few hours, but I was sleeping during this time.

The next morning I had a working laptop with all my data on it and a blazing fast hard drive. I did, however, have a bit of fallout from the hard drive replacement:

  • Mail was not recovered well by the Time Capsule recovery. Many old emails were missing completely, and others were missing their body. I copied the Mail directory from the full backup I took, and everything came back just fine.
  • The first time I used a component of Microsoft Office, I had to provide my license key. Not a problem unless you don't keep careful track of such things.
  • The first time I invoked iTunes, it informed me that my purchased music was no longer licensed. There must be a serial number associated with hard drives so it knew that the music was in a different place. It gave me a popup to license the music, but unfortunately that music was purchased using an Apple ID that I can no longer use. (That's its own story.) So that music is now gone. I am a big proponent of paying for intellectual property, but it's incidents like this that make me understand one of the reasons people pirate this kind of material.
  • Then there's the really mysterious problem with Excel. I discovered that Excel could open xlsx files (the new version of spreadsheets) but not xls files (the previous version). When I tried to open an xls file, I got the ever-popular popup that says "I have self destructed. I hope this isn't an inconvenience."
    • My first attempt to solve this was by re-installing Office from the original DVD media. This had no effect on the problem.
    • I tried running Excel from another account. Same issue. Seemed to rule out a preference problem, since the other account should have its own set of preferences.
    • But since a preferences issue seemed to be the only explanation, I deleted anything that looked like a preference. Still no help.
    • At this point I purchased the Numbers product from Apple, just so that I would have an application to automatically open spreadsheets in xls format. I have to say that Numbers is not a bad product, but it's not Excel.
    • Finally I used Search in Finder to find any file on the laptop with office in its name, and deleted all of them. (Well, there were a few that were obviously not related to Microsoft Office that I left.) Then I re-installed Office yet-again from the DVD. This fixed the problem.
I love the new solid state disk. It's very fast, and with no moving parts I hope it will be reliable. So the bottom line is that the cry for help from the old hard drive provided me with motivation for doing something that I probably should have done anyway.

And I learned one more thing. I have always wondered why so many hard drives are available on eBay that contain sensitive data – people just sell their old hard drive without erasing it. Now I have a better idea of why that happens. What am I going to do with the hard drive that I removed? The only way I can erase it is to re-install it into the laptop, which is a lot more trouble than it's worth. Well, that's not really true . . . I can "erase" it with a sledgehammer, which is going to be its likely fate.

If I sold that drive to someone, chances are it would run fine for years. If I had ignored the noise, it would have failed at the most inopportune time. Let's hear it for Murphy.

Why is this blog still here?

It has been two months since I created an entry here. I can't imagine that anyone even notices what's here. But I've decided to keep the blog because occasionally I do write something that maybe will be useful in the future, either to me or to someone else. Most of my social media activity is on Facebook these days; it's only when I have something long or something that I want to keep around that I find blogging appropriate. And that's not often.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Healthcare sites

An article in the Star Tribune discusses the woes related to the rollout of Minnesota's site to enroll people in health care.  I expect that the story, with a few details changed, applies to every similar site including HealthCare.gov.

The root issue is simple — there just wasn't enough time to develop these sites. I find it amusing that even though application development tools have made huge strides in the past couple of decades, the complexity and number of users of what the developers are building has grown even faster. The bottom line is that it takes as long, or longer, to build applications now as it did decades ago.

So what happens when there's a drop dead date that is too close? Sites are deployed when everyone involved knows that there will be serious problems.

I find it astounding that now, well after the fact, people on the management team are questioning whether the site actually should have gone live when it did.

“I lament that I didn’t ask the simple question: Do we really have to do all of this by Oct. 1?” said MNsure Board Member Thompson Aderinkomi. “I should have asked.”
On the other hand, delaying the live date would probably have had little effect . . . whenever the site was made available, there would have been a huge influx of people trying to use it, and this would have caused problems. With this kind of web site, there are two options: Watch it crash because there are a hundred times more people trying to use it than it can handle, or waste huge sums of money to buy a ridiculous amount of hardware to handle that spike of usage. It must be maddening to manage a site like this and know that on certain days (like the last day of enrollment) your site is going to crash and there's nothing you can do about it.

The other statistic that amuses me is
MNsure officials acknowledge the rollout has been difficult, but they note the agency has signed up more than 175,000 people as of Friday, well above a conservative projection of 135,000 in mid-October.
Well, one of the 175,000 people is me. I visited the site just to look around and it issued me a policy. I did not request a policy, and I'm not eligible for the policy that it issued me, but after a couple of hours on the phone I was able to determine that (1) I am now the proud owner of health insurance that I never requested, (2) It is not possible to cancel that bogus insurance since the folks who built the system did not include the ability to cancel a policy.

I am told that this sleeping-dog policy is not going to be a problem. I am told that I'm on a list of people who have requested that similar bogus policies be canceled. (I wonder how many of the 175,000 people are on that list.) But I won't be surprised if suddenly I discover, in a few months, that my real health insurance policy has mysteriously disappeared.

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