Plug & Play? Yeah, Right!

Fer fuck sake! On days like this, it’s hard to believe I make a living working at a computer all day. But, at the same time, I realize that I do (read, that I’m addicted) because not having Internet access from every computer in the house is driving me crazy.

It all started two weeks ago when I agreed with El Poema that I should get myself a cheap laptop. After work that Friday night, I went to Business Depot and found a Toshiba that met that description, and asked the salesperson if I could bring it back if I couldn’t just plug it into my home network. He said sure, provided I bring it back within 14 days.

I got home and it took over an hour to boot it the first time. Fine …but then I tried to connect to the router/network and was stymied by having to know the encryption key. Damn if I knew what it was!

With everything else I have on the go these days, trying to figure this out is more than I can handle. So, I finally broke down and hired a techie from PC Medic to do a house call. He came yesterday and, although he found the key in two seconds, other complications conspired and he couldn’t get the damn thing to hook up. “That does it,” I thought. The laptop might not be at fault, but I’m bringing it back. On precisely the 14th day.

But then I thought I’d drop by PC Medic. Maybe I could get an equally cheap laptop and it would connect on the first try. I got a recycled laptop that still had XP as the operating system — as opposed to Vista on the previous one — but, once home, it became apparent this one wouldn’t connect, either. Thankfully, the PC Medic people agreed that if I couldn’t connect instantly, I could bring it back the next day and they’d reimburse me, no questions asked.

However, I then found myself with a computer inferior to the Toshiba I had before, so screw that! I brought the recycled thing back to PC Medic. And then I thought, What about if I got another Toshiba, try at least to connect to an unsecured network — for really, the whole point of this laptop is to have a computer I can travel with and connect to a wireless network. So, off I go to another Business Depot location and I get another Toshiba. I even talked them into giving it to me for the same price as the previous one. But where it was closing time and all, I had to go back today to pick it up, reformatted.

So I did. Even though it was considerably later than I said I would come by, it wasn’t ready yet and I had to wait quite a while. Back home, I boot the sucker up …but to make a long story short, this one is a total dud! But what’s more, now my router is a complete piece of toast, which I’m told is because it’s a very unpopular brand la la la la la. (It’s an SMC, in case you’re wondering.) So now, only the computer that’s directly connected can reach the Net. And only one of the two desktops in the living room can “talk” to the desktop in my office.

Needless to say, the dud is going back to the store tomorrow. And where I know Business Depot has several other Toshibas at the downtown store (as of last night, at least), I’m going to insist on getting one and go through this whole song-and-dance all over again.

That’s not going to fix the network/router, mind you. On that front, I’m not sure what to do anymore. I think I might have to get a non-SMC and start the network all over again. But there’s no friggin’ way I’ll succeed on my own. So, now I’m thinking I’ll have to bite the bullet and hire another techie who, I would hope, could get this all done in about two hours …’cause that’s what a techie does, right? (Kaching, kaching!) And then, I would hope to make copious notes so I can dismantle this bloody network, replug it once in Montréal in two months, and it’ll all work like a charm, right?

Can you tell this cascade of incidents has broke this camel’s back?

Techie Things That Baffle Me

When it comes to “computer stuff,” some things baffle me. Like…

  1. Getting hardware to work. I tentatively bought a laptop this week. By “tentatively,” I mean that I told the salesperson that if I can’t figure out in a few days and with relative ease how to get the blasted thing connected to my wireless router, I would bring it back. For some unexplicable reason, I have no patience for stuff like that. Or a short attention span. But at the rate things are going now, I may end up returning the damn thing.
  2. How some days spam e-mails clog my inbox in a manner that resembles a sudden and heavy snowstorm, and then dies down to a trickle or even nothing. It conjures up images of spammers launching an attack and then the people at my hosting company intervening by altering the server-side filtering rules to stop the influx. But then I suspect that, really, it’s more a case of the storm simply stopping.

A while back, I asked my hosting company if they had any suggestion of what I could do to cut down the spam in addition to applying my own filtering rules. I was given an excellent explanation of why it’s such a big problem for me, but implementing a lasting way of stopping the influx would require considerable work on my part. And work is time, which is at a premium for me these days.

A Non-Toxic Form of Crack

I’ve made a few references lately to Facebook, and yeah, what can I say! Initially I resisted, and then one day I fell into it big time and wasted an entire evening. But now I check in once or twice a day for about 10 minutes at a time, and that’s quite enough.

It’s terribly addictive, which brought one of my listed friend to refer to it as Crackbook. And I wonder to what extent it is to 2007 what blogs were in 2003. I mean, blogs are still around today, but I’m sure you’ve noticed that many bloggers have come and gone, and blogs themselves are just not what they used to be. The novelty has worn off somewhat, and I suspect the same will happen with Facebook.

But in the meantime, it’s fun to trace back people you’ve lost touch of. In fact, a few weeks ago, I got together for dinner with Barry, a former neighbour from a decade ago, and then visited Sir Brian, another friend I’d lost touch with. So that’s definitely the positive side of Facebook. But overall, I have to admit I’m trying very hard not to fall into it too much. Fortunately, the novelty of it is already starting to wear off on me. At least a little bit.

And yes, I definitely need to get new pictures of myself to reflect that it’s been years I haven’t worn a full beard and that my hair is now resolutely all silver.

The Debate Continues

If you look back in the archives of aMMusing as far back as 2004, you’ll find musings about Web development generally and standard-compliant coding in particular. The arguments in favour of relying on Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are still very compelling, and I’m currently working on gradually changing all the templates of the websites I help manage to be compliant.

Yet here we are, 9 years after I read my first book on CSS and 5 years after I decided not to “go completely compliant,” and I realize that producing something as ubiquitous as a three-column layout is still a source of major headaches. Someone thinks he’s found the Holy Grail, and in no time others point out how it doesn’t work in [insert name of a common browser] or behaves one way in one browser but a totally different way in the next. A simple, lightweight HTML table just to set out the columns and otherwise being standards-compliant would not only take a mere 5 minutes to bang out, but it would also work all the time; however, if one were to dare making this suggestion to standard-compliant purists, an interminable exchange of nasty barbs is bound to follow.

In 2007. No exaggeration. I’ve seen/read it today. There’s been next to no progress.

However, a guy named Andrew Banks has dared. He argues — convincingly, I think — that using an HTML table to set the relationship among the elements of a template — banner and footer, navigation aids in the left and right columns and the main content in the larger middle column — would still achieve the goal of separating content from presentation just as well if not better than CSS, provided that we restrict the use of the reviled HTML table to that task and to otherwise real “tabular data.”

His conclusion is practical:

Am I saying we go back to lots of nested tables, spacer GIFs, and font tags? No. What I hope to do is free some web designers from being too legalistic, and even wrong, about what the table can be used for.

Even though I am a long-time believer in “the right way is often the harder way,” I also think that constant difficulty may be a sign of a bad fit. If for years you\’ve failed to jam a round peg into a square hole, while a square peg slides in ever so easily, maybe it\’s because the square peg belongs there.

I guess now I’m torn more than ever on the issue, especially when I see huge dynamic websites like cbc.ca managing to switch to full compliance. But think of the budget the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has compared to my clients.

Like Banks, I’m wondering if the zealots of standards compliance have missed a point along the way. I’m more than prepared to respect S.C. whenever humanly possible and would certainly accept some differences among browsers. But after spending a good part of this weekend trying to make compliant a simple three-column template and realizing that we’re still not there yet — at least not without a gazillon mind-boggling hacks and fixes — I’m starting to wonder if we’ve become unable to distinguish the trees from the forest. As a Web developer, would I really deserve to be brought to the pasture and shot for suggesting that we should always favour standard-compliant code except in the odd instances when it just can’t be done?

This Time M$ Goes Too Far

…and to add insult to injury, my daytime employer doesn’t go far enough. The end result is that I’m one hell of a frustrated guy these days. The latest problem is relatively simple and, until this week, easily avoidable. But not anymore.

After nearly five years of not substantially changing its ubiquitous browser, Internet Explorer (IE), Microsoft finally released IE7 with much fanfare in October. I read a lot of reviews and concluded that it might be a big improvement over IE6 even though its major improvements are that IE7 now compares favorably with the technically better and more standards-compliant relative newcomer, Firefox. However, because the online software I support at my day job is (overly, exclusively and unwisely) optimized for IE6 with Java JRE 1.4.2_11, not to mention that my SSL VPN connection to work is confirmed to be stable only with IE6, I decided that I would not open a can of worms by upgrading to IE7. While I did find from my readings that I could revert to IE6 if for any reason I didn’t like IE7, I went on the assumption that the reversal might not be perfect and I would experience nothing but grief afterwards. Therefore, given that I am more interested in keeping my day-to-day productivity high at my day job than fighting with my machine while trying to provide client support and training, I decided to wait a while before upgrading.

Meanwhile, one feature that made me nervous when I adopted Windows XP in 2003 was the automatic updates that come up periodically. Frankly, it felt a little “big brotherish” to me, plus it’s not like Microsoft has a great track record for releasing flawless software. However, I was told at the time that I should trust those updates since, for the most part, they are designed to fix those very flaws for which Microsoft is famous. Besides, it is possible not only to get a warning before those updates are installed, but also to pick-and-choose updates, as seen below (click image to enlarge).

In other words, one can ignore Big Brother’s “recommendation” to proceed with an “Express” installation. So, for the longest time, I would choose “Custom” each time an update came along. However, lately I noticed that after going through the list of updates, I didn’t bother unchecking any. Indeed, over time, I had found that the updates were a good thing and that my initial worries were unfounded. In short, I had to admit that I had gain some trust in Microsoft, and given that bashing the software giant is an old and tired sport, I wasn’t disappointed to drop my defenses.

Recently, JR, one of my day-job colleagues who also works from home, opted to turn in his company-supplied laptop and connect to work like I do via SSL VPN. He has been very pleased with the switch, in good part because the applications we use every day run much faster, which is ironic but besides the point. Anyway, early this week, JR turned to me for advice on IE7, to which he had upgraded over the weekend but had turned into a major headache, especially with respect to his SSL VPN which would crash without warning several times a day. So I advised that he do what we’ve been instructed to tell our clients: switch back to IE6 for a little while longer. He did and everything is back to normal.

A day after he switched, I called a client for an appointment and he announced that he had just upgraded to IE7. I gave him the usual line: we do not yet support IE7 and my experience so far has shown that our online software may or may not work, but if we proceed with IE7 because the client refuses to revert to IE6, then I can offer no guarantee of success and the client is waiving any expectation of receiving support from us until at least early in the new year. In this case, however, unlike a previous I had with IE7, this client didn’t mind going back to IE6 when we found that merely trying to load our application’s sign in page caused his IE7 to shut down, plus, he added, “I just upgraded to it 20 minutes ago so it’s not like I’m used to it already.” He then confided that the upgrade from 6 to 7 had been part of the Windows automatic update that he’s come to always accept when they arrive.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “You’re telling me that Microsoft is pushing IE7 as an automatic update?” And he confirmed that it is. Later, after that call, I was speaking with JR and he confirmed that’s how he got fooled into upgrading to IE7. “I always tell my mom to accept those updates because they can be trusted and are a good thing,” he explained. Indeed, we’ve been trained to view these updates as such. Still, I couldn’t believe that Microsoft would reach the point of abusing that trust which was so hard to get from heavy computer users like us …until I saw it with my own eyes when my notification of updates came up (click image to enlarge).

For your benefit and mine, I clicked on the –/+ to see what Microsoft had to say about this upgrade (click image to enlarge).

In other words, Microsoft is telling people that upgrading to IE7 is for your own good, for who, after all, doesn’t want “enhanced security” in view of its horrible reputation in that regard. But I was still stunned to see them trying to sneak in a version UPGRADE of their own software for reasons other than true security fixes, like say a service patch. Nonetheless, I unchecked not only the “update” but also checked the box instructing Microsoft “not to tell me about this update again” (click image to enlarge).

Doing so earned me what I consider this truly evil “important” warning to which I’m not sure less confident computer users wouldn’t succumb (click image to enlarge):

I shared my discovery with all my colleagues and supervisors, for it’s clear that our job is going to become a lot more complicated in the coming weeks. But one of my supervisors clearly got irked: she resent her memo of November 24 that states not only that we are not able to support IE7 at this time, but also that we are NOT to provide support for it. And I just cringed.

People like myself are on the front line. We deal directly with clients, and telling them that they have to downgrade because one of Canada’s largest employers tells them so is absolutely propostrous. Not only that: we were told that “it’s hard to believe” that there’s no way for people to opt out of the upgrade to IE7. But that’s coming from people who’ve been in a controlled box for so long that they have no idea what it’s like in the real world, plus as the above screen shots demonstrate, Microsoft is resorting to complications and guilt to get people to do exactly what it wants them to do. What’s more, almost since I started my job, I’ve made some noise — although not too much since I’m very low on the totem poll — about the advent of IE7 and the need to prepare for it, but I gave up around late September when I was shut down with a remark to the effect that “we can’t be running tests on every beta version that comes out.” Confronted with that kind of logic, I knew I had to cease and desist immediately, and carry the peace of mind stemming from knowing I had done all I could to warn of the imminent train crash.

That, of course, is not the only problem we’re having to face. There’s the fact that, unlike other browsers, it’s impossible to run more than one version of IE on the same computer, and like it or not, we’re heading into what I expect will be a long period of transition between IE6 and IE7. My employer has benefitted from Microsoft’s decision not to touch significantly its IE software for five years; this inaction provided a constant in an environment that’s usually void of constants. But starting in the new year when supposedly we will be “allowed” to support IE7, the significant interface differences between IE6 and IE7 and the inability to run both at once is going to force us to find ways of de facto supporting more than one browser, which is something I think we should have been doing all along.

Enters the fact that my main computer, TextStyle1, is slated for replacement. By yesterday, I decided that I need to have access to two computers for my day job — one with IE6 and one with IE7 — and if my contract does end in a few months, it won’t be as though I bought another computer expressly for the day job. This initiative on my part is a damn sweet deal for my employer, and I don’t know what my colleagues will do. But all of this does bring to the fore the folly of believing that putting all your eggs in the Microsoft basket is an assurance of smooth sailing. Had my employer been adapting to all major operating systems and browser platforms as we’ve been going along, even though that would have made providing support a lot more complicated, we wouldn’t be in this mess …at least, not as deeply.

So, resigned to the fact I had to do what I had to do, I enacted my plan of attack and this happened