How Do You Spell “Mortified”?

Anyone who still reads this blog will attest that my day job has changed it for the worse. I used to write on many more and much broader topics, not to mention with far greater regularity. However, after longer-than-ought-to-be days at the day job and attempts at catching up in my now part-time business, I haven’t much energy or desire to do much of anything else, be it blogging or apartment cleaning.

The latter, however, became an absolute necessity last weekend. I always do well at throwing out the trash and rinsing the dishes so that they don’t stick up the place. But, to my great shame, I admit that I can go weeks and months without sweeping the floor. And to my greater shame, I forbid all my friends to drop in on me because I don’t want them to witness my shame. I do still have my pride.

During the unusual mild spell two weeks back, all nature got out of whack. The grass was rebecoming green; a fresh crop of dandilions popped up; animals that had begun bedding down for the winter were fooled into believing that winter had come and gone already. Hence at the tail end of a call that CP [in training] was monitoring, I had to remain calm even though I was witnessing something that made my stomach turn: I could see that Herman’s fifth cousin had taken residence in the kitchen, most notably on and in the stove.

So I spent last Saturday making sure my apartment was a less hospitable host for Herman V. After much sweeping, desinfecting, mopping and generally banging around, I spotted him in the living room, looking a bit dazed and clearly trying to find his way out. And that’s the last I saw of him.

There’s evidence suggesting that, unlike Herman and Hermina five years ago, Herman V was only here for a good time, not a long time. For instance, it doesn’t look like he made it as far as the cupboards. However, after my cleaning stint, I went on Google to try to determine what exactly Herman V is/was and what would have drawn him to my place since I had thought until now that really nasty compostable trash would constitute the motherlode for a little critter like him. What I determined is that based on his size, and as a result of having had a really good look at him, he is/was a common mouse — not the kind of roommate I would want in any circumstances, mind you, but not as bad as could be. And what I learned is that those stray coffee beans between the stove and the counter would be a bit draw for a guy like him. That, as well as corn and apples, among other things. Also, someone of Herman’s ilk can squeeze through a hole as small as a quarter inch, which is extremely easy to find in an older building like this. Therefore, putting all those ingredients together — odd weather, easy access, less-than-stellar housekeeping habits, and no deterring feline residents in the apartment — is akin to a Herman open-door policy.

However, given how this building is located next to a park on one side and restaurants on another, and recalling how other residents with exemplary domestic habits received visits from other members of Herman’s family while I wasn’t being bothered despite not having great habits of my own, I’m not deluding myself into believing that all unwanted critters have left the building. And while I admit my place was alluring for a while, I sincerely doubt that I single-handedly attracted them to the building. These little guys are everywhere; we just don’t always see them in action.

Spam Out of Control

I think I might need to send all my clients a service note to warn them that the increase in spam in recent months is beyond my control. Indeed, it is now being reported — in this PC World article as well as the mainstream media — that spam levels have gone up 80 percent since early October. My clients are understandably getting annoyed, and some erroneously believe it’s because those who maintain the server where their site is hosted are not doing their job.

Lately, I’ve gradually been updating the server-side mail scanning rules in selected domains to see if doing so would help. The updated, stricter rules don’t seem to be having much effect, though, and there’s now an increased risk that legitimate messages are being filtered out as spam. According to this other, earlier PC World article, the problem is that spammers are increasingly placing images in their bile, thus thwarting filtering tools which are designed to scan for text.

Another tactic on which spammers rely, according to Craig Sprosts who is quoted in that second article, is to register new domain names just long enough to send their trash and then abandon the domain name.

Of the 35 million domains registered in April [2006], 32 million were never paid for and expired after five days…… [M]any of those domains were used by spammers to send out their unsolicited e-mail during that five-day grace period…… Traditional blacklists and whitelist approaches just can’t keep up with how fast they’re registering new domains and changing the URLs in the e-mail.

Generating and countering spam has always been a game of cat and mouse, but it’s more brutal today than it ever was. It’s becoming an industry of its own on the Internet.

E-mail is not the only channel for spam. For instance, this WordPress-driven blog receives easily 10 times more spam comments than legitimate comments, thus why I’ve taken to closing comments on posts after so many days online. Fortunately, because I have WP set to queue comments from unknown addresses, messages take a while to appear on this blog so that I can manually reject all the trash comments. But it’s annoying nonetheless. Similarly, I have the phpBB bulletin board installed on one of my domains, and there too, I have set the software to require my approval before the supposedly new user becomes active on the board, thus allowing me to delete the 50 or so new users that register each week. It’s not an onerous task — I only need to select those users and delete them all at once — but it’s a source of unnecessary work. I could leave them all there since they’re effectively harmless, but it’s messy to leave them there.

I’ve been around the Internet and the Web long enough to know that spam spikes come and go. Eventually, I’m sure, the cat will find a way of countering the mouse’s latest antics and everything will be better again. Until the next round.

TextStyle1 Shits the Bed

It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been 3 years since I replaced TextStyle1. Since I started the day job, I’ve haven’t been using it nearly as much, preferring the cheapy computer I got a year ago — the one I believe I neglected to tell you I got working once Stephanie and I — well, okay, Stephanie more than I — realized we installed the wrong kind of extra RAM. Even for my non-day-job work, I prefer the newer computer, although I believe much of that is due to where it’s located. After so many years of working in a bedroom that I designate as “my office,” I think I’ve come to see it as a form of punishment to isolate myself in a corner of the apartment. But I digress…

I’d say that since I got the new computer, a.k.a. TextStyle2, I’ve been noticing that TextStyle1 has started throwing me some attitude. Consequently, I’ve grown accustomed to handling it with care. Lately, though, it’s been getting worse.

This evening I received the notice that a new Windows update was available, so I agreed to have it installed, walked away, and promptly forgot about it. When I came back a few hours later, I saw something I never saw since I’ve been using XP, which I find remarkably stable — I’d even say surprisingly stable given we’re talking M$. That which I never saw since using XP but saw tonight was the infamous Windows Blue Screen of Death.

TextStyle1 effectively shit the bed tonight.

Mind you, it recovered well after I let do its disk scan and whatnot. I know it’s not that long ago since I defragmented the hard drive, and I know the hard drive is nowhere near being full. And I am writing this post right now from TextStyle1. But I have to recognize that 3 years is pretty much the expected lifespan of PCs. And in this case, it’s been over 3.5 years.

So, I thought I’d take a look at the Future Shop website for a computer similar to TextStyle2. After all, it’s been completely trouble-free for a year. And thus I discovered I could replace TextStyle1 for half what I paid in April 2003 and get a far more powerful machine.

I’m not going to run off this weekend and replace it, though. But I would rather replace it well before this one craps out on me. My main reason is that I need a backup for TextStyle2 at all times, but also it would be a lot easier to move data from the old to the new TextStyle1 while the former is not yet down on its knees.

I won’t deny that the thought of getting my first Mac crossed my mind this evening. However, for now, I have to banish that thought. If my reason for having two functioning computers is to have one as a backup for my day job, which is very Mac unfriendly, then I wouldn’t be helping matters. And as much as I would love to wrap my mind around the world of Macs, my capacity to learn something new that’s not directly related to my work — either jobs — is a wee bit low right now.

Could Winter Be Over?

Some years in these parts, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to claim that summer is so short that, if you blink, you’ll miss it. The summer of 2006 wasn’t quite that bad, although it did turn coolish and autumn-like by the 20th of August. But for me this year, summer came and went and I hardly noticed it because I was so busy with work.

For the past week, however, it has been well over 10C (50F) every day. Granted, it’s been grey and rainy, but the fact it’s been — and is expected to be — 14C to 17C each day through tomorrow, I can’t help but dream that perhaps I blinked and winter has come and gone. However, where I know that can’t be, I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping this winter will be as mild and relatively snowless like last winter.

This week, British Columbia’s Lower Mainland experienced a violent storm with high winds and rain that left over 200,000 without electricity. But that was an exception rather than the norm. People often say they couldn’t live in the Vancouver area because it rains so much there. I, for one, would prefer rain over temperatures dipping far below 0C for extended periods of time.

In a country as vast as Canada, however, the thought of displacing myself to Vancouver, a city which also happens to be outrageously expensive, is not one I’m willing to contemplate because it would almost be like emigrating to another country. I have a lot of respect for people like Stephanie who make such a fundamental change in their lives, but I don’t think I’d be able to do that at this point of my life. There’s only so much change one can endure at once, and I feel I’ve had my fair share of change in the last year or so.

Just Call Me Mr. Sunshine

The image I have of myself is not one of doom and gloom, but I don’t think of myself as a cheerleader, either. However, today I found out that my colleagues at the day job see me quite differently.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a while,” said CP, the trainee who’s been shadowing me a great deal in the last two weeks, “but Full Moon Marg and AnShe told me that you’re their pick-me-upper. They just love hearing from you after a bad call or during a bad day.”

Truth be told, I do love to laugh, and a benign form of levity in a job where you’re constantly dealing directly with clients is to make wise cracks about said clients. Anyone who has worked in a call centre will tell you the same. In our case, where calls to clients are outgoing and can last up to 3 hours so that we can provide product training, we end up sharing the tales about people who make us wonder how those people could ever have landed the position they hold. During one call I was leading today and that CP was monitoring, we had a spectacularly dim fellow at the end of the line — the kind who doesn’t know the difference between a colon and a semicolon …and that was just the tip of the iceberg. So at one point during the call, I zapped an e-mail to CP in which I wrote only, “I wonder whose son he is to have gotten the job he has.”

My day job has reaffirmed in my mind how the average user’s level of computer skills is much lower than what I once imagined it to be. But what frightens me is that applications that could seriously affect some individuals are being placed in the hands of people who have no idea what they’re doing: These people simply dust off a checklist from a beaten up folder once a month and follow what it says. It’s as though they don’t quite make the connection, in some instances, between the fact they’re withdrawing money from individuals’ accounts and how pissed off they’d be if another company made a mistake if it withdrew too much money from their own account. Beyond that, however, what gets to me are those who huff and puff about being knowledgeable about computers and mindful of security and best practices, but think I’m some kind of computer genius for helping them “fix” their computer woes by instructing them to empty their browser cache (without actually calling it browser cache).

I do know that I’m patient beyond most clients’ expectations and that I’m good at training over the phone. At the end of one call that lasted an hour longer than I expected due to sundry complications, I asked my customary “Are there any other questions before I leave?” and the client gushed, “I was so worried about this training and thought for sure I’d have a ton of questions, but you covered everything so well!” I thanked her for the compliment and joked, “So I guess there are still remnants of my past life as a teacher.” To which she said, “Oh well, that explains it!”

The result of doing three, four, and even sometimes five training calls a day is that I’m beyond drained at the end of the day. And to preserve my sanity, I tell my colleagues about the unbelievably stupid things I’ve heard in the course of client calls, repeating verbatim what was said with the same inflection, and that causes my colleagues to crack up. But I think what contributes to the humour is that I’m a newcomer to the world of financial services and my take is still that of a geek and outsider.

And meanwhile, somehow, the world keeps turning and it’s not on the verge of collapsing even though there’s the potential for so many screw-ups in the hands of so many people.