My Digital Nightmare

My Digital Nightmare

Update: this occurred in August of 2016.  As of late 2017 things are running pretty smoothly.

Recently, as in a few weeks back, I had a bunch of nice websites. Good layouts, interesting information, decent design, the requisite number of cat pictures. You get the idea.

Then one day, all the websites disappeared. They were just gone.

Needless to say I was somewhat annoyed.

I tried to approach this in the most professional way possible, and contacted the web hosting company.

It turns out that there had been a recent buying spree on the part of large web hosting companies to acquire smaller web hosting companies. My hosting company had been acquired, likely as a result of one of those “What should I do today?” musings by someone with obscene amounts of money and lots of free time.

As a result my web hosting company changed from a small, dedicated group of local people who really knew their stuff to little more than a small cog in a large corporate wheel, and the corporate Big Daddy’s then outsourced their technical services and web support to an overseas nation which shall remain nameless.

I exchanged emails and support tickets with some very nice people, like Saurabh and Sandip and Sunjit and Sameer and Abhijeet, and although they were unfailingly polite they seemed somewhat completely clueless.

This began 10 days of increasingly frustrating back and forth on-line chatting, discussing about who did what and when, with numerous insightful suggestions from the Support Technicians like, “Did you spell your username correctly“, and “Is your password more than four letters?” They were hitting me with some truly cutting edge ideas.

Finally, after a three day period of them insisting that the problem was due to a “brute force hack attack” (they loved throwing out that term), the Techs announced they had deduced the root cause of my missing websites. It was due to (and I quote) “random internet glitches“.

The response I sent to Sandip and his merry band of computer neophytes to discuss this phenomenon of “random internet glitches” was short and consisted of an intense series of four-letter words designed to express my dismay at their level of digital incompetence.  Yeah, it was a nasty email.

The next day all of my websites suddenly re-appeared (“Praaaaise Jee-zus! It’s a miracle!“) and I felt the need to make a choice: stay with that company and run the risk of another random internet glitch biting me in the ass or seek the greener pastures of a new hosting company.

I swallowed the blue pill, did some online research and found a good hosting company. I went to my existing hosting company’s website, re-directed my domain names to the servers of this new web hosting company (“Namaste, you dumb-asses!”) and set about checking the status of my websites. The re-direct went OK and everything seemed stable. I am now BFF’s with the new web hosting company, InMotion (https://www.inmotionhosting.com/). They seem nice.

I’m not even concerned about the apparent lack of adult supervision in their office. Even if it appears they do their design work with crayons.

But there is a lot of re-building work to do on my websites, some of them pretty much from scratch. And I will get right to work on that after this small break.

Why I Built a Personal Website

Why I Built a Personal Website

Why build a personal website? Well, I figured the time had come.

I’ve been using computers and the internet since before the World Wide Web existed, back in the good old ARPAnet days, when Geeks were not cool and computers were the size of refrigerators yet had less computing power or memory than iPods.

Even before Steve Jobs became a hippie or Bill Gates became a nerd I found myself sitting in front of an enormous dot matrix printer playing the very first Star Trek computer game with the Enterprise searching for the evil Klingons. The input was through a clunky keyboard and we used a pen and paper to plot possible locations of the Klingon Bird of Prey in the 2-dimensional grid universe. The output of each flight was the printed location of our new position on the grid. The result of each photon torpedo shot was another printed line, either Hit or Miss.

It was slow, it was unbearably clumsy by today’s standards and it took an entire freakin’ mainframe computer to run the game! But we had so much fun.

In the ensuing years I spent countless hours in Paul and Andrew’s basement, my friends from down the block. Their Dad had bought a computer from Radio Shack; a Tandy 1000. I had no idea how to turn it on or boot it up because only their Dad was allowed to perform that important task. But once it was running, we had three games to choose from, all of them controlled using the keyboard. Hours of fun. Countless hours.

Then Paul and I discovered video game arcades. Space Invaders, Asteroids, Centipede, Lunar Lander, Defender, Missile Command, Galaga and Tron (we were too cool to play Pac Man). Handfuls of quarters. Countless more hours.

Skip forward to my early 20’s when I spent a summer working for a provincial government agency. One day my boss said he would show me how to use the new computer. He pointed to where it sat on a table and told me to fire it up. When he joined me a few minutes later, the monitor screen was still dark.

Ken: “Why didn’t you turn it on?”

Me: “Well….”

Long pause. Followed by a longer pause.

Ken: “Do you know where the power-on switch is?”

Me: “Well….”

He laughed and reached behind the computer. There was a loud ‘ka-chunk!’ followed by a beep, some whirring sounds, another beep and then the screen flickered on. After a few seconds the flickering settled down and I was facing a black screen with a blinking light in the top left corner. The blinking light was the cursor, next to the only other thing on the screen which turned out to be C:/.

That was my introduction to MS DOS 3.0.

This was the era of the massive desktop computers which used floppy disks; memory disks so thin they were actually floppy. They were the latest technology but still held only enough resident memory to save about 20 pages of plain text.

The monitors were the size of mini-fridges and instead of a friendly graphic user interface with Windows and soothing music, all you would get was that very black and intimidating screen, with the blinking cursor which mocked you; “Hey, stop staring and type in a command. Any command. I dare you…” No such thing as a mouse in those days; it was all typed commands.

These days, we have handheld devices that will allow me to simultaneously check my e-mail, add a day-timer entry for an upcoming meeting, send a multi-version document to an entire work team at once, chat with someone on the other side of the planet and have some snot-nosed teen from a different continent destroy my character in an FPS combat game.

From a slow mainframe with paper printer instead of a monitor to smartphones with genius capabilities; truly mindboggling.

After all that time spent staring at a computer screen, I figured it was time I did something more useful with the internet than just more games.

Something other than writing boring technical documents that no one will ever read, or editing environmental plans that the construction company is just going to ignore anyway in favour of their ‘screw the wetlands; gotta git ‘er done!‘ approach. Something more productive than forwarding videos of cats doing funny things on YouTube. Something more permanent than Facebook entries that begin with, “Hey everybody. Look what I had for lunch!

I mean it’s not like I didn’t gain any real computer experience along the way. I’ve spent virtual  lifetimes working my way through DOS 3.0, DOS 3.2, DOS 4.0, and DOS 6.1. Then Windows 95, WIN 98, Windows ME (the horror!), Windows XP (the promised land), Windows 8 (Aaargh, my eyes!), WIN 8.1 and Windows 10. And lately, Apple iOS 8, iOS 9 and iOS 10.

In short, I’m kind of a digital bad ass. (I believe I just heard my daughter’s roll their eyes).

So I’ve decided the time has come to claim my own bit of digital real estate and with this website, I hereby plant my flag on the virtual landscape.

 (PS. That’s not really me in the photo with the flag but thanks for thinking it might be).

Social engineering in the workplace

Social engineering in the workplace

I used to work for the town of Fox Creek (Alberta, Canada) as the town’s Development Officer and Planner. It was a small town so everybody knew where the town office was and most of the residents had the same low regard for the people who worked there. After all, town employees didn’t have real jobs but they sure got paid as if they did.

One day the town council came up with the brilliant idea of putting the bios of senior staff in the local paper, as a way of convincing the residents that the town’s employees were highly qualified and working hard on their behalf.

Council brought this to the town manager and assistant town manager who also thought it was brilliant. The rest of the staff were ambivalent about being more ‘visible’ in a town where animosity towards civic employees ran pretty high.

As for me I hated the idea. Since I regularly made decisions about granting or denying permits for all developments in town, I held the one position that residents universally saw as “potential ass hat”. So no, I did not want to do anything to increase the size of the target on my back.

I demurred when the idea was first dumped on the staff. Then came the deadline to have our bios ready for the town manager to review. Then a second deadline specifically for me after I watched the first one whizz by. Then came the closed door meeting at which I was the guest of honor; apparently providing a bio was not optional. I was given a new deadline: noon the following day.

When I asked about the format for the bio the reply was “enough detail to give the residents a good feel for your qualifications but not so long that it costs very much to put it in the paper. No more than one page.”

A single page bio showing my most outstanding qualifications? I could do that. Next morning a copy of my bio was on the town manager’s desk. And also emailed to every town employee to, you know, get their input.

Andre Legris (Palmarius non fecit)

Andre Legris was born in Edmonton, Alberta. He immediately looked around and thought, “Well, this will all have to change”.

He speaks multiple languages: English, French and Quebecois. Can curse in all three.

He has multiple academic degrees but prefers doing cool stuff.

When he was 23, a chance meeting with Bill Gates in a dingy cantina in Tijuana, Mexico, lead to a boozy afternoon during which he convinced Gates that Portals was a lousy name for a computer program and that Windows sounded better.

One day during winter, he made time stand still. It was only for a nanosecond but nonetheless, it was cool stuff.

He was accepted into the NASA Astronaut program but declined the invitation when he realized that you can’t actually fly the International Space Station anywhere but around and around in endless circles.

He was offered the Nobel Peace Prize for his international work, but decided not to accept, citing the inevitable requirement to talk to an endless stream of journalists, politicians and other vermin. That, and his preference to ‘fly under the radar’.

He grew up in west Edmonton, one block from where Wayne Gretzky first lived. He convinced Gretzky to stay with hockey despite The Great One’s desire to play bass guitar in a folk-rock band.

He once finished the New York Time’s Sunday crossword in less than ten minutes but left a single four letter word unfilled, just because.

He has seen the future and does not approve. Not one damn bit.

After a lifetime of observation of human nature in all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, he has decided that the optimal companion on this journey through life is a cat.

Andre became a Development Officer for the opportunity to both play God with people’s lives and meet hot women. He has succeeded magnificently with one of those goals; not so much with the other.

Andre’s time working for the Town of Fox Creek so far has been an eclectic mix of shuffling paper, playing internet solitaire, drawing cool maps and plotting the quickest escape route to somewhere else.

So there it was, on a single page. Oddly enough not only was it not published in the newspaper but the subject of staff bios never resurfaced after that. A few of the staff were miffed that their bios were never published. Oh well, my bad.

Is there a moral of this story? A lesson to be learned from this bit of tragicomedy? If anything, it’s that social engineering works in the strangest of ways.

As for the meaning of Palmarius non fecit? Nobody asked, which of itself speaks volumes. It is a loose translation from Latin: My masterpiece.

And I confess that two parts of my bio were in fact, true: the thing about cats, and the last eight words.

In Praise of City Wilderness

In Praise of City Wilderness

I am spending part of this lovely summer evening sitting at a picnic table along the shore of a small lake. About 30 feet from me is a family of Canada Geese, the young goslings still covered in downy feathers but starting to show the color patterns that will forever mark them as Canada Geese.

Most of the shoreline of this lake is covered by cattails and bull-rushes, which is one reason why there are dozens of ducks, shorebirds, terns and blackbirds flying around or calling from the dense plant cover.

There is another family of geese with very young goslings which was thinking of coming up onto the shore at an open space until an inquisitive young boy of about 8 ran down to the shore to greet them. He didn’t get as close to the geese as he wanted as they swam off, but he is happily waving to them and urging them to come back.

The town I live in has only about 11 thousand inhabitants but many of them can be found here at some point during the day. There are walking paths around the lake, benches to rest on, a gazebo or two placed in the shade of the tall trees which also surround much of the lake. It’s quite  pastoral here, and the only man-made things you can see are the pavilion on one side, right next to the playground, while off in the other direction you can see the top of the old water tower.

So it’s pretty natural environment around here, if you don’t count the tall fountain in the one small bay which is throwing a lovely shower of spray into the air.

The point is, we have this wonderful little park close to just about everywhere in town and it takes only a few minutes to drive here. More importantly, this short distance actually takes us a great deal further away from town than can be measured by the odometer; we end up far beyond the annoyances of traffic and stop lights, away from the blaring stereos and sputtering lawn mowers, well removed from the constant racket and clatter of the modern urban environment.

And we need more of this ability to escape from the harsh rendering of the built environment of cities. We need to be able to find the calmness and tranquility that can only be provided by the presence of water and trees and birds.

A United Nations report on the state of the global population estimated that in August of 2007, for the first time in human history, more of us lived in towns and cities than lived in rural areas. Which means that half of the world’s populace is living in an environment designed, built and maintained strictly by human endeavour.

And it is an environment of concrete, glass and asphalt, where trees are often seen as obstacles and water is the enemy, to be drained away as quickly as possible. An environment of discordant noise, dirty skies and unrelenting movement.

Cities evolved over the course of human history to protect us from the thing we feared most: other people. And it worked with varying degrees of success, with the inhabitants protected from the rampaging hordes of “others”. And over time, the city evolved to better protect greater numbers of people.

But these days, we no longer require protection from other people, and even if we did, a city is not the optimal solution, cities being rather large and inviting targets for modern military capability.

No, what we use cities for now is protection from the natural environment. After all, it’s not easy living off the land; crops have to be grown, fruit picked at just the right time, and sometimes the best tasting food can only be found perched on top of four, very fast legs. But if we build bigger cities, then people outside the cities will grow the food, pick the fruit and catch the four-legged tasty things.

Which means that the city has become less about personal safety from others and more about socializing with others. They are places where art and culture can thrive, where medicine is researched and where education at all levels can be passed down.

But they are not normally places where an 8 year old boy can get close to wild geese. Or where many people can spend a relaxing hour sitting on a picnic table enjoying the ducks ( and now a beaver towing with a very large branch).

With half the human population living apart from these simple pleasures, we run the risk of having the next generation grow up with almost no first-hand knowledge of what most of the planet is still like. And even more so, having very little experience of it.

There aren’t too many people who wouldn’t enjoy spending this past hour as I have. Fortunately I can do it easily enough but I would imagine I am in the minority. The expanse of concrete and glass is just too large for many people to escape for an hour.

What we really need is more trees and water and birds into our cities.

Another Look at Our Stuff

Another Look at Our Stuff

A friend of mine died today: George Carlin. He wasn’t a friend in the personal sense but we had a long history together. I don’t recall exactly when it was during my teen years that we first met but I do clearly recall what he was doing at the time; he was talking about stuff. Or rather, about STUFF.

I remember laughing until my gut hurt as he described how lost we are without our stuff, and how the supply lines connecting us to our stuff get thinner as we move further away from our homes. And of course, our homes were actually just large containers built so we would have a place to keep all of our stuff.

At the time I was enamoured with the likes of Richard Pryor, and Cheech & Chong. My buddy and I would listen to their albums for hours. But it was George Carlin who seemed to ring the loudest as he skewered the shallowness of many aspects of 1970’s North American culture.

He had a huge repertoire of famous skits and raucous rants. One of them, the “Seven words you can’t say on television”, got him arrested when he insisted on saying them on radio, an event which provoked serious debate about the nature of obscenity in that least comedic of institutions, the United States Supreme Court. That will no doubt remain his most important influence on the intertwining snakes of morality and entertainment that form so much of the landscape of our generation.

But it was his take on our obsession with stuff that really got to me personally. In just a few short but manic minutes, he was able to lay bare the true nature of our fixation with material goods. About how passionate we are about surrounding ourselves with things that make us feel safe and comfortable. About how naked and vulnerable we feel without being able to lay our hands on things that belong to us and no one else.

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American writer, went off to live in the woods near Concorde, Massachusetts, for two years of what he called “simple living”. He stayed in a small shack containing few possessions and spent much of his time writing and walking through the woods. He later wrote that “a man is rich in comparison to the number of things he can afford to leave alone”. I think he would have been shocked to find out how many of us simply cannot leave very many things alone. I also think he and George Carlin would have seen eye to eye on this point.

And that is where the true genius of George Carlin lies. Not just in his ability to make a teenager laugh until it hurts, but in his skill at making us think about ourselves and the way in which we live.

I shall miss that long-haired, potty-mouthed, hippie freak. Especially tonight, since the passage across my bedroom to the comfort of my bed is an obstacle course composed of too damn much stuff!

Using a Peacock to Get a Job

Using a Peacock to Get a Job

I’ve been going to job interviews since the late 1980’s, trying to land that one perfect job. Or at least, that one job that was full-time, long-term and which doled out paycheques large enough to have me living in a lifestyle to which I could become accustomed.

Alas, it’s now 20 years later and that job has proven elusive. Once again, I am making the rounds of interview panels, trying my best to look both enthusiastic and brilliant while the eyes of the interviewers slowly glaze over and the clock-watching begins.

Although many of the questions that interview panels asked in the 1980’s are still being asked today, I’ve noticed a somewhat disturbing trend in the direction of interviews over the past few years.

There are still the questions like, “Can you tell us, in your own words, why you feel qualified to work for our company?”, or “You have a pretty impressive resume. But could you explain the gaps in your resume, particularly the period of 1996 to 1998 and again in 2004?”

(Incidentally, the correct answer for that last question, for all of you human resource specialists out there, is, “None of your damn business.” More on why those time period gaps exist in a future blog).

Back then, the majority of the interview was given over to a discussion of job skills, work experience and education, particularly in my field where an extensive education and background in science is so important. I would happily talk with the interviewers about how good I was at field research methods, or data analysis, or writing technical reports. There were always scenarios to describe, such as, “Can you describe for us a scenario where you have encountered a serious problem in project protocols which would affect the quality of the research and how you solved that problem given the fact there were also other people who depended on your work to supply them with concise and accurate data?”

The interview I did the other day had all of those types of questions but curiously, they formed a fairly small portion of the interview time, which is what I have been finding in every other interview. Most of this interview (which was for a teaching position at a technical college) was geared towards inter-personal relationships.

“Have you ever had to work with a difficult co-worker who was affecting the quality of your work, and how did you deal with them?”

“Have you ever encountered a situation in which a co-worker contradicted you in front of other employees in an insulting way and how did you handle the situation?”

“What is the worst conflict you have personally been involved with in the office, how did it occur and what did you do to resolve the conflict?”

Do they want me to teach classes and conduct research or do they they want me to manage conflict and deal with belligerent people! Perhaps, at nthe very least, they want to be assured that I can handle any inter-personal problem which may arise.

Has our culture become so stressed from lack of money, lack of personal support groups, lack of gratitude from others, lack of freely-expressed love from our spouse and kids (and all of this amidst a growing pile of bills and financial problems) that the stress level at work needs to be actively managed?

Has the level of common courtesy sunk so low that each new applicant has to pass the minimum for both work skills and conflict resolution skills?

It could well be. After all, the reason I am interviewing for jobs right now is that I was fired from my last job. Six days before Christmas. On the day before the Christmas bonuses were handed out. And all because I told the senior manager (in order to save her some potential future embarrassment) that the reason why I did not include this one bird species in the environmental impact report is because the bird in question was a peacock and someone’s pet, and not a naturally-occurring species which could be classified as rare and therefore, a potential threat to the smooth functioning of the construction project we were working on.

As a result, there was unhappiness, there was inter-personal antagonism, and yes, there was conflict. And I did not manage that conflict very well. Partly because I thought it was such a  damn silly a thing to worry about and I did not see the axe until it fell. But also because by that  time I did not care.

If a co-worker can’t treat you with at least a minimum of courtesy and common good manners, then they aren’t worth working with. You are giving them a portion of your day and they should damn well respect that.

I was pissed off at being fired right before Christmas, and for something as dumb as a peacock. But in the 60 feet of walking from the front door of our offices to the elevators, I went from frowning at the perceived injustice to smiling at the sudden onset of freedom.

So now I’m back on the interview tour and answering all kinds of questions about how well I manage inter-personal conflict. I told the last interview panel the story about the peacock; they smiled and shook their heads at the silliness of it all. Seems like they might be good people to work with.