As an IT professional I am often asked computer related questions by friends and family.  I am the technical support staff for most of them.  It is not limited to computers either; phones, cameras, TVs, all home electronics really are fair game.  I don’t say that to complain; I enjoy what I do.

This blog is a way of capturing some types of the questions I’ve been asked and documenting my answers because I figure if one person has asked it then others likely have the same question.  Hopefully someone will find it useful.

I will update this blog on the rigorous schedule of “approximately whenever I happen to have a few free minutes”.


Friday Humor

Never under estimate the user’s creativity to thwart all your best intentions

The following is a true story from my first post college job.  It was the 1990s.  I worked for a large IT company.  The company had a requirement that all print jobs required a “banner page” to protect sensitive data.  The banner page contained the username that submitted the print job, the date, and the computer name it was submitted from but was otherwise blank.  This page was always on top of the rest of the print out so a casual observer would not see the sensitive data.  When the owner picked up the print out the banner page was typically thrown in the recycle bin.

Due to cost cutting measures the company stopped stocking lined notebook paper.  One of my-coworkers came up with an idea to make the banner page more useful.  They wrote some PostScript code to change the banner page to look like a sheet of lined notebook paper.  Your name was still on the banner page to identify you as the owner but we changed it to read “From the Desktop of <Your Name>” giving everyone personalized notebook paper.  Everyone was happy; we had note paper again, we were reducing, reusing, and recycling so it with the company’s environmental initiatives.  It was a win-win for everyone.

This was in place for about three weeks; working great – until I noticed a co-worker photocopying one of his banner pages because he wanted more personalized stationary.  We kept the banner page but felt defeated.  That is when I learned to never under estimate the user’s creativity to thwart all your best intentions and break whatever process improvement you come up with.

A final note; I still have some of these pages, I haven’t purchased notebook paper for myself in over 20 years.  I am nearly out so I guess it is time to hit the photocopier…

Friday Humor

How to translate Engineer Speak into English

When an Engineer says… They mean…
A number of different approaches are being tried. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re moving.
An extensive report is being prepared on a fresh approach to the problem. We just hired three new guys; we’ll let them kick it around for a while.
Developed after years of intensive research. It was discovered by accident while working on something else.
Modifications are underway to correct certain minor difficulties. We had to scrap the entire design and start over from scratch.
Preliminary operational tests were inconclusive. It blew up when we turned it on.
Test results were extremely gratifying. It works and, boy, are we surprised!
The design will be finalized in the next reporting period. We haven’t started this job yet, but we’ve got to say something.
The entire concept is unworkable. The only guy who understood the thing just quit.
We need close project coordination. We are looking for someone to share the blame.
I’ll need to research that and get back to you. I didn’t even understand the question.
We are still working out a few bugs. The pilot test was a disaster and we don’t know how to fix it.

Friday Humor

Ever wonder why engineers rarely run companies?

A large company is interviewing for a new CEO.  They have narrowed the candidates to an engineer, a physicist, and an accountant.  Each has been asked a series of questions covering a wide range of topics.  The interview panel tells each one that they have one final question for them.  They are told they can take as much time as they need to answer.  The final questions is what is 2 + 2?

After hearing the question the engineer thinks for a moment then asks to have the problem written down.  After a minute or two the engineer replies, “assuming all values are in the base 10 number system and given the number of the significant figures shown in the problem the answer is 4”.  The interview panel is impressed with the answer and the lead interviewer says “very good answer, please wait in the other room while we talk with the others”.

The physicist is next; after hearing the question thinks about the problem for several minutes and finally says “the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that we cannot know the exact value, position, and time of an event”.  “The more accurately we measure one the more error introduced in the others, so what was two when you asked the question may no longer be two”.  “Also, quantum mechanics tells us that objects can exist in multiple quantum states with different values simultaneously; so what was two in your quantum state may not be two in my quantum state”.  “Lastly, you have not provided units for the values so addition of the values is meaningless; however; if we assumes a hypothetical unitless universe, and assume a single quantum state, the answer is 4, within the uncertainty error bounds”.  The interviewers look at each other, smile and nod slightly and the lead interviewer says “excellent answer, very well thought out; please wait in the other room while we talk with the others”.

The accountant hears the question and without hesitation gets up, walks to windows and closes the blinds, verifies the door is fully shut and that the phone is hung up.  He sits down and leans across the table and whispers “How much do you want it to be?”.  The interviewers lean back with big smiles and the lead interviewer says “that is the best answer we have heard, when can you start?”

Two is One and One is None

Thoughts on the need for backups and options available today.

You may have heard the often-repeated phrase “two is one and one is none”.  I’ve heard that it originated with the Navy SEALs.  It is similar in meaning to “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” or more simply the Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared”.

Two is One and One is None is really all about redundancy.  When most people think of redundancy they have a negative connotation.  It sounds wasteful.  That certainly can be a definition of redundancy but when IT people think of redundancy we think in terms of backup systems or protection against failure.  In this case redundancy is not wasteful but a tool used to ensure smooth operation of the systems.  Redundancy eliminates what we refer to as the “Single Point of Failure”.  The new term for this is antifragility.

What does this have to do you with you?  Computer backups.

We are so used to all the devices in our life working as expected we often forget that things do occasionally go south.  Think about it.  You have spent months scanning and organizing your family photos, your music library, your ideas for a best-selling novel, etc.  Then the unthinkable happens:

  • You accidentally delete your files
  • Your favorite application corrupts your files (I won’t name the application but I spent hours recovering from an “upgrade”)
  • Viruses could corrupt, delete, or encrypt your files
  • Your hard drive crashes
  • Your computer won’t boot, repeatedly crashes – in this case there is hope, find an IT friend; they can most likely recover your files
  • You experience a fire, tornado, or other disaster

Without backups there is not much you can do to recover your files in these scenarios but if you have backups you can rest soundly knowing your files are safe.  Two is one and one is none.  For the extra cautious or paranoid (or those burned by an “upgrade”) I prefer the “Three is two, two is one, and one is none” approach myself.

Maybe you never thought about backups before but I’ve scared you enough and you are ready to begin.  What now?  There are several options – each with pros and cons.  Here are a few:

  • Use the built-in backup utility with your computer. Depending on your operating system this varies.  I’m not going to cover the details here because I don’t recommend this option.  The pro is it free, the cons are 1) it requires your computer to be working, 2) it keeps the backup on the same system so viruses, hard drive failures, fire, etc. could destroy both copies.  One is none.
  • Purchase backup software. This can be a good option if done correctly.  These software packages are often more flexible that the built-in backup utility.  They might have the ability to backup to the cloud solving the single point of failure problem of keeping your backups on the same system.  If you don’t want to use the cloud feature you could backup to external drive that you disconnect after each backup.  Ideally you would take it to another location as well (think fire, tornado, etc.) but this requires strong discipline on your part.
  • Use a cloud back service. There are several available that are very easy to use.  Not endorsing any but here is a list to get you started: Carbonite, Backblaze, Crashplan.  Read up on each (and others) to find the one right for you.
  • Store your documents directly in the cloud. There are many solutions that allow you to save you files locally and synchronize them to a cloud service: OneDrive, iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox are a few.  If you go with this approach I would still recommend another backup solution since changes are always synchronized between the local and cloud copies so if you delete or corrupt a local file it will be deleted or corrupted in the cloud as well.

Only you can determine the value of your files and therefore what you are willing to spend for your backups.  Hopefully after reading this you have a better understanding of the need for backups and your options.  Also, after implementing your backup strategy you impress all your friends by saying things like “yeah, I’ve taken steps to increase my antifragility; you should look into it”.  That is sure to be conversation starter at your next gathering.



Friday Humor

As engineers we often need to chose our words carefully to make sure we are understood.

A scientist and an engineer were sharing a prison cell, both sentenced to be shot at dawn. Fortunately, they came up with a plan. As the physicist was led out to the firing squad, the engineer set fire to a small pile of straw on the window-ledge of their cell.

“Look!” the physicist yelled to his captors. “The prison is burning!” The firing squad dropped their weapons and ran to put out the conflagration. Furthermore, the Warden decided that the scientist deserved a pardon for saving the prison.

The next day the firing squad came for the engineer. As you might guess, the scientist was having a much harder time getting a large enough fire going outside the prison to draw attention. As it happens, it wasn’t until the engineer was staring down the rifle barrels that he finally saw enough smoke. So, as fast as he could, the engineer yelled “Fire!”

Friday Humor

Tales from the helpdesk…

  • Tech Support: “I need you to right-click on the Open Desktop.”
  • Customer: “Ok.”
  • Tech Support: “Did you get a pop-up menu?”
  • Customer: “No.”
  • Tech Support: “Ok. Right click again. Do you see a pop-up menu?”
  • Customer: “No.”
  • Tech Support: “Ok, sir. Can you tell me what you have done up until this point?”
  • Customer: “Sure, you told me to write ‘click’ and I wrote ‘click’.”

(At this point Tech Support puts the caller on hold to tell the rest of the team what had happened and couldn’t stop from giggling when they got back to the call.)

  • Tech Support: “Ok, did you type ‘click’ with the keyboard?”
  • Customer: “I have done something dumb, right?”