Category Archives: tech

Disaster relief effort

We are now in the third week of data patching and emergency code changes to salvage a live system gone very wrong, and morale is at a very low point.

Bosses call it a fire, I call it a disaster. And now we are working our asses off to save as many records as we can, no matter how tired we are. Such an incomplete software system should never have been allowed to go live, but it slipped through several layers of checks and did so anyway. The decision was made to "bite the bullet" and to cut over, crossing over "the point of no return", with nobody really aware of how big a mistake that was until a few days later when we discovered inherent flaws in the design. Worse, the project lead was released to go on a 3 week overseas leave just after cutting over.

My Hokkien-spewing boss liked to joke that working in the IT industry should not involve us acting as superman all the time, wearing red underwear outside and putting in huge amounts of effort. He advocated going home on time and spending time with the family, and went against the company culture of working at least half an hour overtime. He sure needed supermen to help stabilise the system and endlessly patch data. Not that I'm eager to put in heroic efforts to save his ass. I have already given 2 weeks of my youth, or what is left of it, patching data. Crimson Editor is my best friend during this time, its column mode making the very manual task of formulating SQL inserts and updates easier.

The HOD concluded that this product was only at Alpha stage and should not have been released. At this level of immaturity, we would not nornally even call users to come for an acceptance testing! Sigh. We did not have to work so hard even when working on our own projects! I wonder if heads will roll. Not mine; I was identified as the technical lead but taken out because there was some other less interesting thing they wanted me to do. I had no chance to contribute to the success, or failure, of this project. I can say with certainty that I could have averted the technical errors we encountered in the last 2 weeks. They were easy to catch! You know that they don't really believe in the complexity of doing systems when they insist on going ahead without adequately competent people on the team. Don't they know from their years of experience that doing it properly the first time round with the right mix of people can save much grief later on? And they do not lack reminders from us.

Morale dropped to an all-time low. Mistakes in data patching surfaced. Other pieces of work are put on hold. I was entertaining thoughts of quitting without a job. The only good thing to come out of this is that I finally started updating my resume. 6 years is far too long to stay in the same place. Surely there must be better things that I can learn elsewhere.

Bosses talk about how systems know how to wait until the key personnel are on leave to throw tantrums, and leave the rest of us scrambling to rectify the problem with our limited knowledge. The way I see it, a series of bad decisions led to a very bad mess. There is hell for them to pay before everything is over. A lot of questions for the bosses to answer to their superiors and end users.

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Singapore is on sourceforge

SourceForge is a place where open source software can be downloaded. Some truly well-made softwares, such as Azureus, Mediawiki, JBoss have been released as open source, their source code and executables hosted here to benefit everyone. There is thus some prestiege to make it here.

Imagine my surprise to find that a simple internet photo gallery was named SG, but the name is too short to be accepted by sourceforge. Thus it was renamed as Singapore. What a reversed way of naming something from its acronym!

If you want to try it out, you can go to OpenSourceCMS where various open source internet softwares written in PHP are hosted, so you can get a hands-on feel before choosing which to download and take the pains of installing yourself. Quite a nice showroom, isn't it?

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Desktop usability with DHTML

Getting users to like my web-based application is a problem. Whoever said that we should not just meet our customers' expectation, but should aim to exceed them, clearly has not met my user before. Give him what he asked for and he can still complain about a hundred other items that he wanted also. It is difficult putting all these nice features into our existing application, but what if we ravamp part of it with some nice widget?

Can we replicate his desktop application's ease of use with HTML and CSS? The boss asked me to explore how to get HTML to do drag and drop, and stuff like that. We know that it is do-able, we have seen websites doing these things, just that our company has yet to do any of these things internally. What I found blew me away.

There are now a lot of javascript libraries that you can use to create desktop functionality in a browser. It is time for my company's applications to get a face lift! Well, as much as their budget allows, anyway.

http://www.walterzorn.com/dragdrop/dragdrop_e.htm
Cool, now I can also get the latest coordinates of the dopped item and submit it back to the web server! I can resize the image and get its latest width, height, x and y coordinates, set it transparent when dragging and resizing it! It's under the Lesser GPL, which means I can use this in my commercial application, for free!

Other free libraries tend to work with lists, but this looks like IE!
http://www.activewidgets.com/grid/
Tabs, trees, lists, tables can now be done in your browser. The demo on this page is staggering! You can do up your IE Internet Options menu using just HTML!

http://tool-man.org/examples/sorting.html
You can do drag and drop boxes in lists and tables and all over the page. The best part is that lists and tables will arrange themselves and snap back into position smoothly when you drop another item in their midst.

http://brothercake.com/site/resources/scripts/dbx/
Lovely docking boxes that can be closed and dragged.

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backpackit.com

I stumbled onto this interesting site while searching for a way to make my web-based application more user-friendly. backpackit.com is supposed to be a way to organise information, either for a single user or for a small business to share information among its team.

Well it is really very easy to use, almost like working with pen and paper. There are to-do lists, notes and images, and they are linked together as a page. Sort of like a notebook. You can add new pages with their own lists, notes and images. The reminder service is able to send out alerts via emails or sms. Basic personal information management (PIM) stuff so far. There is one more feature called a writeboard. Writeboards are kind of like wikis, you can let other users edit them and it keeps track of changes so that you can roll back to previous versions, but without the internal linking. You can do simple formatting to create headers and tables, but that is it. A simple collaboration tool for sharing of information.

There isn’t really anything that I can do here that I cannot do with other free service providers such as Yahoo, but it does them a lot better. The UI is really friendly and easy to use. Changes can be made at the side of the item, in a non-obstructive way. Unlike most other providers, features that you do not use often do not take up valuable screen space in the form of huge buttons, but are at the side, ready to slide out when needed. The UI makes heavy use of such sleek widgets that fade in and out smoothly as needed, giving the feeling that the UI is responsive to user interaction, rather than passively waiting for the user to click a button or a hyperlink.

The timing is another thing it does well, giving an intuitive feel. Rather than to use specific date and time, it tends to give it in terms of 6 minutes ago, yesterday, next week, 1 year later, which is closer to how people tend to think. The items in lists can be dragged up or down, which is not a standard feature in most providers. But amazingly, there is no search feature. If you lose track of where you have parked an item, you might have no way to find it again.
The cost is low for the features it provides too. With a nominal monthly fee, you can upload and share out files with other users.

It is all very nice, but I think the main attraction for me at this moment is the information management aspect. The reminders and to-do lists are very nicely done, so much so that I wish all my regular providers can be so pretty and intuitive. But if PIM is all I need, I would rather use my PDA that wait for the lag that is inevitable in web-based applications. Plus, I can bring my PDA with me, even when I do not have access to the internet. Ah, if only they will add in email and a contacts list. Or if gmail will do something like this.

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donorweb.org

WordPress is being put to good use on a volunteer site. Singapore Redcross has a volunteer portal that also runs donorweb.org, a news portal for the Blood Bank to inform its pool of volunteers about its mobile blood drives.

It has a nice dashboard which lets us see the stock levels of the 4 main blood groups. At least I can see that they are not lacking in my blood type, and perhaps I should keep it for a time when they are running low. Dashboards are a simple and efficient way of letting someone have a feel of the situation by translating numbers into meaning. It is not part of wordpress, of course, and neither is the pledge page, but it would not be hard to use the theme editor of wordpress to add a new page and edit the php codes to pull some info from a database. WordPress serves well as a blog software, being easy to setup, use and looks pretty. Privacy is hardly an issue on such public announcement boards.

It is not hard to set up a forum for its more web-savvy donors to share their blood donation experiences with others who may be new or contemplating whether or not to give blood. Such are the benefits of mature open-source software! The barriers to entry are very low and many interested volunteers can pick them up and put them to good use. It is usually harder to keep churning out content that will attract eyeballs to return, and to build up a community that reaches a critical mass able to generate content to sustain itself.

Hmm.. I still haven’t found any information on the medical benefits scheme that I’m supposed to be entitled to as a blood donor. They seem to have discontinued this scheme, but I was supposed to be entitled to jumping some queues when hospitalised. Perhaps this privilege caused too much trouble at some places? The next time I go, I should make it a point to ask if the scheme is still in force.

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Lack of control over genetic engineering

Genetic engineering gives some people the creeps, with unknown side effects from these mutants. Now we also have to deal with mutant crops spreading the modified genes into where you thought it was safe.

CNN ran an article on how a government department in USA has been neglecting their duty.

Still, many scientists worry that biotechnology crops will inadvertently cross-pollinate with conventionally grown crops. That poses a particular problem for organic farmers who charge a premium to guarantee customers their groceries are free of genetic engineering.

The audit did not find any environmental harm but said the USDA’s inadequate safeguards “increase the risk that genetically engineered organisms will inadvertently persist in the environment before they are deemed safe to grow without regulation.”

A logical next question will be: Are there mutant animals running around as well? Resident Evil is a bit extreme, but what about animals bred to produce drugs in their milk? Will you be taking in more than is good for you when you drink milk that comes from a supposedly unmodified farm animal that accidentally crossed with a mutant?

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Dogs can smell cancer

There is an article on New York Times on dogs being trained to detect differences in the breath of cancer sufferers and healthy people. This could be a cheap and fast preliminary test for cancer, though not 100% accurate.

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