Content-Type: text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1 There's A Life In Here Somewhere

Tue, 25 Sep 2007

My thirty-odd seconds of fame
I got drafted to voice (verbing alert!) the message and menu for Corner Brook's central office line. (It got accidentally published in the Blue Pages and the front desk staff are going nuts, so Telecom set up a menu system to forward callers to any of three already-established lines. For some reason I'm collecting great admiration for being willing to say, slowly, clearly and distinctly, "Good day, you have reached the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada office in Corner Brook. Our office hours are from Monday to Friday, 8:45am to 4:15pm. For Employment Insurance enquiries, press 1..." and so on. It doesn't quite work since you can't normally forward a menu item to a 1-800 number, which is the first choice; they had to set up an immediate forward from a local number, but that doesn't seem to be working. I had to re-voice it to say "call the toll-free number" instead, but they need to fix the back-end. For a good time, call (709) 637-4201.

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I successfully resisted BLINK tags, say thank you :) I got a phone call this morning from the head of the Development group to let me know that I can join the group early in the new year. (Nice of him not to leave me on tenterhooks over the holidays.) I'm so excited! I'll have a lot to learn, but I was assured that even if it takes months, they'll be able to put me to use. My present position will have to be back-filled - they have to pull someone out of, probably, tech support to take my place on my team - which will take a week or two, but hopefully no longer, and then I can start. The position is actually filling in for someone on maternity leave, so it's only for a year, but I'll cross the end of that bridge when I come to it. Happy New Year, indeed.

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As if the stress and busyness of Christmas wasn't enough, I've got one more thing on my mind: a possibility of changing jobs. I'm a computer tech with the Government of Canada, have been for eleven years. I'm in Regional Infrastructure, which means I work for the whole province, doing network monitoring and back-end database work, taking care of the Unix servers, helping out the Telecom support group... jack-of-all-trades. I have lately gotten more into programming on my own time - taught myself Perl and MySQL for The Hymn Database and PlaymoDB - and thought it would be good to get some proper training and experience working with modern object-oriented languages, the rise of which I graduated too early to catch in university, and over the ensuing ten years have been too busy learning how to drive the Internet to learn on my own. A few years ago, the Development (read: programming) group was split off from the Newfoundland Support group and went to work for National Headquarters; they stayed in our building until last winter, so they're friends, good folks all, and they drop into the office now and then. Point to note: they moved to an office on Water Street, ten minutes' walk from my house versus a 35-minute bus ride to my current location. That pretty much clinched it: I wanted to be a developer. However, this is the government, and it's never so easy as saying so. The Development group gave lip service to wanting to expand and absorb extra tech-support people that wouldn't have so much work to do since processes are eventually getting more and more automated (like that ever happens), but they didn't even have any projects for months due to some bureaucratic schmozzle, and certainly no budget for acquiring and training new people. There is never very much training money, especially for things not directly current-job-related, so I kept up learning a bit on my off-hours, dreamed up a useful CGI Perl program for the office, and bided my time.

My time came last week, although I didn't recognize it. The head of the Development group sent out a solicitation of interest in an year-long assignment with them as a programmer, CS-01, same level as me. I got hopeful for a bit, but included in the "must possess" list was "strong skills in the area of object oriented computer programming". Puts me right out. I didn't even bother to apply, especially since I was busy and had a full brain and no prepared resumé. On the day applications were due, the group head, whom I know well, emailed me privately to ask if I was going to apply, or had he missed my application. I explained why I hadn't applied, and he answered: "Apply anyway; I'll be the judge of that". So I did - took an hour to put together a one-page resumé, which I hadn't needed for maybe six, seven years, and got it to him under the wire. That was last Friday. Monday, he emailed me back with a few questions to clarify what I had written in such a rush, and so I answered him and told him all I could think of that I'd programmed over the years. That was encouraging enough. Thursday, an amendment to the original solicitation came out, and my heart just about stopped: "strong skills in the area of object oriented computer programming" had been changed to "training and/or experience in computer programming, preferably object oriented". For me. Why else? The applications to the amended solicitation are due Monday, and since the post is supposed to start in January, it's reasonable to think there will be no time wasted in getting candidates interviewed and the selection made - if there's any decision at all, since I'm not at all sure who else might have applied. Mind you, those four little words "subject to budget approval" are in force, so it could be months. Regardless, I'm hoping it gets moving before Christmas, or I won't be able to think of anything else over the holidays.

In other news, I got 97.5% on Thursday's French test I thought was on Friday. May not directly aid the above situation, but I heard the National Development Group was looking for a bilingual CS-02 a while ago, so a working knowledge of French (as I put on my resumé) won't hurt, I'm sure.

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With one hand tied behind my back
At work, we're a Microsoft shop all the way - Outlook, Office, MSIE, Frontpage, Visio, Project, you name it. We also use Mcafee Enterprise for a nation-wide solution to keeping the virus hounds up to date, and it seems to work spectacularly well, finally. Well enough that several months after the installation of Mcafee on my machine stopped working, I got a visit from one of our techs, saying "We have to upgrade your virus scanner." (I failed to uninstall the old version before upgrading, and since I'm not virus-prone I didn't bother to get it fixed.) Fine, I thought. Go to town. See if you can get it to install. And, of course, after an hour he didn't. (That hour is another story, long and not complementary to the tech.) The only reasonable solution to this problem is to re-image the machine - rightfully so, especially since I had it customized out the yin-yang with all kinds of weird stuff. However, I wanted to keep all the stuff on my second partition, which the current imaging procedure doesn't do; so rather than install the current disk as second in a new machine, they're just going to give me my new machine and let me use the network as a transfer mechanism. (This was finally decided after I uninstalled and archived just about everything, including the Big Four: Perl, Firefox, Irfanview and Crimson Editor. Argh!) It will be a little while (hopefully little!) before the new machine is ready, so until then I'm running IE and Notepad just like Joe User - a surreal experience, and one that I wouldn't volunteer for. I hope I haven't picked up anything virusy in the interim by using IE - that would be ironic, wouldn't it?

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French classes
I got the notice today that I was chosen to start a year of French-language training. It's through work (read: free!) starting October 22nd, for two and half hours a week, partially on work time. I'm thrilled! I've been put in "Level 2", whatever that means, probably due to prior experience. There will be twelve in the class (as of now), with one other from Systems; there are 20 in the Level 1 class, four of whom are Systems folks. It wasn't worth the effort and cost of formal courses to bring my French fluency up to scratch, since my working knowledge is pretty good and I can keep ahead of Jean, at least; improving Bob's basic skills was much more important. But now we'll have the best of both. I'm looking forward to it, and will post regular reports.

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Blogs blocked by HRSDC/SDC firewall

The following sites, formerly in my Firefox Sage RSS feed list at work, have been blocked by the firewall:

I thought it might be that TypePad blogs had been blocked carte blanche, but works all right. I can't complain since they aren't work-related, but it's certainly mysterious.

Dilbert: I need to see a website that's blocked by our I.S. group.
PHB: Submit a business case to the Web Productivity and Security Committee.
(Dilbert, after returning to his desk, is approached by a large snail)
Snail: Hey, bro, where's your shell? It ain't casual day.

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Groovy, man
There are websites that are pure content. Then there are websites that are about content but somehow manage to be easy to read as well. And then there is the Midway. The Midway is well documented by Vince Flanders in Web Pages That Suck", but I haven't seen anything yet to rival tables with animated borders. It's enough to make one resort to screen-reader software, with any luck before it's compulsory. And they want $25 to allow you to inflict this particular brand of headache on your visitors! If you hate them that much, take a quick look at the the source of the example page and have at it. It's not even done with CSS, to allow it to be turned off by decent browsers. Ridiculous. (Brought to you today by Lockergnome.)

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Election jigs and reels

I've been surfing around trying to find websites for the candidates in the 2005 St. John's municipal election. I'm not having a great deal of luck, and am rather disheartened by what I have found. Here's what I've dug up so far. I'll confine my comments to the online presence of the candidate, and not the issues... in this post, anyway.

At Large:

  • Shannie Duff (incumbent)
    The best website I've seen so far. Concise, easy to navigate, lots of information. Media articles are properly credited. Professionally designed using tableless CSS. This means that the page is browser-independent, and accessible to people using different ways to read the Web, such as screen-readers for the blind, cell phones, ancient computers. Here's a screenshot without styles, images, or colors: still perfectly usable. Well done.
  • John Fisher
    The core information is there (several times, some of it), but it's very badly edited. Examples: "Councilor" for "Councillor", "through out" for "throughout", "effect" for "affect", "roll" for "role", awkward sentences, badly placed commas. His press release is in Microsoft Word format, not accessible to all by any means. No links to City Hall or information about the voting process. The site was developed by NL Web Solutions, but the link at the bottom of the page to that firm doesn't have the http:// in front it and therefore is broken! I'm not impressed.
  • Simon Lono
    Simon Lono's splash page has music. Bad kids' music. Come on, Simon, people might want to read this on their lunch break without mortification, which you've made impossible. (The link above is to his first proper page... titled "home". Sigh.) Besides, Simon, who's singing, and did you pay him?
    Inside is not much better - the only navigation is via Java applet, which makes schunking noises as you roll over the links. I repeat, there is no text-only navigation - if you don't do Java, you're out of luck. The header and footer fade and move (more Flash) for no good reason. In Firefox (but not IE) the design looks messy: there are large open spaces separating elements. On the positive side, Simon's extensive media coverage is almost all transcribed into plaintext, instead of scanned print articles or PDF, with the exception of the crop-and-highlight from the Sept 3 Current. There is a map (just a plain JPG) to the campaign headquarters, which I haven't seen elsewhere. There's a lot of content here: good to see. However, it's an attempt at a modern, commercial page that's just not necessary given the subject matter.
  • Paul Sears (incumbent)
    If I remember correctly, Paul Sears was the only candidate with a website (or was it his own domain name?) in 2001. The standard information is here, easy to find. Some of the HTML is uneven - the template isn't exactly the same for all pages - and the pages aren't titled properly. (Nothing stands out in a bookmark list like "index".) The Top Issues page,, is even titled "Top Issues This page is currentl". He has voter information, but the big link on every page to "Election 2005" (image taken from the City webpage) is broken, again due to sloppy HTML. It would impress downtown residents more if he were actually photographed there (or even on his own lovely street, Bonaventure Avenue) instead of his picture being photoshopped on top of Gower Street. Tidy up your loose ends, Paul.
Ward 2:
  • Bob Crocker
    His professional site as a MUN professor, no content about the election. Wrong fellow, sorry. Thanks to Liam for the correction.
Ward 4:
  • Ron Ellsworth
    The small signs have been up in the East End for months. Unfortunately, they haven't cemented the name of the candidate in the mind of the voter! The site is very plain, with information presented in a straightforward style for the most part (too many images and colour changes on the issues page, I think) with extras like the list of streets in his ward, a map, a probably unnecessary calendar showing the important dates of the campaign, and links to media and other sites. There are a few small problems: the navigation footer is an image map, and one of the links is wrong; the silly image-looking-like-text in the left margin talking about how to vote includes the words CLICK HERE which are not clickable! Titles, as seems to be a common disease, are badly done: "RELATED LINKS" or "HOME" is not useful to have in one's bookmark file. Other than that, though, it's an ordinary website with the information you need.
  • Geoff Peters
    This is another professional site, styled with CSS and sporting only a few stumbles when viewed in Firefox instead of IE, namely the sidebar menu and the footer. The Polaroid-style images are attractive, and are mostly locally taken pics instead of clipart. Finally, a site with proper page titles! There's no extra frills or features here, just the facts.
Deputy Mayor:
  • Fred Winsor
    - from 2001, when he ran unsuccessfully in Ward 3. A very plain-vanilla site even for that time, although all the info is there. But not even to take the time over the last four years to remove it, or change a few dates and re-use it?

It's depressing to think I'll have to choose among most of the candidates based on the prettiness of their signs. The only paper info we've received so far has been from John Fisher and Paul Sears. I'm hoping for more statements of concerns - and plans for dealing with them - to surface over the next two weeks.

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Hyperlinks in Excel
I have a love-huh? relationship with Microsoft Excel. Most of the time it's a dream come true for ad-hoc flat-file database manipulation. But every once in a while it behaves as if the programmers came from Mars with no knowledge of human behaviour. Today, while I was pasting some stuff from the Web, it made a few cells hyperlinked. The originals weren't, so don't ask me where it got this crazy idea. Anyway, to remove the hyperlinks is not as straightforward as one would hope, although not difficult. Contrary to intuition, it's not in the Insert/Hyperlink menu. For just one hyperlink, "Remove Hyperlink" is in the right-click menu for the cell - not so bad. For several cells, here are the directions from the help file:

Deactivate several hyperlinks at once

Type the number 1 in a blank cell, and right-click the cell.
Click Copy on the shortcut menu.
While pressing CTRL, select each hyperlink you want to deactivate.

To select a cell that has a hyperlink in it without jumping to the hyperlink destination, click the cell and hold the mouse button until the cursor becomes a cross, then release the mouse button.

Click Paste Special on the Edit menu.
Under Operation, click Multiply and then click OK.


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Router not working out perfectly
For some reason since the change of router, some of my applications are not working properly. Emule I'm not surprised at, since it needs portforwarding (possible with the NR401, but seems to be flaky), but others are odd. All web browsers are fine, as is mail via Opera M2, but mail via Thunderbird is broken, RealPlayer can't find the Internet, and URL2FILE gives DNS errors with an URL and 10061 with IP addresses. This is with static IP and DNS on the downstairs machine, no Zonealarm. The collective wisdom of the Internet says, in summary, "you get what you pay for". I'm not sure how much more I want to play with it to get it working, or just be on the lookout for something decent on sale. Something on this Future Shop page for $50 would be fine, if it were a good name. In the meantime I have to get the STEP mail working, so I will transplant it upstairs to see if it's happier there.

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All contents copyright 2004-2006 Heather Patey or the respective copyright holders as noted.