Archive for May, 2009

What the computer says “must be true”

May 31, 2009

To quote a recent Microsoft customer service rep, “Yes sir, that’s what my computer says, it must be true!” That’s dribble. Two errors were made by this customer rep: 1) my registration records were checked, but initially not the correct records; and 2) their records were incomplete – even when the correct records were found. The service rep had 100% confidence in inaccurate and incomplete records. This problem has been a common one for a very long time for many companies, and it persists to my great irritation – everywhere…

This post is another commentary on the value of context. My mentor many years ago drilled this meme into my head: “Just because you took a reading doesn’t mean you made a measurement.” In other words, don’t blindly believe what you see on the test equipment display – or on your computer display, for that matter. That engineer at Collins Radio Company was Bill Thompson who died of cancer not too long ago. I will miss him until my own death – he was a truly great engineer.

Bill’s message to me was to be sure I was measuring the correct signal with a properly configured test setup measuring the relevant characteristics that are necessary to answer the pertinent questions so that I draw a valid conclusion. Until I was certain of all of those considerations surrounding my test equipment reading, I had not made a measurement. I had to be careful to “think sufficiently” about my objectives and know enough about the context of what I was trying to do.

My conversation with Microsoft during the week failed to accomplish what I set out to do. Ultimately, their dataset was incomplete. Microsoft had acquired a software company, and that company’s old registration records were not completely incorporated into Microsoft’s own CRM systems. Microsoft provided no context to the customer support staff that registration data for my product might be incomplete. “Our records simply do not show that you are a registered user (you’ll have to convince us…).” They “took a reading, but they didn’t make a measurement”, and it is my problem to convince Microsoft to the contrary.

Well, this isn’t over, yet. I found my e-mail copy of the original purchase and the company’s confirmation of receipt of my registration information on my e-mail archive DVD! But is it worth two more hours of my time on the phone with those buggers at Microsoft?


The “Good Old Days” were… Good!

May 29, 2009

A few days ago, I was chatting with a neighbor who asked what my first real job was. Thinking 35 or so years back put me in the “good old days”…

I was a lab technician with a highly regarded communications equipment manufacturer called Collins Radio Company. If you were skilled and passionate like me working in the telecom industry in the early ’70’s, there were two premium employers on the radar screen among a field of many fine and notable companies: AT&T’s Bell Labs and Collins Radio Company. These companies were globally the most highly regarded in the industry on the service provider side and the manufacturing side respectively. They were innovative and engaged in some exotic endeavors. These two companies employed the “cream of the crop”. Work was exciting, and the people that I worked with at Collins (later a division of Rockwell International, and later a part of Alcatel) were dedicated and passionate just like I was. I worked in the same cluster of buildings with many of the same terrific people for about 20 years. I still have my old Collins “meatball” employee badge in a very special place.  

My coworkers and I were encouraged to come to the lab after hours in those days to “play” with anything that piqued our interests. I suspect that a goodly number of my coworkers preferred the lab to home… We built ham radio gear and satellite video receivers (out of some parts that Collins surely had paid for), and we worked on pet projects that were officially unfunded but somehow vital for something important – we played with the very newest cutting edge components available that manufacturers had sampled to our lab – we experimented with new assembly and manufacturing techniques, some of which crept into the factory over time – that factory was right outside of our lab’s large interior door. This was a “hoppin’ place” on many a’ Friday night, littered with fast food wrappers, and abuzz with excitement and camaraderie until the wee hours, and for some until sunrise. This was our own unique “skunk works” culture. The ’70’s were “heady times” for me that I still fondly recall.

When I show up at a client location today, I bring “passion” with me – it’s infectious. I try to “infect” as many people as I can! In a tech industry, I think that passion assures ongoing technical competency, fosters innovation and risk taking, and provides a compelling non-monetary reward system. Passion is an intangible that is hard to tally and put on a balance sheet. But, I tell you, it is essential to have passion if you are to be a leader in a crowd. It may be an even more important a factor of success today than it was in the “good old days”.

Those “good old days” were indeed good. I am highly curious what will make young people entering the workforce today regard this day among their “good old days” as they get older and mature in their careers… I hope that they have “good old days”, too.

Context – Essential – the Best “Delivery”…

May 28, 2009

There can be a fine line between insufficient information and too much. Having said something previously about insufficient information, and for now reserving the issue of too much information or TMI for sometime in the future, I want to dwell a bit on how much information is just enough. Stand by for a few posts on this topic – it is broad enough to write entire books about. This morning though, I have been pondering context and how to deliver it effectively. If one knows the context, it becomes much easier to convey just enough information in a conversation, to make prudent and timely decisions, to impart essential and meaningful facts, or to simply tell a good story.

So, context – the classical Who, What, When and Where come to my brain. These elements provide a point of reference that sheds light on the relevance and intrigue of the Why and How. The Why and How is the “story”, and context is essential to “set the stage” and establish the importance of the story before it is told – to “suck you in”.

Comedians are masters at communicating context. Too little and you don’t get the joke, and too much and you lose interest in the joke before you have heard it to the end. Comedians “craft” the context to expose if concisely, and they personalize it to capture your attention and keep your focus. When you know just enough context, they unload the story on you – the “punch line”. If the context was sufficient and concise, and it resonated with your own experiences, you erupt in riotous laughter!

E-mail is also highly efficient at delivering context. The From, Subject and Date information in the header can lay out the context remarkably well. If the sender thoughtfully composes the Subject line, the recipient knows the entire context – all that is necessary to assess the priority of the communication and perhaps even a summary of it – in one line. Some E-mail spammers are becoming highly skilled at crafting context in the subject line to entice you to open up the e-mail. I think that we have to do something very innovative to battle the spammers – I have some novel ideas – more on that later…

Yes, today I have two new role models to study and emulate: comedians and e-mail spammers… With their help, I will improve my skills for delivering context that is sufficiently complete, enticingly personal, and yet concise lest I lose your rapt attention!

Please Tell Me More…

May 27, 2009

When I have a question, I want an answer that imparts some relevant information. But, I want even more information than I may be asking for so that further questions may be unnecessary. I want a little bit of an education, and that is hard to get – it can feel like “pulling teeth”. So, sometime, well, sometime I just go get my “pliers”…

This is a rant – I don’t have many… While some may disagree, I’m telling you that my soapbox issues in this world are relatively few in my generally optimistic and upbeat brain. What brought this post about? The following example is trivial, I know, but it makes my point, so let me set the stage. You’ll see where I am going fairly quickly!

I have a beer or two with a good friend several times a month. On one of our visits to our favorite “pub”, the sign outside said: “Specials Today: All Domestic Craft Beers”. That sounded good to me… I ordered a Sam Adams Seasonal, and just before the waitress walked away from our table, I asked, “That’s a domestic craft beer, right?” The waitress informed me that a Sam Adams was not… I asked, “What is a domestic craft beer?”
A “I don’t really know – it’s what the companies call some of their beers…”
Q “Well, what are the domestic craft beers that you sell?
A “We have Michelob Amberbock, Michelob Honey Wheat and Michelob Irish Red and a few others.”
Q “Are the others that you sell also Michelob, or are they produced by other brewers?”
A “We also sell Budweiser American Ale.” (saved us a round of Q&A…)
Q “Do you have a list of all of your domestic craft beers?”
A “No, I’m sorry, we don’t. We also sell Busch Zeigenbock – that’s all of them.”

The waitress was really very pleasant, and we weren’t being pushy – we were also pleasant and trying to be as patient as we could be. We were still “all smiles”. I stuck with my Sam Adams… When the waitress returned with the brew, I asked, “Is a Sam Adams on special on a particular night during the week – if so, we’ll be back next time on that night!”
A “Yes it is.”
Q “What night is Sam Adams special priced?”
A “Tomorrow night.”
Q “What is the price?”
A “A little more than the special prices tonight.”
Q “I’m just curious – do you mind finding out for me?”
A “I can tell you right now.”
(waiting with baited breathe…)
A “It’s $2.50”
(almost asking for what size of a glass, but she beats me to the punch!)
A “… for a pint – I think it’s a pint – yah, it’s a pint.”

Finally, I had the complete picture… Dinner was just fine and the service was flawless. And we liked the waitress – and the entire staff at our watering hole was just super, for that matter. But I had to get out my “pliers”, and I had to be careful not to appear to be pushy.

Well, I thought that I had the complete picture. Our next trip to the “pub” on “Sam Adams” night found the sign out front saying: “Specials Today: All Imports On Tap”. My smile faded, but I ordered a Sam Adams Lager anyway. The waitress (not the same as on our previous visit) said, “That’s on special tonight! The special covers your Sam Adams, and all of our import beers on tap except for Guinness Stout.” Our waitress that night was pretty sharp. “Why not the Guinness?” I asked. She continued, “I don’t know why the Sam is an import – go figure, and I think the Guinness costs us too much to sell at the special price. A complete list of our other imports on tap is right here (pointing to a page in their menu) if you want to try something else. Still want the Sam?”

This person understood – I got just enough information as casually as it could be dished out – and with a smile and a friendly touch to my shoulder. There is indeed a fine art to information delivery…

The next time someone asks you a question (yes, it may even be me), think about saying just a little bit more than the concise answer that you are inclined to reply with.

U-verse runs Windows in the Set Top Box…

May 26, 2009

What a surprise – AT&T has put a Microsoft Windows product in my home… Well, that really shouldn’t have been a surprise. In my job, I have had some foreknowledge about AT&T U-verse service, and I knew that Microsoft was the major software supplier for the U-verse service offering. I didn’t know some of the “finer” details, though – not until I had some problems… 

AT&T U-verse service is a pure digital service. The video service is an IPTV over VDSL implementation that employs the standard AVC/H.264 codec in a set top box. I am a new U-verse customer this month! I am currently quite satisfied with U-verse and give it a “Rave” thumbs-up. The service had some initial hiccups, and the service techs who responded were happy to let me look (and look closely) over their shoulders. 

Calls to U-verse technical support were answered by folk in the Philippines who were polite and patient, and they all spoke English excellently. But none had any real technical knowledge aside from what their computer help screens told them. The first troubleshooting steps: restart the set top box, then power cycle the set top box, then power cycle the gateway box. I am thinking to myself that this is how I do battle with Microsoft Windows… And then it hit me – maybe the set top box IS running Windows – huh… Sure enough, a quick check of the System Information screen from the set top box shows it to be running Microsoft Windows CE 5.0. That should not have been a surprise to me, but it was. 

More surprises. The service was initially quite unreliable. After a short period of time (10 to 30 minutes) audio would begin to stutter and video would suffer pixelation defects and momentary image freezes until the stream was lost and I was left with a static image and an unresponsive set top box. The local service techs who were dispatched to my home can query the NOC and my residential gateway from their laptops, and they can see all the fault and performance monitoring statistics associated with my service. The NOC compiles the PM primitives and parameters that I helped to define many years ago at ITU-T and ANSI from the cabinet at the curb: ES, SES, UAS, LOSS, LOFS etc. The gateway box compiles CV and FEC counts and a host of other statistics. It was not clear what the standard for the FEC feature was – G.993.1 (2004/06) defines a VDSL FEC strategy, and I presume that it is employed with a low redundancy value or 2 or 4 by AT&T. G.775 (I participated in the drafting of this standard at ITU-T some years ago – it was fun!) with the “famous” annex provides a huge variety of alternative FEC strategies to employ – hardly a standard… I would be curious to know more about what AT&T is really doing for FEC in the U-verse TV service. 

I am happy to report that my U-verse service is currently stable and working very well for me, now – for almost exactly one week – with 2 ES, 0 SES, 0 UAS, 2700 corrected blocks and 7 uncorrectable blocks. I would like to see 0 uncorrectable blocks, though…

This was really quality time for me with the service techs. I am looking forward to my next service failure!

[Poster’s note: Windows, Windows CE and U-verse are trademarked products and services of Microsoft and AT&T respectively.]


May 26, 2009

Thoughts hit me every once in a while that I would like to share – with anyone who is interested, and with no one in particular, too. This may be a short lived experiment with WordPress or it may be long lived – who knows…

I’ll post about some of my musings, rants and raves. Some posts may take on the appearance of a To Do list or a portion of a bookmark page. Some posts may be very “techie”. I will use my license to say what is on my mind – what is in Brian’s Brain!

So, read if it interests you. Feel Free to comment back on my posts, too. Please comment in a politically correct fashion. No religion, sex, politics or profanity.