Monthly Archives: December 2010

2011 geek wishlist

In no particular order…

  • That Debian Squeeze will release in Q1 2011
  • That I’ll discover a J2EE Servlet Container which isn’t totally horrible
  • That some kind of reconciliation between the JCP and Apache will occur
  • That Java 7 won’t be delayed forever
  • That Python 3 will get adopted faster than PHP 5 or Java 1.5 did
  • That we’ll finally see some major UK ISPs offering IPv6

Leave a comment if you can see anything I’ve missed, and we’ll check on them all at the end of the year…

Crap hardware stole my weekend

A wise man once wrote:

Unlike the precocious child who will taunt you mercilessly, knowing just how to report the beating they deserve to their school teacher in a manner that will have you in Police custody before lunchtime, hardware is sneaky.

I couldn’t agree more.

Hardware and I have never really got on, but we’ve always maintained a queasy peace – my laptop may not hibernate properly under Ubuntu, but it sort-of works. Likewise the machine behind my sofa refuses to charge its CMOS battery, but as long as I reboot it rather than shutting it down, it manages to come back without manual intervention.

Last weekend, though, hardware declared war. And it did so under the guise of a familiar occurence – a phone call from a family member about some “computer trouble”. Mum and Dad have their internet courtesy of now-defunct Tiscali UK, which was taken over by TalkTalk. For about three years, the Tiscali-branded black box router had been sitting in their study and working. It didn’t feel like the highest-quality piece of kit in the world, but it did manage to keep the connection open and serve one wired client – a desktop PC – and my sister’s laptop over WiFi.

Three years on, it died. No problem, I thought. I ordered a reasonably priced replacement to be shipped over there, and the next weekend I tried to talk Mum through installing it over the phone. No good – we eventually established, after much frustration, that the router was not DOA, but partially-alive OA, and kept dying within 30 seconds of being plugged in.

Sigh. Grit teeth. Pack it up, return it, buy something a bit more expensive from Netgear. Talked Mum through installing that, no need for WiFi just yet, job done.

Fast-forward to last weekend when my sister rocked up wanting to use the WiFi. No problem, I thought (you’d think I’d know better by now…) – the router is configured with the same network name and password as the last one, so it should Just Work.

Guess what, it didn’t. So I stepped into the breach, fired up Vista on her machine, point it at the right access point, find it asking me for a PIN. Gah? Turns out that since I last played with this stuff, WiFi protected setup has been invented. And for sure, it sounds like a good idea, but in this case, I don’t want it. Please just let me specify the password by hand. Vista, as far as I can tell, won’t let you do this.

OK, disable WPS on the router, change the network name to make devices forget everything they think they know about it, try again. “Wireless authentication failed because of a timeout”. And no further progress was possible. Much Googling suggests that the Atheros wireless chipset in the laptop is incompatible with certain Netgear routers, and nobody has a solution to this.

Great. At this point, the urge to throw all  the blasted computers out of the nearest window was strong enough that I decided it would be a good time to hand my sister the 100 metre Ethernet cable and give up. And it was at this point that Mum wandered in and said “the internet isn’t working”.

Sure enough, the desktop PC had lost its connection. What’s more, it had lost all knowlege of containing a network card, and no amount of poking, prodding or re-seating would make it work. It still had flashing lights on the back, but nobody was home.

It was at this point that I looked up from the screen with bleary eyes and realized I had to be back at work in the morning.

I’m not really interested in aportioning blame for all this, but I do find it depressing that after 10 years, WiFi is still about as friendly as a cornered rat when it goes wrong, and badly implemented all over the place.

Bad code lasts the longest…

Browsing through the URC North Western Synod’s website today, I see they now run it on WordPress. And this is a bit of a relief for me – the site’s previous incarnation was a bunch of hand-crafted PHP written by 16-year-old me, and I’d been having sleepless nights wondering if that code was still in use, and how much pain it had caused. (Not that WordPress is perfect, but if it’s good enough for this blog…)

Not all of my early attempts at computer programming have gone the way of all flesh, though – the Python script I wrote to parse the dinner menus for Magdalen JCR (and the subject of my very first blog post) is apparently still in production and telling people when to expect Chicken Kiev as recently as last week. The time it’s saved various JCR computer reps has presumably now exceeded the two days I spent writing it in the first place. And though I know the code is pretty horrible by my current standards, it does that which got me into computer programming in the first place – makes real people’s lives easier.

What a bunch of bankers

Moving a charity’s accounts to a new bank: how hard can it be?

It’s now just over a year since I took over as joint treasurer of Saint Columba’s. And much as my mum (a church treasurer herself for many years) predicted, the first year was the worst.

One of the most tedious bits proved to be moving the church’s accounts to a new bank. CAF specialise in banking for charities and nonprofit organisations, and after years of shoddy service from our current bankers, we were ready to bail out.

I won’t name the current bankers, but let’s call them LlBarcBCWestFax.

Moving our savings was relatively easy – just get the right signatures on a letter authorizing the closure of the account, and asking for the funds to be transferred by BACS to CAF. Sadly, LlBarcBCWestFax’s crack team of account closure specialists managed to ignore my explicit instructions and issue a five-figure cheque, which they posted to the church (addressed to ‘The Directors’!). I found it there after an increasingly anxious few days wondering where the money was.

That was easy, though, compared to moving the current account. Having chased up everyone paying money into it and asked them to move their standing orders elsewhere, we were left with the small matter of 25 direct debits needing switching. No problem, allegedly – CAF supplied a form to fill in asking for them to be moved, and we duly sent it off back to CAF. They in turn made a request to LlBarcBCWestFax, and two weeks later, I got a list of direct debits in the post on which I was asked to highlight the ones to move.

Could have sworn I ticked the box on the original form saying ‘all of them’. Never mind, let’s play the game. Highlighted and sent off.

Two weeks later, things started to move. Out of 25 organisations – ranging from ex-national monopolies to smaller operators, one managed to send a letter saying ‘thanks for moving your direct debit – it’s business as usual’. 20 sent letters saying “sorry to hear you’ve cancelled your direct debit”, followed two days later by “glad to hear you’ve set up a new direct debit!”.

And the other four? Three of them failed miserably to enact the switch and insisted on all sorts of paperwork with the signatures of all people on the bank account being sent. Seeing as the others managed it, I can only put this down to incompetence (one of these suppliers has been running a commercial all over the place lately, and the mere sound of their jingle has me wanting to kick something).

And finally, the one supplier who, two months after the switch, still hasn’t done it? Our ISP. Turns out that all banks are equal, but some are more equal than others when it comes to direct debits. Our ISP “can’t do direct debits from CAF”. I haven’t managed to get a straight answer on why this is, but it looks like our LlBarcBCWestFax current account will survive into 2011. Sigh.

The one positive note in all of this has been CAF’s responsiveness as I’ve chased up issues with them. Being able to phone them and get straight through to an intelligent person who gives me a straight answer is exactly why we took on the challenge of making the switch in the first place. And unlike LlBarcBCWestFax, they don’t charge £12 for cancelling a cheque…