Sunday, April 22, 2012

The True Cost of Acquisition

I used to be a database administrator, and a fairly good one if I do say so myself1.

For years I did the job the hard way, then a short foray into the heady bleeding edge of the dawning client-server world in a small but growing company in Greenbelt Maryland (which is in Washington DC in the same way as Kingston upon Thames is in London) introduced me to a product called ERWin Desktop Edition2. It was a wonderful little tool that allowed me to array a database design as a diagram, and as I was doing it the software was sorting out the foreign keys 3 and letting me concentrate on the design itself.

It was an amazing piece of kit. I could (if I wanted) bind the various data fields in my database to Visual Basic controls so designers would be locked into my vision of how to manipulate the fields and not get creative, as they are wont to do. It came in two flavours: Visual Basic and PowerBuilder, the two most widely-used developer languages for the newly-emerging GUI-centric business world of Windows 95 and Windows NT4. Both flavours were made by Logicworks and I praised their product loud and widely because it was An Goode Thinge.

And it was cheap to own at $250.

It couldn't last of course. Computer Associates bought the company out and first order of business was to pull the Desktop Edition version of the software off the shelves leaving only the much higher cost Enterprise Edition. In time they reissued the product with many new features, but they never relaunched the Desktop Edition, and the entry price was around $4000 for the versions they did sell.

I recently had cause to need the product (my copy of the Desktop Edition will not run on Windows 7, sadly, coming as it does from the Windows 95 era) so I went to CA's website to scope out the latest situation vis-a-vis ERWin. There was a free Community Edition! Kudos to CA! I downloaded it and it was useful though it never delivered what it said it could on the box when it came to translating the designs into an actual database - the real point of such software is database administration on a day to day basis, not just the initial design, and to do that the tool needs to actually build the databases and read the design back. It was, however, only licensed for three months after which I would need to download it all over again.

And so it came to pass.

As I was looking at the site I noticed that there was a "Developer Edition" available. Now that sounded promising! I was a developer, sort of. Surely it would be a reasonably priced product - not $250 but perhaps not more than $450 and that might be thinkable.

Four thousand, seven hundred and some piffling number tens in small change. So, we must assume some pretty affluent developers associate in the Computer Associates, er, association. I find it difficult to see how a burgeoning market in pirated software isn't simply falling apart with these bargain basement prices making cracking the software not worth the effort.

And he best part is that experience shows that in about five years the software won't work with the operating system or the database software any more, which is where I came in.

  1. And I do
  2. It came in a variety of larger scale editions too
  3. Which in this case are what the "links" between tables consist of which are the nuts and bolts of any database based on tables and a big part of the reason for going to the trouble of making a database in the first place
  4. I'll not get involved in the continuing argument as to whether anyone should have gotten involved with these languages in the first place, the fact was they allowed rapid development of good-looking apps and in the hands of those who knew what they were doing both VB and PB were awesome

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Anatomy of an Uckfup

Tax return deadline day dawned to the happy sound of my phone melting itself reporting a slew of incoming texts.

My boss has an important personal axe a-grinding, one that will mean a week of meetings, and he made it clear that I was to be at all of them and on time at all costs. Naturally he began by scheduling all these meetings far too early for me to get there, the realities of the Bloody Long Island Rail Road not being an area with which he has troubled his steel-trap mind (despite repeated explanations), and just as naturally I negotiated for a return to planet Earth, time-wise.

So, having made of myself a high-profile target when it came to prompt arrival at today's meeting, and having actually filed my taxes before today's deadline so as to clear the day of distractions, it was obvious what these text messages would be: the Bloody Long Island Rail Road crowing that service was badly disrupted on my line1 and it wasn't their fault2.

I greeted the day with some appropriate low-wattage Words of Power and leapt from my bed.

A sad mistake.

For the previous Wednesday evening I had injured my back quite severely by foolishly bending over the sink to expel the rinse water from my mouth after some ill-starred dental hygiene. I dunno what is wrong, and neither does Doc Rubberglove's partner3. I'm okay(ish) lying down, and I'm okay(ish) standing up, but the transition between the two states has broken glass in our house as I explain to the neighbours that my spine is doing unto me stuff that there are laws against even if you do pay for it and sign Mistress Alexa's release forms.

So once again the neighbours were woken by my manly falsetto shrieks, entreaties to anyone near to render aid and/or a merciful death etc. I imagine it was very inspiring if you didn't happen to possess the back in question.

Eventually I was up, showered, dressed (won't make that "save time by dressing in the car" mistake again) and on the road heading for Babylon, since the gist of the one hundred and twenty three messages I had received in the preceding half hour was "no trains at all on the Ronkonkoma branch line". Imagine my joy and that of my fellow Wyandanch-to-Babylon Grand Prix racers to be dueling for possession of the road with that most insidious of commute-ruiners, that most intolerable menace to the peace of mind of drivers anywhere, that cow-pat in the field of urban transit infrastructure: school busses.

Talk about lollygaggers. Every two seconds on went the red flashing lights and out pops the "STOP" sign that by state law has both directions of frothing, delay-maddened drivers screaming, biting the steering wheel and other stuff too horrible to mention, as dawdling kids got on the bus, sometimes got off again and therefore having to be forcibly enbussed, not to mention the impromptu parent-driver conferences, all the while the sure knowledge passing through everyone's mind that the three parking spaces at Babylon station not allocated to permit-only parking were singing their sluttish siren song to all passers-by.

Eventually the pack roared under the railway bridge in a crescendo of screaming internal combustive oomph, sped through the chicane between the pub and the florist and began The Hunt ForThe Last Parking Space.

It was long-gone.

And so began the ever-widening hunt for somewhere, anywhere, to dump the fabulous Steviemobile so I could try and arrive at work this side of September.

The problem, which may not be apparent to non-commuters, is that at Babylon the car parks are scattered around in a maze of small roads, packed in amongst residential housing. There are signs on many of them that explain that the reason this particular car-park has room in it is that each space belongs to someone who pays for a numbered permit, someone who it just so happens doesn't actually need their space right now, but they might so you can't have it and if you try you're car will be towed. The signs in question are small, often only readable after one has already begun entering the car park.

I drove in increasing spirals, occasionally encountering pedestrians who decided to liven up the process by walking into a crosswalk just as I was about to cross it, and then dawdling, pausing to admire the scenery and so forth. One guy decided he didn't like the way I had brought my vehicle to a stop and paused mid-crossing to explain the ascendancy order of traffic to me. Ha! When he caught sight of my livid visage through the windshield he almost fell over in his haste to finish crossing.

I eventually found a space in a small car park about half a mile away from the station which allowed non-permit-holding scum to park in certain spots provided they paid in a machine like the one I had so enjoyed using only last week. Not only that, I was in good time for a train to Jamaica with a connection to Atlantic Terminal. All was going to be well, it seemed.

Or not.

A sudden second sense warned me that the crowd of people milling about, shaking their fists and acting in a very disgruntled manner was a sign of possible further trouble, and it proved to be the case. None of the pay-for-parking machines was functional.

A "security guard" was paroling and we eventually managed to get him to stop and radio through the situation, after he had warned everyone several times of the $75 dollar fine for non-payment. It took forever to get this paragon of public service to understand that it wasn't that we were refusing to pay for parking, but that the car park authority was refusing to allow us to do so.

More people showed up and were warned about fines for non-payment. The mood was getting seriously ugly before a team of technicians arrived to fix the machines. I have rarely seen someone so intent on starting an unnecessary riot than the old guy in that securitymobile.

The technicians got to work, and one loud would-be parker told a gang of about half a dozen to "just go" and he would sort out the parking fees once the machines were fixed. Which turned out to be a foolish thing to do because they had all parked in illegal spaces and he only found out that was the case after everyone had left theater. Oh well.

Then the techs decided the machines would not get fixed in a timely manner and began taking parking space numbers on a pad, explaining that fines for these spaces would be waived4

As I write I have made my usual 9:08 am connection, so I can hope the commute horseshirt is over for the nonce.

Although there is still the subway portion to be experienced.

  1. Which is becoming a twice-weekly affair for some reason which in any other enterprise would demand a draconian program of firings, demotions and reprimands to fumigate from the schedule
  2. If it is their fault, you hear nothing other than the standard "The Train due to arrive at ridiculously-long-list-of-stations-with-now-pointless-times is being delayed"
  3. The Doc himself was AWOL on Thursday when I begged for an appointment with someone who could command a pharmacist to sell me prescription pain killers by the handful
  4. I fully expect to discover tonight that these men had no authority to do that and I have therefore paid $75 for parking

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Wash Day at Chateau Stevie

People of unspecified gender who seek to do laundry1!

Do you find yourselves trying, but failing, to achieve that blue-whiteness so prized by "Tide" spokespersons? Perhaps you yearn to sport a delightful 60s-era tie-dye wardrobe, yet own ordinary boring clothes?

Simply add one (1) disposable fountain pen (blue) to the wash and Hey Presto! Instant new wardrobe!

I was wondering where it had got to.

  1. Histrionic slogan writing was so much easier in the days when you could still say "Housewives!"

Friday, April 06, 2012

Another Day in the Life Pathetic

The day started so well

I got up early so I could get one of the two straight-through, no-change-at-Jamaica-not-the-good-one trains that run from Wyandanch to Atlantic Terminal, the Jewel in the Crown of Brooklyn. Arriving in good time to find the car park really quite empty I realized that Good Friday had fallen on the start of Passover so my train would also be mostly empty! Yazoo!

Once on the platform I was, of course, introduced to the real reason for the lack of commuters: once again the trains had been "delayed due to a police action west of Wyandanch". Again I had to listen to the idiot in some booth announce the times that the "delayed" train would be arriving in stations over 25 miles and at least 30 minutes away on a line that would offer these poor devils quite a few alternative trains, assuming they were dimwitted enough to be standing on those platforms at this hour waiting for that train, a circumstance so unlikely as to be functionally impossible. One again the LIRR failed singularly to explain what the real issue was.

But after twenty minutes of "train delay due to police activity" messages and one presumably inadvertent mention of an unauthorized person on the tracks, I could guess.

Five minutes or so after that my guess was proved right - someone had been hit by a train and naturally the train service was now suspended indefinitely while the poor buggers in the squad cars tried to find the parts.

See, a human being is, for the purposes of collisions with fast-moving trains, rather like a kitchen bin liner half full of tomatoes and topped off with water, then sealed. On contact with the train hydrostatic forces tear apart the body and the various bits you learned about in school get thrown all over the scenery. Personally, I think that if the LIRR allowed people to see the results of this they'd find themselves less popular as a venue for drunks or suicides. Morons can't be stopped but you just know that bursting open has to hurt a lot.

My angst at this point may not be clear to the reader, so I will state up front that I do not hold the LIRR to blame for the loss of service due to idiots on the track. I hold them to blame for knowing about the situation and not telling me in a timely manner so I can make other commuting plans, like getting across the island to Babylon rail station before all the parking spaces, in short supply but long demand even on a good day, are taken. These fbleepwits knew they would be cancelling the service so why not just bloody well say so and do us all a favor?

So I set off with everyone else in convoy to Babylon to see if I could somehow park my car and arrive at work this side of Monday (it was already clear I would not be early, now the challenge was to see if I could avoid being very late). Luckily I had the good fortune to get stuck behind a car transporting two 8x4 sheets of plywood on the roof (and therefore doing 28 mph the entire way) which was also behind an Optimum Cable TV truck driven by someone paid by the hour and deciding to make the most of it. But I did get a space, one of three left in the car park.

Paying for the space was more problematical.

I a moment of brilliance I had departed work with two dollars to my name, which I had spent on coffee in Wyandanch station under the illusion I would soon be sipping it as the miles sped by. The car park has numbered spaces that you pay for at a machine to which, presumably, the traffic cop in charge has some sort of wireless connection. One simply pays and departs on one's journey.

First stop was at the Bank of America ATM, where I got two rather moth-eaten $20 bills and was charged $2 for the privilege. Bank of America, you may remember, were one of those organizations that demonstrated they had no idea how to run a bank about two years ago. Not satisfied with billions of tax dollars, some of which were from what I laughingly refer to as my pay packet, they have the nerve to assess a two buck service charge for an automatic transaction that actually saves them money.

It occurs to me that one of the terms of the "Bailouts for Bonuses" deal so skillfully negotiated by the Powers That Be might usefully have been that having funded them out of penury we would not be charged these fees for, say, ever. I digress.

So, I now had my money, albeit in rather unusable for for the purposes at hand, buying ten hours of parking at a quarter an hour. Fortunately the LIRR provides a change machine, one proudly labelled with a sign saying that it now can recognize a bill in any of four different orientations. I inserted one of my twenties.

The machine spat it back out as unrecognized.

Sighing and mentally consigning the person who suggested the sign to one of the less amusing circles of hell I reoriented the bill and tried again. And then once again, which proved to be the charm. I looked down at the small cup into which the coins would be delivered and thought "I suppose it will do five dollars worth and give me the rest in bills. I hope it doesn't give me any of those dollar coins though."

I was worrying needlessly. I looked on in horror as twenty dollars worth of quarters, a total of eighty coins in all, were vomited out of the machine and onto the floor with great mechanical tintinabulation along with a chorus of class three Words of Power from yours truly. Not only was my commute effectively fbleeped up to the nth degree, it would from now on be conducted with pockets more suited to deep sea diving than attempting to walk to the train. The LIRR, a stickler for deatil in these matters, had enhanced the affair by having one escalator out of action, which by lucky chance happened to be the one ascending to the Westbound platforms.

I arrived at the top of the stairs wheezing, blood pouring from my nose and ears, coins dribbling from my pockets1, begging passers-by for the mercy of a bullet in the head. Sadly, since all my fellow commuters were those who had been caught in some variation of the same fiasco my pleas fell on deaf ears. "You know you dropped some quarters on the stairs, right?" said one, kindly, as I clutched the side of the stairwell, lungs roaring as my chest sucked in volumes of life-giving air.

Of course, the New York train had just left and the next one would not do so for 20 minutes or so.

During the trip it transpired that everyone capable of leaving their house had simultaneously decided to take a day in New York, and so in no time at all the local train2 was jamed full of people with very young children. Those little darlings. They can make any journey seem 15 times longer than it really is, but in reality I think the LIRR was doing fine in that department without help.

By the time we finally rolled into Jamaica we had missed all the connections to Atlantic Terminal and the next train would arrive two minutes before I would be officially late for work. If the bloody LIRR had simply announced the problem at Wyandanch when they first knew about it, I would have been able to shave at least 20 minutes off my commute and would have arrived within my core time and that's why I'm livid with rage. There is no problem bad enough that the LIRR's mediation of the problem can't make it worse, often infinitely worse3.

And I just heard that Mrs Stevie's mom has collapsed with a suspected stroke, so it seems life is not done being a total jerkface quite yet.

  1. Which gave me the appearance of having some sort of symmetrically disfiguring growths on my thighs
  2. Which stopped at about three hundred stations and therefore averaged about 3.8 miles per hour for the journey
  3. And for those who don't belive in infinity, I say ride the LIRR for a season and talk to me then