The trials of providing quality IT support

Back during a previous life, when I was still in school learning to be some kind of software engineer, I worked to pay the my tuition and other bills by providing IT support in a medium sized corporation.

If you’ve never done it, you might not realize the amount of patience it takes to be an effective IT support tech. You deal with the most mundane issues on a day to day basis, along with some of the most complicated and technical problems that large networks can encounter.

Along with that, you’re usually interacting with people who are impatient, frustrated, and expect you to solve all their problems at a moments notice, regardless of your workload or the reality of the issues at hand.

This makes for some very dicey situations, and requires real professionalism and skill under high-pressure situations. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Because of that, I’ve kept a special place in my heart for those folks who do this work on a daily basis, and make life so much easier for all of us involved. Even more technically adept (one hopes) folks like myself would be lost without high-quality IT support.

I guess I’ve been thinking on this recently since talking to an old school friend who now works for an excellent IT support company in England. I love my work currently, but my hat’s off to those who keep the backbone solid.

The main difference between what I do as a software engineer and coder and what IT support people do is that it’s very unusual for me to have to deal with pressure like they face. I pull an all nighter here and there even now. But, broken networks with the CTO breathing down my neck…no thank you.

Do electronic pest repellers get rid of fleas?

electronic pest repellerI’ve been dealing with a really bad flea infestation in my home recently. I probably picked it up, or I should say by dog picked them up, at the local dog park.

We both love the dog park. Chico (my dog) gets to socialize with old and new friends, and I get to enjoy a nice fall day and talk to some folks I’ve seen there for years.

But, the fleas he picked up have been a beast of a nightmare to deal with. I usually treat Chico every month with Frontline, which works pretty well. Then I use sprays or flea bombs in my house to kill the fleas that the Frontline doesn’t kill.

This time though, it’s been tough. I’ve tried all the usual methods, and the fleas are still around and driving both me and Chico nuts. Actually, he at least has the benefit of the Frontline. I’m thinking about trying that on myself. Well, maybe not.

Anyway, I broke down and bought one of these electronic flea repellers to see how well it would work. So far, not much of a difference, but I’m probably pushing the limits of it’s potential with this nasty infestation I have.

I’m not sure what more to do, other than maybe burn my house down and start from scratch. If you’ve ever had a bad flea infestation, you know how miserable it can make you.

I have probably 200 bites on my legs just below the knee. I tend to be pretty allergic to bites too, so it ain’t pretty.

I’ll post back here again with an update on the electronic repeller though. Maybe it’s working and I just haven’t seen the evidence yet. We shall see. All I know is something has to be done.

Of course, fall is here and winter is on its way, so that should do the trick. I hope.

Salvaging scrap gold from cell phones

I don’t know about you, but I tend to collect a lot of cell phones. I’m a shameful early adopter, for one thing, so I tend to want the latest iPhone as soon as it comes out, regardless of whether my current phone is still perfectly fine (which it usually is).

I also tend to collect electronics of all kinds; cell phones, old computers, old game consoles, etc. Partly this is due to the fact that I have an open invitation with friends and acquaintances to bring me their old stuff when they’re done with it, and partly it’s because I collect stuff like this all the time.

While I’m normally very much a minimalist, when it comes to old tech stuff I geek out big time. I have been known to buy truly archaic and ridiculous stuff at flea markets, thrift stores and yard sales. I buy old phones all the time too. Mainly I use these for their controller parts, but it’s also just a weird, pathological trait of mine.

So, when I ran across this video, it gave me some ideas about what else I might be able to do with old cell phones, as well as old circuit boards and other electronic parts. Namely, dig out the gold and other precious parts and sell them to an online gold buyer.

This is a pretty interesting video, so check it out. I probably have about fifty old cell phones in a drawer under my work bench, and I might have to dig those out next weekend and see what’s what.

But, what to do after you dig out the gold? Selling it online seems to be the best bet. Granted, there are tons of those We Buy Gold stores around. But, from what I’ve heard, those tend to be a rip off.

The best way to sell gold is to an online buyer that will send you a shipping envelop, insure your gold on the way to them, and then guarantee you can refuse their offer and have your gold returned if they don’t offer you what your gold is worth.

Of course, it’s good to have an idea of what your gold is worth beforehand too, so don’t forget to figure out the approximate value before you send it off.

WordPress websites for fun and profit

If you’ve spent any time at all building websites, or even thinking about building a website, you’ve probably come across the blog/CMS platform called WordPress.

WordPress began ten years ago in 2003, and has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. It began its life as mostly a blog platform, but has since grown to become a full-featured CMS, capable of eCommerce, large-scale publishing, and much more.

By last count, there are about 60 million websites running on WordPress, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. More and more sites are launched every day with WordPress due to its ease of use and extendability.

This very site runs on WordPress, and I love it. Although I’ve been a coder for years, I haven’t done much to change this particular site from the free (but attractive) theme I found to use.

But, for basic web design on up, it’s hard to beat. You can install WP in about five minutes, and there are a huge number of free and premium themes you can use to customize the look and feel. I actually like the default 2012 and 2013 themes quite a bit, but I decided to change this one up a bit, just for kicks.

There are a few caveats to be aware of when developing a new website with WordPress though. For one, if you have any kind of decent traffic to your site, WP can run a bit slow unless you implement some caching of some kind. There are several good caching plugins you can use. Probably the two most popular are WP Super Cache and W3 Total Cache.

Both of these plugins work quite well, and I personally use W3 Total Cache because I find it to be a bit more customizable and suits my needs better.

The amazing parkour robot

One of my favorite technologies for the future is robotics. I’ve done some software design and coding for a couple robotics startups, so I’m a little bit familiar with how tricky even the most basic control software can be.

Check out this video of the University of Pennsylvania’s X-RHex Lite, as it’s goes through it’s paces.

I has a pretty remarkable ability to navigate rough terrain, hence the reference to parkour in the title of this post.

The six-legged robot can run, jump, and climb over small obstacles with relative ease, which is quite something if you’ve got any experience with developing robots. Those NASA rovers currently traversing Mars are pretty awesome, but at a cost of a couple hundred million dollars.

Here’s another example of the RHex doing its thing.

Interestingly, the RHex used to have a tail, much like a cat’s, in earlier verions. This was used as balance on rough surfaces, and to help it right itself when it flipped over.

It’s not easy to build a robot that can flip itself over, and then back again. Obviously, that’s the key to being autonomous and sustainable when nobody’s around to help it back on its feet.

So, while we’re still a long way from Isaac Asimov level robotics, the pace of development is increasing. Oddly enough, the first robots came onto the scene back in the 60s, mainly to operate in environments that were highly unfriendly to humans, such as steel and manufacturing plants.

Of course, there are probably a lot of union auto workers that weren’t too happy to be displaced by robots that never asked for high wages and health care. I’m not trying to make light of their plight; it’s a serious issue with robotics, and technology in general.

It does beg the question though of how these new technological innovations are going to shape our world, and change it in ways that are not always particularly positive.

In this economy, many are struggling, and the industrial and manufacturing sectors have been hammered for years.

I personally expect to see the United States becoming a bit more isolationist in the decades ahead, as financial problems, our declining economic relevance, and high energy costs force us to take care of things at home.

It’s likely to be a painful process, but one that will be positive in the long-term, I think.

Sergey Brin TED talk on Google Glass

Whatever you might think about Google Glass, and it’s potential to perhaps be the most invasive technology publicly available (not including what the NSA has here), there’s no denying it’s pretty remarkable.

Check out this video of a TED Talk Sergey Brin gave back in March on his brainchild.

I’m not sure the Nigerian prince joke was the best opener. That’s a bit played out, Sergey. I think even Carrot Top stopped doing his bit back in about 2005.

I think what we’re seeing here with with Google Glass is the very first implementation of “augmented reality,” not virtual reality as envisioned by people like Jaron Lanier and Mark Pesce.

Although they might make you look like a dork (well, there might not be any “might” about it), the ability to free up one’s hands this way, and transmit sound directly through the head bones, is pretty impressive.

Oddly enough, Sergey claims that the original prototypes of Google Glass didn’t even have cameras, which seems like an interesting oversight. Considering how much people currently love to use their phones for photos and video, I wonder what they were thinking.

At the time of the video, Google Glass was available to early adopters (hipsters) for $1500, but apparently selling on eBay for $15,000. Some power sellers were making some good coin off those, I’m sure.

One of the funniest moments comes towards the end of the video, when the host asks Sergey what his wife thinks of him wearing his dork-wear, which are clearly just as intrusive, if not as obvious, as smart phones.

An interesting take away from this is as an example of how Google continues to pioneer and explore outside their traditional search engine space.

Let’s face it, they have massive advertising dollars at their disposal, and the ability to hire the very best minds in the world. Great pay, free sushi, and the freedom to explore (with funding) some of the most interesting technological problems is going to attract some amazing folks. Let’s see what else the Gorg will bring us in the near future.

Michigan high school students look towards careers in computing

women in computingFemale high school students recently spent a week at the Michigan Technological University to explore the rapidly-changing field of computing. Participants came from as far away as Delaware, winning scholarships to to visit MTU.

The program covers a range of computing and technology fields; from programming and AI, to robotics, virtual reality, networking and security. The curriculum contains both classroom and hands-on instruction.

During the week they have had an opportunity to interact with current Michigan Tech students, alumni and other women role models to find out first hand about real life in computer science education and computing careers. They also learned about the wide range of opportunities and excellent job prospects in computing across a variety of industries.

The young women are working to develop their own mobile apps as an exercise, and demonstrate them for representatives from various tech companies.

MTU is seeking to increase the participation of young female students, and is participating in the Pacesetters program from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

The current statistics on women in technical fields are not very inspiring. Women occupy twenty-five percent of jobs in IT, and only eighteen percent of related degrees are earned by women.

This is an inspiring trend to see unfold. When I was earning my degree in computer science, back in the late 14th century, only a few women were in my department. Two were undergrad students like me, and the other was a wicked-smart grad student who was instrumental in me finding my path to specialize, as well as getting my first job.

The stigma against women in tech is alive and well, unfortunately. I know this from my own experience doing consulting for tech companies, as well as from talking to old friends and colleagues in education.

While standardized tests my still indicate that men score better on math and engineering related topics, it’s unfair to generalize that evidence to the entire gender. There are many women who excel in those fields, and will continue to do so, given the chance.

I for one am glad to see this move towards inclusivity. Kudos to MTU, and to the NCWIT as well for their excellent program.