They’re always self-inflicted…

One of the tasks that more or less defines my job was impossible to do this week until around 10:00 this morning thanks to a bit of software that had been migrated to a new and improved flavor last week and then promptly shit the bed.

Look, I don’t personally care. If Uncle wants me to do the work, he’ll make sure the systems and software all function. I can sit around twiddling my thumbs with the best of them. I am, after all, a highly seasoned bureaucrat. It’s the sort of thing that comes with the territory. 

The only catch is when systems are down for days on end, it tends to create a backlog and then when the boffins over in the IT office get sorted, the whole log falls directly on your head. That’s where we ended up on today – with at least three days of backlogged work in the queue plus whatever extra came in over the side before close of business. 

To at least one person, every bit of it was something ranging between “important” and “urgent.” To me, of course, it’s all just something to blast through as quickly as possible while trying to get about 80% of it tucked into the right places. If I’m being perfectly honest, since I read every single item that passed through my hot little hands today, I can tell you none of it was actually important, let alone urgent. It was mostly the living embodiment of the kind of electronic ephemera the bureaucracy passes around to continue justifying its own existence. It’s the kind of morass you really want to take a bit at a time rather than in anything resembling large chunks. 

It’ll get done – mostly because I don’t particularly want to deal with this particular hot mess again on Monday. It’ll get done, but I’ll piss and moan about it the entire time, because it’s just another wound we inflicted on ourselves for no discernable reason. If that doesn’t define government work, I don’t know what does.

Breaking in the new equipment…

So, I got a fancy new laptop from work last week. Let me lead off by saying overall it’s a tremendous improvement from the five-year-old laptop I was previously saddled with using. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t a few issues.

The first, which I discovered on my first full day of using the laptop away from its “docking station” on my desk at the office, is that there are only two USB ports. Those ports are arranged in such a way that it’s impossible to simultaneously plug in my removable Wi-Fi adapter and any other USB device. The adapter is slightly wider than a thumb drive… but sufficiently wide that it makes the second port unusable. Fine. A $13 USB hub ordered from Amazon later (plus $2.99 for same day delivery) and I can now use my air card and a mouse simultaneously. I won’t comment on the aesthetics of that whole set up other than saying it looks like absolute trash sitting on my desk at home. 

This morning, a piece of software I use all day every day fired up as expected and a few minutes later promptly disappeared. It’s as if it never existed on my machine at all. No trace of it anywhere. 

This necessitated a call to the obviously misnamed “Enterprise Help Desk.” The gentleman I eventually spoke to was nice enough, going so far as musing that it was strange because the last person he talked to was having the same issue with the same missing program. More people with the same problem might sound like it’s worse, but in fact being part of a big problem is much better, because something that impacts many users is far more likely to get attention than if you’re the odd man out in the wilderness somewhere. If it’s a group problem, it might actually get fixed. If it’s an individual problem there’s a pretty even shot that your ticket will just linger long enough for someone to mark it complete regardless of whether they’ve solved your problem or not.

Here I am, hoping that I really am part of the many rather than the few. In the meantime, I’ve been directed to the web version of the program that I need to use all day. Honestly, if there’s anything more problematic than not having the software you need, relying on its underpowered web version is it. As always, my standard disclaimer applies… if Uncle wants me to be able to do something, I’ll be given the resource to do it. Otherwise, I’ll cheerfully report that there’s nothing significant to report or that we just can’t get there from here.

On the up side, at the rate we upgrade our office technology, I could have as few as one more new computer to go before I call it a full career. So, I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Facebook. If you’re looking at a meme I post and think to yourself “By god, ol’ Jeff is right. It is my Constitutional right to stick a fork in this power outlet,” I’m not sure Facebook should even try to save you from yourself. Similarly, Facebook needs to refine its sarcasm detector, because this is some ridiculous content to spend a lot of time trying to eradicate from everyone’s precious feed. Lighten up, Francis. 

2. Updates. At some time during the weekend, my home computer updated itself automagically. As part of this helpful update, “dark mode” was turned on by default for all my Microsoft Office products. Look, I get that software updates are necessary inconvenience. Some of them are downright critical. Still, it would be helpful if changes I didn’t request or expect wouldn’t randomly change the settings I’ve left alone since basically the dawn of personal computing. Then again, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to spend 20 minutes trying to diagnose why my computer was going off the rails.

3. Sizes. I’m going to need food and beverage companies to just stop fucking with product sizes. I suppose the theory is that as long as the price stays the same, people will never notice they’re getting less and less of whatever product they’re purchasing. I’m old enough to remember when coffee was still sold in one-pound packages. Now it’s 12 ounces if you’re lucky. Most packaged products seem to be going the same way. What is now selling as “large” or “jumbo” is what a decade or two ago was just the regular size. But hey, if I need sixteen ounces of something for a recipe it’s definitely better to buy two 14-ounce cans, take a scoop out of one of them and then toss the remainder. Maybe I’ll start mailing these leftover ingredients destined to go bad in the fridge back to their corporate offices. I’m a generally reasonable human being who understands inflation happens over time and price increases are the inevitable consequence. How about just passing along that increase instead of adopting slick marketing gimmicks?

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Performance appraisal. I’ve spent more time than I want to admit this week dicking around with the required “self assessment” section of my annual performance appraisal. It feels like a monumental waste of time. The “old” evaluation system was a pain in the ass too, but at least it was consistent. You could copy and paste big chunks of content from year to year, change some dates and key words and then move on with a minimum amount of fuss and trouble. Since the system we’re now under is “new to us” if not exactly new, it’s starting from a blank page… which translates into more time fiddling. Look, when you’ve been told, albeit in a roundabout way, that the system is designed to drive people to the middle and prevent too many from being way out in high performer land, the incentive to make the end product immaculate is pretty low. Instead of the time and effort going into this new evaluation, it feels like we could have been just as well served by accepting that if we were fucks ups, someone would have told us by now, and that our raise will in all likelihood be within a hair’s breadth of the average unless you’ve done something breathtakingly good or bad in the last 356 days. Going though all the added motions really just adds insult to injury.

2. “Upgrading” software. I don’t mind software upgrades that improve the function of my equipment or make it somehow more secure. I do mind software upgrades that fail to install on the first attempt and then run in the background indefinitely consuming system resources while providing no way to stop them from the user side. Sadly there is absolutely nothing I’m empowered to do about the low bidder equipment or substandard tech support we’re saddled with other than bitch and complain about it at each and every opportunity. So I guess I’ll either limp along as is until the aborted update grinds my system to a complete halt or the admins throw my machine off the network for not having received the update. If only there were a great big organization in change of electronic communications I could call on for help in these situations. You can’t see it but I’ve rolled my eyes so hard I’m currently staring at the inside of my head.

3. Thursday. Well, not just Thursday. I’m just really kind of over weekdays in general. I’m tired of dealing with people. I’m tired of the same bureaucratic and administrative Groundhog Day experience every five out of seven days. I want to sit on the living room floor dispensing ear rubs and playing tug with the dogs, drinking coffee, and reading books… and I’d like for that to happen without finding myself quickly driven into bankruptcy. The dogs have become accustomed to a certain level of lifestyle (and medical care) and I need an ever increasing amount of space for book storage, so that pretty much precludes any radical changes to how I spend the average weekday. Most of the time, the week goes by with a dull “meh,” but this week it’s more of a roaring angsty rage. Good times. Im glad we’ve had this chance to talk.

Beyond repair…

On August 15th I entered what I thought would be a straight forward request with our computer help desk. Adobe Pro had started throwing errors and since the ability to read, edit, and sign pdf documents is more than than a once-a-day requirement in my job, I thought it might be nice to have that capability back.

I should have known it was not going to be an easy process when the confirmation email I got from the help desk had my name but described a problem someone on the other side of the country was trying to solve on their own machine. Actually, I should have known this process was going to be painful from the minute I discovered I was going to have to interact with the big help desk in the sky. Reducing the local service options and nationalizing IT help might have saved money but the user experience and wait times involved are appalling. At least I’m not paying for this service. Well, not paying for it directly, except for whatever of my tax dollars are being allocated for shitty IT support.

Over the last 13 days I’ve had three separate emails letting me know that Adobe was fixed and all is now well. All three of those emails have proven to be wrong, with the same inability to use Adobe continuing after each “fix.” This morning I was greeted with the 4th “we fixed it” email and discovered that not only does Adobe not work, but that the entire program has now disappeared from my computer. I suppose that’s one way to fix the problem. You can’t report a software error for software you don’t have. Of course I now have a two week and growing backlog of electronic paperwork that I need Adobe to process, so there’s that one small issue remaining.

I’m sure the men and women who work the Enterprise Service Desk are fine upstanding Americans who are doing great things for God and country. That, said, how it takes two weeks to fix an issue I could resolve on my home computer in less than 30 minutes simply leaves me with no option but to conclude that the “help” procedures for enterprise IT are broken entirely beyond repair.

Note: I should point out in fairness that just before I left for the day the issues was at long last resolved. At least tomorrow I know I can start clearing the backlog of Things Which Must be Digitally Signed. Sigh.

Pepperidge Farms remembers…

I’ve used carbon paper, but it had its last gasp as an office staple while I earning a diploma. I caught the tail end of using overhead projectors to show written documents to large audiences. I can even vaguely remember using a typewriter to fill in some formsPepFarm carrying the dreaded “must be typed” instructions.

Looking back on those items, they weren’t particularly convenient. Using them was time consuming and far from automated. Even so, I have to grudgingly admit that they worked and were all successful at conveying some quantity of information from here to there. What they lacked in convenience and time saving, they more than made up for in reliability. Unless the bulb burnt out, that old heat throwing overhead projector would keep trucking along essentially forever. That’s one of the many beauties of systems with so few moving parts.

By contrast, most of my morning today was taken up by what felt like an endless do-loop of software updates and enforced restarts that made my computer at the office effectively unusable. It made me briefly long for a return to dry erase markers and acetate sheets and when ideas were communicated at the speed of fax. I’m sure that kind of throwback would make me miserable in its own unique way, but in the moment, anything seemed better than spending another moment staring blankly at the startup screen while the machine drug itself through the motions.

By lunchtime whatever gremlins were afflicting my laptop seem to have satisfied themselves with the damage done. I gave getting on with the day the old college try. I really did, but the damage was indeed done. Oh sure, I spent a few hours after that mashing away at the keyboard, but as for how much really got accomplished, well, I won’t be the one to incriminate myself on that front.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Lack of purpose. I work in a place full of engineers. They can be a socially awkward group – not that I have a lot of room to talk. What I’ve noticed in my travels in and around the building is that it seems like none of them are even walking anywhere with a sense of purpose. No one walks like they have anywhere to go. They’re slouching down the halls, staying close to the wall, hands jammed in their pockets, avoiding eye contact at all costs, and generally unaware of anyone in motion around them. To those grown men and women I say pick your head up. Be aware of what’s around you. I assure you that your feet are going to remain right there at the end of your legs even if you take your eyes off them for a few steps. They’re not going to escape. However, it’s going to do you (and me) a world of good if you start walking around like you have some sense of purpose in life. In the meantime, I’m going to continue walking down the middle of the hallway, head on a swivel, and making you painfully uncomfortable in passing.

2. Violence. If there’s anything likely to stir debate in this country it’s the nature of the gun and the rights and responsibilities that go along with it. What I’ve never been quite comfortable with is how many people single out the gun as the problem without a moment’s pause to look at the real issue – violence. It’s fine to say that you’re sick of gun violence, but doesn’t that kind of statement imply by omission that you’re not sick of other types of violence? I’m not sure it would matter much to me if I were killed by a gun, a knife, a hammer, or a pointy stick as the end result is the same. Violence is violence. It’s my humble estimation that dividing violence by the category of tool used to carry it out is not only a bit naïve but also simply treats the symptoms rather than getting after root causes.

3. Office 2013. The productivity software on my work computer was “upgraded” to Office 2013 this week. I’m not a nuts and bolts software guy but it seems to me that upgrades should somehow be based on actually improving on the design and functionality of what came before. Instead what we apparently have is a new piece of kit that makes it harder to do the “normal” workhorse stuff, adds a few flashy “so what” kind of capabilities, and looks absolutely dreadful no matter whether you opt for a layout in “gray” or a vaguely more tinted “dark gray”. Oh I’m sure it still has the capacity to do everything I want it to do, but it doesn’t perform those tasks the way I want them performed – or at least not in a way that doesn’t require minute-by-minute consultations with the help menu and Google.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. 2:30 PM. Everyone gripes and complains about early mornings. Those have always been pretty easy for me, even before long commutes and unholy start times turned me into a de facto morning person. The mid-afternoon is the part of the day I dread. It’s the time that turns me into a near catatonic meat sack. By the 2:30 mark on the typical weekday, I can’t pour coffee down my throat fast enough to do much more than keep up the basic appearance of not being asleep at my desk. Forget about being able to actually concentrate on something, I’m using all available power to keep myself from going face first into the keyboard. Fortunately, most days by about quarter of four, things start looking up a bit, happily just in time for the drive home. Although that’s convenient and all, it would be awfully nice not to feel like a zombie for a good third of every shift. Sadly, thus far, “more coffee” has not been the solution.

2. Price drops. I’ve noticed on the last few things I’ve ordered online, that a few days after I fork over my credit card number, the same item is available on the same site for slightly less than I paid for it. Of course most of these business are reputable establishments and would probably give me the discount if I spent 45 minutes finding my receipt, calling customer service, and complaining to two or three levels of CSR. Usually, though, the general hassle involved isn’t worth it to save the couple of dollars I’d end up getting back for the effort. Sometimes knowing time value and opportunity cost is a real pain in the ass.

3. iPhoto. I think it’s obvious that I’m deeply committed to the Apple family of products. My iPhone talks to my iPad which talks to my MacBook Pro which talks to my Mac Mini which talks to my AppleTV. Everything digital is basically available through any device all the time. It happens without much behind the scenes interface from me. And that makes me happy. But then we come to iPhoto, Apple’s dedicated photo management software. I’ll confess: I hate it. Like a good fanboy, I tried hard to like it, but I really do despise this little piece of software for not giving me control of the underlying file structure and letting me organize my pictures the way I had them filed on my PC in 2002. In this one little thing, Apple has made my life infinitely more difficult. I don’t need smart albums, or tags, events, or social media integration. I just need my photos stored in a logical file structure with folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders that make sense to my OCD addled brain.

Been there, done that…

The thing that no one ever seems to want to understand or be willing to accept about productivity software is that it’s usually designed to meet a specific need. Word, not surprisingly, is a reasonably good piece of word processing software. Take away all the bells and whistles and right down at the center of its core functionality, it still lets you put words on a blank electronic page and then tinker with them until everything looks just right. Most people grasp this almost intuitively at some level.

The real problems creep in when things get a little more complicated… Like when someone decides to buy into an entire file-sharing and collaboration platform that’s closely integrated with the Microsoft Office family of products. When they use the platform as the programmers intended – it’s actually a remarkably effective and efficient way to manage your information. On the other hand, when you give this product to a somewhat aged group of people and tell them to start using it from a standing start, well, you’re pretty much just inviting things to end badly.

I’ve seen this story play out before. The first couple of weeks are going to go like gangbusters, but once the early adopters have had their fun, the rollout will slow to a crawl. After that, it will be a hand-to-hand fight to convince the 50% who are holding out that it’s worth doing. Eventually, it will die under its own weight and we’ll be stuck with another system that we’re halfway using. Yeah, this ain’t my first rodeo, cowboy.

Stick around long enough and I guess you’ll see history repeat itself over, and over, and over, and over ad infinitum. At least this way I’ll only have to act surprised with how things turn out, rather than actually being surprised that something so simple could go so badly awry.


Jeff would love to write a real post tonight, but instead he’s busy upgrading his iPhone and iPad to iOS 5, playing around with a bunch of new features and apps, and trying to decide if he wants to set up an iCloud account. Rest assured, he is working hard to bring you the finest blog posts available and will be back tomorrow with his regularly scheduled edition of What Annoys Jeff This Week? Until then, bye-bye and buy bonds.