Monthly Archives: July 2004

Meeting Markup

Okay, things went much better yesterday than the days
before. But before I proceed I want to emphasize that these are
my personal opinions and do not reflect those of my employer.
Further, I have not yet received any formal training in the
system nor seen the system as a whole. And finally, I do not
wish to cast dispersion on anyone connected with this project,
whether within the Judiciary or the vendor chosen to create the
system. Everyone involved seems to be committed to doing as
good a job as possible and the vendor appears to have qualified
people here to lead the project.

With that said, the system worked and I got to see how
things are configured. I will try to use an analogy to describe
what the system does (fully acknowledging again that I’ve seen
just one very small part of it).

At the level of use I saw yesterday, the system is similar
to a content management system like MovableType. By that I mean
you take something like HTML and then add your
own tags that work only with your system. In this case, you use
WordPerfect or Word as your form editor to create the look and
feel of the form. You then insert their (a company called ACS)
tag variables where ever you want information from the central
database to be displayed. You then publish the form by doing a
merge that populates the form with the data drawn from the
Oracle database.

There are something like 400 predefined variables. These
variables come with the system and are the same whether you
using it here or anywhere else the vendor has sold their
software. It is possible to custom design variables but, of
course, you are on you own when it comes to supporting any
changes you’ve made (which sounds fair to me).

In order to save money, the Judiciary is trying, to the
extent possible, to keep customization of the base software to
a minimum. As fellow Daynoter Sjon Svenson correctly states in
his email below, one of the major reasons for the failure of
large projects like this (centralized or not) is feature creep.
That is, the scope of work, as originally designed, changes so
much, as new features are added or existing features are
substantially modified, that the project collapses in
confusion, cost over runs, and cross charges of featherbedding
or incompetence.

In my opinion, to the extent that the Judiciary and the
vendor can avoid this is the extent to which this multi-million
dollar multi-year project will succeed.

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th0u $h@lt n0t $p@|v|

For you l33t h4x0rs out there comes a translation project
worthy of your talents. The NHV (New Hacker Version) Bible from
the folks over at the ChristianHacker site here appears
to be an effort to translate the Bible into hackerspeak.
Whether this is for real or just a parody I don’t know. But for
what it’s worth, they provide a sample of what John 3:16 would
look like:

F0r G0d $0 l0v3d th3 w0rld, th@t h3 g@v3 hi$ 0nly b3g0tt3n
$0n, th@t wh0$03v3r b3li3v3th in hi|v| $h0uld n0t p3ri$h, but
h@v3 3v3rl@$ting lif3.

Mail Call

From: sjon svenson
Subject: daynote
Date: Thu, 29 Jul 2004 23:53:55 -0700 (PDT)

I am looking from the other side of the fence and can add another good reason for many failing projects. Open specifications.

That’s where the client (-state in your case-) gives specification and the programming starts. And then the client adds extra requirements and keeps changing the specs until the deadline is exceeded.

Of course usually more than one thing is wrong. Like choosing the right tool for the initial specs but by the time you reach the deadline the specs have changed so much that the tool is no longer appropriate for the job.


Kind regards,
Sjon Svenson


Date: Thu, 29 Jul 2004 21:20:59 -0700
From: JHR
Subject: Centralized Data Systems

Dan –

They DO fail – and with a great deal of regularity. There seems to be some reverse “economy of scale” effect. Californica has had ongoing problems with its attempts to computerize its Department of Motor Vehicles over the past 20+ years. At a glance, it would seem DMV operations would be tailor-made for automation. Didn’t work out in practice, due to incompetence, politics, etc. – the usual things that beset Gummint operations anywhere. Turned out to be a vast money and time sink, with no end in sight. The Californica DMV site is still a dicey thing, not to be trusted atall.

OTOH – this vulnerability is not all bad. It tends to mitigate against centralized control and access to Citizen information – a VERY good thing! Tends to emasculate FBI attempts to implement yet another spying-on-citizens attempt (Carnivore, etc.).

Cheer up. There may be some benefit in even the worst circumstances!

Regards,

JHR

Have a Great Weekend Everyone – Aloha!

Deja Vu All Over Again

Well, that was interesting. Yesterday afternoon I got to see
how to create a form in the new information management system
that is being written for the Judiciary. Unfortunately, it
didn’t go very well. Things started going down hill when the
speaker tried to copy a form (in PDF format) to WordPerfect for
editing. He chose “Select Table” from the Adobe Acrobat menu
and then drew a box around the entire one page form. He then
opened WordPerfect but when he tried to paste in the what he
had highlighted he realized that he had not copied the data to
the clipboard so there was nothing to paste in.

Okay, no problem, I’ve done that myself a time or two. So he
highlighted everything again and copied it to the clipboard and
then tried to paste it into WP. Unfortunately, nothing was
displayed. We waited. And waited. But nothing. When something
did finally copy over, it was the text from a previous copy.
Sigh.

Okay, rather than trying to copy from PDF, lets start from
the original WP file. So he copied the WP file (form diskette,
yikes!) to a network drive and opened it for editing through
the information management system. Once open, you insert
database variables (pre-defined fields in the Oracle database
being used). But after doing that, he couldn’t do a merge
between the template and the data to output the final form.

I think I overheard that the servers running the
applications and/or the database had gone down. I don’t know
why. But servers crashing do not engender trust in this new
system. Whatever happened, we were sent back to our
offices.

I’ve used one other large scale, state-wide, centralized
online system before. This was about 15 years ago. To this day,
there are still severe bugs in the system that bring it down on
a regular basis. The project went over budget. So many of the
planned modules never got implemented (and apparently never
will) thus making the system less helpful to the users. In
addition, system performance is a joke during regular periods
each month when many people are using the system (but not more
than the system was supposedly designed to handle).

I seem to remember somewhere that the majority of the
efforts to create large scale centralized information systems
fail. And by fail, they mean completely and utterly unusable
and you have to start over again. If this is true, there are
many reasons why this occurs. Sometimes what is being
computerized doesn’t lend itself to automation. Sometimes the
contractor chosen to write the application is not qualified to
do so. Sometimes the software tools chosen to create the
applications are inappropriate to the task. Sometimes not
enough money is realistically budgeted for the task. Sometimes
the infrastructure (network and servers) is not up to the
task.

And sometimes, a centralized database is not the best way to
go. Sometimes, its better to decentralize and distribute things
while still being networked and being able to query the other
databases/servers.

Oh well, today is the last of the three days (I hope) so we
will see what what we will see.

Aloha!

Moving On

The folks over at MovableType are announcing what will be in
the next version of their popular content management system
(see the announcement here).
Version 3.1 will include a choice between static versus dynamic
page displays on a per page basis, post scheduling (allows you
to create posts ahead of time then have them posted at whatever
interval you want), and a bunch of award winning plug ins. No
word yet on a release date.

That’s No Space Station

One of the images from NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and
Titan (see it
here
) looks an awful lot like the “Death Star” a certain
space movie. One hopes that the menacing image is just a trick
the mind sometimes plays.

Table This

Using CSS
to replace tables in web page design is not new. Some have been
doing it for years. For those who haven’t taken the plunge yet,
this site here
gives an overview, based on converting how Microsoft’s home
page would look if it were done in CSS, and how much faster and
lighter the page would be. That’s not to say all is goodness in
CSS land because different browsers interpret CSS differently.
Sometimes the differences are minor and sometimes they aren’t.
Of course, you minimize the problems by using a modern browser
such as Mozilla or Opera.