Sunday, October 11, 2009

Support for Our Users - Windows 7

As part of the Windows 7 Houseparty promotion, I received an early copy of Windows 7 to demonstrate at the party. Like so many who tried the beta and release candidates before me, I got to see what everyone else will soon see.

First impressions are mixed.
Pros:
  • Not quite as fast as I'd hoped, but still faster than Vista (not on par with XP as others stated).
  • Relatively easy install (less tedious than most other OS's I've installed).
  • Readyboost still works and is still a big help.
  • Windows Vista drivers still work, meaning the disaster of the Vista release won't be repeated.
Cons:
  • Pretty. When someone develops for pretty, they've sacrificed performance to do so.
  • Toolbars have been taken out. Another fine example of MS thinking they know how we work better than we users do.
  • Lot of useless fluff - a clear "Desktop" button in place of the old toolbar button, rotating background images, and even more abuse of transparency than Vista
But what got my attention most was the Problem Steps Recorder, or PSR. This is a simple looking "Record" tool that allows a user to record exactly what they did to recreate a problem, then send the resulting zip file to their support staff to see what happened. No mucking about with insecure remote desktop controls, just a straightforward recording. The result, once you unzip the file, is an MHT file that shows screenshots of each "step" and lets you walk through what your user did to recreate the problem AND if you don't see the same problem, it's in screenshots, so you can see what happened. For those of us acting in support roles, the death of "could not reproduce" status is upon us!

I'm also a user, though. I've had to submit bug reports to companies that blithely say "could not reproduce" when the problem starts to look difficult. I won't mention names, but yes, we all know those vendors. Even with good vendors, it's often hard to get them to understand what you mean when you say "I clicked on the thing that looks like a wrench and it blew up". Rather than taking out a camera or installing a third party app, this puts the functionality in easy reach.

And that easy reach benefits us in two more ways. First off, it makes it something support techs will be familiar seeing soon, and will even know to ask for or create easy-upload features for. Second, it's three letters that you can tell your end-user to type over the phone and a very simple interface that anyone who can work a VCR can figure out.

The major downside is that it's only screenshots. I also noted that it didn't pick up mouseover events or anything done to the PSR itself. You can't open a second PSR window, so problems with the PSR can't be reported with the PSR. There's also some confusing language that results.

For example, I had selected some text on Firefox on the NUnit download page and dragged the text, then dropped it. This is what it said with a reduced version of the screenshot it attached:

Problem Step 4: (10/11/2009 1:45:56 PM) User mouse drag end on "Download NUnit .Net unit testing framework from SourceForge.net (document)" in "Download NUnit .Net unit testing framework from SourceForge.net - Mozilla Firefox"


So definitely some work left to be done with this. I'd like to see a film version in the future, but for now, this is a huge leap forward from having users take single screenshots and manually putting this history together, or worse, summarizing and glossing over what they did as they describe it to you over the phone. I look forward to having Windows 7 deployed in the environment I work in.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Musings after returning from STL Day of .Net

So I went to the St. Louis Day of .NET conference this weekend with most of my co-workers in the development group. All in all, it was a good experience, though there's apparently video of me asleep on the drive up that I haven't seen yet. The main complaint I have about the conference is that there's too many things I didn't get to see because I was in another session at the time. I'd love to have a video of each session that I could go back and watch. Particularly the Tips and Tricks for Visual Studio, since that one apparently was fast paced and I might need to pause it to take notes.

My favorite demonstration would have to have been the presentation on creating games with Silverlight. I'm not a game programmer, but the interface created by the methods used could be re-used in applications. As with many of my fellow geeks, programming started with games, not the "hello world" we all know and loathe.

The first app I remember writing was a maze game much like the Tron lightcycles, but with the bike as a single pixel with a line trailing behind it on my TI82. It was an adaptation of someone elses game that I reverse engineered and extended to have a map loader, a method of actually winning, and the beginnings of a map designer. I also wrote a TIE-Fighter FPS for it. Kind of cheesy looking back, but the drawing functions on the TI82 made it a lot easier to write a game in TIBasic than, for example, in C++ or C#. Those interfaces, though, were how I learned to create an intuitive and effective interface for later apps, some that I actually used for homework.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

When did the Bill of Rights die?

School prayer charges stir protests - Washington Times

Ok, those following me elsewhere will see I've not been quiet about this one. I just saw it today, or I'd have been upset well before now.

So what has me upset? - a Florida school was accused by the ACLU of pushing Christianity on its students, and after a court order was not allowed to do a number of things. Among them, allow the student body president to speak at graduation because she was a "known Christian" who might say something religious. This is a VERY blatant violation of civil rights and is the textbook-definition discrimination against someone for being Christian. Phase 2 - the ACLU has reported two faculty members since the court involvement for prayer in school. Yes, that thing we're supposed to believe was all the fabrication of fearmongers is happening in reality in Florida. And this isn't just a firing offense, there is jailtime associated with these charges.

So in summary - a student is barred from speaking because she's a Christian, and two people are threatened with jail time because they prayed.

What happened to religious freedom? - You can thank the ACLU for these particular attacks on civil liberties, but at the heart of the problem is the "Freedom From Religion Foundation" and other such groups that have decided that the First Amendment doesn't mean what it says, but instead means that practicing religion in public is a horrible crime.

So let's review this First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
First off, it says "Congress shall make no law...". Ok, so that right there kills any argument that the First Amendment means a school employee can't be openly religious. The way it's worded, anyone but Congress could make a law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", but let's assume the people involved care about the spirit of the law.

The purpose, in fairly plain English here and reinforced through numerous historical documents, is to protect the freedom of individuals to exercise their own religion without interferance by the government. Decisions such as this directly and unquestionably "prohibit the free exercise thereof".

I can understand that, as a relative minority, atheists and agnostics feel they lack power within our society and are at risk of religious persecution. Of course, they claim they're non-religious, but we'll still allow that term. I don't understand, though, how a minority is allowed to commit the same atrocity against the majority that they claim to fear.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My first blog post

Ok, I've been ranting on forums, rambling on bulletin boards, bantering on mailing lists, leaving long winded comments, and even microblogging on Twitter. I keep running across these blogs that already know me from my Gmail account, so I figured it was time I made my own.

I'm an application developer and project team lead working for the Missouri House of Representatives (primarily in C#.NET), an avid Star Trek fan, and an otherwise geekish person. I also have a beard. That should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect to see me blogging about.