Saturday, March 6, 2021

Software and stuff rant

Those that have been following along know I un-retired (again) mid 2020. I was pitched (and I wouldn't have taken a pitch meeting with just anyone) a very attractive contract. The main attraction was working with a team of people that were not strangers. I'd worked with almost all of them before. The idea was to work about half to three quarter time, from home, on an extremely flexible schedule.

So why haven't I been blogging? Let's just say that a combination of difficult data in a not well understood database structure, plus periodic hissy fits by Citrix and VPN, have led to much longer hours and a complete draining of the creativity wells. Earlier this week I babysat a load of about 19000 rows of data over several hours, only to find that many thousands of rows had been eaten by internet trolls. The loading program cheerfully reported a string of OK results on each row, but it was talking to itself. 

There have been lots of conversations like, 'ok, we didn't expect this, how do we interpret the business requirements for it, or change them, or make up a new rule?' There are many perils in migrating data from an obsolete database, and some of them are just so unnecessary. Like Excel, for example.

Oh Excel, how I used to love you, and how I loathe the 365 version. I remember being introduced to Excel in 1992, as desktop computers were being added to that work place. Yes, really, I know some of my readers weren't even born then, but let's go with the flow. Now that I think of it, one of my readers was essentially retired then.

Over the years Excel grew and expanded, offering new "features" that were not only unnecessary, but began to interfere with the actual use of the program. Somewhere along the way they added the ability to filter the data, which was a key element in the work that I often do. But.

But, but, but. They kept adding fluff, and when they expanded the number rows Excel could deal with, from many to a bazillion, they screwed users right where it counted. The filter did not keep up. Anything beyond a mere 10,000 rows started getting dodgy for filter use. If they expanded the number of rows, they should have put some work into making the filter keep up.

And then there were the various places Excel tries to be "helpful". If there was one thing I could add to Excel, it would be to turn off the "helpful" features. I don't want it converting numbers to text or scientific notation. I don't want it thinking anything that might possibly be a date should be converted to a date, especially non-ISO date formats. 

As an aside, there are only two ways of presenting a date in a data setting. Today is either "20210306" or "2021-03-06" and let's not talk about time. If you want to format the date into some perversion like "03-03-21" or "3-Mar-21" then you can damn well make up a custom format tool and do it yourself, and don't complain when users misinterpret your data. And no, 1900 was not a leap year. 

Where was I? Oh yes, the many faults of Excel being helpful. The latest thing they did, marking where Excel has well and truly jumped the shark, is changing how formulas like INDEX MATCH work. If you know what a SPILL error is, you know why I've been swearing at Excel lately, and you probably have been as well. Those are bread and butter, and the latest version renders them unusable. Excel makes assumptions about how to treat the data that are not true, and doesn't give you any choice about it. Even XLOOKUP does it, and I have to admit I prefer it over INDEX MATCH, and let's not even talk about the primitive VLOOKUP that should be banished to the wilderness to be eaten by goats.

Many of the problems with Excel come from worshiping the god of backwards compatibility. Hardware restrictions from years gone by are still driving software now, and it makes some of us cry. Every now and then, we should draw the line and start over. Apple has done it many times. The first that I noticed was when they removed the 1.44 MB floppy disc mechanism. People screamed. I can't remember the last time I worked on a serious spreadsheet that would fit on one of those. 

There are so many fluffy formatting features built into Excel it's hard to find the thing I actually want to use. They are buried in the ribbon. Yes, I know, one can customize the ribbon, but who has the time? Contractors get paid to get in, produce a result, and get out. One can spend hours customizing software.

Next up, Word. That jumped the shark so long ago I don't even know when. I no longer use it unless forced to. For many database things Notepad, or it's grownup buddy Notepad++, is the tool of choice. I've spent much time in this contract editing SQL and Excel formulas in Notepad because the native environment is so brutal. Wordpad has become my go-to for most work document needs. It gives me the features I need, and none of the fluff.

Which is entirely aside from personal writing needs. For that I use Scrivener. I sometimes even write the blog in Scrivener, and copy it into Blogger. For a while it was being pissy about text. I mean, you'd think we would have figured out text by now, but no, software tries to treat text like it's setting print. So many options I don't want.

And then we have what appears to be the most popular Microsoft product, one that has probably been the number one productivity killer since the dawn of time. Power Point. I've often called it the work of the devil. One of the major benefits of being retired is that I never have to sit through another Power Point presentation. I've told people I'll walk out of a meeting if someone starts reading a slide to me. And I've done it. Hands up, how many of you have dozed off during such a presentation? Yes, all of you, I thought so.

And then we have MS Access, and MS Project. Two products on the opposite ends of the software usability scale. Database pros roll their eyes (at best) at Access, and most of the people using it. I've made lots of money over the years migrating data out of bad spreadsheets and worse Access 'databases'. I have never understood Project. I watch people managing projects in it, and can't help but think they have a major fetish about schedules and dates. It's one of the reasons I never wanted to be a project manager.

Then there is software in general. We can't escape it. The operating systems on all our devices from a phone to the TV to our car. Most of them are terrible, and they keep changing while not getting better. The change to 'refresh' the look of it is just of the things that annoys me. Change the actual functionality and I get that could drive changes to the look. 

Did any of you use Evernote? The idea was simple, create and edit small text notes across all your devices. I used it a lot when I was looking for work 2009 or so. It was a great way to keep a file that tracked what the job ad said, what I said when I applied, discussions with the recruiter, interview prep and results. I liked getting to the interview early, and could get a coffee while reviewing the file so I'd be consistent. It was great to be able to say to a random job phone call, yes, I remember, you were looking for someone to do x,  I have experience doing that from y. This showed that you were on top of the process, and could give them an individual reply. There were features around tags that made it easy to mark things as new, closed, active, or whatever was desired. I probably put more than 100 job applications through it, but only had a few hot ones on the go at a time, and it was easy to track them.

And then they got the refresh disease. They kept changing it. Then one day I was looking at it, trying to create a new note, and I couldn't figure out how to do it. When I had a few minutes I reviewed all the data in it, copied what was necessary to another product, and deleted Evernote from my life. I didn't want to deal with the changes.

That's just one example. Many times I've looked at what used to be familiar software in baffled fury, wondering how to make it do something that used to be easy. Or manipulate the familiar icons that now behave differently. 

I absolutely dread device software updates. Your devices (Apple especially) want to update themselves to a newer version of itself, one with unknown bugs. You'll pick up your phone one day to do something, and the software has changed. Of course you'll be in a rush, or doing something else at the time, unable to spare the processing cycles to figure it out. 

There's an old joke you've probably heard. Whats the definition of a feature? A bug with seniority. Badabump! Thing is, we learn to live with the bugs. I mean features. Given a chance, I can usually figure out how to get something done in spite of the software, and I can live with it, work around it. And then they change something and I have to do it all over again.

All that is within one piece of software. Except now it's almost never one piece of software. There is the operating system of your computer, and a product that does something, let's say Lightroom. Those two have to get along. Every now and then an upgrade to one breaks the other and it doesn't work any more. The older your computer is, the more likely this happens. 

When upgrades happen because you permit them, you can plan for this. Say your research indicates the new version of Lightroom has a feature you want, but requires a certain level of OS software that you don't have, or maybe even a hardware upgrade. You can do the migration in an orderly way, saving your work, doing back ups, installing things in the right order, maybe doing other upgrades along the way. This can happen at a time of your choosing, which can be important for your blood pressure.

I know people that have woken up one day, planning to do something in Lightroom, and it didn't work because of such an upgrade. Then they are in software upgrade hell until they figure it out and get going again. If you're a pro, getting paid to produce something in Lightroom that morning to meet a deadline (and there is always a deadline) this is a major cause of stress. Even if you're not a pro, you're likely to already have other things on the go, and didn't want to fool around with software upgrades today.

Maybe there's a program that lives on top of the operating system, one that knows the version information and requirements for all the software on your computer. It would tell you that upgrading the OS will break programs x, y, and z. Maybe you don't care and say go ahead. It manages the upgrade and removes those obsolete programs. Or maybe you do care, and don't do the upgrades. Or you want to wait beyond the first and notoriously buggy version of a software upgrade. The program would tell you when it's available. In my dreams, I guess. 

The Apple OS tries to do a bit of that, tracking OS versions, and Apple software. I've got a nagging reminder to restart and install something. I can't get rid of it, and the furthest out it lets me defer the notice is tomorrow. I want next month. I've got a sneaking suspicion my Lightroom is a version or two behind, and the new version requires an OS upgrade. Or vice versa. I don't want to think about it.

A reminder that if you would like to receive an email notification of when I blog, so you don't miss one, just ask me to add you to the blog notification email list. An email to keith at nucleus dot com will do it. Or a Facebook message; I'm still not visiting Facebook much but it will tell me when I get a message. I look at Instagram every day or two, though I don't update that often any more. If you know my cell number you can text me. Whatever works for you.

Some reflection photos from earlier this week, when I had to get out of the house and away from the work computer. You could be forgiven for thinking that we're all getting around by boat, but most of these puddles are only a few mm deep.

No, this isn't a New Zealand beach, more's the pity. 

Of the Day

Michelle, during the dog walk.

Celina snoozing

A featured tree

The amaryllis is blooming again today, but there are some faded blooms from a few days ago.


  1. Great rant. I enjoyed it. Even understood most of it. And those reflection shots are fabulous!! We need to have coffee one day soon so you can explain how you made them. Hope you can wrap up your project soon. Sounds incredibly frustrating.

  2. Hear hear on the reading of Power Point slides! That is so frustrating and incredibly boring. I always found I needed to write stuff down to learn it, but if it was already there on the slide and I just had to listen, it was in one ear and out the other. (P.S. This will say I am unknown, but I'm Heather. Not sure how to change that.)

  3. The tragedy with PowerPoint is that most people don't know what good looks like and can't be bothered to find out. The result is a tool with potential has been used to create soporific pablum. I love the right hand third of the first image. Cheers, Sean


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