2014-03-13

My New Year's Resolutions

I try to avoid making New Year's Resolutions. They tend to be some big life-changing or life-enhancing promises that start with really good intentions, and then fall flat within a month or two. Personally, I just can't see myself deciding to completely change my habits or lifestyle overnight. But this year, I decided there were a couple things I could do better. They aren't major issues, but at least it's something I can do and accomplish and feel like I've done something to improve.

The first is a bit of housekeeping. Our HVAC system has stainless steel air filters (rather than cheap cardboard-framed filters), and they are supposed to be cleaned out periodically. Historically, I've been very bad at cleaning those filters, going way back to when we first had the system installed. I remember cleaning them one day and then being very surprised that I actually saw curtains moving in the breeze from the air vents. Our house also tends to be very dusty, which I don't doubt is at least partially the fault of the HVAC's inability to move air through the completely clogged filters. So, I resolved this year to incorporate into my Sunday routine, cleaning out those air filters.

For the month of January, I did manage to clean the filters out every week. At least in those first couple weeks, it really needed it, as the filters were pretty well coated when I pulled them out. But by the time I got to February, the filters were still pretty clear when I went to clean them. So, I've backed off a bit on my initial resolution, instead cleaning the filters out every other week. Even then, they're not catching nearly as much dust as they were, so I feel that I'm reaching my ultimate goal of keeping them clear so the heater & A/C will work efficiently. I'm not certain it's cut down on the dust that gathers in the rest of the house, as that's pretty hard to quantify (especially when we just simply don't dust around here), but I like to think so. I was hoping to see my energy bill go down a bit as a result of the better air flow, but that, too, failed to come to pass. Still, I can at least pretend that I'm doing the right thing.

The second has to do with my church. I believe in the Law of Tithing, where I give 10% of everything I earn back to the Lord. The way I've kept track of what I should pay, on every increase, I enter a transaction in my financial software with a future date with the 10% amount. It's always there at the bottom of my register, so I always know how much I owe; and I can always make sure I don't spend too much such that there isn't enough for the tithing amount. If I forget to take a check to church one week, I just keep adding to that transaction in my register, until I get around to writing the check and giving it a real date.

I thought it was a pretty good system, but a couple things bothered me. One, I noticed in months where money was tight, I would find myself "borrowing" from that total to pay the bills. Oh, I wouldn't change the amount, but I would ignore the fact that the tithing transaction was actually making my balance negative, because it would be fine when the next paycheck showed up. But I found that it seemed to happen more frequently and with greater amounts the longer I left that transaction in there unpaid (not to mention the tithing amount was growing over time as well).

The other thing occurred to me as we discussed tithing in church one Sunday. While it's relatively easy for us to pay tithing now by just writing a check, in the past it involved real items — for example, agricultural farmers would bring food from their harvest, and livestock farmers would bring animals. They always referred to it as bringing the "firstfruits" of the harvest or the flock, because it was a sign of devotion and respect to God that we give Him the best portion of what He gave us. When I applied this to my system of reserving money in my register, I realized that what I was doing was closer to making sure everything else was paid first, and then giving God what was left over. In practice, I had it backwards.

My resolution for tithing is to pay as soon as possible. That means, on Saturday night, I check to see if I need to pay anything for tithing (since I don't really think about which weeks are the pay weeks and which aren't), and write out the check, so it's ready to turn in the very next day. It just feels like the right thing to do, and I feel better about doing it this way.

So yeah, that's it. Those are my New Year's resolutions. Nothing earth-shattering or anything, but I feel like they are realistic, attainable goals that I can actually keep. And now, here they are in writing, so I can hold myself accountable.

2013-11-21

A no good very bad end of the day

So I went to a karate class this evening. Usually, I just wear my uniform pants (fairly thin), a t-shirt, and flip-flops. Tonight, my wife was helping out with a Cub Scout activity, and since she had to leave before I would be home, she would have to take the kids with her, and I would come by and pick them up after my class. I figured I would at least bring a set of sweats with me, so I wouldn't show up to get the kids just in my sweaty karate gear.

On my way to the church after my class, I went to turn on the street. I wasn't going very fast, but the road was very icy, and my car just wouldn't stop. I slid right into the curb, there was a loud smack, and then my car refused to drive. I got out and checked the damage, and found the tire that hit the curb had been driven right into the wheel well, pretty much jammed in there.

I didn't think to take my phone with me to karate, so there I was in sweats and flip-flops, just under 20°F outside, with no way to call for help.

Fortunately, I was only about three blocks away from the church (blessing number 1, I suppose), so I set my hazard lights on, left the car, and started walking. I got to the church, found my wife, grabbed her phone, and left her to her business while I walked back to the car.

The company for whom I work happens to provide roadside assistance plans, and one of the perks of my employment is enrollment in that plan (blessing number 2), so I called for help. I'm not sure if I had a bad signal or not, but the agent on the phone seemed to have a very hard time understanding the road names I recited and spelled for him several times. Then he told me that a tow truck would be there in about an hour and a half.

So there I sat in the car at a very icy intersection, waiting for help. How it is that no other car hit me coming around that corner, I'll never know (blessing number 3). I was at least able to start the car periodically to run the heater so I didn't freeze. I also happened to find a pair of socks that my son had left in the car, and that I had asked him to take out more than once. They weren't clean, but it was better than just wearing flip-flops. Once I had the socks on, I realized I had a spare pair of boots in the car. They're not a perfect fit, but I keep them there for emergencies. (Looking back, I wish I had realized that earlier and put them on, even without socks, before walking three blocks back and forth.)

While I was waiting, the tow truck dispatcher called saying he couldn't find the streets on the map. No wonder, since the agent had gotten them very wrong. I was able to give him directions at least.

Help finally arrived. Somehow, the details of my problem got mixed up, as he was expecting to just winch me out of something, but fortunately he didn't have an issue giving me a tow. I just had him tow me back to my house (not even a quarter mile away; I could have just walked it, if it didn't mean leaving my car in the middle of an icy road where it would be likely to get hit). I had a shop in mind, but I figured it'd be easier to get all the details together and set up the appointment in the morning.

So at least I'm home. Though with money already tight, I'm not looking forward to trying to figure out how to pay for this repair.

A shame. I mean, it wasn't that bad of a day up until tonight.

2012-12-13

Animaniacs Volume 4 is coming!

If you know the origin of my nom de plume, you'll also understand why this news is very exciting to me.

The 3rd volume of the 1990s cartoon show Animaniacs was released back in 2007, but it did not complete the series. Fans (including myself) have been waiting for the fourth volume to be released with the remainder of the series, but Warner Bros. has been sitting on them for the past five years. My kids have developed an appreciation for the show (and Pinky and The Brain, whose full 3-volume collection has already been released, save for the forgettable Pinky, Elmira, and The Brain fiasco). There are some real gems in the missing 4th volume, like the excellent parodies The Sound of Warners, Cutie and the Beast, and Jokahontas, that I've only been able to relive via poor-quality uploads on YouTube. Now I'll finally get to see them and share them with my kids.

This news apparently came out two months ago. I don't know what prompted me to search for evidence of Volume 4, but I'm glad I did. And with a February release date, I know what's going on my birthday wish list!

2012-12-05

Switches Gone Wild

Had an interesting network error the other day. Very suddenly, while I was paying bills online and my kids were watching Doctor Who on Netflix, the network was completely non-responsive. My first thought was that I had lost my connection to the internet again. But as I tried to connect to my server to check, I was unable to connect to that machine, too. Even when my internet connection drops, I don't lose connection to machines on the internal network.

I went downstairs to check the server. It appeared to be running normally, and I was able to log in to the machine using the keyboard and ancient CRT monitor I keep plugged in for emergencies. I tried resetting the network stack. Curiously, it threw up an error message trying to bring up the network card for the internal network, something about an inability to allocate memory. But the external interface came up without error. I tried a second time, and again, the internal interface still couldn't connect to any other machine.

Thinking there shouldn't be anything wrong with the network adapter itself, I spent quite a bit of time checking my iptables rules. I assumed there must be something in there preventing packets from the internal network from getting processed. Perhaps I had set the wrong rule when I was trying to get a couple new devices to play nice with the email server. But why would it work fine for a while and only now, many days later, decide to drop internal traffic? And why couldn't I fix it? Even when I dropped all filtering rules, I couldn't get any traffic through my internal network to that network card.

Not long ago, my computer failed to get an IP address from my ISP, and for whatever reason, it wouldn't get one until I gave up and rebooted the server. Figuring this was another symptom of whatever the problem was before, I just rebooted the server. It came up again, with only errors I've seen before (fairly obscure warning messages that haven't before caused any noticeable issues). It acquired the ISP's network quickly enough, but still, the internal interface didn't appear to respond.

I finally decided to take a close look at the network switch. One light was flickering rapidly, which was on the port connected to the entertainment center. This seemed odd, since the only devices on at the time were the TV (which does have an Ethernet port, but its features have been pretty useless so far) and the Blu-ray player (which was streaming Netflix before the network crashed, had been powered off by the kids, and was currently displaying a screen complaining about a lack of network connectivity since I turned it on to check).

Just to check if it was a bad port, I pulled the cord for the entertainment center and plugged it into an empty port. The light on that port came on solid, then started to flicker rapidly as before. I then unplugged the switch's power cable, waited several seconds, and plugged it back in. Each of the lights cycled in sequence as the switch went through the startup sequence, then all lights on ports connected to live devices turned on solid. Some started to blink, and the one connected to the entertainment center started to flicker rapidly again.

I went up to the entertainment center to check on the switch there. The lights on ports connected to the TV and Blu-ray player were on solid. Only the light on the port connected to the wall (and back down to the entertainment center) was blinking, and it was flashing rapidly.

This was seriously odd. No lights connected to any computers or devices were blinking with any intensity — only the lights on the switches that connected to each other. Were the switches generating their own traffic, talking back and forth to each other? These are fairly inexpensive, unmanaged switches, with no network address of their own to speak of; what could they possibly be saying to each other, and how?

I unplugged the power cord on the switch behind the entertainment center, waited a few seconds, and plugged it back in. All its lights came on briefly as it powered up, and then finally, mercifully, the lights on all connected ports came on and stayed solid, including the light leading to the switch on the server. I checked the Blu-ray player and my laptop, and both were able to connect to the server and, by extension, the rest of the internet.

I still have no clue what was causing all that traffic. I did notice that, when the Blu-ray player started streaming Netflix again, the lights on both ports on the switch that connect to the wall and the Blu-ray player were flickering quickly, looking much like the flickering on the one port when things weren't working (although there's no way to tell by sight if the flickering was exactly the same). Near as I can figure, there was so much of this mysterious traffic that it jammed the main switch so thoroughly that no traffic could get through any other port. (Since they are both 1Gb switches, it certainly could do it. The only other gigabit network device on my home network is the network adapter on the server facing the internal network, but the light on the switch on that port wasn't showing anything but the most rudimentary activity.)

2012-11-28

MVC: Any object you want, but not a string

I often refer to MVC — the Model-View-Controller pattern for building websites — as "Magic, Voodoo, & Conjuring", because a lot of things just happen by what seems like magic. Moreover, when something goes wrong, it's very difficult to find exactly where it went wrong, because the process is happening without writing any code.

I had one such example of something going wrong today. It was only after I got another pair of eyes to confirm I wasn't crazy that I found a StackOverflow question that addressed my question.

We had a JavaScript method that took a method name, a key, and an object, and posted that to an AJAX handler on the server, more or less like so:

$.ajax({
    url: "/Home/" + methodName + "?key=" + keyId,
    contentType: 'application/json',
    data: $.toJSON(dataObject),
    success: function (result) { doSomething(); },
    type: "POST"
});

This JavaScript code block was part of a plug-in that we wrote to apply to many different forms on the site, that shared common functionality. Depending on the data being processed, the dataObject could be anything from a string to a full-blown object. The controller methods all had similar signatures:

public ActionResult ProcessStringData(string key, string newData);

public ActionResult ProcessDataEntity(string key, DataEntity newData);

When the AJAX call was made, the querystring parameter key was correctly mapped to the method parameter key, and the JSON object in the request payload was magically deserialized and mapped to the newData parameter.

The problem was (as you may have guessed from the StackOverflow question), while this worked great for the object, it was completely ineffective for the string — despite the fact that the data was in the request input stream, the value would always be "null".

This is why it was such a head-scratcher. If the data was a DataEntity object and we were calling the ProcessDataEntity method, the AJAX payload would simply be:

{ prop1: "value", prop2: "value2" }

Note that nowhere in that text is the name newData, and yet the MVC framework somehow managed to interpret it as a DataEntity object and pass it as the newData parameter.

Calling the ProcessStringData method with a string as data, however, resulted in this payload:

"data value"

So why wasn't it magically treating this as a string and assigning it to the correct parameter?

Maybe the JSON deserialization magic was throwing an unseen error. Using Fiddler, I tried submitting a payload of { "data value" }. This resulted in a very visible error response from the server about an invalid JSON object. Since "data value" did not return the error, the deserializer must've been relatively fine with it.

Curiously, if I changed the payload to:

{ newData: "data value" }

it did, in fact, work. However, I didn't want to have to wrap a simple string with a named parameter object to get it to work — it would be inconsistent with the object-processing methods that did not require this massaging. (Consistency makes for much more maintainable code. Try bringing up a new developer to speed and explaining that data is in a certain format, except in a list of "special cases" that you're lucky if you remember to mention, and you discover this truth quickly.)

Looking through StackOverflow, it seems that it is possible to remove the content type to process strings. Again, this would have required determining if I was calling a string-based or object-based method and setting the content type (because I actually did want the application/json type for objects). It just didn't "feel" right.

I ended up wrapping the payload in an array. For whatever reason, it is unable to take a string payload and map it to a string parameter, but it is perfectly fine mapping a payload of the form [ "value" ] to a parameter of type List<string>.

It's just one of those things that requires some coding around, but the hard part is trying to understand why. And because it's all handled by magic, voodoo, and conjuring (a.k.a. some method buried deep inside the framework), it's not in your working code, and therefore very difficult to track down.

2012-10-06

Microsoft Store fixing my preorder

This is a follow up to the previous post.

After yet another exchange of emails saying "You weren't charged, so it was canceled" and "I wanted to be charged, why was it canceled", I got an email from another "escalation specialist". He referenced my exchange with Aubrey, so I figured this new person was taking over for the previous one, and he offered to re-place the order and get all my preorder bonuses for me.

We had a couple emails back and forth to confirm everything, and he asked for my phone number and a time to call so he could get my credit card information (since it wasn't available to him, and email is way too insecure for sending that information). When I was on the phone with him, he placed the order and gave me the new order number. He commented that it had been flagged for review from the fraud department, so it might take a day to process, but he would put a note on it so the investigators would know what was going on. Sometime during the night, I got a confirmation email that the order had been processed.

He called a couple days later in regards to the 1600 Microsoft Points card that was one of the preorder bonuses, asking if I wanted a physical card or a code by email. I told him a code was fine, and he said he would get that processed. He also told me he would be upping my $10 next-purchase credit to $20 for my trouble. Interestingly enough, when he emailed later with the Points code, he commented that every order he is placing for me is getting flagged for review. In my thank-you reply for the code, I asked if there was a way to check into why this was so. Maybe it's just the oddity of the customer service person placing orders on my behalf, but if there is another underlying reason, it'll be good to know before I try to use my $20 credit on my next order.

The next day, I got a call from Aubrey, who wanted to check on my shipping details to get my order replaced. I guess the "takeover" wasn't fully communicated. I gave him the other guy's phone number, and he said he'd double-check everything to make sure it was getting taken care of; and he later emailed me to say it looks like everything is good.

So, it took a while, and a few frustrating emails to start off, but it does look like everything is finally getting taken care of.

2012-09-28

Microsoft Store canceled my pre-order [UPDATED]

See my update in the next post — it looks like it's all getting fixed.

The Microsoft Store online was having a special. For certain pre-ordered games, you could get a coupon code for $10 off on your next purchase, plus 1600 Microsoft Points ($20 worth). There was a game going for $30 that I thought might be a nice one for one of my boys, and with the bonuses for pre-ordering, that was like getting a free game! Seemed like a great deal to me. It was a Friday, and the game was to be released the following Monday, so I placed my order. The website told me my order was successful, and I put it to the back of my mind.

Towards the end of the next week, I realized the game had not arrived yet. They didn't say anything about "release day delivery", so I didn't expect it on Monday, but I thought for sure it would've arrived that week. I logged on to the Microsoft Store and checked the order. Oddly enough, it still said "In Process". So I decided to call their support line to find out what was up.

The very courteous person who took my call was just as confused as I was when he looked at my order status. He talked to his manager, and when neither of them had an answer, he told me he would escalate the problem, and someone should contact me within 48 hours. This was on a Saturday. The next Tuesday, I found this message in my email inbox:

Thank you for contacting Microsoft Office Electronic Software Delivery customer support.

My name is Aubrey and I will be looking into your case [case number] and will keep you updated.

Please confirm any issues you are having with your order.

The charge you have referenced is a pre-authorization only.

A pre-authorization is a temporary hold to verify that funds are available when you place an order. Pre-authorizations are typically removed from your credit card transaction history when the full charge processes and funds are withdrawn. However, in some cases, this process can take up to 2 business days. Rest assured, you were not charged for your purchase. If you feel this is an error, please provide a Proof of Purchase such as a Bank Statement.

Please note that debit cards may display both the pre-authorization and the completed payment as full charges for up to 5 to 7 business days from the date of purchase. If you need assistance removing a pre-authorization from your debit card transaction history, please contact your bank or financial

Thank you and if you have any questions, please reply to this email or you can find my contact information below.

Regards,

Aubrey Teeter | Escalation Specialist | Microsoft Store Support| 1-877-696-7786| a-auteet@microsoft.com | www.MicrosoftStore.com

So, naturally, I figure my order must've been stuck in some "pre-authorization" state. I replied,

Ok, but this order was placed on the 14th, a full 11 days (7 business days) ago. When is it going to go from "in process" to shipping and complete?

And the response:

I am contacting you to give you a quick update as to where we are with your case.

My apologies. I wasn't clear. Pre-authorization means you were never charged. There are many reasons for this but the order has been cancelled. You may reorder at anytime.

Again, thank you for contacting Office ESD. If we can be of further assistance, please reply to this message. When replying, please be sure to include this and any other relevant correspondence in your message.

Well, that doesn't make any sense. I am positive the card would not have declined the charge, considering I used that same card just a few days later to pay a medical bill (several times the balance of this video game order). So what was the specific reason?

Why was it cancelled??

Which received this less-than-helpful response:

Hello,

It was cancelled due to no monies exchanged hands and time lapse You may now re-order the product now to take atvantage of the bundle before it expires.

Again, thank you for contacting Office ESD. If we can be of further assistance, please reply to this message. When replying, please be sure to include this and any other relevant correspondence in your message.

To which I replied:

Ok, apparently I need to be more clear.

I placed the order and provided my credit card information on your website with the expectation that my card would be charged and my order would be shipped as promised. Instead, you didn’t charge my card and cancelled my order without notification. WHY?

I didn't even bother to bring to Aubrey's attention that the referenced bundle had already expired when the game released nine days prior to this point (yes, I did attempt to re-place the order to confirm this).

I posted my complaint to the Microsoft Store Twitter account, @MicrosoftStore, which invited me to email my issue to storesoc@microsoft.com. I forwarded my email conversation with Aubrey, with a summary of the issue.

I haven't heard anything back from either email at this point.

Not only does this make me not want to ever attempt to do business with their online store again, but it makes me very uncomfortable with regards to my Halo 4 preorder at their store where I'll be spending most of November 5th.

See my update in the next post — it looks like it's all getting fixed.