08 October 2011

Thanks Governor Brown

I agree with California Governor Jerry Brown on his recent signing of legislation to ban shark fin soup (a staple at Chinese banquets) and to allow children of illegal immigrants to receive state funded college financial aid.

Now if only he could reverse the upcoming California ban on foie gras...

05 October 2011

R.I.P. Steve Jobs

I am very sad to learn of the passing of Steve Jobs earlier today.

17 August 2011

Fringe Foods

I honestly have no interest whatsoever in eating a hamburger in which the bun has been replaced by a donut. That's just wrong. That's disgusting.

Look, I'll go on record to say I actually am interested in trying dog meat and horse meat, just so long as it is legal, the meat was legitimately produced, and the dish was prepared decently. I understand I'd have to go overseas to get such dishes.

I'm even interested in some day trying the raw chicken meat dishes that some progressive restaurants are starting to offer.

I would be just fine if I didn't have another bowl of shark fin's soup for the rest of my life. I find the dish bland and the concept of irresponsibly treated sharks as unpalatable. I think I read that there is a proposal in San Francisco to ban shark fin's soup, for environmental / wildlife protection reasons. I think I'm OK with that, my Chinese heritage be damned.

Generally speaking, I don't think it's right for one group of people to tell another group of people to not eat something.  See my previous blog post on foie gras.  But I think shark fin soup is very different than foie gras. I believe the sharks are a threatened species, if not endangered, whereas the ducks for foie gras are domestically raised and in no short supply.  Further, the ducks are definitely get all their parts used for food, whereas the sharks in question may be irresponsibly caught and butchered for just their fins and then tossed back into the sea to drown.

I've tried fried pickles - they are just salt and vinegar bombs. No need to eat them again.

Filipino balut - the bird eggs with developed embryos inside, no thanks. Even Bourdain shuddered from his experience eating it.

Deep fried butter - I don't think so.

02 June 2011

Taleo Business Edition is a Hideous Heap of Junk

Taleo Business Edition is a web based applicant tracking system that I can say with the utmost certainty is a hideous heap of junk. I've been a customer from the employer side and I've also seen how a close friend has recently experienced it from the job seeker side.

Although it was a few years back, I had the great displeasure of inheriting an installation of Taleo Business Edition at one of my former employers. It was only partially implemented. The hiring managers hated it. The recruiters despised it. I tried for three months to complete the implementation. Instead of making progress, I encountered serious bugs and severe shortcomings with the company's customer support function. I finally reached the decision the dump Taleo Business Edition because it was clearly a piece of useless crap.

My friend is one of the many millions of unemployed Americans who is actively seeking work. She has had to endure many different applicant tracking systems from various potential employers. She showed me one that left me aghast as to how terribly unfriendly it was to job seekers. The website URL clearly showed the employer was using Taleo Business Edition (TBE).

The job application form did offer a simple resume upload button, which seemed to be the easiest course of action. Like other applicant tracking systems, TBE attempted to automatically parse the resume data, starting with the contact info. Not only did it get some of the data parsing incorrect, but it then grabbed additional data from the browser's form completion function, resulting in many fields needing to be manually edited.  Then the true horror began.

Despite having had a full fledged resume uploaded, this particular potential employer had set up TBE to parse out each and every job listed on my friend's resume. The job title, start month, start year, end month, and end year, for each job, were required fields, amongst many other data fields for each job. My friend's personal cell phone number was incorrectly populated into each job's company phone number field. The system even tried to use my friend's overall career summary statement and parse it into it's own job listing.  It was one hot mess.

I understand from 15 years ago the search function advantage of having individual job data fields populated, but I had thought that approach was long since abandoned as a candidate sourcing best practice. The emphasis on a resume database's search function was declared dead by Hire.com way back in 2000. Evidently, TBE in 2011 makes it a major feature. That is, a feature for uncaring HR departments. A rather hideous, bothersome, discouraging experience for the job applicants.   

Taleo is the largest player in the applicant tracking systems industry. It's a publicly traded company that offers an enterprise level product used by many of the very largest of employers. I don't have any experience with the enterprise level product, although I've mostly heard complaints from recruiters who have used it.  Taleo's lower cost SMB offering is Taleo Business Edition, a piece of technology they acquired some 4 or 5 years ago, which they've been trying to make usable ever since.

I hope to never have to touch Taleo Business Edition again.

25 May 2011

Product Review: CrispRoot Original

On a lark, my wife and I picked up a bag of CrispRoot brand cassava chips to try as a slightly healthier alternative to potato chips. They're excellent. We think they're noticeably better than most potato chips. They have a deeply satisfying crunch and a distinct potato-like flavor. The seasonings of salt and garlic powder are just right.

Cassava root are also known as yuca, a root vegetable that is used by many cultures, especially in South America. I first learned about yuca while watching Anthony Bourdain visit Peru. He visited some very poor farmers in the mountains. One thing they served him was a beverage comprised of yuca root that had been partly chewed and spit out by the village women, a process which uses the natural enzymes in saliva to break down the yuca. Not exactly a pleasing idea and pretty much has nothing to do with CrispRoot chips.

The manufacturer's website indicates a commitment to simple and healthy ingredients, as well as some grassroots origins of the brand. I do wonder if the company is truly independent and family oriented as they portray themselves, or whether there is a major global food conglomerate behind the scenes of this well crafted niche brand.

Either way, the chips are good. Thumbs up.

24 May 2011

Musings on Google Apps

Some months ago, my employer switched from the seemingly ubiquitous Microsoft Exchange server to the trendy "cloud" services of Google Apps. After many years of MS Outlook daily dependence, legions of employees, myself included, loathed the switch to Gmail and Google Calendar for work. It naturally took some getting used to the different user interfaces.

The benefits of Google hosting our corporate email and calendar are pretty obvious. I like being able to easily check my work emails from my mobile iOS devices and my Mac at home without relying on a cumbersome VPN login process via my heavy work laptop. Haven't really scratched the surface yet of Google Docs and Google Sites. Having a work specific Google Voice account is a nice option.

The search function within Gmail seems to be pretty powerful with relevant results.

The real trade-off seems to be in some system performance and reliability issues.

Probably the most frequent issue is an occasional server lag of a few seconds when switching between the Inbox and, for example, a page of email search results. Had I been switching between folders within Outlook, I wouldn't have experienced any lag.

While the Gmail server seems to be up nearly all the time, the servers that provide the Calendar and Contacts seem to be down every once in a while. When they are down while trying to get something done with them, that can be frustrating.

The browser cookies for Google Apps are sometimes flaky, resulting in random session timeouts.

I do miss some of the email functions of Outlook that simply aren't available in Gmail:
- color coded categories
- forwarding messages en masse
- inline images and tables
- scheduling emails for future delivery
- indicating high or low priority to a message
- integration with a full fledged tasks management tool

Overall, I agree that the switch to Google Apps has been a good thing for the company. But I never expected to say that I actually miss some bits and pieces of Microsoft Outlook.

21 May 2011

How About Just A Mini-Rapture?

Instead of a full blown Rapture, if only the heavens had vacuum sucked away Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Sean Hannity, Tom Tancredo, Senator James Inhofe, and what the hell, Sarah Palin too, what a grand difference the world would be.

23 January 2011

Is PG&E SmartMeter Data Manually Keyed Into Their Billing System?

My family and I were out of town for most of December. We intentionally powered off everything except the security alarm system, for both energy efficiency and safety sake. Upon our return home, the indoor temperature was cold and everything was still off, as expected. I was eager to see the power bill from PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric, our region's energy utility), hoping to find a significant drop in our cost for the billing period encompassing our absence.

I was pleased to see the electricity cost was just a fraction of our usual amount. However, I noticed the natural gas cost was about the same as usual. Even more bewildering, the printed statement had separated the December and January portions of the billing period, with most of the cost incurred in December, when we were away for all but 3 days of that part of the billing period. Our home's central heating system uses natural gas.

I decided to call PG&E and ask about the discrepancy. I first reached a regular customer service rep on the phone. I explained my concern and the rep seemed to understand. Upon checking the account, he mentioned that because we have a SmartMeter installed, my call had to be transferred to the SmartMeter department. Needing to be transferred to someone else because a SmartMeter was in use seemed slightly odd, but I was eager to talk with someone, so at the time, I didn't think much about it. I did ask the first customer service rep whether I was being transferred to a live person, and he said, "yes."

Well, I instead got transferred into an automated menu system, which did not please me, but it took just one menu selection to reach a live person in the SmartMeter department. I explained my case and the SmartMeter rep seemed to understand my concern. First, she reminded me that all the data she was going to give me over the phone was immediately available to me via the PG&E SmartMeter website. Next, we talked about what the gas consumption data looked like around the dates that my family and I were still on travel and when we returned. She verbally confirmed the number of therms consumed for each day, indicating the SmartMeter data clearly showed there was zero gas usage while we were away, and normal daily gas usage upon our return. She seemed to be pleased that the data was so precise and clear.

I then asked why the December gas cost was so much more than the January gas cost in my bill, since we were only home for a few days in December. She began to recite a stock answer of the cost of gas varying on different days.

I didn't accept that vague answer and pressed further, asking whether the day by day SmartMeter data of gas consumption for the few days in December when we were home, which she had just verbally recited to me, was adding up to the total therms listed in the December segment of my bill, since that was the root of my inquiry. She quickly added up the therms from the December SmartMeter data and said, they add up to thirteen (13) therms. But the bill clearly lists the December usage as thirty one (31) therms, I stated. Her next statement first confused me, then triggered a wave of disbelief: "Oh, the numbers got transposed. I'll get that fixed."

My confusion was due to my initial expectation of either an explanation blaming an algorithmic issue with the system or perhaps a simple stonewalling of my inquiry. I got neither. Instead, she was saying that the one and the three in thirteen used therms was accidentally swapped to instead be a three and a one to list thirty one used therms! In my initial confusion, I silently thought, "what kind of modern computer system accidentally transposes numerical digits?"

It was a little later, after the call was over, that I realized by inference: the SmartMeter system and PG&E's established billing and customer accounts systems aren't truly integrated, and quite likely, involve people manually keying in usage data, which explains how such a digits transposition error could occur.

Looking back at how the initial PG&E customer rep had to transfer me to an entirely separate SmartMeter customer support system, with separate live rep and separate automated voice menu, and then also considering past news reports of how PG&E has been phasing in communities with the SmartMeter system over a period of months and years, it does seem to suggest there is not a full fledged integration between old and new systems. Even worse, it seems to be a manual, human data entry process, which carries a high risk of many errors.

To PG&E's credit, the SmartMeter customer service rep said she had corrected my bill during my call.

I'm well aware of the nationwide concern of SmartMeter installations. Most people believe the devices have been intentionally programmed to cheat them, as significantly higher power bills seem to appear around the time the devices are installed. There are also a few people who further believe the devices, which rely on wireless cell phone data transmission technology, are causing health problems, particularly headaches and sleeplessness. These concerns are popular and politicians are taking action against some utility providers.

Frankly, I think these concerns of inaccurate metering and negative health effects are completely bogus. These are intricately engineered devices, extensively tested and certified by independent labs, that are installed by the millions at people's homes. It would be erratic and simply stupid for any major manufacturer or utility company to either intentionally cheat customers within the device, or put the public at a health risk. To me, the concerns clearly stem from a lack of awareness, a natural suspicion of new technology, a need to scapegoat the woes of a depressed economy, and a heavy dose of irrationality, which I firmly believe we all exhibit. Sort of along the lines of Carl Sagan's depiction of "science as a candle in the dark," which was the byline to the title of his book, "The Demon Haunted World". Similarly, this feels like it is an off-shoot of "The Assault on Reason," as described by Al Gore. I really don't think the SmartMeter devices are the problem.

What I do think is happening is a shoddy and incomplete back-end system implementation, in which the new SmartMeter infrastructure does not play nice with the older existing customer billing system, and quite possibly, a reliance on manual data entry for critical processes such as the conversion of energy usage data into presumably accurate billing costs.

I have worked for high tech organizations for over twenty years, with most of that experience in enterprise software firms. I'm well aware of the challenges of implementing new business systems, particularly when a legacy system is already in place. However, this same experience also informs me of the myriad of potential technology solutions that would allow for some sort of direct, albeit interim, data integration between an old and new system. It could be costly and/or complicated, but is absolutely technically feasible.

The likelihood that PG&E does not have such an interim integration should be of deep concern to the paying customers of PG&E throughout the San Francisco Bay Area region and beyond.

I should point out that I have yet to look up online whether anyone else has suspected the same, and whether anyone has either proven or debunked it. I welcome everyone's feedback and thoughts. If there is authoritative information out there on this matter, I would appreciate any leads.

11 January 2011

Carl Sagan - Pale Blue Dot

A gorgeous, moving mashup of Carl Sagan's excerpted reading of his Pale Blue Dot with well selected and edited deep outer space animation. Be sure to watch it in 720p HD in full screen mode. Awe-inspiring.

Earth - The Pale Blue Dot

This short film was just relinked by John Gruber's Daring Fireball. I hadn't seen it before. It's a deep, inquisitive, speculative monologue of Carl Sagan, with compelling Earthly scenery. I've read most of Carl Sagan's books and was riveted as a child with his landmark PBS television series, Cosmos. This film apparently excerpts the audiobook version of Pale Blue Dot, one of his last books, although not his very last.

It's interesting to note the handful of common interests I seem to have with popular tech blogger John Gruber: Apple technology, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, baseball, and, my most recently realized, Carl Sagan.

Even if you're not a Sagan fan, the film is worth one brief viewing.

09 January 2011

Moving a Blog to Quora?

Interesting idea that some people are moving their blogging activity from a dedicated blog system like Tumblr to Quora. I guess I'll think about it for myself, but I don't immediately see the advantage.

Maybe someone can spell it out why.

For one thing, I'm not sure a private domain name can be easily set up to point to a Quora profile page.

04 January 2011

Recommendations for starting up with Jobvite

Earlier today, I answered a Quora question and thought I'd also share the answer here.

We're getting ready to use Jobvite at our company, any recommendations for starting up? - Quora
(Question byline:) Want to make sure we're starting out using all best practices

Mason Wong, 4-time customer of Jobvite, lead implementation of Jobvite at 3 employers, furthered configuration of Jobvite at the 4th.

A lot depends on what your starting point is, whether this is your company's first ATS or you're migrating from an existing ATS, as there are both technical and process considerations. Many of the tips that initially come to mind are actually not Jobvite specific, but would pertain to any ATS implementation. Here are some of my recommendations:

* Gain as much executive sponsorship up front as possible. Ideally, your CEO prioritizes the recruiting function and is willing to personally announce the implementation and later encourage hiring managers to use the system and encourage employees to submit referrals through the system.