Sunday, August 16, 2009

Y2K and C4C

Can you believe it's been ten years since Y2K? Do you remember the flurry of activity getting ready for it? Ten years ago I was busy making sure clients' windows boxes and servers had the latest OS patches in anticipation of the big day; I was helping clients make sure their software systems were ready for a smooth transition. There was a bunch of IT spending, on hardware upgrades, software upgrades, reprogramming systems (COBOL For Dummies?!). Then Y2K came and went. And the flurry of activity came to a halt. It's as if everybody was now (temporarily, at least) on the same sales cycle. So very few people were interested upgrading anything through 2000 and on. IT spending slowed down, and so on.

People buy automobiles at different rates: some turn them in every two years, some run them until the wheels fall off. There are different sales cycles. The government wanted to encourage consumers to start purchasing new automobiles, so they devised the so-called "Cash For Clunkers" program. The program has proved wildly (perhaps unexpectedly) popular, and now politicians are trying to figure out how to meet demand. One of the things the program is doing, I think, is upsetting the normal automotive sales cycle. If someone was halfway through running the wheels off their car, they might go ahead and buy one now, instead of in three or four years, when they were "scheduled" to.

The concern is what happens when the program ends. Everybody who was going to be in the market for a new vehicle now already has one. I'll not be surprised to see the flurry of activity to come to a screeching halt. How much do you think that bailout is going to cost?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Fraud Alert In Action

So have you gotten yourself a fraud alert yet?

We placed a fraud alert on our credit reports, and promptly forgot about it. A month or so after we did this, we found ourselves at our local AT&T store, signing up for a new service package. We filled out a bunch of paperwork, and part of this involved giving them our credit card number. Now we don't have credit cards; we use debit cards, and we gave them our debit card number.

As an aside, we've used a debit card for years. We've used them to buy plane tickets, rent cars, hotel rooms, etc. We've never been unable to do something on account of not having a credit card. We did once try to rent a car through an agency whose policy was credit cards only. In that case, we found another agency which would let us rent a car with a debit card.

As the AT&T rep was running our paperwork, he said he'd they needed some additional information. At first I thought it was because we were using a debit card instead of the credit card, but in fact it was the fraud alert kicking in. While at the store, we had to get on the phone with the authorizer, who then asked us some pretty pointed questions (stuff that only we should know) in order to verify our identity. Once we got that ball rolling again, we were chatting with the store associate about the fraud alert, and he remarked that if we weren't who we said we were, we'd be having a chat with the sheriff's deputy right about now. We got all the paperwork finished and went our way.

At first I thought "What a pain to have to do this." But then I realized that if someone was trying to impersonate me, he'd have to go through the pain too, and he'd wind up being driven off in a squad car. So I'm willing to go through the extra bother for the extra peace of mind.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I like Balsamiq Mockups

There are few tools more flexible than a pencil and pad of paper. Great boot time, decent UI. When I'm having to sketch a diagram of any sort, the diagram almost always starts out as a sketch on paper, and then transposed to whatever media it needs to be delivered in. It's a pain to transpose a pencil mockup to something like Visio, but I've done it.

I'm skeptical of things that purport to allow me to toss the pencil/paper step. The demo pitch goes something like "just click, click, drag, presto, you're done." I wish it were that easy.

My boss sent me a link to Balsamiq Mockups (, a UI design and mockup tool. Sure enough, their demo video goes something like "click, click, drag, presto" while they draw a mockup of an existing application that you probably know very well. I rolled my eyes and thought "here we go again," but I played with the online version for a few minutes, and it seemed straightforward enough.

I'm working on a particular project and need to start sketching some ideas for it, and I instinctively reach for my pencil. I decide that to be fair to the product, I should at least try it (without using the pencil/paper), and we have an eval version of Mockups wired into Confluence. So I click the "Add UI Mockup" link on the wiki page, which takes me to the mockup editor. I want a dialog box. So I drag one off the bar on the top, on to my workspace. Now I want a list. How a button here. No that's not right; there that's better. Click, click, drag, presto, and I had something I liked. They even let me export it to PNG if I want (although embedding directly into the Wiki page was much quicker).

I like the Sticky Notes, and all the icons. I like how the properties boxes are handled. I like that it's extensible. I like how easy it is to add data to UI elements like list boxes. In short, I like Balsamiq Mockups.