All posts by john pipal

Infobulletin – a really useful newsletter

Co-operative Systems InfoBulletin logoFor some time I have been meaning to give a plug to the InfoBulletin newsletter written by my friend and common Knowledge colleague Paul Craig for Co-operative Systems . It’s one of the best, if not the best, newsletters on small-scale office computing.

The newsletter is available to anyone and is written in a clear non-techhy language. It covers trends, specific programs and equipment and helps you get a handle on new concepts or software or web-services. It’s helped me loads of times.

It’s not all new stuff. Two regular features are  Q&A (a guide to desktop techniques in the operating system or software) and Clicks of the Trade which gives useful advice that circuit riders like Paul and myself have learnt, often the hard way, over the years.

So if you’re an office or operations manager – or take an interest in such things you can look at the current issue and then sign up. And while you’re on the site, check out the archived index.. I defy you to look down that list and not open up a least one of the articles!

German schoolchild with IBM PC
Thanks to German Federal Archive – Creative Commons

Historical note: Co-op Systems, the more elderly amongst us will remember, was a real co-operative back in the days when the GLC used to grant-aid voluntary organisations with an IBM PC with 2 5.25″ floppy drives, EPSON FX 45 dot-matrix printer,  WordStar 2.3,  SuperCalc4 or Lotus 123 & CardBox. Training free from ComputerCraft (another co-op) and the computer maintenance in the first year by Co-op Systems.  Microsoft was pretty small beer in those days  – today’s Co-op Systems though not a co-operative any more, still specialises in helping the 3rd sector and is a MS Gold partner.

kaspersky’s strange licence renewal system

friend or foe?As Kaspersky AntiVirus counts down to the day it expires with daily warnings, it’s natural for many of their customers to think… let’s buy next year’s licence now and stop these pesky reminders. Recent experience leaves me to advise… wait till the VERY LAST MINUTE!

For charities that qualify for half price copies of Kaspersky’s Open Space products, renewing your licences before you absolutely have to means that your new licences start from the date of your order and NOT from the date when your old licence runs out.

When I asked my Kaspersky reseller, Pugh Software, about this they said that they had taken this up with Kaspersky who have said they will not change their system. So take the advice of Barry Lewis at Pugh and don’t make your order for next year’s licence until the very day it runs out.

And fie on the laziness of this large corporation that they cannot keep these details of your subscription themselves. One of my customers that orders over 50 licences lost 1 month’s cover to this sharp practice.

City of London CAB closes it’s doors forever

As the ‘pig society’ begins to bite, a small corner of help for the troubled shuts down on March 31st after 45 years of service. Being in the City of Snakes may mean this doesn’t get your immediate sympathy but believe me, the misery those institutions create starts at their own front door.

City CAB entrance by Stationers Hall
These doors now closed to the public

The CAB sits on Ludgate Hill next to the ancient Stationers Hall on the way up to St Pauls in the very heart of the city. They provide employment, debt and welfare benefits advice, have outreach workers in the city’s housing estates and cancer wards at Barts Hospital. They have always taken on hundreds of cases a year – representing clients at employment tribunals, providing specialist advice face to face as well as over the phone and the internet. Pipal Associates have been providing their IT support for the last decade.

But they have lost their main contract to provide advice to City workers which will now be provided by Toynbee Hall (based in Tower Hamlets). Toynbee’s bid indicates that they will not be doing case-work themselves but will partner with Mary Ward Legal Centre (based in Camden) to do up to a paltry 50 cases a year.  Their work will be mostly what is called ‘gateway’ sessions in the advice world.. like so much else –  some management twonk has assessed that 70% (say) of all cases are matters of information and an assessment over the phone is all that’s needed before pointing the half-witted public in the right direction – no more costly face to face requirement.

the wartime CAB 'horsebox'
the wartime CAB 'horsebox'

If you think that the City is a special case.. look around. Birmingham central CAB has lost it’s funding and it set to close. Many, probably most other Citizen’s Advice services are cut all over London and staff are being made redundant.

When you factor in the imminent stopping of all legal aid for debt and welfare benefits work announced by Ken Clarke last year, you wonder how the CABs can provide the public with the advice they need to survive the economic misery ahead.

Remote Desktop Servers in Windows

One of the great saving graces of Windows server is the way it can act as a Terminal Server (now renamed the Remote Desktop Server). In the voluntary sector it can be a great saviour, not just because it allows people to access their workplace desktop at home or in the field but because it allows old computers to last forever as long as the computer has a version of the Remote Desktop Client that will run on it – no problem with Windows 2000 upwards. In this way people can have a Windows 7 experience on a machine that is running Windows 2000 – and 10 years is a long time in the computing world

How does it work? What is Terminal Services?

graphic of remote desktop communication with serverTerminal Services (TS) is a form of ‘thin client’ technology. Instead of the computing that you do being done by your machine, it is done at the Server. Simply put, your machine sends data from its keyboard strokes and mouse movements to the server – which computes them as if it were your machine – and sends the results back to you as changes to your monitor screen.

The network link between your server and you, whether it’s ADSL broadband or a network cable, handles minimal traffic and your computer does very little work. So an old Pentium 4 at 2.4 GHz with 256M RAM running the Remote Desktop Client(RDC) gives Windows 7 environment (with a Windows 2008R2 terminal server) as well as a modern machine.

Not only that but you can run your Windows session on a Linux machine, an Apple or a smartphone. You can now do it through your web-browser too – and unlike programs like GoToMyPC or LogMeIn (which use remote control) you don’t tie up an office workstation.

This gives extra life to old kit and centralized management of  desktop applications. And even though the server is where your computer session is actually going on you still have access to  local printers and disc drives within the session.

We have helped  a number of voluntary groups to run old computers using RDC on the local network in order to eke a little more life out of them. After all, they were once somebody’s pride and joy.

trade press illustrators

Computer magazine illustrations whether for the domestic or industrial markets are pretty dreadful. Most publishers believe stock photos and screen-shots are good enough for their art-less geeky readerships.

A good illustration, cartoon or caricature is something to be celebrated especially when it captures an idea. The illustration you see came from a IT trade free magazine and I apologize to the creator that I don’t have their name and cannot attribute it. It has been on the wall in my office for nearly a decade.

It clearly shows one of the central con-tricks of the software industry, the continual pressure and eventual necessity to upgrade – which puts an organisation in a new position not much different from where they were before. (Do people do more with Word 2010 than they did with Word 97? or even WordStar 2.3 for those of us that go back that far.)

In a gee-whiz technology environment it’s rare to get a thoughtful critical illustration like this. More!

(If the illustrator concerned or anyone that knows them can help me attribute the picture I will update this post immediately. I will also pull it down if they feel their copyright is being abused)

BT’s incompetence is formidable

One of Pipal Associates’ customers, a voluntary organisation with a busy high street profile set about the complicated process of moving. They hired a telecom company to set up a new phone system and required BT to install the lines on day zero to minimize downtime.

BT let them down not only at every chance they got but in a way that caused the most disruption to their business and their sanity.

bt carpark

First they gave half of a business day’s notice that they weren’t going to turn up on the agreed day… but 10 days later. That caused major problems.

Second – 10 days later they sent an engineer who didn’t start until the afternoon, had to get another local engineer because he couldn’t work out how to connect the site in spite of it being a ‘gold’ site – i.e. totally mapped by BT. The job went on into day 2.

The lines got put in but they made a mistake in allocating the number range that the system was to use. A whole month after the move, BT has still not resolved this issue and we have no idea when the numbers for the telephone system will be come through.

The telecom company that my client used have been a model of patience, helpfulness and professionalism in regard to all this. Without them BT would have taken even longer, drifted off the job, misunderstood even more than they did. This telecom company won the contract hands-down against the only other tender that was sought – from BT.

Now I know that BT OpenReach is different from the BT Business and that it would be illegal for them to favour their own contracts over those of others in the provision of wholesale services but I keep wondering if we would’ve had the same problems if it had all been within the BT family…. and whether that’s what they want me to think.

big society – only big fry need apply

The changes going on in the voluntary sector, whilst the government talks up social enterprises, advantage the large organisations able to make the most of contract culture. At a training course last week put on by Social Enterprise London, we were told that the gloves were off, grant aid was dead (oh, really?), competitive tendering was going to be the only game in town.

All government and local government work will be decided in 3 phases:

french fries
image by relitron
  1. Pre-tender when criteria are worked out
  2. The Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ)
  3. The Invitation to Tender (ITT)

Stage 1 is where large companies and consultancies have the most sway, with the best results. They are involved in designing the contract, putting up ideas, doing research for the authority. They have schmoozers on their PR staffs to do this. KPMG, Price Waterhouse and and other beancounters are all interested in the these contracts

Stage 2 is where everyone who expresses an interest to tender gets annihilated. The box tickers rule out people without adequate health and safety policies, environmental policies, equality and diversity policies and  3 years of published accounts. Sole traders are usually ignored. People to whom the contract value is more than 20% of their turnover are out. Most organisations fail this stage. That is it’s function.

Stage 3, if you get there, is where you can score – but if you get one contract in 10 tenders you’d be lucky. Given the 20% rule, you’d need at least 5 or 6 contracts running concurrently to be able to operate with government funding. The amount of time and energy required makes it a Big Fry Society.

The worst is what it does to expertise and experience that has already been built up in the community. When these organisations die because they’ve lost contracts, they are often replaced by organisations that haven’t got any decent track-record but merely score on bureaucratic point systems.

One good example of this is what has been happening with the Legal Services Commission contracts – on which I hope to post later.

chucking old computers out

On Tuesday my young colleague Gurjar and I spent a fruitful day sorting out our stock cupboard which is full of old computers, tape drives, cables and the general detritus of computer maintenance. Machines that were the pride of their owners a few years ago, on the cutting edge of technology now no longer able to run the software they need today. Breaks your heart.

And of course you can’t just chuck this stuff out anyway. First you have to take out the hard disc and attack it with a hammer so that sensitive data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Then you have to take anything covered by the EU WEEE directive (most electronics) to the corporation tip or some other centre that has the proper facilities for dealing with it.
Computer on the way to the tip
Last time I did a round up of old kit for my customers, the council tip charged me £15 per computer monitor and the other stuff on a weight basis. Householders can do this for free so I’d advise anyone with just a couple of things to dispose of to do it as a domestic user.

So next time a commercial firm makes a donation of their old computers to your organisation bear in mind that besides the costs of configuring it to your software and infrastructure, you’ll also be paying in time and money to dispose of the kit that it supercedes.

gotta start somewhere

I started Pipal Associates after I left Charter88, the constitutional reform campaign, in 1997. I had been their systems manager and before that had worked in computer training in east London. Before I got involved with computers in the early ’80s I had done a series of youth and community work jobs as well as teaching and so I was drawn to the 3rd sector for my client base.

This still holds true today where my current client list includes City of London Citizens Advice Bureau, Changing Faces, East London Financial Inclusion Unit (ELFI), Hackney Marsh Partnership, London Detainees Support Group, London Hazard Centre, Wandsworth Carers and Waltham Forest Citizens Advice Bureaux.

My website has been a static lump of a thing for all that time – so now I’ve changed it to a blog to see if and how it develops