When I wrote about Google+ last week I was under no delusions that I’d be able to get myself into the program before they started doing their open testing. Like Google Wave and Gmail before it I didn’t have any friends who were in on the first round invites so I put my name in the email form and resigned to come back to it after all the hubbub had died down. One of my clever friends (who has recently become a fellow blogger) hit up someone giving out invites on Twitter and was himself granted invites upon joining in. Since my entire group of friends was chomping at the bit to get in and have a go with Google’s latest toy we all jumped at the chance to get in on the action, and I spent the weekend having a fiddle with it.
The landing page of Google+ looks eerily similar to that of Facebook’s, with a very familiar 3 column layout that has all the major components in approximately the same positions. This is a decidedly non-Google way of presenting a service but it appears that this will be the way they go about it from now on since the same styling has made its way onto the Google search engine. I’m definitely a fan of it since the layout is clean, uncluttered and isn’t yet ridden with ads. I’m sure eventually it will start getting ads much like Facebook has as there’s a lot of real estate on the right hand side that’s just sitting there unused currently, right in the same spot that Facebook has its ads.
As part of the Google+ implementation it looks like at least one other service, Google Talk, received a small upgrade in functionality. I’m a big user of the chat function that’s long been available through Gmail (mostly because all my friends use it) but the experience on there has never been that great. Unless you’re on an unfettered connection to the outside world the chat would likely drop out at least once or twice a day and the only way to get back into a group conversation was to be added back into it. Now it seems to be able to remember sessions quite well and I was able to access the same conversation in Gmail and Plus simultaneously, even on different computers. Having the concept of rooms would still be an awesome feature to have, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
The circles idea is an interesting one, albeit one that I don’t have much use for currently. Circles are just groups of people you can create on the fly and they’re only visible to you. There’s 4 default groups that take their inspiration from the other major social networks (Friends/Family = Facebook, Acquaintances = LinkedIn, Following = Twitter) but they’re really just there to get you started. Since at the moment the only people I know on there are my tech enthusiast friends I’ve really only needed a single group. Should Google offer an API that will allow me to consolidate all my social doings in one spot I can see this being a very handy feature but until such a time I get a feeling that this feature (and by extension much of the benefits of Google+) will be lost on me.
Two features I didn’t get much of a chance to play with were Hangouts and Sparks, although a couple of my mates gave me a rundown on how they work. Hangouts are basically Skype in a web browser which is pretty amazing by itself but it’s also meant to make group conversations more useful by making whoever is doing the talking the main person in the Hangout window. I’ve had a quick fiddle with the Sparks bit but all it seems to do is search the web with the keywords you plug into it, generating a stream of on-topic articles that may or may not be of interest to you. For kicks I tried video games and got everything from recent articles to reviews dating back a year. The curated feeds that are displayed when you first click into Sparks might be better, but none of them really aligned to my interests.
At the same time Google released Plus they also debuted the accompanying Android application, which has just as much polish as the web based product. It functions pretty much as expected with the vast majority of functionality available. Strangely however the Huddle feature, basically group messaging ala Beluga et al, is a standalone application. Huddle was up and down over the time I was using it but when it worked it was very usable, however it lacks the maturity of other group messaging apps as there’s no media or location sharing built in. Additionally the lack of a web interface for Huddle feels like an oversight on Google’s part since that would make it infinitely more usable, especially if it was available through Google Talk.
Overall I’m quite impressed with Google+ as a service and so are a good portion of my friends. However only a fifth of my direct social circle has made it onto Google+ and with no API to speak of yet (although one is coming) it’s really just another curiosity for the time being. Once there’s a bit more integration with other services and the user base hits critical mass I could see it being the one stop place for my social networking needs. The hardest challenge that Google+ faces isn’t technical however, it will be attempting to break the stranglehold that Facebook holds on the market. If there’s anyone who’s capable of doing this it’s Google, but even they are going to have a hard time drawing users away from the place where all their friends still reside.
I’m not a fan of the current norms for a working life. There just seems to be something so wrong about spending the best part of a day slaving away behind a desk, working towards goals that you likely have no control over. The current 9 to 5 work day has its origins back in the industrial revolution and in the almost 200 years since then we’ve seemingly been unable to get past the idea that we should all spend 40+ hours a week at our place of work. Ultimately I believe that such norms represent an archaic idea about how efficient a workforce can be, especially considering that 200 years ago ides like telecommuting were in the realms of science fiction.
I feel the same way about the 2 day weekend that we’re all accustomed to. It’s not that I feel like I deserve the extra break, although it is quite welcome, more the fact that after experimenting with a 3 day weekend for the better part of a year I found myself to be wholly more productive at work and during my time off. Sure it could be tough sometimes making up the required 40 hours during the week but that extra day off ensured that I came back ready to face the challenges ahead of me, usually with a vigor unmatched by other employees.
It’s not just all anecdotal blustering on my part either. Research shows that people with flexible working arrangements, the ones that would allow for things like a permanent 3 day weekend, are more productive and much more satisfied with their jobs.It’s not surprise really as they are able to fit work around their life rather than the other way around. For many people this may be the odd day off here and there, but many will choose to take that as either a Friday or Monday in order to maximise the benefit of having said day off.
For someone like me the extra day off was usually spent doing all the menial things that would otherwise eat up half of my weekend. Whilst 2 days is a good amount of time for leisure it is usually interrupted by chores, commitments and sometimes even catching up on work that “needs” to be done. The additional day would then serve as a buffer for such things, ensuring that you’d be able to spend the next 2 days fully indulging in whatever leisure activities you seek. The effect was quite liberating and the three day weekend was the first reason why I started pursuing the idea behind Lobaco as up until then I simply struggled to find the time to work on such ideas.
I’m not the only one to think this either. Whilst I’m sure everyone would appreciate having another day off it seems that more and more people are recognising that the current norms for working aren’t suited to the world we live in, especially considering the technological advances of the past couple decades. There’s also been significant movement towards more flexible working arrangements, however they still constitute a minority in the wider world. It’s still progress however and someday I believe that the idea of working a 5 day, 9 to 5 job will be an archaic relic of our past.
For someone like me the benefits seem obvious. I’ve been there and seen them for myself and there’s a growing movement of people who’ve done the same. It’s not a hard change to make either, realistically workplaces have no reason not to try it especially if they track their employees with any kind of performance metrics. It is a fight against giant inertia however, the 200 year old habits of the working world are going to die a slow death even with the hand of technology pushing it towards its demise. I hope one day to rejoin the ranks of those who enjoy a shortened work week and lengthened weekend, but until then I will continue to spruik its benefits to all, hoping to fall on sympathetic ears.
Ah Melbourne, you’re quite the town. After spending a weekend visiting you for the weekend and soaking myself deep in your culture I’ve come to miss your delicious cuisine and exquisite coffee now that I’m back at my Canberran cubicle, but the memories of the trip still burn vividly in my mind. From the various pubs I frequented with my closest friends to perusing the wares of the Queen Victoria markets I just can’t get enough of your charm and, university admissions willing, I’ll be making you my home sometime next year. The trip was not without its dramas however and none was more far reaching than that of my attempt to depart the city of Melbourne via my airline of choice: Virgin Blue.
Whilst indulging in a few good pizzas and countless pints of Bimbo Blonde we discovered that Virgin Blue was having problems checking people in, resulting in them having to resort to manual check-ins. At the time I didn’t think it was such a big deal since initial reports hadn’t yet mentioned any flights actually being cancelled and my flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 9:30PM that night. So we continued to indulge ourselves in the Melbourne life as was our want, cheerfully throwing our cares to the wind and ordering another round.
Things started to go all pear shaped when I thought I’d better check up on the situation and put a call into customer care hotline to see what the deal was. My first attempted was stonewalled by an automatic response stating that they weren’t taking any calls due to a large volume of people trying to get through. I managed to get into a queue about 30 minutes later and even then I was still on the phone for almost an hour before getting through. My attempts to get solid information out of them were met with the same response: “You have to go to the airport and then work it out from there”. Luckily for me and my travelling compatriots it was a public holiday on Monday so a delay, whilst annoying, wouldn’t be too devastating. We decided to proceed to the airport and what I saw there was chaos on a new level.
The Virgin check-in terminals were swamped with hundreds of passengers, all of them in varying levels of disarray and anger. Attempts to get information out of the staff wandering around were usually met with reassurance and directions to keep checking the information board whilst listening for announcements. On the way over I’d managed to work out that our flight wasn’t on the cancelled list so we were in with a chance, but seeing the sea of people hovering around the terminal didn’t give us much hope. After grabbing some quick dinner and sitting around for a while our flight number was called for manual check-ins and we lined up to get ourselves on the flight. You could see why so many flights had to be cancelled as boarding that one flight manually took them well over an hour, and that wasn’t even a full flight of passengers. 4 hours after arriving at the airport we were safe and sound in Canberra, which I unfortunately can’t say for the majority of people who chose Virgin as their carrier that day.
Throughout the whole experience all the blame was being squarely aimed at a failure in the IT system that took our their client facing check-in and online booking systems. Knowing a bit about mission critical infrastructure I remarked at how a single failure could take out a system like this, one that when it goes down costs them millions in lost business and compensation. Going through it logically I came to the conclusion that it had to be some kind of human failure that managed to wipe some critical shared infrastructure, probably a SAN that was live replicating to its disaster recovery site. I mean anything that has the potential to cause that much drama must have a recovery time less than a couple hours or so and it had been almost 12 hours since we first heard the reports of it being down.
As it turns out I was pretty far off the mark. Virgin just recently released an initial report of what happened and although it’s scant on the details what we’ve got to go on is quite interesting:
At 0800 (AEST) yesterday the solid state disk server infrastructure used to host Virgin Blue failed resulting in the outage of our guest facing service technology systems.
We are advised by Navitaire that while they were able to isolate the point of failure to the device in question relatively quickly, an initial decision to seek to repair the device proved less than fruitful and also contributed to the delay in initiating a cutover to a contingency hardware platform.
The service agreement Virgin Blue has with Navitaire requires any mission critical system outages to be remedied within a short period of time. This did not happen in this instance. We did get our check-in and online booking systems operational again by just after 0500 (AEST) today.
Navitaire are a subsidiary of Accenture, one of the largest suppliers of IT outsourcing in the world with over 177,000 employees worldwide and almost $22 billion in revenue. Having worked for one of their competitors (Unisys) for a while I know no large contract like this goes through without some kind of Service Level Agreement (SLA) in place which dictates certain metrics and their penalties should they not be met. Virgin has said that they will be seeking compensation for the blunder but to their credit they were more focused on getting their passengers sorted first before playing the blame game with Navitaire.
Still as a veteran IT administrator I can’t help but look at this disaster and wonder how it could have been avoided. A disk failure in a server is common enough that your servers are usually built around the idea of at least one of them failing. Additionally if this was based on shared storage there would have been several spare disks ready to take over in the event that one or more failed. Taking this all into consideration it appears that Navitaire had a single point of failure in the client facing parts of the system they had for Virgin and a disaster recovery process that hadn’t been tested prior to this event. All of these coalesced into an outage that lasted 21 hours when most mission critical systems like that wouldn’t tolerate anything more than 4.
Originally I had thought that Virgin had all their IT systems internal and this kind of outage seemed like pure incompetence. However upon learning about their outsourced arrangement I know exactly why this happened: profit. In an outsourced arrangement you’re always pressured to deliver exactly to the client’s SLAs whilst keeping your costs to a minimum, thereby maximising profit. Navitaire is no different and their cost saving measures meant that a failure in one place and a lack of verification testing in another lead to a massive outage to one of their big clients. Their other clients weren’t affected because they likely have independent systems for each client but I’d hazard a guess that all of them are at least partially vulnerable to the same outage that affected Virgin on the weekend.
In the end Virgin did handle the situation well all things considered, opting first to take care of their customers rather than pointing fingers right from the start. To their credit all the airport staff and plane crew stayed calm and collected throughout the ordeal and apart from the delayed check-in there was little difference between my flight down and the one back up. Hopefully this will trigger a review of their disaster recovery processes and end up with a more robust system for not only Virgin but all of Navitaire’s customers. It won’t mean much to us as customers as if that does happen we won’t notice anything, but it does mean that in the future such outages shouldn’t have such a big impact as the one of the weekend that just went by.
I picked something up yesterday, something looking suspiciously similar to this:
Yeah I think you can guess where I’ll be spending a good chunk of my weekend, firmly welded to the couch while I bathe myself in what is going to be one of the most enthralling cinematic gaming experiences to cross my path. The fact that the guy I picked it up from at EB asked me if I had played Fahrenheit shows just what kind of a following this game has and I’ve deliberately steered clear of any news or reviews of the game, lest they ruin my experience.
Now it’s one thing to get excited over a game due to the hype buildup or developer loyalty but, for me at least, Heavy Rain is in another category entirely. That’s not to say it’s the most excited I’ve been about a game, far from it. I was much more jittery when it came to picking up the Mass Effect series of games or even the first World of Warcraft expansions. No, there’s something different about this game that is tickling a part of my brain that I don’t think a game has ever triggered before, and that in itself is saying something.
I can probably put this down to the Four Days online experience that Quantic Dream put on. Basically it was a prologue to the game and involved putting you in the shoes of one of the characters of Heavy Rain who was investigating a murder. It played out over 3 days of each week for 3 weeks and to be honest the first one came and went with me barely giving it a second look. However things started to get interesting when the second one came along.
The event started with a series of interactive Youtube videos that put you on the other end of a 911 phone call. The idea was to keep her on the phone as long as possible so you could extract information about what she saw. If you do it right you’ll be sent to another website with a grab bag of evidence from the crime scene which contains various photos other bits of info. What drew me in at this point was a link to a Twitter account, and this is where things got a bit crazy.
It just so happened that I got the evidence package late at night and decided to check out the account to see if there was anything on it. Amazingly right as I was going onto the website the person behind the account started to answer questions about what he saw that night. Queue 3 hours of me furiously sending questions to him and refreshing the page, desperately hanging on for every little bit of information I could drag out of him. I went to bed before the whole event finished but as I drifted off to sleep my head was filled with even more questions that demanded answers and I spent the next day on the edge of my seat waiting for the mysterious character to return.
The next day saw me selecting the 4 most appropriate pieces of evidence from the crimescene to be submitted for further investigation. After a few attempts I got it right and was rewarded with a code for an early copy of the demo. Not wanting to spoil anything of Heavy Rain I filed it away and waited for the next challenge to begin.
The last challenge in the Four Days campaign wasn’t as enthralling as the one that preceeded it. Basically it was just looking at Facebook fan pages and figuring out who best fit the data. It was kind of spooky when I got an email out of the blue from another person who was apparently working the case for her own reasons, and the page she linked to instantly identified her as one of the characters right out of Heavy Rain. I still spent some time reading all the profiles but that initial buzz I felt from staring at SleeperInTheSun’s Twitter feed was a distant memory.
Despite the climax being somewhat disappointing (although the trailers that followed were amazing) it made me step back and take stock of the emotional responses that this little meta game invoked. Fahrenheit was one of those games that drew you deep into the story and its characters, even to the point of stretching the definition of what constituted a game (My game developer friend Tim doesn’t let me call them games, only interactive movies). Heavy Rain made no secret that it’s striving for an emotive experience first and gameplay second which has drawn some harsh criticisms from more traditional game reviewers. So far every one of the cinematic games I’ve played have been experiences I’ve savoured like a fine wine and if the small tidbits of Heavy Rain that I’ve indulged in are anything to go by this will be another fine addition to my shelf.