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I Was Wrong About Gamification: It Works.

What feels like way back in early 2012 I was still dabbling with a little bit of coding from time-to-time and scoffed when Microsoft announced that they were bringing the XBox to their Professional development environment, Visual Studio.

VSAchievmentUnlocked

Visual Studio Achievements, as the plug in for Visual Studio was called, meant that developers could ‘Unlock Achievements’ and take part in leader boards to exhibit their prowess in particular areas of Visual Studio.  They could even share their achievements on social media, their blog and in a public leader board.

This was part of the emerging trend of Gamification – the act of taking game like characteristics such as point collecting, leader boards and the like, and applying them to other areas.  This was (and still is) spilling over from digital marketing, where it’s proved a very effective marketing tool for big and small brands alike.

My background has always been in Line-Of-Business application development, and predominantly for engineering or process-orientated companies: I worked in what I regarded as ‘the grown up world.‘  I didn’t like this approach and didn’t see how it would encourage quality code – although I could see how it would increase quantity.  It seemed like the ‘dumbing down’ of the business world, and where would it end?

Gamification – I Was Wrong & It’s Addictive.

I was wrong, and I may even be a convert. While I don’t use Visual Studio as a daily tool any more, so VS Achievements doesn’t apply to me, I do use a To Do List tool called ToDoIst to help me manage the tasks I have to do and remember those coming up.

I started using ToDoIst because it had some great reviews in some productivity blogs I happened to be reading at the time, it is easy to add tasks to, you can add them to ‘projects’ and it works easily across various devices.  I soon became addicted and it earned its place as a pinned tab in Firefox next to GoogleApps and Trello.

Then I noticed the ‘Karma‘ tab at the top.  It was gamifying my to-do list.  You get karma points for adding tasks to the list, more karma points for completing them and there are even achievement levels for karma. I found myself checking this often – it’s a really handy, easy measure of how productive I am being!

ToDoIstKarma

The real killer for me though, was the ‘Last 7 Days’ and the ‘Streak’ function.  You can set a target number of items to get done each day, tell ToDoIst what days you work and it’ll tell you whether you’re hitting that goal – and it’ll keep a track of how many days in a row you’ve done that.

Once you get on a roll and get a few days in a row when you’ve hit your target, you really don’t want to drop out, and you want a longer streak.  My record is 9 days – but I’m not doing so well this week! DailyStreak

So, I’ll have to admit: When presented well gamification can be great motivation.

It’s just evolution though…

That got me thinking about what was really going on… is gamification really any more than an evolution of the long established industrial / business tool of ‘visualisation’.   In factories and process businesses across the world, output and problem visualisation is a core component of getting the most out of the process – it dates back decades and is linked to The Toyota Production System’s concept of Jidoka.

andonBoard

Jidoka is the second of the two core principles of TPS and relates to the stopping of work as soon as a problem occurs (thus eliminating root cause as early as possible and increasing quality).  In manufacturing environments, Jidoka normally manifests itself as a production board which shows the problem when it occurs, but in normal running those boards (called Andon boards) display output… much like my ToDoIst Karma graphs.  I can see a problem immediately: my graph drops off and I’m not being productive – the root cause is harder to find though!

Could Gamification just be the application of Jidoka and Visualisation to non production / process work?

Return After Hiatus.

It’s been over two years since I posted a blog entry on here and for the bulk of that time the blog itself was taken down from the internet (yes I’m aware nothing really disappears).

I took it down back in 2011 as I engaged in a lengthy legal battle with my former partner over custody of and access to my son.  Everything possible was being dragged up and thrown at me, in a spate of underhand and unnecessary tactics.  It wasn’t a happy period of time – no two reasonable people should resort to what we both did.  I won’t be dwelling too much on my little man, or my personal life, now the blog is back; but I thought I should explain why it went away.

Now I’m Back….

I should probably explain the inspiration for being back, seeing as I’ve explained the rationale for being away.  It is, as described:  Inspiration.  I do some work with the Duracell bunny that is Warwick Tweetup, and his partner in crime Jo’s Correctional Facility – and the energy from both of them is contagious.

If you take that and combine it with the fact I feel I have something useful to add these days, and take inspiration in content form from some of the blogs I enjoy reading (particularly Maria Langer’s ‘An Eclectic Mind’ – a great mix of Aviation and real life from the USA!) – I wanted to get back on with blogging.

As you’d expect, an awful lot has changed in the intervening two years; including my life and my little bit of the world.  I’m older, and hopefully a little wiser – I’m certainly a little more reflective before reacting to anything.  One little snippet I learnt along the way:

“Will it matter in a year?  If not, then it probably doesn’t matter now.”

With that mantra in mind, I intend to start blogging again probably on a more professional and business based basis than before; although still with a heavy hint of aviation!

For now I’ve just restored the old site, as was and upgraded WordPress – but over the next month or so I am going to tidy it up (looks and content), and ensure everything is linked properly to my social media bits and pieces, and then try and think of something interesting which you can all read!

It’s good to be back.

Security: No Longer OS Dependant.

Windows… it’s a virus ridden security nightmare.  Apparently.

The server on which this blog is hosted (along with a number of client web sites, email accounts and services) experienced some very short but unexpected unavailability on Sunday.  Without giving too much away about this server, it is a dedicated Windows 2008 server, in a professionally ran hosting data centre… it’s patched and anti-virus’d (and kept that way), and sits behind a Cisco Firewall appliance with strict rules.

The downtime was caused by a hack of a known 0 day exploit.  But not in this server.  Or on any other Windows server on the same multi-gigabit LAN that this server is on.  No, this was an exploit inside Apache web-server on the Unix boxes on the same lan; which allowed arbitrary code the be ran on the unix servers.  The arbitrary code in this case manifested itself by using 100% of the available LAN bandwidth on the infected machines…. effectively peforming a DOS attack on the network.

Thankfully our hosting partner, Register 1 (who really are excellent) noticed this very promptly and immediately disabled the affected ports so that traffic to unaffected servers was restored promptly.  They then patched their other customers machines and brought them back on line.  Once again an excellent and very timely response.

Not the norm.

The point I am trying to make is that when you say “hack”, “exploit” or “virus” people instantly think of Windows.  That may be the norm, but just because you aren’t running Windows don’t get lazy with your patching and security.  Windows has become the de-facto target for security exploits for 2 main reasons.

  • It’s prevalence.  It’s everywhere, therefore exploiting it hurts more.
  • Historically it was easier to exploit, early versions of Windows just weren’t as secure as Unix.

Those days are gone. Hackers and exploiters will take what they can get now: be that a BSD box, Mac, Linux or any other flavour of OS or application which sits on it.  So complacency is the killer here, not the OS.

Are all of your servers and their apps all up to date?

Migrating Servers

I have been a bit quiet on here of late; and there is a good reason for it.  I’ve been a bit busy in the real world, playing with computers.   I host a number of websites (including this one, obviously) for various clients along with associated email accounts on a dedicated server which is in turn hosted for us by the excellent Register 1 at their data centre in Docklands, London.

Renewal.

Certified for Windows 2008R2
New Win 2008 Server

When you sign up for a dedicated server you normally do so for a period of years, and although I wasn’t involved with this server when it was first bought the hosting was due to expire this week.  We spent some time investigating whether we could do what we needed with a virtualised server (using HyperV or similar), but came to the conclusion that we’d feel happier on a “proper” physical box. Also, the excellent Register 1 were offering a very attractive price on another 3 year deal with them.

We decided to take out that deal, because Register 1 really have been excellent.  Everything from their sales process to the customer & technical support really is first rate – as was to be proved during our migration.    While we waited for the server to be built and the Windows 2008 R2 operating system installed my colleague and I discussed how we’d move everything over.

Rationalisation

Over time, we’d acquired a fair bit of “junk” on the old server, ranging from websites that were no longer used, old databases, 2 instances of SQL, domains we didn’t need and utilities we used once – the usual sort of stuff.  This was a perfect opportunity to cut down on these and only move over the stuff we were interested in, so we compiled a list of our various sites and thought about the move.

Thankfully, my friend installed the various pre-requistes on the new server:  SQL 2008 (2 instances, 1 for mail 1 for websites), MySQL (for Word Press), PHP (for WordPress) and some utilities.  Once we had these we thought we’d copy over the websites files, backup and restore the databases, turn off email on the old machine, back it up and restore it to new machine, move the IP address and hey presto – no DNS changes, nice and simple!

Fail.

hMailServer

Everything went fine, until it came to the e-mail server.  We use hMailServer, and only host around 150 accounts on about 50 domains – it’s perfect for us.  Other than some trouble with an AntiVirus update last year, it’s been bullet proof.  With such a low user count we thought we could use the built in backup & restore routine to move the accounts and email to the new server with no loss of email, and because we’d have it disabled on the old server while we did this mail would queue at relays for us until we moved the IP address to the new server.

Then we found out that some of our users are accessing the server using IMAP and leaving old mail on the machine, making the total file size too big for the hMailServer backup/restore process.  Major major headache.

Manually Moving hMailServer

This left us with a big problem, we could import the accounts but not the messages – which clearly our users were relying on being on the server.  After we’d imported all the accounts, we moved the mail across manually – it sits as files on a disk in a complicated directory structure.. but then we needed to re-create the database entries which tell the software that this mail exists.

Luckily, hMailServer provide a tool called DataDirectorySynchroniser which will fly through the mail directory structure and re-write all the relevant entries into the database.   The big snag is that this does not recreate IMAP folder structures, or the read / unread flags.  This would’ve meant that one of our users would have had about 5,000 unread mails all of a sudden.

Cue SQL!

This problem was caused because the message flags are held in the database, and the tool can only work on the information it has – the file on the disk.  However we had the old database to hand and with a bit of crafty SQL and some C# code we managed to move everything.  If you’re in the same boat, here’s what we did:

  • Recreate the IMAPfolders table, noting that account ID’s will have changed and will need cross mapping.
  • Update messages table to reflect the folder ID for each message.
    Be careful here, because the message ID and the folder ID will not be the same.  We linked the message in the new messages table to the old table by using the last 42 characters of the file name, a GUID so guaranteed to be unique; then we created a lookup table with an “old folder ID” and a new folder ID too.
  • Update the messages table to have the correct flags for each message.
    Again looked up by the GUID of the message, and remembering that the flags are stored differently in the latest version, where they used to be stored in individual columns for read, replied etc – they are now binary OR’d, the new values are here.

After that, and a lot of worry on our part, it all works – with one exception:  someone’s iPhone.  For some reason it’s missing some messages out of a users Inbox which are 100% present when you look at it in a “full blown” email client.  I suspect this is something to do with either the way that hMailServer implements the SORT function, or the way the iPhone implements IMAP….  I shall let you know what I find out.

Oh, and I think everything else went OK – so if you see any broken links, images or 404’s on this site (or any of mine) can you let know please?

Paddington Bear: New Heli Expert.

One of the problems with the internet, blogging, forums and social media generally is that people think because they have the “cloak” of anonymity which is provided by the internet they can say what they like without thinking about it – often without even leaving their real name.  This is why I moderate comments on my blog – I want them to be useful to other readers.

This morning I awoke to find an email from the blog software informing me of the following comment needing moderation.

You brits and all your biotching LOL, Tea? in Bed with a cup of Tea and the Blades Magazine? lol… good thing you guys dont build helicopters, they’d be in the shop constantly like your piece of shit Jags and Range Rovers.. please! spare the world your assesments 🙂

This was left on an article where I criticised the accuracy of the running costs given by Robinson about their helicopters.  The commenters name:  Paddington Bear.  Yep, the one and only fictional cartoon character is now a self appointed expert on British Whining, Jags, Land Rovers and Helicopters.  Awesome, that bear has come on!

This comment bugged me, not because it’s inaccurate – but because whoever made it doesn’t have the courage of their convictions and won’t put their name to it.

If you’re going to comment at least engage in conversation, make your point without being rude and have the same manners you’d have in the real world.  Or don’t, but if you don’t then don’t expect people to give you the time of day…

… I trashed the comment!  (Not even the emoticon at the end could save it!)

Interesting Links for March 24th.

These are my interesting links for March 24th: