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back to article How City IT is under attack from politicians, diesel bugs, HR

The stupidest thing I’ve ever said was “if it was a jet, the tower would have collapsed” on September 11th and I feel the same about RBS. As I pass it most days, part of me expects to see crowds outside, perhaps including the police and TV camera crews, because I can’t understand why it still functions. The Reg has covered in …

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I only wish I was surprised by anything this piece.

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Diesel Bug

It's not just biodiesel, common diesel can grow the slime/mould/bug at an interface with water. As there's often condensation in fuel tanks, that's where it grows. But that only matters if you stir it up, so it blocks filters (before blocking the injectors).

Does the biodiesel one thrive throughout the fuel, or is there water dissolved in the fuel in biodiesel? That would happen if there are any emulsifiers (eg. mustard in salad dressing, detergents) present?

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Re: Diesel Bug

I'm told there is water in biodiesel, space didn't permit a full discussion of the subject, but it is going to come as a nasty shock to some people.

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Re: Diesel Bug

Diesel bugs exits in both mineral diesel and biodiesel (which is, roughly speaking, a blend of mineral diesel and vegetable oils).

It's not a critical issue with cars and general transport as the fuel is pretty fresh, ie. from refinery to your tank in a week or two, and re-filled in your tank every few days/weeks. It can be a problem with standby generators as the fuel may have been sitting in the tank for years. And I mean years. If you have a standby genset at work, when was the last time anyone ran the tank to the red-line or until the little light came on, and refilled it? Sure, you might "top up" a few hudred litres each year after routine testing, but the bulk of the fuel may have been there 5 or 10 years or more.

It's not unusual for a genset to fire up during a power failure, run for a hour or so, then cough and splutter to a halt as the sludge and stuff get drawn through the filters.

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Re: Diesel Bug

Specifically, there is a problem with biodiesel in that it is hygroscopic, thus providing more house room for bugs. Another *major* problem with biodiesel is that is much more corrosive to the sorts of "rubber" glands, seals and pipework that "traditionally" are used with mineral diesel guzzling engines. This is why many diesel cars specify what percentage of biodiesel is allowed in the the road fuel that cars burn.

The impending road crash(es) that will occur very soon when the EU start enforcing much higher biodiesel content for road cars is for another article...

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FAIL

Re: Diesel Bug

I already knew that bacteria can thrive on petrodiesel as well as biodiesel.

Some think that the bacteria that cause problems kilometers underground for the oil industry, are not always introduced into the crude oil by the drilling process. It's possible that life has been surviving there, since the oil was organic-rich sludge at the bottom of a pre-historic sea.

So why do emergency generators run on diesel, not petrol or (best of all? ) LPG?

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Re: Diesel Bug

"It's not unusual for a genset to fire up during a power failure, run for a hour or so, then cough and splutter to a halt as the sludge and stuff get drawn through the filters."

One of the reasons to run your gennies for at least a couple of hours every tuesday AND to have an alternate feeder/filter set plus spares - at least that way you can clean one set while the other's still in service.

At least one setup I know of continually cycles fuel through the filters and back to the tank in order to ensure there's as little contamination sitting there as possible.

(Both of these setups are common in Telcos, they know a few things about both batteries and backup systems - how loud do you think the screaming would be if you lost dial tone along with your power?)

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Re: Diesel Bug

"So why do emergency generators run on diesel, not petrol or (best of all? ) LPG?"

Some do. It's also possible to run them on mains gas - but it assumes pressure will be maintained.

BTW calling them emergency generators may be a misnomer. When power draws get high and utilites are squeaking, they'll often pay large consumers more than the cost of running the generators simply to get off the grid for a while - it's in situations like this that using gas-fed gensets shines (again, this has happened a lot in Telcos)

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Re: Diesel Bug

"So why do emergency generators run on diesel, not petrol or (best of all? ) LPG?"

I guess the diesel types are the more efficient 4-pole, 6-pole or 8-pole types - more torque, less RPM - but more risk of getting overtaken by the killer diesel sludge. :)

Personally, I have a couple of Honda EU20i generators for emergency use - which were factory converted to use propane/LPG by a Munich-based firm called KARG MGT. (They're legit, and Honda will even honour the original 5-year warranty on converted generators.) They're good because you can keep them in their boxes for ages, and take them out when you need to run them. Since there are no starter batteries to degrade (rip cord), they are an excellent combination with propane/LPG fuel for emergencies.

Only slight complication was the spark plugs - you have to narrow the gap because an LPG mixture does not conduct electricity as well as a fuel-air mixture. Easily enough done - but best done in advance of need: I also bought a few litres of engine oil and about 20 replacement spark plugs, all re-gapped to suit.

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Re: Diesel Bug

not quite. Cladisporum loves kero, using an electrolytic reaction to break down the hydrocarbons. No, I dont know how. The current does horrible things to aircraft fuel tanks and will slowly erode anything else if the fuel is left long enough. Diesel oxidises and one gets gums which block or restrict flow in injectors. Lean mixtures damage engines of any kind, except ramjets maybe. Perhaps a commentard chemist can estimate how much faster biodiesel ages faster than hydrocarbon ?

And hydrocarbon fuels seem to extract water from atmosphere which slowly rusts out containers even without bugs.

Dominic, good articles. I now feel worried by something threatening and known to exist. Bank PHBs.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Diesel Bug

Aside from the fuel contamination issue Diesel engines are intrinsically more reliable than petrol ones due to not having the need for an ignition system. Also, the availability of large, reliable petrol engines is very short, as these days most industrial power applications use diesel. Running a small petrol engine at high speed is also inefficient from a fuel consumption POV.

Most heavy generators use truck engines (some very big units will even use Scania V8s) which are designed for long duty cycles at a near constant RPM, perfect for generator work.

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Re: Diesel Bug

One last thought. You can run a diesel engine on any fuel, if the compression ratio is right. Diesel (the inventor) patented one that ran on coal dust, though don't ask me how he got it into the cylinders. In the old days before fuel injection etc. you could run a diesel car or lorry on petrol with nothing short-term worse than loss of power. I'd hope that the army's diesels still can run on anything: diesel, kero, petrol, cooking oil ... In a war your fuel supplies may be adversely affected by the enemy.

So emergency generators should use specialized diesels running on LPG, I think. Of course a bog-standard lorry engine will be cheaper, but at a higher likelyhood of failing when an emergency happens.

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Re: Diesel Bug

Diesel IIRC never actually got a coal dust engine working, he merely suggested the concept to get MAN (yes, they of wagon fame) to finance his research.

Your suggestions of specialised LPG running diesel engine falls down on that first word "specialised". Do you really want to depend on an engine for which parts are hard to find? Or one that's proven over thousands of hours of work in all conditions and where standardised parts are available from a dealer 24hrs a day? (HGV dealers often work night shifts in workshops to provide round the clock support).

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Re: Diesel Bug

The problem of fungi and oleophilic bacteria in fuels has been known for decades. Even clean dry fuel will become contaminated from bugs in the air. Changes in temperature, humidity and pressure cause contaminated water vapour to condense in the tank where it slowly settles to the bottom. The bugs gennerally grow on the fuel/water interface near the bottom of the tank.

The problem can be ameliorated by using a suitable fuel biocide and a desiccant cartridge on the fuel filler vent. Well designed systems generally have the fuel outlet above the bottom of the tank so that any crud stays below the outlet. Some systems also have a drain-cock at the bottom of the tank so that any water/crud can be drained off periodically.

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Re: Diesel Bug

"Aside from the fuel contamination issue Diesel engines are intrinsically more reliable than petrol ones due to not having the need for an ignition system. "

Well - that was pretty much the case in the good ol' days. Having a simple engine, which once started didn't actually need electrical power as it doesn't need the sparks of a petrol engine - and could continue working even if the alternator (in a car) would break down (some of them started with manual power, so didn't even need electrical power for starting) - was indeed a major point of reliability. However, after roughly 2000 when most manufacturers have moved away from the mechanical diesel injection pumps to the common rail units, which use electrical power and an onboard computer to control the pump and the piezzo injectors - the overall reliability from the point of view of old fashioned engines has gone down the pots. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that modern diesel engines are overall less reliable than their ancient counterparts - but at least in principle, you don't have anymore an engine which can continue to run if its electrics fail (no to mention that it also relies on the onboard computer as well, now) - and the new common rail, high pressure pumps are certainly far more picky about the quality of the fuel. On the upshot, the newer diesels are far smoother, far more fuel efficient and quieter.

Unless manufacturers of industrial diesel engines (as opposed to the ones specifically designed for vehicles) still use old fashioned mechanical injection pumps?

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Re: Diesel Bug

"In the old days before fuel injection etc. you could run a diesel car or lorry on petrol with nothing short-term worse than loss of power."

As far as I know, diesels always used injectors and fuel injection. I assume you mean, the old days when diesels used mechanical pumps and injectors, as opposed to electronic common rail pumps and electronic piezo injectors.

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Re: Diesel Bug

@xj25vrm

Most of the generator units I've seen recently have standard style rotary injector pumps. Remember a generator doesn't have to meet the same emissions standards as a car, and truck/plant engines are expected to be pretty much totally reliable.

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Re: Diesel Bug

It is dead easy getting coal dust into the cylinders of a traditional Diesel engine. They used blast injection in which the fuel is injected into the cylinder by a blast of compressed air, and could burn just about anything that was at least fine particulate and ignitable. You could probably run one for a while on flour. At the speed of these things (75-90rpm) a mechanical system could be used to deposit slugs of power into the blast chamber - there is nearly a second available in which to do with a 4 stroke engine. Some marine engines ran on what was more or less bitumen that had to be heated just to get it to flow enough, and contained actual carbon particles.

But LPG...no joy, I'm afraid. Its ignition temperature is far too high for spontaneous ignition, and if you use an igniter (as with a spark ignition engine) in such a big engine, you will get destructive explosions, not the nearly constant pressure power cycle that distinguishes a Diesel.

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Good

Good Comment, I get the feeling that Mr Connor is mellowing a bit for some reason - less snappy (for lack of a better word right now) than previous articles.

I concur, it's frightening how much relies on old tech - whether that means old hardware, old code or just plain old ideas/processes that barely work nowadays, for whatever reason. The trouble however is exactly what you highlighted in your previous article about the RBS follow-on: you can of course start from scratch, but that will take a very long time, it's bound to hit numerous issues and it will require a lot of resources because you're still supporting your current stuff (as a side note, "stuff" and "it's f'd" should be officially made into acceptable technical terms).

I don't have a solution, for two main reasons: I don't have anywhere near enough experience and I'm not paid anywhere near enough to have that kind of weight on my shoulders. Whichever way it goes however, it keeps me busy.

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Mellowing ?

That's fighting talk ;)

I agree there is no quick fix, its a long term management issue, but RBS may not make it to the long term.

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Re: Good

I'm pretty sure "stuff" and "its fucked" are official technical terms.

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Stop

"One of the larger transformer buildings in the heart of the City almost next to where the Stock Exchange servers live is surprisingly warm to the touch. Yes that’s a lot of power, and no I’m not saying where."

Please do say where, and contact your local distribution company to advise them. Electrical safety is very important and the distribution networks are massive. Don't fart about when public safety could be at risk.

If it's London, tell UK Power Networks - http://www.ukpowernetworks.co.uk/internet/en/contact-us/

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Free Heating!

But they might be using it for free heating!

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He's just grandstanding for effect, these places are designed to get warm. The building being warm to the touch probably shows that the heat is being removed effectively from the transformer.

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Pirate

Smalltalk, Perl and Cobol; I haz them allz

Bring on your data transfers. Just not in XML, please.

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We could ban Excel for a start

Top of my list for when i become dictator - it does have a few legitimate uses but it sits at the heart of not a few hopeless muddles. Perhaps the banks should be required to seek regulatory approval for any and every spreadsheet?

On thestate of the UK grid - a decade of craven surrender to Nimbies and Luddites has left us staring disaster in the face. i suggest ordering a billion petrol generators from China and stacking them round parliament to keep things going - costs to be deducted from MP's pay until they sort things.

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Re: We could ban Excel for a start

Top of the list should be banning Powerpoint. As I regularly tell my users "there is no good reason for using Powerpoint, ever."

Usually followed by "Excel is not a database."

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Re: We could ban Excel for a start

I want nuclear generators in container lorries. Easy, green and the military has a proven design used in subs ...

In one case we were approached about whether in a power failure our back up generator could be used by local authority sites ...

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Re: We could ban Excel for a start

The FSA - God rest their souls - did indeed chase after Investment banks who ran their trading books in Excel. A number of firms then migrated from them to custom-built apps, needing to use lovely Middleware like Tib RV. Some more successfully than others.

There's nothing quite like sitting in the middle of a trading floor in the middle of a multicast storm.

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Anonymous Coward

'Seek regulatory approval for any and every spreadsheet?'

Understandable knee-jerk reaction but it wouldn't work. I've seen traders work out arb trades on beer-mats to calendar girls. Without Excel it would be even worse.... What's needed is a time-freeze or snapshot facility for compliance officers, so they can audit Trader spreadsheets after the fact.

Very often there are so many add-ins, so many linked spreadsheets, and so many real time feeds that there is no way to predict how the spreadsheet will behave in any given market. i.e. Bad tic data. This AC gets it: "nothing quite like sitting in the middle of a trading floor in the middle of a multicast storm.'

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Re: We could ban Excel for a start

Powerpoint is a far lesser crime than using Excel as a database. It's a lesser crime even than using Access as a database!

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Re: We could ban Excel for a start

"In one case we were approached about whether in a power failure our back up generator could be used by local authority sites ..."

Even if you said no, they can and will requisition the units if they want them (eminent domain) and leave you to argue the finer points in court later.

The fact you were asked means that someone's probably got plans filed away somewhere to do just that.

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Re: We could ban Excel for a start

Most of the investment banks use mainly Sybase as far as I know unless it has changed quite recently.

Powerpoint is bad because it is mostly used by people who don't have anything remotely worthwhile or interesting to say and the way they use it makes at least me switch off completely.

People doing public speaking should do it without prompts and actually understand and know from memory properly what they are speaking about.

One Powerpoint maybe at the end with the main points. (Might help to remind the speaker that he hasn't missed out anything).

If other people want to use Excel or Access I don't have a problem with it. (I use Octave or Matlab or Mathematica for simple calculations when I need to. Usually octave these days.) If it works for them it is fine by me.

What isn't fine is Powerpoint users systematically wasting the time of every single person in a room day in day out.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: safety margins on the grid

"we were approached about whether in a power failure our back up generator could be used by [the grid]"

Expect more of that in the UK before too long, for two reasons:

1) We're perilously close to grid demand exceeding grid capacity, and there is no practical fix in the next five years or so

2) The currently proposed workaround for this in general is not to substantially increase grid capacity but to provide "better management" ie operate the existing grid closer to its ultimate failure level by means of using "better management" to actually *reduce* operating margins. Excellent, can't fault that logic can you. That's to be supplemented by using otherwise-idle standby generator capacity to feed into the grid at times of high demand. Shouldn't cost too much, and after all what could possibly go wrong?

Anyone who's regularly used a "traffic managed" city road network, or the motorway equivalent, knows that all traffic management does is defer the chaos a bit, and make the chaos worse on the days when it actually happens, because there is no longer a relatively smooth transition between normal operation, small overload, and large overload.

As it is with traffic management, so it will be with demand and supply management on the grid.

LED torches, UPSes, and gennys. Buy now, while stocks last. And say no to smart meters.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: We could ban Excel for a start

Problem is, every time you get in one of the big four accountants into a bank because of a regulatory change, they will provide a set of spreadsheets as the 'solution'

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Re: safety margins on the grid

"1) We're perilously close to grid demand exceeding grid capacity, and there is no practical fix in the next five years or so"

Not grid capacity. Peak demand has fallen by around 6 GW since 2006. Generation capacity is dropping as LCPD closures bite, but we've still got some spacre capacity (and mothballed plant). Obviously if demand leapt back up to 2006 we'd be looking at blackouts, but where the economic growth for that? Certainly we've got less reserve margin that we did have, but it's probably post 2016 that the real risks bite.

"Demand side response" is the name given to trying to manage peak demand, whether through co-opting stand by gennies, or paying people to shed load (like turning the freezers off at a refidgerated warehouse for an hour or two). The main flaw here is that the very limited hours that you'd call on commercial standby means that the rewards are pathetic, even at very high unit rates, and most facility managers rightly suppose that the complexity, investment needs, and risks outweigh the modest potential upsides.

Centrally generated and despatched electricity is reliable, clean, and cheap. Moving to the use of crappy diesle gennies to avoid spending quite paltry sums on new CCGT (£0.5bn for 2GW of capacity) is madness.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: safety margins on the grid

To be fair, the stuff I've seen as an outsider (IET stuff?) was referring to *distribution* capacity as well as generation capacity.

But yes it does seem a bit unnecessary and a bit ineffective and a bit like a poor RoI for all concerned.

"most facility managers rightly suppose that the complexity, investment needs, and risks outweigh the modest potential upsides."

What kind of motivation is being offered to folks with a few MW to perhaps contribute? Who is picking up the integration costs (presumably you can't just parallel an existing 2MW standby system straight onto the grid without sparks flying?)

Demand management and energy efficiency would seem to be more rewarding, except it doesn't immediately lead to profits for corporates. UK overnight minimum demand is not far off 30GW (peak is 50+). Who's using 30GW overnight?

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Re: safety margins on the grid

"Anyone who's regularly used a "traffic managed" city road network"

I wonder how much do you really know about traffic management. Maybe we should all give up those pesky traffic lights. Or at least put them in old fashioned fixed timed mode - none of this malarky with fancy traffic management algorithms to make urban traffic more efficient. It is clearly pure quackery!

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Re: safety margins on the grid

"I wonder how much do you really know about traffic management"

"none of this malarky with fancy traffic management algorithms to make urban traffic more efficient."

I'm not in the trade but I used to follow things like SCOOT which did computerised traffic management stuff. I'm not talking about a few traffic lights with sensors linked so the basic stupid effects of fixed-timing operation are avoided.

In terms of the effects I see, It's like the difference between analogue TV and digital TV. Analogue TV degrades slowly as it approaches its limits. Digital TV is better most of the time [1] but when things get worse it eventually falls off a rather unpleasant cliff, without much warning.

Traffic managed routes may work better much of the time but they do that by working with much less contingency/headroom in the overall system, and when something goes wrong, sometimes all hell breaks loose. Advanced traffic management might save commuters a few minutes a day, but leave them faced with a multi hour delay when something inevitably does go wrong.

Systems are often like that. Gridco seem to want to run the grid more that way (lots of "advanced management" to increase utilisation without actually increasing capacity) rather than the traditional "lots of headroom" mode. That'll be fun.

[1] Digital TV in reality is often crap because of excessive compression but that's another story.

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Re: safety margins on the grid

I'll be honest and say I know nothing about modern road traffic management systems, if anyone would like to enlighten me, feel free.

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Meh

Punish Failure?

I used to think that bank failures (the big ones that make the papers, at least) could be avoided by simply making it illegal to simultaneously possess:

- a banking licence

- limited liability

Now I'm not so sure, does possession of oodles of shares/options by execs really change their behaviour for the better?

It might remove the need to bail them out though...

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Anonymous Coward

Smalltalk

I know of a very major bank in Europe whose clearing system is (or was) written in Smalltalk. I had an interview there ten years ago for second level support on it, but I reckoned that the stress levels would be too much when it failed with tens of billions of dollars not being cleared.

No, I don't know Smalltalk.

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Smalltalk

Is there anyone other than JPMorgan still jusing it?

I loved coding in Smalltalk - I miss it.

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Re: Smalltalk

"Me too!"

^ (Queue new for: 'Smalltalk Jobs') add: 'Mike 102'; add: self.

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Keep on writing

Your articles are refreshingly honest. Keep them going.

Here's what I want to know: why don't companies recruit contractors directly? Given that most recruiters don't know f@#$ all about tech they continue to pass over talented people and put forward poor quality candidates that have purely fictional CVs.

Their 10 or 20 or 30% cut isn't deserved, is what I think, but what do you think?

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Re: Keep on writing

Couldn't agree more. I dread to think how much the IT services company that put me in my current position are making from me every day.

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Re: why don't they..?

Admin overhead

IR35 issues

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WTF?

Irongut.... Ban powerpoint?

It's a tool, if your 'users' produce a load of visual ordure that doesn't actually help them to get their message across, perhaps they some help with:

- figuring out what their message is

- determining how best to convey it

- using the [insert name of relevant bit of software] properly

- making fewer presentations

Just a thought...

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Anonymous Coward

Not just their trading systems

For a while I consulted in quite a few banks and even bigger institutions in the City (LIFFE and the interbank clearing system) installing network monitoring systems - since quite a few of them had literally no idea if networks were up or not until then.

One I can mention is that I installed (and was paid for) a rather complex HP Openview Network Node Manager system into Enron ... just before they went down. Before then they didn't know if their network nodes were up except by pinging them. :) Lovely offices though - free food and drink for all developers and operations.

Considering this was more than 10 years ago I hope that the banks that still exist have moved on since then - but it's debatable.

I am reminded of this (anonymous) IT story about someone almost destabilising the Euro with shell scripts: http://www.b3ta.com/questions/expensivemistakes/post95910

From what I hear now - the entire economy is *still* held together by shell scripts. Keeping your money in the mattress doesn't sound so bad now does it?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Not just their trading systems

Your link to the Shell Scripts story is behind a paywall or something. Could be an interesting read, can you elaborate or offer another link please?

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