The Calm Before the Storm

This time of year brings the changing of the seasons, from Winter to Spring, and also a changing of the seasons in my work environment. The school year is winding down, but preparations for Summer projects are ramping up quickly. This Summer is already shaping up to be exceptionally busy, with seven different E-Rate Category 2 projects and eleven firewall replacements already on the schedule.

However, right now, this exact week, is a brief period which I could only characterize as the calm before the storm. My calendar is unusually quiet, email has been manageable, and it feels like I’ve got a good handle on things. However, starting next week, I will be hitting the road and won’t be in the office much for a couple weeks. First I will be in Colorado Springs attending a regional CTE (Career Technical Education) conference. Then the following week I will be in Omaha for a Fortinet boot camp, a statewide network operations meeting, and then finishing the week presenting at the annual NETA (Nebraska Educational Technology Association) conference. Unfortunately, I don’t see things slowing down much in May or June either.

Having some time now to organize myself has been invaluable. I’ve been able to tie up several loose ends and prepare myself for everything that is on the horizon. I am ready to face the challenges ahead.

Be Nice…Until It’s Time to Not Be Nice

You may remember earlier this Fall when our Bluehost VPS was having issues. It ended up being a hardware issue that took more than two weeks for them to flush out. Fast forward to this past week. Our server started acting up with the exact same symptoms.

I quickly called their tech support and pleaded my case to have them check the memory (the problem last time). Instead, I was escalated to Tier 2 support, and was told to give them 24-72 hours to “look into it”. Meanwhile, I have to keep the masses at bay and hope they find the problem quickly.

I waited 24 hours and thought I would call in to see if they had found anything. They knew nothing and couldn’t tell if anything had been done. I was told again to wait the 24-72 hours.  I was not happy, but kept quiet and took my medicine.

Finally, after lunch on Friday, as the magical 72nd hour was expiring, I picked up the phone and called in. By this point it had been three days, I had heard absolutely nothing from Bluehost, and both my customers and I had lost our patience. I felt advanced sorrow for the poor unsuspecting agent that would draw the unlucky number of me in their call queue. Steadfast, I maintained my professionalism. He first asked how long it had been, to which I happily answered the requisite 72 hours. I waited on hold for another fifteen minutes while he took his best crack at the case.

Defeated, he came back online and told me that he had escalated my case to Tier 3 support. “Great,” I replied. “How soon can I expect to hear something?” He replied, “You should hear something within 24 hours.” It was at that exact moment he heard me inhale deeply as I had expended every last bit of keep quiet I had left in my soul. I explained that I had already waited 72 hours, and was not going to wait for another 24 while they do nothing. Our server had already been unusable for three days, and this could not be drug out for two weeks like it was in August.

I demanded to speak with a superior. The agent put me on hold for a good five minutes, presumably to take some of the fight out of me. Supervisor, Brett, answers the phone, to whom I quickly provide the elevator summary of the situation. I asked Brett if he’s ever seen the movie Roadhouse, and in particular, the scene where Dalton tells his bouncers to “Be nice…until it’s time to not be nice.” I told Brett that I was past the phase of being nice, and it’s time to get some answers. Brett chuckled briefly and assured me he would get someone to look at it right away. I told him if they didn’t have this fixed by Monday that I would be leaving Bluehost and would never return.

Apparently my convo with Brett was not at a loss. Within thirty minutes Tier 3 support looked into the issue and escalated it to their Systems Operations team, who eventually escalated it to a Sr. Systems Architect. By Saturday night our server was humming along under normal operation again.

As a person who has been on the receiving end of this situation, I always hate having to strongly assert my point, and yes, interject a curse here and there to drive things home. As Dalton would say, “Nobody ever wins a fight,” but sometimes you’ve got to light a fire under the posterior of the right people to get things moving again.

Survey Says!

I’ve always been a big fan of game shows. I grew up watching the Price is Right, Press Your Luck, and a number of others. This fall I had the opportunity to lead a team building activity for our all staff opening day. I decided I wanted to channel my inner Richard Dawson and host a Family Feud style game show for our staff.

I searched the ends of the internet to find a customizable Family Feud game. There are a number of free PowerPoint templates available, but by far the best one I found was from a site called Rusnak Creative. This site has a slew of PowerPoint templates for a variety of game shows, and they are all top notch. Many of these are fully editable, and come complete with instructions, sound effects, the whole shebang!

I knew that I wanted my Family Feud to be education related, so I found this site that had a full listing of questions from four different seasons of the show. I parsed through them looking for any that had keywords such as teacher, student, class, or school. I was able to build a great activity that got everyone up on their feet, thinking, laughing, and enjoying our time together.

I’ve been able to get a lot of mileage out of this game show concept. I’ve already repeated my Family Feud two more times since then, and it’s always a hit! Plus, it’s really fun to be a game show host for half an hour.

The Power of Zero

A few weeks ago I was training new staff on various pieces of technology we use in our organization. Being a huge supporter of GSuite tools, one of the first things I show them is how to navigate the GMail web interface. Using my own account during the demo, someone in the room piped up, “You really don’t have any messages in your inbox?”

This sent me down a path explaining the theory (or to some, myth), of the magical land known as Inbox Zero. A quick Google search of the term defines Inbox Zero as the following:

Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times.

The same article attributes this technique to Merlin Mann. If you have the time I highly suggest watching Merlin’s Google Tech Talk on the subject. It’s a powerful technique, that keeps your psyche free for higher level thinking. Not to mention, it’s far more efficient than reading, then re-reading an email multiple times while you try to figure out what to do.

I once heard someone make the analogy comparing your email inbox to your physical mailbox. They noted how unusual it would be to go out to the curbside, open your mailbox, start sifting through letters, opening some, shoving others back in the box, and then returning to the house with only a few. Yet many of us do exactly that with regards to our email. For our postal mail, most of us typically process that in some fashion or another. I start by bringing it all into the house, then I might quickly discard some things into the trash, open others and sort into things that need action, like paying a bill, or others I may read immediately, or possibly sort it into another pile to be read later.

The same processing could, and should, be applied to our digital mail as well. When a message comes in we need to decide what to do with it. A popular method for this process is called the Four D’s – Delete it, Do it, Delegate it, or Defer it. This is a simple way to quickly plow through that bloated inbox and get it down to something more manageable.

Keeping your inbox clean is a liberating feeling. I admit that there are days when this is just not possible. Life happens and we have to respond. But the sooner we can wade through our email (pun fully intended), the sooner we can get back to being productive.

Radar Love

I am a big fan of digital signage, and my hardware and software of choice to deliver this is a Chromebit and Rise Vision, respectively. These are a powerful combination to bring displays to life in your organization.

One of the components most people want to incorporate into their signage is some basic weather information. There are scads of widgets for current conditions and forecasts. However, finding a customizable radar loop is a little more challenging.

For years my go-to choice for this was Weather Underground’s Full Screen Weather. It was great! Was…great…until they changed it. After a seemingly minor update it would no longer remember your location, zoom level, or other preferences if you embedded the map’s URL. I struggled for a long time to find a viable alternative, until today when I discovered a different way to embed weather radar!

This method still utilizes Weather Underground to deliver our content, but it leverages Nexrad radar images. These are not as elegant as the ones I had previously used, but they are still very functional and allow a number of customizations.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Go to
  2. Type in your City & State in the search bar
  3. Then find the link for Nexrad radar
  4. Choose your options, zoom level, and animated frame rate (I found that 18 frames is close to a 1-hour loop)
  5. Click on Save Image (this opens a new tab)
  6. Copy that URL and use it to embed a real-time radar loop!

For example, the image you see below is embedded using this code:

<img src=";brand=wui&amp;num=18&amp;delay=15&amp;type=N0R&amp;frame=0&amp;scale=0.3130434782608696&amp;noclutter=1&amp;showstorms=0&amp;mapx=400&amp;mapy=240&amp;centerx=652.3611111111111&amp;centery=319.8611111111111&amp;transx=252.3611111111111&amp;transy=79.86111111111109&amp;showlabels=1&amp;severe=0&amp;rainsnow=1&amp;lightning=Hide&amp;smooth=1&amp;rand=24970480&amp;lat=40.43999863&amp;lon=-99.37000275&amp;label=Holdrege%2C NE" />