Let the gnashing of teeth commence

OK, I have to add another grievance to the pile. We’re getting ready for spring semester registration, and our students are expected to meet with their advisors in the next few days, so I’ve got appointments stacking up — but that’s not the grievance. I like that we require students to get regular advising sessions, rather than suddenly having deficiencies show up as they’re trying to graduate.

The problem is that all student records are now computerized (I remember when we’d have file folders full of pieces of paper, instead). Preparing for an advising meeting involves going to a link on the university website, which is supposed to give us all the relevant student records. This is what I see when I go through the prescribed channels:

System data is currently unavailable. Some content may not be available at this time.

I’ve got requests from students to enroll in some of my courses, and I was trying to get the necessary permission codes to send them so they could do that. All weekend long, all I saw was

System data is currently unavailable. Some content may not be available at this time.

I’ve got three students scheduled for advising meetings this morning, and like a responsible advisor I go to look up their academic records, and what do I see?

System data is currently unavailable. Some content may not be available at this time.

This is a centralized service provided by the entire great big University of Minnesota system, and it fucking doesn’t work. We’ve got a database we need to do our job, and we are constantly locked out of it.


  1. whywhywhy says

    You are missing the glorious big picture. Because it is a computerized database, you can access it from anywhere in the world. Thus you can be sitting in the sun on a glacier and get the message:

    System data is currently unavailable. Some content may not be available at this time.

    Our future is amazing!

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Having read about how the tory politicians let their friends in the industry get big, profitable contracts for PPIs during the pandemic …which ultimately did not work and ended up in landfills, I cannot say I am surprised.
    The only question is, who got paid off this time?
    If it is a centralized system, it is probably someone in the state administration who got a “campaign donation”, at least that is the usual way.

    In theory, it could be ordinary incompetence. Or It could be both.

  3. raven says

    Isn’t there a backup system of some sort?
    That is pretty standard for computer systems.

    Like maybe a folder of papers somewhere.

    I remember when they were offsite tapes.
    These days, they are probably in the cloud somewhere.

  4. René says

    Programmers suffer immensely from Dunning-Kruger. All of them. Everywhere. (I know, I worked for Larry Ellison.)

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    System data is currently unavailable.

    That is disappointing. Everyone knows ‘data’ are plural, and it should be: “System data are currently unavailable.”

  6. Bruce Fuentes says

    I used to be involved in the computer industry. I started off building and repairing home and small business systems. Transitioned to some web design in the early days and ended up as a systems analyst for a large insurance company(United HellCare, I sold my soul for a paycheck).
    I worked with a lot of programmers. I was on a number of projects developing systems for end users. Today my wife, the doctor, has to use EHR(electronic health records). In all those situations I have found there to be a basic disconnect. The end users are brought into the process too late or not at all. The programmers are not familiar with how the program is going to be used in day-to-day use. They come up with a system flow that is impractical for the end users or the program does not even do what the end user needs.
    Then when the bloated, ineffective system is in place there are not enough resources put toward maintaining and updating the program. Then at a critical time, the system is unusable. Welcome to corporate America. This is what happens when you run government like a business.

  7. seversky says

    Take a lesson from the recalcitrant system. Pin a note to your door reading “Myers system data are currently unavailable. I may not be available at this time either. I am not content but there is nothing I can do. Have a nice day. “

  8. jenorafeuer says

    Bruce Fuentes@#8:
    This sort of thing is why I was saying, back in University (late 1980s) that people shouldn’t just study programming by itself, they needed to know programming and at least one other field so they’d have the domain knowledge to know the programming was actually supposed to do.

    Sadly, I knew I was going against the trending culture of rushing into computer degrees ‘to get a high-paying job’ even then.

  9. says

    Way, way back in the 1980s I was the system manager for a VAX 11/750 for the biology department. Every week I had a tedious job to do: lock out the users, do a full back up to DECtape, and rotate the old backups. It meant there were a few hours every Sunday where the system data were unavailable to users.

    The 1980s are back, only worse. Our database is now down for days, maybe weeks, while someone in a back room is jiggering cables or something. Maybe we’re backing up statewide system data to a collection of audio cassetes now? I used to do that, too.

  10. robro says

    At least you’re getting the same message repeatedly. It gets daunting when the messages and behaviors change in subtle or significant ways from one time to another. Is it the same problem? A different problem? A combination of problems?

  11. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Here at the library, our catalog goes down frequently and either (a) only shows ebooks we have access to and none of our physical collections or (b) crashes entirely and gives me a semi-amusing message about “wizards that require attention”, which makes me feel like I’m playing an RPG.

  12. says

    Sorry you are compelled to deal with this crap, PZ. It is the height of managerial incompetence when they have NO BACKUP PLAN WHEN THEIR SHIT SYSTEM DOESN’T WORK. The tower of babel that is the world of computing today continues become ever more unmanageable and ever more unusable. Don’t worry some idiot sys-admin will say, hey, we can fix it all if we just add AI. (stupid in sooo many ways) We work on computers all the time and see ever more complex and ever more incompetent systems every time we have to access online resources. Welcome to the apocalypse.

  13. wzrd1 says

    When the resources are unavailable, there is a Republican method of addressing it.
    Just invent shit. Pull facts right out of one’s ass and present them as valid, just ignore the odor.

    Or one visits the data center, while carrying a cattle prod… Database servers fear cattle prods.
    Nearly as much as they fear me with a soldering iron and my NASA soldering certification.
    But then, I am the inventor of the smoke emitting diode.

  14. wzrd1 says

    And immediately after posting, I received a pair (!) of e-mails from LinkedIn about job postings.
    I quote:


    div id=3D”mail_footer”>


    p align=3D”center”>=
    Questions?<a href=3D”https://lnks.gd/l/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJidWxsZ=

    Obviously, I don’t drink nearly enough.

    But, more entertaining is, my neighbor, anticipating breast cancer surgery today had stopped by at 3:30 AM to hand me her keys, shopping list and to thank me for being expected to shop for her and lock up her apartment.
    Yeah, I really, really don’t drink enough.

  15. Robert Webster says

    Worked in Embedded Assembler for a small manufacturer, and, while we didn’t have any smoke emitting diodes, we DID have the magic smoke that needed to stay in the component for it to work.

  16. wzrd1 says

    I went to the store earlier, on the way there, got to see some interesting sights.
    First, on the sidewalk of our apartment complex, a flattened mouse. Obviously driven over by a motor vehicle, bringing me to wonder whoinhell was driving on the fucking sidewalk, as the flattened rodent was dead center of the walkway.
    Then, four of our local finest standing by an empty vehicle, which had enough citations under the wiper blades to be a hazard to the weight bearing of the highway. They eventually towed the vehicle away. The vehicle wasn’t there previously, so someone drove it around with a dozen or so tickets under the wiper blades.
    I got back home without seeing a purple dinosaur, but at the rate of weirdness being randomly accumulated, I accelerated my pace, lest I run into one.

  17. Jean says

    We’re going to be so fucked when the next Carrington event, or even worse Miyake event, occurs.

  18. beholder says

    “Trust no one” applies here.

    Scrape the database at regular intervals, keep paper backups and/or database snapshots in your possession, and have them ready for office hours. Assume that the central database will never be available when you want it to be. It’s a gigantic pain in the ass, but it’s the only workable option when your university decides to run things this way.

  19. AstroLad says

    PZ @11
    You used DECtape and actually expected it to work??? About 1970 I worked on a PDP-9 that had DECtape as its primary file storage. The lab technician cleaned the heads every morning as part of his routine. Still, at least twice a week a file save operation would fail. You’d watch hopelessly as the reels spun back and forth between the end markers. Eventually you’d give up, shutdown, and start over again with your last paper tape backup. That was the only reliable option on that system.

  20. Nathaniel Hellerstein says

    The 90-10 Rule:
    Analog systems, such as human beings, are 90% useful and 10% useless, 100% of the time. Digital systems, such as computers, are 100% useful 90% of the time, and 100% useless 10% of the time.

  21. chrislawson says

    This is what happens when IT is accountable to admin instead of faculty.

    The same thing happened when Queensland introduced its new prescription-checking system to identify drug-seekers and inappropriate prescriptions — a great idea in principle, but terrible when you’re required by law to check a system which is down for hours at a time, putting you in the position of breaking the law or refusing treatment to people in need. For the nth time in recent Australian history, a politician would have directed the IT contract to a big donor rather than a competent provider. It is astonishing that not a single one of the major IT projects in the country over the last decade has been even remotely baseline competent or secure, not this script checking program, not MyAgedCare, not NDIS, not Centrelink, not MyGov, not the ATO. About the only service that works well that I know of is the Health Departments online immunisation record which is a little cumbersome but effective.

  22. Ada Christine says


    On behalf of programmers who are aware of their lack of knowledge in other fields, I’m sorry. I’m trying to be better than that. I often fail, but I also resolve to learn from failing.