Sunday, April 30, 2006

In Pursuit of Mediocrity

One of the advantages bowling has over golf is that you seldom lose a bowling ball. ~Don Carter

Even when I played golf, I was never a big fan of watching it on TV. The nature of the game doesn't lend itself well to television, although a tournament with a close finish can make for excellent drama. It's better when Vin Sculley is describing it, because he could bring real poetry to a potential victor striding down the eighteenth fairway. Of course, Sculley could bring poetry to guy taking out the trash, so this is more a tribute to Vin Sculley than to the drama of golf.

However, I didn't want to talk about television or Vin Sculley. I just wanted to explain that I follow the game somewhat peripherally. When the Masters was recently being played, many players were up in arms because the tournament organizers were going to toughen up the course. One might have suspected that they were going to put Burmese tiger traps on the tee boxes.

This isn't the first time that the best golfers in the world (at least according to them) have gotten bent out of shape by difficult golf courses. The U.S. Open is notorious for creating rough suitable for hiding an elephant and narrowing fairways to the width of your average hallway. The British Open is often played on course that appear to have no discernible fairways, just a mass of gorse that swallows golf balls (and the occasional caddy). The players frequently grumble about the U.S. Open, but they generally limit their complaints about the British to the weather. After all, a bunch of guys in kilts with wooden clubs started out playing the game on these courses.

Now it is possible to make a course downright unfair. Some U.S. Opens and occasionally the Masters have created greens that made putting on a glass table top seem simple by comparison. As a rule, they don't do this on purpose; it's a combination of cutting grass very short then having too much dry weather, but it creates an unfair condition nonetheless. I've been on public courses that have holes designed by some lunatic who was simply trying to fit a hole into the topography, creating such nonsense as right-angle dogleg holes.

That simply is not fair.

But, the pros' equipment is getting better each year. Club and ball designs, along with more athletic golfers, has resulted in routine 300-yard drives and ridiculously sub-par rounds on some courses. So, hole after hole, we see these guys putting for birdie because even hitting into what passes for rough on many course allows a nice easy shot to the green. These are the best golfers in the world, as I said, but it would be much more interesting to see them trying to hit out of the kind of places that average golfers find themselves in. The only way to have this happen is to toughen up the courses.

The history of athletics is one of improvement. Equipment gets better, athletes get stronger and faster, even the playing surfaces improve. I'm not going to beat the steroid horse to death in this piece. Even without hormonal and other supplements, athletes would dwarf the a athletes of 50 years ago. But, with all of this improvement, it seems silly that, in many quarters, competitors are looking for breaks.

Take football, for example. It seems that each year, offensive coaches scream for rule changes that will give them an advantage over the ever faster and stronger defenses. Even though the offense has equally bigger and faster players, they can't seem to overcome so-called defensive advantages.

Or consider baseball as another example. Even before steroids, the Lords of Baseball periodically livened up the baseball to try to up the number of home runs, which they seem to think is the only reason people go to games. One year, the situation got so ridiculous, what with skinny shortstops hitting tape measure homers, that Sparky Anderson did a little demonstration for reporters. When asked by reporters if he thought the balls were “juiced”, he took a ball from the previous year and one from the current year and dropped them. The current year ball bounced a foot higher. Anderson looked at the reporters and said, “What do you think?”

It's amazing, really. These sports all reached their levels of popularity with a minimum of screwing around. Baseball did liven the ball in the 1920's. Prior to this, 8 or 9 home runs might lead the league. Livening up the ball gave us the Babe Ruth era. Interestingly, Ruth still would have led the league every year in home runs even without the help of a live ball, just with significantly fewer. However, it was obvious that people did like home runs, so the opportunity to have more hit seemed like a good idea.

Football added separate offensive and defensive teams. No longer did teams risk star fullbacks and quarterbacks due their having to make tackles. More importantly, players stayed fresher, so the pace of the game could speed up. It would take the advent of endless commercial timeouts to slow the game back to a crawl.

Team sports or head-to-head competitive sports, like track and field, have a way of evening out. A sport like golf, though, where the equipment can virtually nullify a course's toughest attributes, needs to change the playing field, or else the game becomes a boring string of 23-under-par tournaments. But, changing the courses would mean the players would have to work harder on the finesse aspects of their game, since simply hitting over all the trouble wouldn't work anymore. But finesse, whether in golf, baseball, or any other sport, does not seem to be an appreciated quality these days.

It's not hat athletes don't want to work. Most work harder than any of the "golden age" stars of years gone by. But their hard work seems to be geared in only one direction: Body building. Bulk up, increase endurance, get stronger. Well, that's okay if you're lifting weights. But, bulk doesn't help if you're making a chip shot to a pin set very near to the edge of the green and trying to save par. Even improved equipment can't replace the touch necessary for that kind of shot. Only practice will help then. Well, practice and steady nerves.

But, practice takes time away from sponsor events, while you can hit the gym at any time. And developing steady nerves, well, you've either got nerve or you don't. Perhaps, therein lies part of the athletic griping. In days past, most athletes were not pampered from the moment they showed any sign of talent. In our day, though, a kid with athletic talent is immediately put on a pedestal, pampered and guided, with efforts made to smooth their way at each juncture.

Is it any wonder that they don't like challenges, like toughening a golf course? Or actually having to deal with enforced offensive holding or defensive pass interference rules?

We wanted heroes; we got prima donnas.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Government Work – Take 2

Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility. ~Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

The reader of previous entries to this blog (whoever you are) will recall that I have been known to take my potshots at government. But the perceptive reader (should I ever have one) will note that my beef is with politicians, not the average employee. This gibes with my feeling about corporations in that the average joe or josephine is doing his or her level best, but the guys at the top have pretty much the same motivation that politicians have. That is, they're out to get theirs, whether “theirs” is power or money or (more likely) both. Whether you get it from lobbyists as “honoraria” or from stockholders (and your customers) as “bonuses” and “perks”, it's the same thing.

Having got that out of my system, I'd like to address some common misconceptions about so-called “differences” between government and business operations. Take notes; this will be on the exam.

You can't fire government employees.
Sure, you can. It happens all the time. Just as in business, you have to follow all the appropriate procedures to do so, and those are pretty much the same procedures. Businesses, though, often fall back on layoffs, which are not as easy in government. To avoid the termination process, they declare someone to be “surplus”. Then they wait six months, while everyone works extra to cover the job that supposedly wasn't needed. After that period, they can hire anyone for the job. This is why you have all those lawsuits, because people aren't stupid and know when they've gotten the shaft.

Government should be run like a business.
To do what: Make a profit? Government is here to provide needed services. When government starts acting businesslike, the services suffer, the voters really get mad, and they elect people who'll run government like government. When corporations make bad business decisions, like ignoring what your engineers tell them, you get product recalls. You want an example of government trying to make decisions like a business would? Think NASA and Challenger.

Government regulations are just so much red tape.
Ok, it's hard to argue with this. There is no doubt that government agencies get a little nuts when preparing rules, but corporations are not so different. In Take I, I detailed one example of corporate silliness in the standards area, but if you think that was an isolated incident, here's another for you. Early in my career, right after I started at a small company, I was presented with the proper procedure for stapling pages of a report, complete with the dimensions for the location of the staple. The president of the company apparently felt the need to create this document because there isn't a federal regulation governing staple-placement.

But, bad as they might be, government regulations ensure that things are done the same way for all people. In corporations, there can be distinct differences in how rules are applied. Ask anyone who has ever wondered how the CEO got a big bonus when the company is in the red.

The government has way too many employees.
Well, there's a lot of us, to be sure. Large companies, though, have a lot of surplus running around, too. I was commiserating with a white-collar auto company employee about pending layoffs. He snorted. “No one gets laid off. One division makes a big white-collar layoff, and everyone transfers to another division until business picks up again. Hell, we even get paid relocation.” Yep, you gotta love those lean, mean corporations.

Businesses move faster than the government.
Not if you follow the rules, they don't. In fact, I have seen that both government agencies and businesses can move really fast if they feel the urgency to do so. The trouble is that government tends to do this in emergencies, businesses do it because the new CEO wants headquarters relocated nearer to where he'd like to live.

Bureaucrats can be corrupt.
Yes, some are. However, let me offer you one word: Enron. Or how about Tyco? Or maybe Adelphia? I know of two very profitable companies that managed to run into cash flow problems (for different reasons, but the end result was the same: not enough cash in the bank). In both cases, the chief financial officers diligently worked out new financing to get the companies back on solid footing. And in both cases, the financiers insisted on the CEO's being replaced. By the chief financial officers. In government, that would be considered unethical at the least; in business, it's call quid pro quo. Or “business as usual.”

Believe it or not, every government agency I've ever been associated with regards as its main purpose to serve the public. Most of the time, when agencies fail, it's because of the people that elected officials have placed in charge. You can do something about that every election day. But when corrupt corporation is screwing employees and consumers alike, you can only wait for the whole rotten structure to collapse.

When I'm standing in front of Saint Peter, I think I'll be happier to tell him I was a bureaucrat than if I'd had to tell him I was an Enron executive.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Time and a Place

Don't get your knickers in a knot. Nothing is solved and it just makes you walk funny. ~Kathryn Carpenter

A couple of disparate things (no, no, the housewives are desperate, not disparate) got me to thinking the other day about how people are inclined to get really worked up over things that aren't all that important. We live in a world with hunger, a desperate need for new forms of energy, a continual effort on the part of some to foment war and terror, and really bad traffic jams. So what do people get wound up about? The funnies and blogs.

A lady in Columbus, Ohio, wrote a letter to the editor complaining about Funky Winkerbean, which is a comic strip, not some strange sitcom. Now some of you may have mercifully missed this strip over the years, but it has actually followed a group of kids to adulthood, in the process changing from an occasionally humorous strip to one that has turned into Mary Worth, with even fewer chuckles than the old busybody had.

At any rate, the lady, in a civil manner, said that she turns to the comics to get away from the pain and drudgery of the real world, so she checks out ol' Funky the other day, only to find that one of the characters has breast cancer. This is not the sort of jollity she's expecting. She makes the point, cogently enough, that comics are for entertainment, not lecturing. Generally, opinion was against her, although what was printed was all very polite (must be very nice folks there in Columbus; they should go to Cleveland and teach those people some manners).

Now, I am certainly not going to make light of something as serious as cancer, irrespective of what kind it is, and I certainly agree that awareness of the need to do regular breast exams and get mammograms is important. But, I'm not sure that we need to get that message in a place where we're looking to get a little relief from the drumbeat of imminent death fed to us by the news media. It's not that I object to a message in a comic strip. I love satirical strips like Shoe or Non Sequitur, but I'm getting sick of characters dying or having unwanted pregnancies or whatever. Like the lady, I have gotten to where I skip as many strips in the daily paper as I read.

Back in the sixties, a lot of people were focused on some very important things. Along the way, though, the mainstream began to co-opt the counterculture's dedication, usually to unintentionally humorous effect. One term that gained serious legs was “relevant.” A person might read an article, hear a song, or watch a show, then announce, “Man, that's really relevant.” There was no mention of what it was relevant to, it was just standalone relevant. It seemed to be so important to be relevant that everyone wanted to absolutely shine with relevance, because if you weren't you must be irrelevant, which seemed like a bad thing. It was during this period that serious topics began to creep into the funnies. A few authors managed to pull it off, like Doonesbury or the early Bloom County. But most just got preachy.

We seem to have reached that point again. Doonesbury came back, with everyone older (or dead), but the edge is gone. Gasoline Alley is letting characters die (but Uncle Walt is, oh, 136). For Better or Worse is going to have a divorce (one of the side characters, not the main couple, though how that guy has put up with that woman for all these years is beyond me). Oh, and even Cathy got married (but she's still an idiot; she just has an idiot husband now to complete the set).

To the artists: Hey, gang, we need a little respite from high gas prices, nukes in Iran, and crooks in Washington. Make us laugh. We've all seen someone go through a divorce, and too many of us have had friends or relatives with cancer (if not having had it ourselves). We know these are serious things. We're not looking for serious things back here next to the Sudoku puzzle.

The other thing that got me going involved Blogger. The other day, Blogger wasn't working. Now the Google gang are pretty decent sorts, but they don't do a very good job of telling the army of bloggers what broke and when it might be fixed. As it turned out, I was trying to publish something at the time and was having no success, so I wondered what was going on. After stumbling around in the maze that is the average web site, I found the forums. I should have been able to find the forums just by the sound of keyboards being smashed.

Now there are people who use blogs as part of their livelihood. Journalistic blogs are often very entertaining, although even some these are nothing more than a link to something with a couple of clever quips. And I know there are a handful of people out there who actually make a living with blogs. But I suspect that the vast majority of the howling mob that had gathered in the forum was just trying to post some ordinary stuff, which, although important to the author, could easily wait a day or two before being posted.

This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since the Usenet days, Internet users have had no patience for down time. Again, we should separate what's important from what's not. If there's a DNS crisis, and you can't get to your bank's site to pay bills, that could be serious (if you're one of those congenitally late bill payers). Or, if your ISP's e-mail if freaking out, that could be as bad as the old days when the Post Office lost your mail. But, if you can't get to Fark, well, there are only about a zillion other news sites where you can get the all the offbeat news you can eat.

By the way, I read Fark just about every day, but I am able to skip a day when Drew has spilled a Heineken in the server.

But maybe this is the nub of the problem: People get worked up over the trivial while ignoring the really important things. Perhaps this is why the funny papers have become a place for airing serious issues. It's the last place left for anyone to try to get past our apathy.

Look, let's all get together and make a promise to the guys who do the comic strips. If they'll stick to the funny stuff and give us some relief, we honest-to-Peanuts promise to pay more attention to the important issues of the day. Okay? Very well, then, people, you are now charged with spending at least one half hour a day reading, watching, or surfing serious news. You do your job, and then maybe the comic strip guys can do theirs.

As for the bloggers and others who expect the Internet to be at their constant beck-and-call, get over it. The world can live without another link to some off-the-wall article that 10,000 other people have linked. Take a break and go outside for a while, after you've done you're serious news duty, of course. About time we got our priorities straight.

You got that, Funky?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Government Work – Take 1

The Lord's Prayer is 66 words, the Gettysburg Address is 286 words, there are 1,322 words in the Declaration of Independence, but government regulations on the sale of cabbage total 26,911 words. ~National Review

As a government employee, I take a certain amount of umbrage to that remark. Yes, we are a wordy bunch, but I take it that no one at the National Review has ever read a corporate ISO-9000 manual. In fact, ISO-9000 is the brainchild of an independent standards group, which has resulted in more useless verbiage than all the U.S. Government quality standards put together.

I've been working for government agencies at the state and local level since 1994, with an occasional timeout to work in the corporate sphere back when I was a contract employee (also know as “hired gun”, which sounded cool, or “scum-sucking contractor”, which was not as ego-lifting). Prior to 1994, I spent over twenty years in the private sector. And, I am here to tell you that there just ain't that much difference between the two. Let me tell you a little story.

I was working for a large corporation that prided itself on standards, lots and lots of standards. In the area of IT, they were very insistent on Approved Products Lists (APLs) for both software and hardware. Standard hardware, it turned out, was whatever IBM, Compaq, or HP was peddling this week as the latest and greatest. So, when a user had a problem, you had no idea what kind of computer was involved; asking the user was generally useless.

“What model of PC do you have?”
"A beige one."
"Ummm, does it, perchance, have a name on it?"

“I think its a Hewitt Packer.”

Well, that narrowed it down to one of six models of HP, with it's six different network cards, six different video controllers, and six different “standard” software configurations.

But the company really got the software thing right. Oh, yeah. They actually did establish a standard set of programs to be installed on new computers. Unfortunately, to make the “transition to standards” easier, they grandfathered every stinking program that had ever been used. The APL was a 3-inch-thick binder, filled with single-spaced page after page of allowable software. Even when a user got a brand new PC, they could demand that PC-Write be installed as their “word processor”. As a result, supporting users required a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the History of Software in America. And this was before Wikipedia.

As if this wasn't bad enough, new programs were added to the standard list all the time. These seemed to be whatever the CIO thought was cool today and wanted his secretary to use. Then there was the internal download server that kept putting beta versions of software in public download areas. This bit of largesse mean that we couldn't even be sure what version of standard software a user was watching crash.

But I digress. Government bureaucracy gets it deserved criticism, but corporations can compete on an equal footing with the government on this score any day. When I was working at that aforementioned palace of standards, I came across an annoying problem that had been plaguing a group of programmers for months. It didn't stop them from working, but it was slowing down their application development suite a good bit. Without going into the gory details, it turned out I could fix the problem by using a well-known memory management program.

Unfortunately, the standard was another well-known memory manager, which was a good program, but it couldn't solve this particular problem.

Digging through the regulations, I found that, if I got approval from the IT gods at headquarters, the product could get added to the standards list. Since we were going to need to install this on a fair number of machines and didn't want to get gigged in an audit, I decided to call the big guys. (Supposedly these were performed regularly, although no one could remember when the last one occurred; but, you know, IT COULD HAPPEN!)

I explained the situation to a pleasant fellow, who quite agreed that I had come up with a good solution. “So,” I said, “you'll add it to the APL?”

“Oh, no, I can't do that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Well, we've already got a memory manager, and we wouldn't want to have to have different configurations for each one.”
“Well, it would only have to be on machines running this one application suite. How else are we going to solve this problem?”
“Oh, well, what you need to do is have the department director send in a written request to use the software, with a detailed justification for using it.”
“Ok, if that's what I have to do, I prepare something for him.”
“And, he'll need to submit one for each PC that has the software on it.”
“Well, I guess we can get him the information.”
“Great. Just get us that and we'll give you authorization as soon as we've tested the software here in our lab.”
“What for? We've already tested ... Oh, never mind. How long will that take?”
“Gee, we've got a little backlog right now. We should be able to get to it in, say, six months or so. Now, don't go installing it without permission, because you never know when we might do an audit.”

Upon relating this to the director, I was told that the programmers could get along just fine as things were. Besides, he had heard that the CIO was planning to change application development suites, anyway. Of course, the current one would be grandfathered.

Don't tell me about bureaucratic red tape.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Random Ruminations - Again

If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad. ~Lord Byron

-- The TV networks are appealing to the FCC to have the fines for nasty content reduced or eliminated. Now, I am a big-time free speech advocate, and I really dislike the thought that the FCC issues fines every time someone decides something immoral or fattening occurred on some primetime drivel. After all, if the show is so offensive, why is the offended individual watching it in the first place? So, in principle, I agree with the networks. That being said, wouldn't it be easier for the networks to clean up their act? Why is it necessary to use vulgar language and prurient scenes in everything from “family” sitcoms to CSI:[fill in the blank]? It is possible to generate adult plots without having to resort to gutter language and titillation. Playhouse 90 did it for years.

-- Am I the only person in the United States who does not think it's proper for the Vice-President of the country to be getting a “deferred” salary from Halliburton?

-- After griping about the poor job that was done creating the program The Gospel of Judas, I must give credit where it's due. Discovery Times did an excellent pair of shows on people who became saints, and, the History Channel showed Banned from the Bible, which, despite the lurid title, is an excellent program about some of the apocrypha, books that didn't make the final cut into the Bible. The History program has been shown before, but it bears watching again.

-- So Apple has released a Mac that has Intel Inside (TM). And, gee whillikers, you can run Microsoft Windows on it. Big whoop. Apple fanatics will surely not be interested in going over to the spawn of Gates, while long time PC users will not be overwhelmed with the Mac OS. So what's the point? Well, perhaps Steve Jobs, who sold his soul to Microsoft a while back in trying to resurrect Apple, is now paying the tab. Microsoft would love to quit creating Mac versions of their software. What better way to do that than to have Apple running Windows by default? You don't think it could happen? Stay tuned.

-- One of the airlines coming out of bankruptcy (I forget which; they're all broke these days) is, of course, cutting back on the number of flights they have as a cost-saving measure. But, just to show they plan to be bankrupt again soon, they have come with with a real piece of genius to improve maintenance. To cut turnaround time, they are going to have NASCAR pit crews work with their ground crews. Yeah, those 17-second turnarounds are really gonna save money. Of course, that occasional missing lugnut may be a little bigger problem on a 747 than on a Cup car.

-- My wife likes reality shows. Not Survivor-type fake reality shows, but real reality shows, the kind where people are bleeding all over the place, and have knives sticking out of their heads. The other night she's watching one about miraculous escapes. This idiot is trying to take down an old stone or brick silo. He has a little bulldozer that he's using to try to use to pull it down. After a while, he's succeeded only in getting it to sit at an angle. So, despite the fact that he can't get at it from the proper angle to push it over, he tries to bulldoze the silo – which promptly falls on him. Now the bulldozer has a serious cage, and it wasn't that big a silo, so it's no surprise that he wasn't hurt. But, the people on the show are all weepy, and the guy is saying how he thought he was going to die. And I'm laughing my butt off. All that was missing was that little song from the ads: Hoo hoooo, hoo hoo hoooo.

-- Speaking of knives sticking out of heads, there was a show on The Learning Channel, I think it was, that took place in emergency rooms. A guy is brought in with a butcher knife sticking out of his skull. The doctor looks at the guy and asks somebody, “What do you think we should do?” Oh, I dunno. How about getting the knife out of his gourd?

-- How many people, without using Google, know the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse? For that matter, how many people ever watched enough episodes of the Lone Ranger to even know that he had a nephew? Actually, we were always waiting to see if the nephew would call him “Uncle Lone”.

-- As a legal immigrant (a naturalized citizen, and proud of it), there are two things that really irritate me: Illegal “immigrants”, and any immigrant, legal or otherwise, who doesn't feel they should have to learn the language of the country to which they have come. My Hungarian parents, who worked hard to quickly learn English, could never understand such an attitude.

-- Should the Democrats recapture the majority in Congress this fall (which is certainly not out of the question), does anyone care to figure how long it will take them to start screaming for the impeachment of the Vice-President and the President? Just as the Republicans went after Clinton in revenge for Nixon, someone is going to want to go after Bush and Cheney in revenge for Clinton. And, just as was the case for the Republican majority, the Democrats will use this to deflect from the real issues they should be addressing.

If only I had a catchy closing line ...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

There for the Taking?

History offers some consolation by reminding us that sin has flourished in every age. ~Will and Ariel Durant, Lessons of History

When did so many people decide it was okay to steal?

Music downloads, pirated films and software: It seems that the Internet has become nothing more than a fruit stand where kids swipe all the fruit when the owner and the cop aren't looking. I suspect that the apparent increase in shoplifting is an offshoot of this “okay to pilfer” mentality. But how did we get into such an unethical frame of mind? And what has it gained us?

Theft has been with us since there was stuff to steal. But normally when we talked of theft, we were talking of taking money or various other necessary or valuable items. “Stealing” music and movies simply didn't happen. Oh, someone with a reel-to-reel recorder might make a copy of some vinyl albums, and they might even pass it around to a few fellow audiophiles, but that was about it. And movies? Where were you going to get the equipment to show a print, assuming you could actually steal the film stock? Nope, those were the good old days that the RIAA and MPAA yearn for. Things were about to change.

It happened first in music. The advent of Dolby stereo cassette recorders suddenly made it easy to make a respectable copy of an album, which you could now carry around and play on a portable recorder. You could even give it to a friend and make yourself another copy. Of course, the audio was nowhere as good as the original vinyl, and cassette players had a nasty habit of eating tapes. So most folks, even after getting an illicit copy of a recording, bought the original if they really liked the music. In fact, while the recording industry was already starting to whine about the pirated tunes running amok, people were actually buying vinyl AND tapes, because the pre-recorded tapes had much better sound quality. By buying both, they had the audiophile sound of vinyl and the portability of tape.

So the record companies just continued to make money.

When VCRs appeared, the movie industry went berserk. Yet, they ended up with more profits from the sale of videos than they were making from the original movies themselves. Oh, and they managed to wheedle a royalty on every blank tape sold.

Ironically, there wasn't much that the RIAA and MPAA could do, because the RIAA had panicked back in the old reel-to-reel days and started suing people. The Supreme Court decided that the “fair use” provisions of copyright law allowed a person to make a copy of a film or an album and even give a copy to a friend. The only proviso was that the person making the copy could not benefit financially from it. So, as long as copying was small-scale, the AA's couldn't do anything about it.

While these guys were muttering to themselves, the software industry came along. In the beginning, when a computer cost $5000, paying $300 for Lotus 123 didn't seem like such a big deal. When they dropped to $2500 and Lotus still cost 300 bucks (or more), people began to get a little disgusted. Most software and games just cost too much and didn't seem to be going down in price. Then licenses started getting more restrictive, and the price of a PC got to be lower than some software, so users started finding other “sources” for their software.

Microsoft made hay on this by releasing Office as a $99 upgrade if you had any kind of word processor, spreadsheet, or database software. People jumped all over the offer, and this one piece of Bill Gates genius did more to move Microsoft into desktop domination than anything else. Companies could get legal on their licenses, and users were allowed to use the software at home as well (yes, really; MS made it legal for a user to install the same software at home that they had on their work computer). By the time the competition got wise, the horse was out of the barn. Users didn't want to switch back to some cobbled together suite of WordPerect and Quattro, or Lotus and AmiPro even at $99 (or even lower) “upgrade” offers.

When the dust settled, the other guys were gone, and Uncle Bill had goosed the price of Office up to where it's more expensive than the PC it sits on.

So software goes up, recordings get ever more expensive, and while VCR and DVD movies dropped in price, the price of a movie ticket just followed the software companies' example. And then came the Internet with newsgroups that had pirated music, films, and software. But average users didn't even know about the Usenet and at 28.8 K, downloading Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida took hours. So the RIAA and MPAA grumbled but didn't do much. Then came broadband access (at home or at work) and worse, then came Peer to Peer (P2P) file sharing. Oh, and meanwhile, Asian countries were bootlegging software as fast as their disc burners will churn them out.

Now, I've always had trouble having a lot of sympathy for the RIAA, MPAA, and the SPA (the software cops) because a) they kept making money hand over fist despite all their complaining, and b) they kept increasing the prices of their products out of proportion with what it cost to make them (in the case of movies, I'm talking about the tapes and DVD's, not the original product). But, when the P2P guys like Napster tried to pretend they didn't know what sorts of files people were sharing, and when users started making copies of entire albums available for literally millions of people to download, I felt they crossed the line.

Basically, they were doing what the AA's were doing, which was screwing the artists. At least, the AA's paid the artist something, pittance, in many cases, as it was. But the “file sharers” were giving nothing to anyone. And they were providing a product that would never wear out, unlike vinyl or tape. As long as you had a backup, you had an original quality recording of a film or album. This isn't fair to the people who create the works.

But the ultimate reason that the thieves tick me off is that if they hadn't started allowing everyone on the planet to access their copies, we wouldn't have gotten the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Thanks to that piece of crud, the AA's are suing grannies whose grandkids downloaded a couple of songs. Thanks to the thieves, we have Digital Rights Management methods coming that will make it impossible to even play a CD or DVD on your computer. Thanks to these so-called Robin Hoods, copyright intervals are being extended to the point that nothing will ever become public domain. Thanks to these numskulls, the DMCA is even being used to attack Open Source software (unsuccessfully so far).

Crime doesn't pay, but it sure does cost.

Monday, April 10, 2006

On the Road

Every day I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I'm not there, I go to work. ~Robert Orben

Back in the bad old days when I was in Quality Control, I used to have to occasionally take business trips. Like a fine wine, I do not travel well. Truth be told, I don't travel as well as Ripple. When I'm on a trip, I get a headache, I can't sleep, and I eat too much. I'd drink too much as well, but booze gives me heartburn. I don't like flying, either, especially when it involves airplanes.
But, never finding myself on the Forbes list, when the boss said, “Go”, I went. On a trip, that is.
One of the reasons I had to go places was to assess potential new vendors or try to sort out problems with old ones. In many cases, this involved traveling with a buyer from the Purchasing Department. Fortunately, the company for which I traveled the most had its headquarters several states away. That meant that I didn't have to travel with the buyer. I met him in the city where the vendor was, and we then went to the site together. As a result, I was generally spared having to make a couple of hours of small talk in a cramped economy-class cabin with someone I barely knew.
Actually, the worst thing about traveling with a buyer was that he had a vested interest in the vendor getting a good rating from me. After all, the buyer found the vendor and recommended the outfit as perfect to make our parts to our schedule. Mostly, he was the cheapest supplier he could find. Now, we in the quality game have a little slogan: “Cheap. Fast. Good. Choose two.” Since the buyer was selling upper management that this vendor could do miracles, there was a natural tension between buyers and quality engineers.
Fortunately, the buyer I traveled with most, Bert, had a more realistic approach. He actually tried to find good vendors and got very upset with them when they failed to perform. So, on a vendor survey, he was actually a good second set of eyes. Bert, therefore, would have been an ideal buyer to go with all the time except for one thing: He never got good directions to anywhere. Consequently, we got lost everywhere we went.
Take our trip to Los Angeles. Please. We got in on Sunday, because we had a long drive to Oxnard (yes, there really is such a place). Things started out just fine. We had a lovely drive up US 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, which you've seen a hundred times on TV. Car commercials are shot there so often, I'm surprised it's ever open. Anyway, after a leisurely drive, we found ourselves in Oxnard. We then spent two hours trying to find our hotel. Well, Bert spent two hours trying to find it. I kept wondering if the place we kept passing was it, but his cryptic and incomplete directions kept saying we had to turn left at such-and-such and, by golly, we were going to keep turning left no matter how many times we passed that place on the right.
Once we finally got into the hotel (do know if you keep turning left, sooner or later you get where you would have gotten turning right?), the first thing I did was ask the clerk where the vendor's plant was. It turned out to be about half a mile away. I had to argue with Bert the next morning, because he insisted that, according to his instructions, the plant was in the other direction. I finally convinced him that, just possibly, crazy as it might sound, a guy who lived in Oxnard might have a better idea of where the vendor was than a guy from Erie, PA.
The next day we got lost in a part of LA we should definitely not have been in, you know, the sort of neighborhood where you can get your wheels stolen – while the car is moving. When I made Bert stop so I could ask a cop for directions, the cop looked at me and said, “Boy, are you guys lost!”
Or there was the trip to Providence, RI. Bert had been told of a great Italian restaurant in the Italian quarter of Providence. Bert didn't have a clue where in Providence the Italian quarter was, he didn't know the name of the restaurant, but he did know it was in a white building. After a couple of hours wandering around Providence in the dark, I insisted we pull into a gas station to ask directions. We couldn't have been farther from where we needed to be without leaving Rhode Island altogether. On the plus side, once we found it, the restaurant turned out to be great (although Bert was never really sure it was the right one).
We also got lost the next day in Connecticut.
But I got some measure of revenge in New York City. We never got lost, because Bert didn't do any driving. We just got into a cab in front of the Port Authority, gave the cabbie the address, and got delivered to the correct place on the first try. The fun came later when we needed to hail a cab to go back. At the Port Authority, they were lined up waiting for customers. Now, though, we were on the streets of the big city, trying to get one to stop and take us back.
Bert had waxed on and on about what a big-city guy he was. This was his element, the hustle and bustle of the mighty metropolis. I half-expected him to break into a chorus of New York, New York. I, on the other hand, am a long-time country boy, growing up in rural Ohio, moving to rural Virginia, and ultimately landing here in rural Alabama. I am a fish out of water in a mighty metropolis. But, city-savvy Bert was having no luck, vainly waving his hand at the cabs whizzing by. Finally, I got sick of waiting. Spotting a cab coming our way, I took a step into the street, stuck my hand out, and hollered, “YO! CAB!” The cabbie cut over three lanes to pick us up. Bert was crestfallen. The hayseed from Alabama had shown him up.
I was feeling pretty smug, but I was soon put into my place. As we were getting into the taxi, a woman wearing an expensive-looking three piece suit stepped to the curb, put down here Gucci briefcase, stuck two fingers in her mouth, and let out a whistle to wake the dead. At least three cabs were pulling over for her as we drove away.
I felt like such an amateur.

Saturday, April 8, 2006

Radio Daze, Part the Fourth

There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them. ~Andre Gide
I didn't intend for this memoir to go on quite this long, but I couldn't write the previous piece without telling, as Paul Harvey would say, “The rest of the story.”
When last we met, I was sitting on the grass in front of the student union reporting on how the riot was over and things had mellowed out. That didn't, however, mean that we had reached the end of all the stress.
After Kent State, college stations all over the country were broadcasting all the speeches on their campuses and sharing news. Even before the student union takeover (such as it was), we were already at our wits end, trying to cover speeches, identify whether rumors were true or false, and, oh yeah, broadcasting regular programming when we weren't doing remotes. We were stretched thin, to say the least. So, when a bunch of guys no one had ever seen before came in offering to help, David, our GM, accepted gratefully.
Yes, yes, I know. We were stupid. But, when one is wrapped up in idealism and enthusiasm, certain areas of the brain get drowned out. In this case, it was the “Danger, Will Robinson!” section of our brains that had shut down.
I should have gotten the hint when one of these guys fed me bad rumors the night before the Euclid Avenue sit-in while I was on the air. None of them checked out. I was really beginning to wonder who he and his friends were. I saw this guy again, at a speech session the evening of the sit-in, trying to stir up speakers, but not going to the mike himself. He didn't have much success, because student leaders and campus authorities kept the oratory civil. Besides, everyone was just getting worn out.
I returned to the station, and lo and behold, there was the instigator himself. I gave him a wide berth and went into the engineering booth to get some programmers set up for the overnight hours. Suddenly, our News Director and ace reporter, Paul (not the one who was Ron's programming partner) came in to the booth and closed the door. He was in a panic.
Those guys, he told me, are Weathermen. The Weathermen were the nut fringe of an already pretty nutty group, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The Weathermen were into violence and destruction. To make matters worse, he said, David has been taken in by them, and all our lives might be in danger. So Paul had decided to get the Cleveland Police into the picture.
The thought of a police raid on the station didn't seem like the best solution to me. Since we had some idea of where they were staying, I thought we ought to wait until they left, then sic the cops on them. Paul wasn't so certain. He left saying he’d hold off for a while, but warned me to watch out for those guys and David.
No sooner had Paul left than into the booth comes David. He closed the door because he, too, was in a panic. Those guys, he whispered to me, are Weathermen.
Deja vu, all over again.
But David offered a new wrinkle, because in his version, our lives were in danger. These maniacs were going to burn down the building. Okay, now I'm ready for some reinforcements, like say, the U.S. Marines. I told David what Paul had said, especially about David being in cahoots with the Weathermen. David assured me that he was going to die with the rest of us. Somehow, that didn't seem comforting.
We both realized, though, that a police raid was really a bad idea now, because if these guys saw men in blue, they might be provoked to action. Just what that action was and how it was to occur was completely beyond us, but, by now, we weren't thinking quite as clearly as we might. David decided that calling the campus police might be enough to get these guys to move on. Then, we could sic the police on their hideout.
Since the engineering booth was glass on both sides, we decided to go into an office across the hall to call the campus cops. In the dark, because we didn't want to attract the attention of the Weathermen (I think we thought they had x-ray vision by this time), David made the call. It's kind of funny now to look back and remember just how much trouble David had in convincing them to send someone down to the station. He finally invented a story that they were carrying a large amount of dope. That did the trick. A bunch of radio geeks can get croaked for all they cared, but a chance for a drug bust was golden.
Of course, it ended anticlimactically. After an interminable wait in the dark, we heard a key in the door. As our lives flashed before our eyes, the campus chaplain stuck his head in the door and said, “What are you guys doing here in the dark?” The campus cop, figuring he was dealing with some nut cases, had brought a man of the cloth to calm our souls.
We poked our head out the door to find that the Weathermen had split, evidently concerned that David and I were up to something; they, apparently, were as scared of us as we were of them It took a while for David and I to appreciate the humor of the Weathermen being scared of David and me. They had talked one of our guys, a nice fellow named Turk, into driving them back to the house they were renting. When we realized some time later that Turk was missing, we got paranoid all over again, certain that Turk was in dreadful danger. Fortunately, about the time we had amassed the whole staff and were trying to figure out how to get him back, Turk walked in.
They had kept Turk at their house, talking about their coming violent revolution. Then they got seriously stoned. When they were all pretty much out of it, Turk strolled out and drove back.
I had been up for about 30 hours, so I staggered back to my dorm. My roommates, in an unusual show of compassion, told anyone who called that they had chained me to my bed until I got eight hours of sleep. What was weird was that everyone believed them. When I got back to the station that evening, each person I saw said, “So they finally untied you?”
There was a strange postscript to this whole story. A few years later, when I was a respectable married man and wage slave, I got a call one evening. It was Paul. He was still investigating those guys for an article, I think it was. By now, Watergate was started to unravel the Nixon presidency. Listening to the daily revelations, Paul had decided that those freaks weren't Weathermen, but some of Nixon's “Plumbers”, a dirty tricks crew that was the responsibility of Chuck Colson.
Weathermen. Plumbers. Hell, they're probably all Congressmen by now.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

The Real Power of Prayer

I simply haven't the nerve to imagine a being, a force, a cause which keeps the planets revolving in their orbits, and then suddenly stops in order to give me a bicycle with three speeds. ~Quentin Crisp

I can't imagine why people feel the necessity to conduct studies on things like the impact of prayer on sick individuals, but someone has. You can read about it here and here, among other places (because it got a LOT of play in the media, at least on line). Basically, a large group of heart surgery patients were divided into three groups. One group knew that people were praying for them, another were prayed for but didn't know it, and a third group had no one praying for them (at least officially). The praying was being done by a non-denominational group covering all the major religions of the world. The bottom line: People who knew that prayers were being said for them fared worse than the other two groups. The people doing the study were reluctant to draw any real conclusions.
Well, I have a little parable that will make it clear to all concerned. I don't know where I came across this. I wish I did, because I like this story, and I wish I could credit its author.
Once there was a small town that had been beset by torrential rains for days on end. As a result, flood waters were rising, and authorities were trying to evacuate people as fast as they could. A sheriff's deputy came by the church and found old Preacher standing in the doorway.
“You'd better come with me, Preacher,” the deputy called from his car. “The river's rising fast, and it's going to rise high.”
“Go on ahead, my son,” said Preacher. “The Lord will provide.”
So the deputy went on. Time passed, the water rose, and Preacher had to move to the second floor of the church because of the rising flood. A boat came by with several people in it, one of whom shouted, “You'd better come with us, Preacher. The river hasn't crested yet, and no one knows how high it'll get!”
But Preacher demurred. “No, no, friend, I'll be all right because the Lord will provide.”
The boat moved off. Sure enough, the water continued to rise, forcing Preacher onto the roof of the church. A helicopter came down low, and the pilot's voice boomed out of a loudspeaker: “Grab the rope ladder, Preacher, and we'll get you out of here!”
But once again, old Preacher sent his rescuers on their way, saying, “It's all right, the Lord will provide.”
It grew dark, and water continued to rise. The Preacher was forced to climb to the top of the steeple. As the water lapped at his toes, he looked heavenward and cried, “Lord, I am certain that you will provide for me, but I'm getting sort of nervous!”
Suddenly, a voice came from above. “Listen, I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter. How much more do you want?”
So what have we learned here?
God is not Santa Claus. God does not do “gimme.” Prayers are so often filled with demands. If you are fortunate enough to get what appears to be a gift from God, it probably won't be because you pestered the Almighty endlessly about it. I suspect that people whose prayers seem to be answered are those who do the sorts of things that make the outcome more likely, like working hard, learning, doing good works.
I haven't read Thomas Aquinas, and I don't know St. Augustine from Daytona Beach, but I have my own theory of what prayer should be. Prayer is about self-examination and appreciation. When you thank God for what you've got, you're recognizing the positives of life. When you ask God to help you improve yourself, you're identifying your own weaknesses and looking for ways to make them strengths. When you know people are praying to help you through a tough time, you should show your appreciation by doing everything in your power to get through that time. That may be as little as following doctor's orders to the letter or just taking as positive an outlook as you can muster. Therein lies the power of prayer.
I have a favorite prayer. It's from song from the sixties, called 'Signs”. Toward the end of the song, the guy is in church and finds his pockets empty when the collection plate comes around. So he makes himself a little sign and puts it in the plate. The sign says, “Thank you, Lord, for thinking about me. I'm alive and doing fine.”
Amen, brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Radio Daze, Part the Third

We can't quite decide if the world is growing worse, or if the reporters are just working harder. ~The Houghton Line, November 1965
I actually did a smidge of reportage for WRUW-FM, during the chaos immediately following the Kent State shootings.
It is probably hard for people who weren't alive back then to realize what a galvanizing effect the shootings had. There had been protests about the war in Viet Nam for years, some big ones. But, when the Ohio National Guardsmen panicked and shot four kids, schools that had never had any hint of protest against anything beyond the food in the dining hall suddenly found students marching, taking over buildings, and making demands. CWRU was one of those types of schools.
I think it was the Cambodian bombings that had sparked a wave of unrest that just seemed to mushroom. But it wasn't until the Kent State mess that all hell broke loose nationwide. In the midst of all this, CWRU saw its first real protests. It also saw its first (and last, to my knowledge) riot. And, those of us who were there saw something of a miracle – and some funny moments midst the turmoil.
Things got rolling with a student takeover the Adelbert Main building. No one really knew why they were taking over the building. Once they did, they didn't know what to do with it. So, they started making speeches. At the time, I was the station's Program Director, so I accompanied our remote team to the building to help with the coverage.
To do the remote, we hooked a unit up to a telephone connection (not strictly kosher, but I hope the statute of limitations has run out) and connected microphones to the remote unit. The best place to do this at Adelbert Main was the phone junction box located in the second floor men's room. For month's afterward, we joked that reporters should have said, “Coming to you live from the Adelbert Men's room!” Since our mike was lowered out the window to our reporter, the occasional flushing caused no embarrassment to anyone.
A little before six PM, a deputy showed up and read a “get your butts out of the building” order from a judge. He was somewhat taken aback by students thanking him as they left, because they were hungry and what are you going to do with an 80-year-old building anyway? Seeing everything was over, we gathered up our remote unit, the phones we used to connect to the lines, and a bunch of cables and sauntered downstairs. Just as we went out the door, it occurred to us that it certainly wouldn't be unreasonable for the deputy to think we were a bunch of looters. Stupid looters, but looters nonetheless. It was too late to turn around, so we walked out. He looked at us; we looked at him. We smiled, and the deputy gave us a look that said, “Nobody is that stupid. The stuff must be theirs.” All he said was “Get out of here!”
The next day we had the riot.
It began with more speeches. By this time, the university had given students the option, with their teacher's permission, to end their year immediately and take a Pass grade, rather than a letter. I was one who did that since the station was now on 24 hours a day doing rumor control. So, I was on campus listening to the endlessly repetitive speeches when a Black Panther stepped to the microphone. I've heard stories about people who could whip a crowd into a frenzy, but this was the first time I'd ever seen it in person. Before anyone seemed to know what was happening, 400 students started marching out to block Euclid Avenue, a six-lane main drag.
I got to a building and did a live phone-in report (look out, John Chancellor!). Then I hustled over to the Student Union to help man a remote unit. The guys were there already in an office (no restroom this time) and had a microphone out the window to our intrepid reporter, who was describing the scene. By this time, the Cleveland Police had arrived in force, and a tense standoff had developed. As the cops hauled kids out of the street, a larger crowd grew around them. Things were beginning to look ugly.
I was looking at it when it started, and I still couldn't tell you what triggered the fighting. One minute everybody's standing around hollering slogans and insults, the next cops are hitting kids with billy clubs. Everybody was running around and screaming. Safe as I was on the second floor, my gut got tied up in knots. I just knew someone was going to get hurt. Then, the miracle happened.
When the marchers went into the street, it had been sunny. Gradually the sky had clouded over, but, with all the stuff going on, no one had paid any attention. As the riot seemed ready to get bloody, there was a thunderclap, and a deluge of rain came down. Everyone froze for an instant, then the students moved away from the cops and the cops moved back from the students. People recognize a message from God when they get one.
Our intrepid reporter rushed breathlessly into the office. One of the guys said that it looked like things were peaceful again, so he could go back. Showing the value of a college education, he informed them in no uncertain terms that there was no way he was going to risk his anatomy out there again (insert expletives where appropriate). So I said, “Well, someone needs to go down there. David [anchoring at the station] is going to expect a report.”
Which is how I ended up downstairs, with people offering me wet cloths to use in case of tear gas attacks. I politely declined the offer, explaining that, in the event of tear gas, I would be breaking the 3-minute-mile to get my own anatomy out of there.
A funny thing happened, though. People from various groups got together and began to calm everyone down, negotiating a face-saving withdrawal for everyone involved, both police and students. One second I was surrounded by a few hundred people. The next, all I could see was a mounted policeman talking to two kids who were petting his horse. Just to make it perfect, the sun had come out. Of course, back at the station, they didn't know any of this. So, they needed a report.
I was sitting on the grass talking with someone, when I heard David over the radio monitor I was carrying saying something like, “We're hoping things have calmed down on Euclid Avenue. Let's see if we can reach our reporter. John, do your hear me?” I stuck the monitor earpiece in my ear, and uttered the immortal words, “Hi, David. How are you?”
Taken aback, he said, “Um, fine, John. How are you?”
“I'm fine, David. In fact, everything's fine now.”
Okay, it wasn't Pulitzer material. But, all things considered, it was a wonderful thing to be able to say.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

The Spirit of Aper Ilfyu

No matter what happens... somebody will find a way to take it too seriously. ~Dave Barry
I’m not a big fan of April Fool’s Day and always feel relieved to have survived another one. The problem is not jokes that are played on me personally. It’s the time I waste having to explain to the gullible of the world that, no, there aren’t any spaghetti trees or no, the space shuttle isn’t landing today at the local airport. It’s ironic that as we distrust media, including the Internet, more and more, we seem more willing to accept obvious hoaxes from those same sources.

Of course, the idea of mainstream media having their little jokes has been around for a long time. Years ago it was even easier for them to pull off a gag because people were inclined to believe almost anything they read, heard, or saw in a newspaper, on radio, or on TV. Some of these were really funny, such as the aforementioned spaghetti trees, Sidd Finch (the Mets rookie pitcher who could throw a fastball at 168 MPH), the country of San Serriffe.
(For details on these and 97 other spoofs, check out this site.)

Funny or not, there always seem to be people who will fall for one of these gags, whether well-crafted or not. For instance, there was the great Ashtabula Star Beacon trout crisis.
If there’s one thing that fisherman anticipate eagerly, it’s the opening of trout season. Pennsylvania has always had an excellent stocking program, so their opening day was even more highly anticipated than others. Fisherman from neighboring Ohio counties spent weeks getting ready for the big day, partly because of the great trout fishing and partly (maybe mostly) because of the cabin fever they had suffered since October. PA trout season opened the first week of April.

In the sports section of the April 1 edition of the Star Beacon, there was an article that chilled the hearts of fisherman throughout Ashtabula County. According to the story, the EPA had determined that monofilament fishing line had been found to cause cancer in fish, particularly trout. Therefore, Pennsylvania had outlawed the used of monofilament in their trout streams, effective immediately. Only braided Dacron line would be permitted.

To understand the impact this would have on fisherman, imagine that you had heard that the government had banned radial tires because they caused inordinate damage to highways. Effective immediately, you would be required to buy bias-ply tires with inner tubes. Monofilament line was ubiquitous among fisherman; braided Dacron belonged to the bygone days of guys in 1920’s Abercrombie and Fitch ads, wearing plus-fours and smoking a pipe while they walked along the stream bank.

I worked with a dedicated fisherman nicknamed “Z” (short for Zimmerman). Z bought the story hook, line (braided Dacron), and sinker. He was in a panic, telling me he was going to rush out to his local tackle shop that very evening to get whatever braided line they might have. I tried to point out to him that monofilament did not dissolve in water (as stated in the article). I mean, how effective would a fishing line be if it dissolved? You couldn’t land a guppy, for crying out loud, without the line coming apart. Then there was the matter of Aper Ilfyu.

Toward the end of the article, there was a name and address to contact for more information. You were supposed to get hold of Mr. Aper Ilfyu with the address “Washington D.C. I said, “Z, look at the name. Say it fast, man.”
After a minute or two, Z said, “Well, he could be Hindu.”

Of course, the story was a joke, but a lot of fishermen who subscribed to the Star Beacon bit as hard as Z did. Unlike Z, who was waiting to get off work to buy his braided Dacron, many of them took time off from work (because this was TROUT FISHING, DAMMIT) and rushed to tackle shops all over Northeastern Ohio, desperately trying to get refunds for their monofilament while purchasing every foot of Dacron line they could lay their hands on.

The next day, Z came in to work looking very smug. I asked him if he had gotten his Dacron line. “Nope,” he said. “Y’know, that article was actually a joke.”

I asked him what finally drove that simple fact through his thick skull. It turned out that, with the rush on the tackle shops, the paper had been inundated with calls about the article, mostly from the shop owners wanting to know what the devil was going on. As a result, the local television news in Erie, PA got wind of the story. They had interviews with the author, who apologized effusively for the near riots that had occurred as trout anglers fought over the few available spools of braided Dacron. Z had been halfway out the door to get his own line when he saw the news on TV.

I told him I was glad that he didn’t waste his time and wasn’t one of those guys in line today to return the Dacron line. I also suggested that he might be able to identify joke stories a little better in the future, especially those containing names like “Aper Ilfyu.”

“I dunno,” he said, “It still sounds Hindu to me.”

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Softly, Softly

If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization. ~One of Murphy's Laws of Technology
I've been a long time reader of Ed Foster's Gripe Line, back when it was a column in the then excellent InfoWorld, and subsequently when it became a blog (because InfoWorld decided to totally screw up a good publication by getting rid of most of their best writers). Mr. Foster's blog deals with the problems IT professionals and everyday users have dealing with technology vendors.
The other day, The Gripe Line questioned “Is Software Getting Worse?”, detailing a user's frustrations with an upgrade that was more of a downgrade. I wish I could think that sort of thing was a recent development, but it's not. Software companies seem to hit a peak of development on a product. At that point there seems to be nothing to do but stick on chrome-reverse ashtrays just to give you a reason to upgrade. In the process they either lose features, break features, lose backward compatibility, or all of the above. Sometimes, though, a product tries to take a quantum leap from where it was to someplace else. Generally, they fall short, and what's left is a miserable product. For example, let me tell you about Clarion.
Clarion is a name that's been applied to a number of products, but the one I'm thinking of was a killer database program which first came to my attention in the late 1980's. I began using version 2, which allowed you to create screamingly fast database applications. As well, you could use it to create front end applications to just about any of the major database formats (like dBase, for instance). It was very sweet.
The trouble came when users began to demand more graphical interfaces, with mouse capabilities. Yes, believe it or not, many old DOS programs did not use a mouse. They used something called keystrokes. It's amazing how we mouse around now in apps when we could more quickly use keyboard shortcuts. Late DOS programs gave you the best of both worlds, well-defined keyboard shortcuts combined with mouse capability. Modern programs have keyboard shortcuts, but finding them is about as difficult as finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.
At any rate, Clarion realized they were going to need mouse support, drop down menus, and more colorful screens, because users wanted it. If users wanted it, developers, the people who bought Clarion, had to have it if they were going to sell their programs. So out came version 3. How should I describe the difference between 2 and 3? If version 2 was smart little sports car, version 3 was a monster SUV with a four-cylinder engine and square wheels. It didn't go.
It was bulky; trying to convert existing apps was a fiasco; it crashed. Clarion developers, of which I was one (having written a quality control suite of applications for my QC department), battered their forums, screaming for relief. At this point, were Clarion a company in today's environment, they would have told us to go suck eggs, while they worked on another upgrade that we would have to buy just to restore previous functionality. But this was then, and software companies were a little more sensitive to user complaints. To their credit, Topspeed (who owned Clarion by this time), brought out version 3.1, which, while still slow, was, at least, completely functional. And they gave it to 3.0 users for no charge.
(Memory is dangerous; there may have been a charge, but if there was, it was nominal.)
So, while we weren't thrilled with 3.1, we could get back to work. I think one reason that Topspeed was so quick to release a fix was because they also had another mess on their hands: Clarion for Windows.
To this day, I have never understood why Microsoft's competitors gleefully shot themselves in the feet repeatedly by releasing Windows versions of their programs. Many fine DOS programs (including some of Microsoft's) were turned into miserable Windows versions that lacked functionality found in their older DOS counterparts. They “made up” for the lack of functionality by being unstable as well. Users stayed away from them in droves. Did the companies say, “Ok, we'll continue making good DOS programs and let Microsoft sink into the sunset with their crummy Windows programs”? No. They decided to get people to buy their Windows programs by stopping all new DOS development, then stopping sales of their existing DOS-based products. Thus, if you wanted the latest version of Harvard Graphics or Quattro Pro, you were getting Windows versions. In fact, if you wanted any version of these things you had to buy Windows versions.
Clarion, seeing where things were going, realized they needed a Windows database program. So they released one. Or maybe it slunk out of the building in the dead of the night. It was a mess. To be fair, most initial Windows versions of existing programs stunk, so Clarion was just following the usual pattern. Unfortunately, for developers already sinking under the weight of version 3, version 1 of the Clarion for Windows was just too much.
Once again, Topspeed did the right thing, and version 2 of the Windows app was a work of art. By the time it arrived, though, many developers had moved on to other products, including those from Microsoft. Clarion hung on, but they never really grew all that much.
Clarion is still around, if you're interested in Googling for it. Topspeed sold them a while back. It may still be a wonderful product, for all I know. If I were still writing apps, I would take a look at it, but I'd probably be pretty much a confirmed MS SQL developer by now.
The real difference between bad upgrades then and bad upgrades now is that companies used to try to actually fix things, if they could. More than one company couldn't fix the mess they had made and subsequently disappeared. Nowadays, companies just point to their EULA and say your problem ain't their problem. Alternatively, they tell you not to worry about it. They'll fix it in the next upgrade, which, of course, will cost just about what new software would cost.
My point is that the horrific upgrade has always been with us. Maybe the perceived difference is that you used to stand a chance of getting relief.