Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Ghost in the Machine

Before we work on artificial intelligence why don't we do something about natural stupidity? ~Steve Polyak

There's an ad on TV currently that shows some poor guy trying to get through to his credit card company. He's connected to one of those voice-recognition systems that's making him chat with a robot. Ultimately, after answering a slew of questions, he gets connected to a human being but promptly loses him as the train he's riding enters a tunnel.
That ad was pretty funny until the other day.
The other day we had a drive fail in one of our servers. I know, I appear to be breaking my rule about not talking about work. I guarantee, however, that none of what follows is critical of my co-workers or my superiors – particularly my superiors who are a swell bunch of people who would never take anything I wrote amiss, but there's no need to take unnecessary risks, now is there? So everything's cool, boss, really.
Now where was I? Oh, yes, the hard drive failed. We've had a long relationship with our server vendor, with relatively few problems and good response to the ones we've had. With a lot of servers and a ton of hard drives, it will be necessary to replace a part now and then. So, calling them is no big deal, and I pretty much had the button sequence down : “If you are a government entity, press ... If you need technical support, press ... If you are calling about servers, press ...” Three presses, less than a minute, and, bingo, I'm talking to a living breathing person. At least, I was until this past week.
Seems the geniuses who make such decisions at this outfit decided that a voice recognition system would somehow make things more efficient or friendlier or ... heck, I haven't a clue what they were thinking. I guess they've got a lot of money lying around to blow on changing their phone systems. Anyway, now I had to listen to little speeches for each item. I couldn't just hit a digit to bypass listening to an entire menu, because each item had to be answered “yes” or “no”. After four or five minutes of this, I ended up exactly where I normally ended up in less than a minute: Telling a representative what my service tag number was.
This is better?
It got worse. When the new drive came in, it didn't have the usual paperwork for returning the broken part. No problem, because I just called the technician directly (he had kindly provided a direct dial number to avoid talking to the robot) who set up a pickup.
Except that the shipping company screwed up. No big deal, the tech had given me a the shipping company's phone number. I dialed it, and, lo and behold, a voice starts asking questions. I swear it was the same voice. In this case, I had about six choices and had to say a key word. Except that none of the choices corresponded to “talk to someone about a screw up that we did.” Fortunately, I was able to crack through to a person by hitting the “0” key a couple of times.
I don't know who thinks this is better than the already-annoying menus and key presses. It takes longer, and certainly doesn't help the process any. I have some theories, though, on why the companies are using this annoying technology.
1. People have become so illiterate that they can't read the numbers on a phone. They can dial because they match the little symbols for “1”, “2”, and so on with the number in the instructions. Once they've reached the site, they can't decipher that “Press one” means press the key with the 1 on it.
2. People are intimidated about have to call for customer service, so, instead of having to follow complex instructions like “Press the pound sign when you're done”, they can have a little chat with a machine first.
3. People are so stupid that they think they're talking to a real person.
4. Companies are trying to make it completely impossible to ever actually talk to a human being.
Personally, I'm leaning heavily toward number 4. Considering the ridiculous terms and conditions consumers are asked – no, make that forced – to accept in order to do business with anyone, it's next to impossible to return defective products (particularly in the software world). If they're not going to help us anyhow, why waste time talking to us in the first place?
I am going to exact my revenge, at least on the server company. The next time I've struggled through to a human being, the conversation will go like this:
Vendor: Please give me your service tag number so I can route your call.
Me: It sounds like you want my service tag number. If this is correct, please say “yes”. If it is not correct, please say “no”.
Vendor: I'm sorry?
Me: I didn't understand that reply. If you want my service tag number, please say “yes.” If this is not correct please say “no”. If you've had enough of this silliness and will tell your supervisor that the voice recognition system should be scrapped, say “uncle.”
I probably won't get any tech support, but I'll feel better.

Postscript:  The server company dumped the whole thing within a few weeks.  Evidently, I wasn't the only one trying to scream into a phone in a noisy server room.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Catching the Next Wave

A criminal is a person with predatory instincts who has not sufficient capital to form a corporation. ~Howard Scott

There's talk about another technology boom. Possibly this is coming from all those experts who lost their butts when the last one busted and are now looking for suckers to tap to make up for it. However, I think that there may be some truth in this talk, and I'm trying to figure out how to cash in on it.
Historically, I am not a person who catches trends very well. I was in college during the Sexual Revolution but remained a noncombatant (dammit!). All those fitness trends that have come along regularly for years? Managed to miss every one and have the proportions to prove it. When mutual funds were hot, all I had was a CD (and some tapes and records). As for the last technology boom, well, the best I got out of that was a job offer from an outfit that went out of business while I was thinking about accepting it.
Well, by golly, this time I'm going to figure out how to get my hands on some of that Internet filthy lucre. Trouble is, I have no idea how.
I've been keeping an eye out for what's hot, and, with my usual incredible acumen, I have no idea what I'm looking at. Were I a technology columnist, this would pose no difficulty, since some of them are still waiting for the “year of ISDN” and “ATM on the desktop” to get here. If you don't know what those are about, don't be concerned; they're dead letters. I can be that prescient.
None of that, however, is getting me any richer. There are a few things out there that everyone seems to know about, but one has to have a fresh take on these things to get above the crowd. So here's a few things I'm thinking about. Be warned. I have copyrights, patents, and various other nefarious legal gizzies at my disposal should any of my two or three readers try to steal one of these gems.
IP over string – Sure, everybody in the burbs has high-speed access, but what about us out here in the boonies? Satellite Internet access costs more per month than filling up an SUV. I can't get the local telco to run anything out here, but I'm sure even the cheap so-and-so's at the phone company would be willing to run string to my house. I admit I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but if you can run IP across copper wire and even glass fiber strands, surely it can be done over string.
Porn over VOIP – Yes, I know they can dial up 900 numbers on VOIP, but how about providing a service that tells VOIP users where all those overseas numbers are? You know, the ones I mean. These are the ones that promise cheap calls, then sock you with whopper telco charges for dialing Pago-Pago. Oh, you don't know. Well, I don't either, but I think there's a pile to make here.
Cheapie Internet divorces - With all those lonely-hearts web sites out there, there are going to be a lot of people wondering whatever they could have been thinking. It strikes me that there might be a little embroidery going on when folks fill out those surveys. When you find out that your new mate really didn't win the Nobel Peace Prize, I could be there with the online equivalent of Reno.
DRM's R Us – Apple has theirs, Microsoft has theirs, Sony had theirs (oopsie). Everyone has their own Digital Rights Management scheme to ensure that all you pirates out there can't listen to your music except on their terms. Well, how about a site with RIAA-approved DRM schemes for anyone who wants one, but doesn't have time to do it right? Sony would be the first to sign up.
DRM Breakers R Us – Well, how are people going to listen to their music if someone doesn't give them a way to break all that DRM crap someone is peddling?
I'm not sure which I'll be trying out first, but I do have a lot of string lying around. I'll be sure to post when I'm ready to issue my first IPO.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Consensus Building

I've met a few people in my time who were enthusiastic about hard work. And it was just my luck that all of them happened to be men I was working for at the time. ~Bill Gold

A co-worker of mine claims to be envious of my experience in various industries. While I find any sort of envy gratifying, I am forced to explain that what he sees as “years of varied experience”, most people would see as “inability to hold a job.” Part of this was due to a desire to earn more money; one of the ridiculous rules of career-building is that you get more money faster by switching jobs than by staying in the same place. That generally presumes that you are staying in the same career path, which means I spent over 20 years in Quality Control, which I came to detest fairly quickly. Oh, there were some good times, perhaps 2 years worth, accumulated as a day here and a day there over the 20-plus years.
Another reason for changing jobs was to get somewhere warm. I spent 33 years in Ohio, where winters can be cold as a well-digger's ankles. Colder, actually, because a well-digger is standing in water, not an ice cube. I don't care how much global warming we get, winters along Lake Erie will always be miserable.
Finally, after all that time, I got smart and got a job I liked where it was reasonably warm. Since I'm pretty satisfied with things (at least until someone offers me a hundred thou a year to sit at home and watch cartoons), I don't try to screw that up by writing about my current employment. But since I've been at so many places, I've got lots of other options if I feel like talking about the workplace.
Today's option involves a fine gentleman for whom I once toiled, who I shall call Sam, because that happened to be his name. (I'm not long on imagination, and I hate proofreading, as you can probably tell, so if I used a phony name, I'd forget it halfway through the story and Fred or George would have become Sam anyway.)
Sam was a good boss. He knew his field (which was unusual enough for a Quality Control manager), cared about his people, and managed to uphold the company party line while still actually getting work done. He did have one quirk, though. He had a passion for achieving consensus on anything. Sam had taken some management courses in college, and in one of them he had learned that one way to get people to accept an unpopular alternative (translation: a stinker of an idea from upper management) was to maneuver the victim—er, employee to suggest the alternative himself. This is done by proposing objections to every sensible alternative raised by the employee. You might think this is difficult, but the manager takes notes while upper management is shooting down all of his sensible alternatives, so he is well prepared for the employee.
This desire to make the employee the “owner” of the big wheels' dumb idea sometimes drove Sam to silly verbal gymnastics with us, especially since we had taken the same management courses in college and knew when we were being manipulated. On one occasion, we had a meeting that included two Quality Engineers (one of which was me) and one of our floor supervisors. The task at hand was to increase the number of statistical studies we were taking. We needed to do this because a vice president had read an article about how neat statistical studies were and how the more of them you had, the more in-control you were. Of course, the article was about high-volume operations where the sample sizes are meaningful, and jobs run for long periods, making it easy to set up a series of studies to track trends.
Unfortunately, we were a low-volume specialty-equipment shop, where jobs might run for a day or two. To make matters worse, the parts were complicated, and getting high numbers of studies meant many time-consuming measurements that might impact our ability to actually check machine setups. As a result, Ed (also his real name; I told you I’ve got no imagination), the other Quality Engineer, who was being tasked with this increase in studies, brought up the reasonable argument that a study “quota” based on small samples from short job runs was counterproductive.
Now, Sam knew that as well as we did, but the veep had tasked him to generate some fixed number of studies per week, and, by Henry Ford, he was going to produce those studies. He couldn't just come out and say that, though, because he needed consensus or “buy-in” on Ed's part. The trouble is that Ed wasn't buying today. So back and forth they went for half an hour, with Sam asking Ed how many studies per week he could provide, and Ed asking Sam how many he had to have. Finally, I said, “Sam, just tell Ed how many studies the VP wants each week, so we can get out of here and get some work done.” Sam looked me, then looked at Ed, told him the number. Ed said, “OK,” and we went back to work. I figured Sam was cured of his consensus fix, but I was wrong.
Not long after, for reasons that still elude me, Sam promoted me to Quality Engineering Supervisor. It's not that I didn't want the job; I did. But, in hindsight, I wonder whatever possessed him to believe that I was management material. Lord knows, I proved often enough over the years that I am most certainly not a good manager. But, for good or for ill, there I was. One day Sam called me into his office and began to ask some “hypothetical” questions about how I thought we might “improve” Quality Control operations. To each thing I suggested, he raised a reasonably-stated but lame objection. Finally, exasperated, I blurted out, “Sam, tell me what cockamamie idea the boss has. I'll tell you it's stupid, then we'll try to figure out how to make it work.”
Sam just stared at me for at least a full minute, then he got up and shut his office door. Oh, lord, I thought, now I've gone and done it. He's going to rip me up for being uncooperative, not a team player, and/or a general jerk. He sat down at his desk, looked at me gravely, and said, “You won't believe what those idiots want us to do.” Then we spent an hour figuring out how to make it work.
It was a watershed moment. Sam never played the “buy-in” game with me again. He'd call me in, close the door, and rant about the moronic idea from the wheels. Then I'd rant for a while. When we both felt better, we'd work out how to get it done. It was very efficient.
It also had an interesting side benefit. I'm sure I got more out of my employees because they thought I was getting all kinds of lumps each time Sam closed that door. I think they felt sorry for me. I don't know how sorry they would have felt if they had known that more than a few of those closed-door meetings ended up in long discussions about fishing.
Hey, that's what you can do once you get a concensus.

Monday, January 9, 2006

The Fallacy of the Internet as Resource

Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe. ~Frank Zappa

Some time back, there was a big brouhaha about the Wikipedia. The Wikipedia is a web site where anyone can create an encyclopedia-style entry about anything. Moreover, you can edit other entries. The only means of determining accuracy is that the entries are supposed to be checked by other Wiki members, but, as one can imagine, there's still a lot of room for errors to creep in. And recently, someone finally deliberately edited bogus information into an entry, identifying a journalist as having taken part in the Kennedy assassinations. Supposedly this was done as a joke, providing a new definition of “sense of humor.” The hue and cry was phenomenal.
Ultimately, this business led to a tightening down of some sort at Wikipedia. Further, some folks started comparing the accuracy of the Wiki against that of an established encyclopedia, Britannica, I think. Believe it or not, errors were found in Britannica, though not as many as Wiki.
Of course, this sort of comparison is ridiculous because, firstly, it doesn't describe the nature of the errors, and secondly, since science articles were involved, errors may only be issues of being out of date. The problem with any encyclopedia is that it was frozen at some point, while science marches on.
What is funny is that there began this hue and cry about the potential worth of information found on the Web. Oh, my aching back. Who in the devil ever thought that the bulk of the information to be found on web sites and, even worse, blogs would be unfailingly accurate?
Some months ago, a picture appeared purporting to be from a 1950's issue of Popular Science. It showed a huge control panel, with dials, knobs, levers, and (are you ready for this?) a large steering wheel. The picture was supposed to be a portrayal of the home computer of the future! The picture was a joke and had been originally posted as such. Unfortunately, some news agency picked it up, and it got circulated as a real vision of the future as seen from the past.
What the picture actually showed was the control area of a submarine.
This incident was far from the first. An Indiana Congressman started getting angry letters and calls from constituents when it was announced on a “respectable” news source that he advocated changing I-69 to some other number because of the nasty nature of “69”. This sort of change would entail huge costs to taxpayers, not to mention to companies that make maps. The Congressman was puzzled because he had made no such suggestion, much less proposed any legislation. Where did it come from? It was picked up from the Internet, of course. What the “respectable” news source didn't realize was that the site where the story appeared was a satirical web site.
It was a joke, son.
These sorts of things say some pretty wretched things about the news media, but I can't imagine that anyone has trusted them since “Dewey Defeats Truman” and probably long before that.
If that's as far as it went, it wouldn't be so bad. But, seemingly every day, someone repeats some nonsense because they saw it on a web site or read it in a chat group. Mars made its closest approach to the Earth in many years in 2005. The web was filled with articles claiming that Mars would look as large as the full moon. People bought into this whole cloth as though it was silk. It didn't occur to anyone that Mars being close enough to look like the full moon would be cataclysmic to the Earth.
Apparently, our education system isn't doing any better than our journalistic endeavors.
We should have seen this coming. Years ago, Compuserv and AOL were flooding with the “Good Times” hoax that promised that if you opened an e-mail with the subject “Good Times”, the apocalypse would ensue. That was followed by “Pen Pal” and others. Even today, we get a note about once a month from a user asking if some “send this to everyone one in your address book” message is legitimate.
The fact is that part of our human nature is terminal gullibility. We are suspicious of the truth but willing to accept the outlandish in a heartbeat. The problem is that with the advent of the World Wide Web and easy Internet access, people can increase their stupidity levels at the speed of light.
AOL used to have an ad that showed a bumpkin using their service. The guy talked like a hillbilly, sat in front of his computer with a ball cap on, and blathered about how easy AOL was. He then took exception to something someone wrote and blasted his computer with a shotgun. His little daughter then hollered, “Ma! Pa done shut the AOL again!”
Compuserv marketed their service as a place where intelligent people went to surf and chat. Guess who's gone and who's still around? Apparently, there just weren't enough intelligent people around to keep Compuserv afloat. 

 Based on how the Internet is being used, I'd say the numbers haven't increased.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

Would Jesus Flip Them Off?

Most people wish to serve God - but only in an advisory capacity. ~Author Unknown

How typical. One day, i write about a religious figure writing intelligently about both Christians and Jews. The next day, the nuts come out again.
Item 1: Pat Robertson is at it again. Quoting scripture more or less at random, he has decided that Ariel Sharon's stroke is a judgment from God because he is offering land to the Palestinians (who, last I heard were also some of God's creatures). You remember ol' Pat; it wasn't too long ago he was advocating the assassination of Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. Robertson, who has had political ambitions on occasion, now suggests that it is against the teachings of the Bible to live in peace with your neighbors. Pat shouldn't be so worried. There are enough nuts on both sides of the Middle East mess to ensure that innocent people will keep getting blown up for years to come.
But what this points up is another case of a Christian who apparently has no familiarity with the New Testament. You would be hard-pressed to find any reference in the Gospels, the Epistles, Acts, or even Revelations where Jesus would advocate divine retribution for “giving up” parts of the “Holy Land” to descendants of peoples who were there when the Biblical narratives occurred. And I am unable to find a single instance of Jesus recommending the murder of a political leader.
Perhaps, if we could get Robertson to attend a Sunday school Bible class or two, his understanding might be improved.
Item 2: Religious groups are up in arms yet again about a TV show. Is it “Desperate Housewives”? Is the the entire Fox Network? Nope. They want “The Book of Daniel” taken off the air.
Okay, people. Let's get a couple of things out of the way right at the outset. Censorship is evil, no matter what you're trying to do. No one should be in the business of telling others what they can and cannot read, listen to, or watch. So you have no right to suggest that something be kept from view. You don't like it, then don't watch it. Tell the world it stinks. But don't think you have the privilege of deciding whether others can watch it.
Secondly, when are people going to learn that the more noise you make about something like this, the more people will tune it in to see what the fuss is about? To repeat, you don't like it, don't watch it. Write a letter to the network saying you'll boycott the sponsors. But don't talk up the stupid show.
All that being said, what is the fuss about “The Book of Daniel”? The plot of this epic goes like this: Daniel is an Episcopal priest who pops pills, which helps him commune with Jesus (who appears on the show). His wife is a lush, his daughter is a drug dealer, and his son is gay (making him more normal than anyone else in this bunch of freaks). Not exactly “Seventh Heaven”, is it?
(By the way, the TV ad says the son is sleeping with a 16 year old girl, so he's apparently more versatile than the print articles indicated. However, Daniel's sister-in-law, I think it is, is having a lesbian affair, so it's all good.)
The producers claim that the show is not a satire of religion. Good lord, I hope not. Religion has plenty of areas ripe for satire (see Pat Robertson above), but this is a heavy-handed piece of crud. Forget about insulting religious groups. The whole thing sounds like an insult to the intelligence of any human with an I.Q. over 10. There have been plenty of shows about dysfunctional families, but this family is beyond dysfunctional. It's gone all the way over to psychotic. Based on the one ad for this pile of dross that I've seen, it may be one of the dumbest things to ever hit the air waves.
I find it quite interesting that just before the show premiered that a major brouhaha should erupt, conveniently generating huge amounts of free publicity for this thing. New programs do not suddenly appear out of nowhere. Production begins months earlier, and news items are usually all over the place to generate buzz for the premier. How amazing that, having generated no comment until now, the show has suddenly, immediately prior to its first showing, become a front page topic in newspapers and even been a feature article on CNN's web site.
If I had a cynical turn, I'd say that NBC, the network shoveling this thing out, made sure that the most conservative religious groups they could find had a preview or at least got a detailed look at early scripts. It wouldn't be the first time that something of this ilk occurred. In Alabama, when a Christian-backed group fought against the adoption of a lottery, it turned out that a significant amount of their funding came from gambling interests in neighboring states. Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida wanted Alabamians to keep spending their gambling dollars across the state line.
Would it be so amazing to imagine that a network wouldn't stoop to a similar tactic?
Once again, people, if the show turns out to be as bad as it looks (and it would be remarkable to be otherwise), it will go away much more quickly if you don't watch it, you encourage everyone you know not to watch it, and you write nastygrams to NBC saying you won't buy the sponsors' products. Keep screaming for censorship, and you'll just push the ratings up.
Better yet, instead of acting like fools, do what Jesus would do: Write compassionate letters to the network executives, the writers, and the actors expressing your concern for their sordid view of life. Explain how you understand their suffering and hope that they might find the wisdom and insight through prayer to realize how warped their views have become.
Kill 'em with kindness and understanding. Then, tell 'em you won't buy the sponsors' products.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Taxing the Patience

Democracy is a government where you can say what you think even if you don't think. ~Author Unknown

My income tax software arrived the other day. I do not have a very complicated financial situation, but things have gotten to be so complex that some assistance is required if you want to stay legal yet not over pay your alloted tax requirement. There is, of course, an easier way, but no one seems really to want it.
Bob Dole, when he ran for President, learned a lesson that, as an old experienced politician, he should have known well: What people say they want and what they really want are two very different things.
Dole proposed a flat income tax, creating a system where you could complete your annual taxes by sending in a post card. IRS staffing could be slashed, everyone would be taxed at the same rate, there would be no tax loopholes, and everyone (except those who’ve used loopholes to pay nothing for years) would be looking at a lower tax rate. You can't make it much simpler than that.
Americans complain about taxes more than they complain about the weather. To hear the average person talk, they are being taxed into abject poverty. One co-worker of mine once announced that he was paying federal income tax at a 50% rate. I pointed out that the highest tax rate was 39%, and that was applied only to the very rich. Since I had a rough idea of what he made, I asked when his wife started making a six figure salary. Well, she didn't, and, like most people, after deductions, he was paying about 27%. He didn't gripe about taxes in my presence after that.
U.S. citizens want all the benefits of government, but they keep wanting someone else to pay for it. I don't mind paying taxes, but I do object to having to support a monstrous Internal Revenue to catch the cheats.
I am also really tired of paying sales taxes, which in Alabama are ridiculously high, to make up for all the tax breaks that have been given to corporations to relocate. If everyone was paying their share, I wouldn't be paying 10% more for everything I purchase. A community in our area is crowing about landing a Wal-Mart, which they managed to do by forgiving their share of sales taxes for the next umpty-two years. Will anyone be surprised when this town raises sales taxes a few years from now to make up the shortfall?
And is any tax more recessive than sales tax? It clobbers low income groups and isn’t exactly kind to us middle-income folks, either. Yet, there’s no deduction in that morass of special-interest gimme-gimme’s that Congress has stuck in the tax code for sales taxes. There used to be, but that got “simplified” away.
There have been all these “tax code” simplifications, primarily by Republican presidents and Congresses. Generally, these have led to more deductions for the wealthy and less for the middle class (that’s the “simplifying” part). Income tax rate reductions come with increases in other taxes, like social security or excise taxes. If Ronald Reagan had done any more to “simplify” my taxes, I'd have had to declare bankruptcy.
And yet, when Mr. Dole comes along and suggests a fair taxation system that hits everyone the same and cuts down on the federal bureaucracy, his supporters desert him in droves. Why? Well, Dole is a Republican, the party which draws much of its support from the wealthy and from large corporations. These are groups that do NOT want a simple tax system. They want all those deductions and (more importantly) all those hokey tax credits that reduce their taxes to virtually nothing. To ensure that they kept these perks, they tried to convince the average taxpayer that he or she would pay more under Dole's plan because they would lose the mortgage deduction and medical deductions.
Charities jumped on the bandwagon, afraid that everyone would stop giving if they couldn't deduct the contribution. Seems to be a sad commentary on both the charities and the givers, don’t you think?
So Mr. Dole began to backtrack. He would allow the mortgage deduction. There would be some other deductions allowed, including one for charitable donations. Before you knew it, he had practically reinvented the 1040 form.
You can't fool all the people all the time, but you can fool enough them into thinking that a convoluted system of taxation that protects special interests is good because it allows them to deduct the cost of work shoes.
It's a pity, too. I think Bob Dole would have a been a good president.