Monday, October 30, 2006

Jellied Brains

Television has done much for psychiatry by spreading information about it, as well as contributing to the need for it. ~Alfred Hitchcock

When I was a kid, some parents worried that TV would turn our minds to jelly. It appears that they were right. I've seen a number of articles lately saying that there is an autism epidemic. Since autism does not appear to some sort of viral condition that would be contagious, increasing numbers of autistic children would seem to be mysterious. Could it be Bin Ladin at work with some bio-psycho-nucleo-weapon? Might it be due to global warming or cosmic rays? Perhaps all that fluoridation that the American Dental Association has foisted on us is creeping out of youthful teeth into youthful brains?

Nope. It's television. I saw an article the other day that said that it appeared that excessive TV viewing could be causing all this extra autism we're being told is abounding. I can believe that, although I think video games could be included as a factor. I'm not one of those who thinks all video games are evil and should be banned, but I do think that anything that reduces the need for one to use one's imagination is going to limit mental development.

At least video games, though, provide some sort of visceral stimulation. I mean, there you are, walking through barely lit hallways when some gruesome creature jumps out, determined to rip your virtual head off, and you mange to reduce it to a pile of goo with a chain gun. If that doesn't get your heart started, nothing will. And don't give me that stuff about violence. Before video games, kids played cops and robbers, cowboys and Native Americans, or soldiers, all of which involved bloodily dispatching each other with glee. And they did that long before you could buy a toy ivory-handled Colt .45 with quick-draw action.

We're just a very violent species.

No, it's TV that is really scary, because it's essentially mind-numbing. For all the paens offered by programmers to the idea of original programming, imitation still remains the sincerest (and most profitable) form of flattery. Currently, no network can do without reality shows because the shows are cheap to produce and provide something that everyone seems to love: People being humiliated. If you add some sort of talent component, you apparently have gold. If American Idol wasn't bad enough (and it was), we've had fashion designer faceoffs, model challenges, and, a current up-and-comer, chef competitions.

Of course, none of this is new, even the humiliation concept. Years ago, it was done in quiz-show format, like Beat the Clock, which involved people having to perform stunts in a set time (usually 1 to 2 minutes) that involved getting wet or having cream pies tossed in their faces. Or there was Truth or Consequences, where bad things could happen if you didn't answer the question correctly.

Over the years, trends came and trends went ... and often came and went again. For example:
  • Variety shows. Once the staple of the networks, all of them had a similar format. Opening musical number with the star (or, if the star was a comic, opening monologue, followed by a musical number by the show's chorus line); introduce the guest star; guest star number; skits; musical number with star and guest star; skits; humble closing by star. Some big-time shows could afford a couple of guest stars, which really took the pressure off the star.
  • Quiz shows. Just like now, quiz shows were cheap to produce and drew huge numbers of viewers. Champions would return week after week, and people actually would begin to root for or against certain contestants. Unfortunately, the Charles Van Doren scandal brought the whole house down, relegating quiz shows to a minor niche until that Regis Philbin millionaire thing, and, of course, Wheel of Fortune.
  • Westerns. Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger, and on and on. For years, westerns were such a staple that, some seasons, there was practically nothing but westerns and variety shows. The proliferation of cowboys, saloons, dance hall girls, and gunfights was one of the reasons that Newton Minnow, one time head of the FCC referred to TV as “a vast wasteland.” I think he had the Ponderosa in mind.
  • ”Professional” shows. Doctors and lawyers took over after the westerns. Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare led the field, although Medic was the pioneer. And of course, there was Marcus Welby, a sort of Doctor Knows Best. For the lawyers, we had Perry Mason, The Defenders, and Arrest and Trial (a predecessor to Law and Order, where they showed the crime, the pinch, and the trial, only it took 90 minutes for Arrest and Trial).
  • Primetime soaps. Peyton Place started it, but soon there was Dynasty and Falconcrest. Interestingly, Dynasty and its clones always seemed more like westerns, sort of Bonanza with drugs, money, and Joan Collins.
But there are two formats that were there at the start and have never gone away: Sitcoms and cop shows. Except for a short time during the ascendancy of the westerns (when there was virtually nothing else on), sitcoms and cop shows have always been the mainstay. And, frankly, if you've seen one sitcom or cop show, you've seen them all.

It's not that there haven't been some very good television programs over the years. There have been, but there haven't been hours and hours and hours of them every week. In any given year, if there's more than two or three really fine shows (either very entertaining or very thought-provoking), that's a banner season. Most of what was (and is) on is repetitive, commercial-riddled, and insulting to the intelligence.

Worse, the well-intentioned attempt to offer some education to kids turned into television-as-baby-sitter. Parents were more than happy to plunk the kids down in front of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and whatever else PBS was showing during the afternoon. The trouble is that they just left them there for the evening. So kids that grew up watching hours of TV became parents who were more than happy to let their own kids watch even more of the mindless fare. It's gotten to the horrific point of a baby channel, a cable channel aimed at infants, so parents don't have to sing lullabies. For slightly older kids, PBS Kids Sprout relieves parents of reading bedtime stories. Then, there's Teletubbies, which is just plain disturbing.

And we're wondering where all the autistic kids are coming from?

Amazingly, an argument for letting kids watch all the TV they want is that they won't be able to talk about what was on last night with their similarly brain-stunted friends. Even adults seem to feel that they might be ostracized if they didn't watch CSI:Podunk last night; they won't be able to bond with their co-workers around the water cooler.

I haven't watched a network (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox (ugh), or even UPN) program in years. I've mentioned before that my viewing axis is science, history, sports (less and less all the time), and very old movies (if it's newer than 1949, bleah). However, I've never felt out of place when people start talking about their TV viewing because all you have to say is that you've never seen some top-rated show and stand back. I don't have to watch Law and Order:Weirdos Unit because people will tell me all about the show --and everything else that's on – at the drop of a hat.

Of course, they will, at some point, insist that they really don't watch much TV, and they certainly don't let their kids watch much.

Yeah, right. And, I got my excessive girth by eating nothing but carrots.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Blather On, Brothers and Sisters

It seems to me that the problem with diaries, and the reason that most of them are so boring, is that every day we vacillate between examining our hangnails and speculating on cosmic order. ~Ann Beattie

I was proofreading "We Deserve A Break" ... I beg your pardon? Yes, I proofread these entries. Granted I don't catch all the typos, but I do make an attempt. What? Why bother to proofread? Well, I'd like to present a piece with some degree of polish, and ... All right, that'll be enough of that. Even 2/3 of a reader a day deserves to be able to read a piece without having to decode bad sentence structure, misspellings, and missing words.

Everyone's a critic.

Anyway, I was proofreading the aforementioned piece, when I had an epiphany. Quit snickering; they don't hurt a bit. I got to thinking about why a member of the Reformed Church of God should be so bent out of shape about bloggers. Oh, certainly, he gave reasons, such as they were, including the fact that a blogger might have the gall to feel good about expressing an opinion when those opinions were so much “blather.” But, really now, if it is “blather”, then sooner or later the blogger will tire of it and move on to other, more obvious vices.

But then I got to thinking about another rumination where I dwelt on the media frenzy about blogs, and suddenly it all became clear: Vox Populi.

Vox Populi is Latin for “the voice of the people.” Blogs are providing a platform for people to speak, and that has the media and the people “in charge” worried.

It's not that people haven't had their say when they really wanted to, but, for a long time, they had to work at it. In early societies, the voice of the people was the spoken voice. It might be at the Agora or at the Forum, but you had to be willing to stand up and speak up, which was sometimes a risky thing to do. However, during those periods when the exchange of ideas was not totally feared by the leadership, people honed their speaking skills to be able to deliver their opinions. Aristotle gave a wonderful set of lectures, collected in “The Rhetorics” explaining not only how one should speak but a lot of the tricks of the trade to make your case if you were, say, arguing a case that someone had brought against you.

Speaking was nice if no one made you drink hemlock as a result, but, unless you were famous enough to end up drinking hemlock, your voice only reached a few. Beyond the folks who happened to be standing in the area where you were orating, it was unlikely that anyone would ever know what you thought.

It wasn't that there wasn't writing. Of course, there was, and you could always pen a scroll yourself (assuming you could write), but, again, unless you were well-known or rich, no one was going to undertake the labor-intensive copying of your scroll to disseminate it to the masses.

Later, the church door became a place to post your opinion. When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the cathedral door, he was doing so because this is where people placed announcements, protests, and cow-for-sale ads. Everyone went to church, and the church was a focal point of the community, so anything on the doors was going to be visible to many people. But this still limited the number of viewers to the local folks. Then along came Gutenberg.

When Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe, the ability to broadcast ideas increased vastly. Once the process became economical, anyone could prepare a pamphlet for a mass printing. The writer might even sell them for a shilling or a farthing or whatever small change was in those days, but a well-off person could afford to subsidize the printing and send his ideas far and wide.

Pamphleteering was the blogging of its age. Judging by the number of them and the varied subject matter, anyone who could put pen to paper might toss off a pamphlet at some time in his life. But, pamphleteers went beyond little homilies and witty stories. Revolutionary thought was advertised through pamphlets. Printing became a weapon for those who opposed the people in power. As a result, printing presses were often hunted out and smashed by the authorities trying to protect their turf. But, as fast as their presses were wrecked, the revolutionaries always seemed to get another set up.

Oddly, it seems that the 18th century was the last great age of the pamphleteer. After the American and French revolutions, the writers seemed to content themselves more with writing to newspapers or publishing longer works. The press seemed to be the one to collect opinion and spread it about during the 19th century, although the first quarter of the 20th century did see a flurry of rogue printers turning out revolutionary and reactionary material in countries like Russia and Germany. Once dictatorships were established in those countries, those presses fell silent.

Underground newspapers provided a limited forum during the 1960's onward, but these were mostly limited to intellectual and pseudo-intellectual thought. The ordinary person really had only the letter to the editor. The pollsters, the news services, and the television news departments now seemed to control the flow of opinion. At least they did, until the Internet.

Initially, web sites began to provide a means for average folks to broadcast their ideas. But web sites have to be maintained and, as I've noted in one of the earlier articles, are harder to set up to provide access to archival material. Blogs are another matter.

The mechanics of blog software is ideal for journaling, providing different points of view, and, of course, blathering. It would probably be fair to say that blather outweighs meaningful thought by many times, but, when you have millions of blogs, that still means that there are a lot of people putting out worthwhile reading. And that scares the bejeebers out of the media and others who would direct your thinking.

The church member was upset because people might think their opinions mattered. By extension, that bothered him most likely because, if they thought their own opinions mattered, then they might be inclined to question those of church authorities. Church authorities have historically not taken well to being questioned.

The media is upset because good blogs often demonstrate just how shallow the mainstream media sources are. Just look at Dick Destiny, written by George Smith, a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org. He debunks the media hysteria about ricin, liquid explosives, and other “imminent” terrorist threats which the evening news threatens us with on a regular basis.

Or look at the fear the media has of “political” blogs. The mainstream guys have been telling us what we think for a long time; they feel threatened when there's a body of information available that shows it's not the way they say it is.

So, gang, let's all keep blathering. Our seemingly infinite number of bloggers may not run out Shakespeare's plays, but we just might send out an occasional wakeup call.

Besides, what's wrong with thinking your opinion matters?

Monday, October 23, 2006

We Deserve A Break

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion - several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven. ~Mark Twain

All right, the Islamists and Christians need to take a time-out right now. Go to your rooms and stay there until you can learn some tolerance for others and for your own brethren. And you Jewish folks, don't go acting smug, or I'll send you to your rooms as well.

I could deal with Islamic people getting upset with the depictions of Mohammed in the Danish funny pages (or editorial pages, wherever) because it is a blatant disrespect of a basic tenet of their faith. Just as free speech doesn't apply to shouting "FIRE!" in a crowded theater, it also doesn't protect incendiary speech, especially when there are other ways to say the same thing. Of course, getting upset doesn't excuse some of the behavior that was exhibited by the faithful, but the nature of the incident made it difficult for more moderate voices to be heard.

However, when Muslims start claiming that every rectangular solid is a copy of the Ka'ba, the holy buildng in Mecca, they're just being ridiculous, especially when the solid is just a glass storefront for a computer store. What next? Perhaps it will be an insult to Islam to use any of the letters in the Prophet's name or for a non-Muslim to say Koran.

There is insult, there is over-sensitivity, and then there's just plain stupid.

Conservative Christians have their own techniques for making everyone's life miserable. When they're not trying to dictate what we see or read or teach in our schools, they're accusing their own flock of falling prey to the evils of the modern world. In particular, it seems some Evangelicals are worried about that new and powerful source of evil, blogs.

The Register reported the monthly newsletter of Reformed Church of God had a scathing article against the evils of blogging. The author of newsletter does allow as how some blogs, written by professionals and specialists are all right, but we ordinary folk are engaging in a socially accepted practice - just as are dating seriously too young, underage drinking and general misbehaving. I certainly can't qualify for either of the first two at the age of 57, so I guess I must be generally misbehaving.

Perhaps most damning of all (at least according to the author), blogging often makes the blogger "feel good or makes him feel as if his opinion counts - when it is mostly mindless blather!"

I wonder how he feels about Fox News.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that there's a lot of mindless blather in the blogosphere. Goodness knows, I try to contribute my share. But, if blather is a sin, then the bulk of humanity is going to Hell.

The author quotes Proverbs 17:27-28 as his basis:
  • He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding is of calm spirit.
  • Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.
Thus, in this man's universe, there are wise people who never say anything and fools who seem wise because they don't talk. Where that leaves the average person is a bit mysterious, although stating an opinion seems guaranteed to get you labeled as a fool. Besides, the Bible isn't saying sounding like a fool is a sin; it's only saying that when a fool opens his mouth (or writes in his blog) he simply removes all doubt that he is a fool (female fools exist, too, but I get tired of writing he/she all the time).

Of course, what the newsletter writer really means is that if you don't agree with him, then you're a fool. And, heaven forbid that anyone should have the temerity to feel good about themselves.

And then there's the latest from Pope Benedict XVI. Not long ago, the Pope decided to hold a private seminar to assess the Church's position on Darwinian evolution. If anything has come out of that, I've missed it altogether, but I didn't miss the latest idea being floated by the Vatican. Seems that the Pope favors returning to the Latin mass.

As someone who grew up attending the Latin mass, I was one of those who wasn't in favor of having the mass in the local language. One of the wonderful things about the Catholic mass that it didn't matter whether you entered a Church in Montevideo or Monticello; it was the same Mass which could be followed in your missal. After all, "catholic" means universal, and what could be more universal than a mass that was consistent in all Catholic churches? So, on the one hand, I ought to be pleased.

However, it appears that this move has nothing to do with universality; it has to do a return to a more conservative Catholic Church. Instead of John Paul II's attempts to move the Church forward (in everything but birth control), we now have a desire to return to some idealized past. One can hardly wait to hear the next pronouncement out of Rome. Perhaps Galileo will be re-condemned or, better yet, maybe the Pope will call for a new Crusade.

Go to your rooms. Now.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Sound and Fury at Gallaudet

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Back in May, I wrote a little piece that described protests going on at Gallaudet University, in which I manged to misspell the name of the school as Gaulledet, for which I abase myself. However, if you look past that, you find a commentary about protests going on concerning the appointment of a new university president, one Jane Fernandes. Students and faculty were, for reasons which were not very clear to me, very upset over her selection for the post, mostly because she wasn't their sort of deaf person.

As I said in the article, Ms. Fernandes was born deaf but grew up speaking, not learning American Sign Language until the age of 23. She is married to a former Gallaudet professor, who is not deaf, and has two children who can hear. She was opposed, according to one protesting faculty member, as not representing the deaf community.

Frankly, this sounded lame. I figured that had to be more to the story, but I found nothing more informative at the time. Ultimately, the coverage died down, and I lost track of the story until the other day when this brief story showed that things had not quieted down at Gallaudet. Quite the opposite, in fact. Things have gotten out of hand as protesters had closed the school.

It is still completely unclear to an outsider like me what the issues are here. All that is clear is that the protesters have no desire to negotiate, preferring to deny access to the school's facilities to students who wish to attend classes and to others who use the facilities. The rhetoric is hot and heavy, though.
  • “We will not let the campus go unless Jane Fernandes resigns.” - Noah Beckman, student body president
  • “The whole school is speaking now.” - student and protest leader Chris Corrigan
  • “This illegal and unlawful behavior must stop.” - outgoing university president I. King Jordan.
The irony here is that Mr. Jordan was installed as president thanks to another round of protests from students many years ago, calling for the school to appoint a deaf president. I sense a pattern here. The irony gets thicker when you consider that the faculty that, no doubt, participated in those protests, has pass a no-confidence vote in that same Mr. Jordan and in the Board of Trustees (whom the faculty probably never liked in the first place; trustees and faculty members are natural enemies). The vote doesn't really do anything except indicate that the faculty is ticked off.

I know a little about protests. I was in college until 1971, and, even though I was at a place where demonstrations were minimal, even we were not passed by events (see Radio Daze parts III and IV). Even if we had not had such activity on our campus, we would have had to be dead not to see the level of dissent on campuses around the country, brought about by the dissent against the Viet Nam War and the support of the Civil Rights movement. The most profound effect of student protests of that day was to shine a spotlight on the war and social problems.

When students were shot at Kent State, virtually every campus in the country boiled over, some just a heavy simmer and some completely over the top. In many cases, students demanded the universities close down, primarily so they could continue their protests without having to go to class.

At least, that's the best reason I can see now in looking back at it. Even Case shut down after a fashion. Students were given the choice of finishing out the semester (it was late in the term) or take a Pass/Fail grade on their work to that point in the year and go do whatever they wanted to. So the school was open, but students were given the option of ending their year. I did that so I could work at the radio station, since I was program director and we were on a 24-hour schedule. The university chancellor praised us for our work in squelching rumors, and I got to avoid taking final exams, definitely a win-win situation.

Most of the schools that chose to shut down didn't offer such choices; they either stayed open or closed completely for the summer. Looking back, I recognize that many students who wanted to continue going to class were deprived of the opportunity, ostensibly in the name of freedom of choice.

The protest movement had a clear target, focused primarily on the war. Despite that focus, it seemed that demonstrations would take on a life of their own, leading to building takeovers or outlandish demands that no school could sensibly meet. Ultimately, these sort of events petered out of their own accord. In fact, some of the schools that took the closure route did so just to let things cool off for a while.

This is not to say that the protests didn't have an important and often positive impact. But as time went on, many of them were simply “me-too” events featuring tortured rhetoric, weird mixtures of socialism and anarchy, mixed with a heavy dose of iconoclasm. Keep in mind that those long-haired liberal weirdos you see in films of these demonstrations are now your Congressmen.

(That has nothing to do with Gallaudet, but it bothers me from time to time.)

The Gallaudet protests have the feel of iconoclastic demonstrations that are feeding on their own momentum. Football players volunteer to block entrances to the university; protest leaders refuse any negotiation or attempt to find a middle ground; a “coupe d'universite” is declared. The captain of the football team said he would say to Ms. Fernandes, “Resign now. It's as simple as that. If you resign, we can move on with our lives.”

I'm sorry, but it's not as simple as that. A can of worms has been opened, and there's no putting them back. Ms. Fernandes is not about to resign; the students and faculty have burned all the bridges to a middle ground. The school is open again, but for how long? It would not be surprising to see the school closed again when Ms. Fernandes is to take over her post in January.

Ultimately, the faculty and students have got to come up with something more damning than Ms. Fernandes not representing the deaf community, or, as she puts it, “not being deaf enough.” In the olden days, demonstrators and universities would attempt to open “dialogs.” The idea was that if protest leaders and school leaders actually discussed the issues, some accommodation could be reached that would satisfy both sides (or at least, minimally dissatisfy both sides), allowing life to go on. Most importantly, it would allow those who wished to be students to be students.

No one has the right to block the right of another to an education, not George Wallace standing in the door of the University of Alabama nor a football player standing in the gate at Gallaudet.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Man Behind the Network

In my memory, Dad was always president of one company or another. As a kid, I didn't know what this meant, so I asked, “What does a president do?” Dad said, “A president is the guy who sticks around to empty the trash after everyone else has gone home.” ~ Brent Noorda, remembering his father, Ray

Ray Noorda died recently, at the age of 82. Chances are good you have no idea who he was, but 23 years ago he took over a little 17-person company in Provo, Utah and changed the face of computing. By the time he left, Novell had become the titan of server-based networks, and Netware, its flagship network operating system, had become a de facto standard.

Netware provided a simpler means to set up a file and printer sharing network than had been the case with Unix. Now, that's a relative term; you still had to know of what you were doing, but one big advantage of Netware is that it ran on x86 hardware, the “PC” chipset (or CISC) rather than the more expensive RISC systems that ran Unix.

Noorda made Novell a customer-driven company and listened to his users complaints, suggestions, and needs. As a result, Netware got more solid yet more versatile. Oh, sure, Microsoft is the big guy now, but when Bill Gates was struggling to get past peer-to-peer networking, Ray Noorda was providing software that would make the mainframe people nervous.

Netware servers just ran. By version 3.12 (around 1993 or 4), Novell servers would run for months without issues. Novell Directory Services (NDS; originally Netware Directory Services) was well on its way when Noorda left in 1995. Noorda had a huge jump on Bill Gates when it came to the network and stood to continue to build on that lead, but he made a huge mistake. He decided to compete on Gates' turf, the desktop, instead of letting Gates try to catch up with him in the server arena.

Novell thought it could command the computing landscape from desktop to server, which they realized was the ultimate goal of Microsoft. Gates had pulled a major coup by offering his MS Office suite of applications at an affordable price. For less than the price of a copy of Wordperfect, a user could get word processing, a spreadsheet, presentation software, and a database program. Noorda saw Office selling like hotcakes and decided that he had to fight back.

It didn't work. He bought Wordperfect, which by this time had fallen woefully behind MS Word in features; he also bought Paradox, a mediocre database program. Oh, I know there are still people out there running it, but the sad fact is that dBase, FoxPro, and even Access were better. Noorda might have had a shot at FoxPro, but for whatever reason he went with Paradox. The spreadsheet was Quattro Pro, which was a good program, but it also had fallen behind the likes of Lotus and even Excel because of the time and energy spent by Borland (who owned Quattro) losing in court to Lotus over “look-and-feel” issues.

The time and effort spent trying to win the desktop sapped strength from the Netware effort, which ultimately opened the door for Microsoft. But the real killer was Noorda leaving.

By this time, Novell had 12,000 employees, and Netware was still king of the networking hill. But, Noorda's desktop move had cost the company dearly as they had sold their suite at low prices to try to cut into Microsoft's lead. It seemed that Noorda, who knew how to sell networks, didn't know how to capture the desktop market. But, it was a disaster for Novell when Noorda left, because they lost touch with their customers. I know of many instances, some from personal experience, how Novell began to ignore their main cash source, the network customers.

I was working for a client who had a large Novell network. We had decided that it was time to upgrade from version 3.12 to 4.11, so we called Novell to talk about it. We called and called and called. Finally, when we had all but completed our planning, a salesman finally returned our calls and offered to bring out a Netware Engineer. Now, this was a 3000 user network, so we're not talking chump change, even for Novell, yet we had to beg to get someone to talk to us. This was a typical scenario that would not have occurred when Ray Noorda was in charge.

It didn't help that Netware was hell for third-party developers. One thing about Windows is that it was easier to create server-based software on Microsoft's platform than Novell's. Partly that was due to Netware's structure, utilizing “Netware Loadable Modules” (NLM) which were notoriously difficult to write. It was also due to the fact that Netware demanded that software behave itself. No program could operate at certain restricted levels that protected the operating system from crashing. Windows had no such restrictions, so it was easier to write for. Of course, it also made Windows servers more prone to crashing.

But, if you're an IT guy who needs a server-based database, and all the good ones are written for Windows, you're going to bring in some Windows servers. Since Windows servers could be integrated into a Novell network without much trouble, Microsoft got their foot in the door through applications. Eventually, they kicked the door in.

Noorda, meanwhile, went on to found a venture capital company called Canopy, which is still around. Canopy specialized in investing in start-ups with potential and had some successes. Word was that Noorda had a lot of fun at Canopy, which is more than can be said of the parade of executives that followed him at Novell.

I am amazed at how little was being written in the technical press when Noorda passed away. I learned of it from a British news site, the Register. American tech outlets seemed to let Noorda's passing just slide by in favor of the latest hype about Vista. The first article on a U.S. site that I saw was Dave Kearn's charming rembrance, a couple of days later.

That's a crying shame, without Noorda having paved the way, Bill Gates would have had a much tougher time cracking the Unix networking world. By the time Gates had got Windows NT to where it only crashed occasionally, Netware had muscled aside Unix and the mainframe, establishing server-based computing as the way of the future.

A guy who could do that deserves some words of praise.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Much Ado About Blogs

The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow. ~Bill Gates

There are 5,000 great people for every jerk on Usenet. But that still is a lot of jerks. Proceed with caution and eyes wide open. ~Don Rittner

Because people that I know are aware that I have a couple of blogs, they are often anxious to pass along news relating to the blogosphere. Personally, I would rather they would pass along comments about my blogs, but that would require that they actually read the damn things, a sacrifice few seem willing to make. However, if I continue in that vein, I'm going to start to cry, and I need to maintain my persona of an urbane, sometimes witty, sophisticated author (no smart remarks, now), so I'll move one.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the other day one of my non-readers stopped me as I was leaving work, risking serious injury by interposing himself between me and the door. He was moved to tell me that he had read in USA Today, I think it was, that a blogger had been sued for libel and lost, to which my reply was, essentially, “And what was news about this?”

Now, I didn't mean to get snarky – well, yes, I did; standing between me and the door at quitting time is on a par with getting between a pit bull and a bone – but, I am continually amazed at the attitude people and the mainstream media have toward blogs. Yes, there are 14 bazillion blogs, well, maybe 100 million, depending on whether you include all the MySpace-type pages out there. But, an immense percentage of these blogs are not even maintained. Another huge percentage are personal diaries; why anyone would want their personal diary open to the view of any weirdo in the world is one of the mysteries of modern times, but many do.

Another large number of blogs are nothing more than spam that masquerades as a blog. Most of these are selling –what else – pornography, still the easiest way to make a buck on the Internet. There are some blogs, though, that sell legitimate things, including my favorite, original artworks. What's funny is that just a few years ago, these artists simply would have created a personal web page to do precisely the same thing.

In fact, not that long ago, most people who wanted to express an opinion, share a hobby, or offer information did so by creating a web site, often utilizing the free site and tools provided by their ISP. But, even with the tools available, making a good web site takes time, updating it is not as easy as it is with a blog, maintaining links to archival material takes more effort, and there is not built-in comments system, although some of the free web site providers offer web forum services in the package.

The bottom line is that a blog is easier than doing web pages. As a result, all these millions of folks are unburdening their souls. Some of them are doing this unwisely. While anyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, they are not entitled to a) plagiarize the work of others, b) tell lies claimed as facts about people, and c) make disparaging comments about their employers.

Plagiarism is an obvious no-no, yet, if anything, it's become disgustingly common, and not just among bloggers. Communications Week magazine just fired one of their reporters over using unattributed material verbatim. Bloggers are supposed be particularly prone to stealing stuff, but there have been a goodly number of accusations of mainstream media stealing blog material; apparently journalists figure bloggers never read the news.

Libel is libel. Before blogs, web sites were sued successfully for publishing scurrilous statements that had no basis in fact. Sometimes the statements didn't have to be that scurrilous, just wrong enough to be construed as harmful. Either way, you say something about someone, you had better be able to back it up or demonstrate that you were being satirical or sarcastic. Making libelous statements in cyberspace doesn't render the source immune from consequences.

Griping about employers is one of the great universal pastimes. If there was a perfect place to work, you would still find someone there who was crabby about something. That's fine. What's not fine is posting your gripe for the world to see. Most companies have a statement in the employee manual or in one of the dozens of documents one signs when hired that say something about the employee making public statements about the company. Usually, what they say is, “Don't”, although not in so many words. Most people wouldn't write a letter to the editor of the local paper complaining about the company dress code, yet they think it's fine to put similar comments in a blog potentially visible to millions of people.

Of course, there are people who post entries about committing illegal acts who seem surprised to be subsequently arrested, so nothing that people post should surprise us.

Network World magazine just fired one of their columnists, a consultant who, in his blog, had been critical of the periodical. What brought matters to a head was an apparently particularly scathing commentary about a special issue of the magazine. Network World finally decided that they paying someone to criticize their publication was a bit silly, so they freed the columnist from the burden of receiving paychecks from them.

But the most amazing thing is the attitude that the media has toward blogs. It is similar to my attitude toward a snake. I'm both fascinated and repelled at the same. time. So it is with the mainstream media. If one is to believe them, blogs are having this immense impact on society, particularly in politics. We haven't seen a story like this yet, but my guess is that, come November, at least one election loss will be attributed to a blog or blogs. Ridiculous. Groundswell movements came about before blogs and will come after blogs have been forgotten and replaced by The Next Big Thing.

Ironically, many of these analyses of the power of the blog will appear in journalists' blogs. It seems that every publication and media outlet has all of their writers churning out blogs. Most of these are little more than link-of-the-day pieces, although a few seem to be able to crank out a couple of good items a week in addition to their regular work. Some actually use the blog to float ideas that they might later develop into a more in-depth article. So, even as they gripe about the so-called influence of blogs, the mainstream media gang embraces them.

I don't know what will come along to supplant blogs as The Big Thing, but something will. When it does, you can rest assured that people in general and the media in particular will make an inordinate fuss about it. No sooner will it be big than someone will find out ways to use it for purposes that are immoral, illegal, and/or fattening.

That's just the way the world works.

Monday, October 9, 2006

The Lecture Is Mightier (and more painful) than the Sword

If you can't convince 'em, confuse 'em. ~ Harry S Truman

My late father ... heh, heh, that's funny because he was never on time
for anything.

Ahem. My late father was a profound talker. Regrettably, I take after him to some extent, although people who think I ramble on should be grateful that they never came up against dear old Dad. He loved to tell stories about his past, and I plead guilty to doing the same. I could hardly deny it to anyone who has read a few entries in this anthology.

Of course, that means there are billions of people that I could deny it to, but if I go there, I'll get depressed.

The thing is, the stories I tell, whether here or face to face, have a fair degree of truth in them. Oh, I might exaggerate slightly for humorous effect (if you didn't notice the humor, I'd rather not know about it, thank you), but there is some real basis for the tales I spin.

In Dad's case, as I grew older and began hearing some of these stories over and over ... and over and over, I began to notice that they were sometimes radically different than I remembered hearing previously. This was particularly noticeable when he was telling the story to someone who hadn't heard his tales before. On one occasion, I expressed surprise at what I knew to be a significant alteration in one his stories. He looked at me in that time-honored way fathers have of looking at offspring they feel they should have sold to the gypsies when they had the chance. While I may not have been the brightest bulb on the tree, I knew when to shut up.

Dad was a restaurant manager and a pretty good one, at that. His employees really toed the line. I know this, because I worked for him. Unlike many guys working for their fathers, I didn't goof off, and he didn't cut me any slack that he would cut for any employee. That was okay because he was a fair boss. The other reason I didin't goof off was that I feared The Lecture.

Growing up, I had gotten a couple of these. It wasn't that they were brow-beating tirades or anything of that sort. No, it's just that they were the longest, most boring, most repetitive recitations of boyhood excellence that one could be forced to endure. Oddly, these talks didn't jibe with some of his other stories of being a world-class rebel as a kid, but I quickly learned that bringing that up was not wise. You never knew when the gypsies might turn up.

Now, I could be misremembering, but, while I certainly lectured my kids, I think that I kept it short and sour. And I didn't go on about what a saint I was. I did use the gypsy threat once in a while, but the kids stopped buying into that years ago.

Anyway, I knew that doing a crummy job would earn me a new version of The Lecture that I just didn't want to hear. Still, I did have the misfortune to endure parts of it one night, although it wasn't being directed to me.

One thing that made Dad a good manager is that he addressed any employee performance issues quickly. If a waitress or a busboy was doing a poor job, they were going to be told as soon as possible. He also never chewed someone out in front of co-workers beyond a couple of curt words and then only if the person was really messing up. Later, though, they would have "a little talk."

One night, I was doing kitchen duty, washing the dishes and pots, and doing the general cleaning up after closing. On a week night, I could normally finish up within a half-hour after closing. Just about closing, I heard someone tell a waitress that the boss wanted to talk with her. Now, I knew this woman was not the best of waitresses; she was slow and occasionally messed up orders. After she left the kitchen, I noticed the other employees talking in hushed tones, but they weren't looking as though they felt sorry for the poor soul. They were sort of cackling.

So I started cleaning up, which involved getting stuff from the dining room, so I went in and out of the kitchen a few times. I noticed that Dad and the waitress were seated at a table. He was talking quietly and calmly to the woman, who was nodding in agreement. I thought, well, that doesn't look so bad.

I finished the cleaning up, changed out of my kitchen clothes, and went out to let Dad know we could hit the road. When I went out to the dining room, I was expecting to go to Dad's office to collect him. Out of the corner of my eye, though, I saw that he and the waitress were still at the table. He's got to be done soon, I figured. Just to make sure that he knew I was ready, I waved at him. He smiled, waved back, and continued talking.

I sat down at another table across the dining room, with a sinking feeling, because I could heard something of what he was saying. He was going on about his days working in restaurants in his youth and how he had worked hard and did all the right things, and blah, blah, blah. This went on for over an hour. With the time I had spent cleaning up, this poor woman had been hearing this stuff for nearly two hours.

Lordy, I thought, this must be a violation of some sort of labor law.

Finally, he stood up, and I have seldom seen such an expression of palpable relief as I saw on the waitress' face. I've never seen anyone released from prison, but I suspect the expression must be similar.

As we were heading home, I finally asked him what on earth he had been beating that woman over the head with for two hours.

“I was just letting know what she was doing wrong and how a good restaurant employee should work.”

“Yeah, but what was all that garbage about you working in a restaurant kitchen washing dishes and bussing tables when you first came to this country. You never worked in a kitchen until you and Mom ran that tavern. And then she was the one in the kitchen all the time.”

“Poetic license. You know, sometimes you need to make a point.”

“A point! You ran her through with a spear about a dozen times!” Hey, it was after midnight, and I was tired.

Tired as I was, I realized that I may have crossed a line, but, to my surprise, he just smiled sheepishly.

“Maybe. But, I'll bet she does a better job ... or quits.”

As it turned out, she did do a better job, but I think she knew she wouldn't be able to keep it up. Within a couple of months, she moved on to greener (and less demanding) pastures.

Thank goodness. Neither one of us could have sat through another session.

Monday, October 2, 2006

More Gas Fumes

Even if gas prices fall, consumers will continue to be gouged at the pump. The only thing that we can be sure rises faster that the price of gasoline is the skyrocketing profits of oil companies. ~R. Owens

It's just over a year ago I wrote a piece that I didn't want to write. I didn't want to write it because I was sick about hearing about gas prices and the lame excuses coming from the oil companies, the government, and even the media blithering about supply and demand, how every minor event was pushing up the cost of oil, and how we should be happy to be paying idiotic prices for gasoline.

I wrote it because if I didn't my head was going to explode from the buildup of frustration. Well, I'm frustrated again. There have been a number of reasons for this.
  1. I'm seeing more and more articles telling me how I ought to appreciate how low gas prices are.
  2. I've read a couple of ridiculous pieces on how oil pricing works.
  3. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is really being done to stop the petroleum cartel from screwing us again.
I'm not going to fetch up links for this stuff, because a)it's everywhere, and b)I'm going to have an aneurysm if I keep reading some of this nonsense. A typical article by some financial whiz said we should be grateful, grateful, I say, to be paying over two bucks a gallon because, in terms of inflation, based on the record high of 1980, gas should run $3.10 a gallon for regular. Sure, and if you correct 1960's prices for inflation, we should be paying $1.87. Which one makes more logical sense, basing "normal" on a fabricated "shortage" or basing "normal" on what prices ran for decades?

What makes it even more ridiculous is that, in those days of 25-35 cent-a-gallon gas, guess who the biggest, most profitable corporations in the world were? Why, the petroleum companies, of course. In other word, there were screwing us then, too. But, there were more of them then, so there was a modicum of competition. It also wasn't that many years since the breakup of Standard Oil, which kept the oil boys cautious as well. Besides, they made their most egregious profits overseas.

I fail to see how I should be "grateful" to companies that are sticking it to me.

Then there's the pricing articles. Supply-and-demand, my Aunt Fannie's bloomers. Spot market prices be damned. Let me explain just how crude oil pricing is working these days.
To begin with, Exxon and friends do NOT pay $50, $60, or $70 a barrel for oil. They have long term contracts for the oil that they help pull out of the ground for the various oil-producing countries. There's nothing wrong with that; most major commodity users do business this way. The difference is that if you're buying wheat and you have a long-term contract, the price might drop leaving you're stuck paying a premium. You can rest assured that there is no major source of oil available at a price lower than the oil companies pay. The main suppliers are a cartel selling to consumers who are a cartel (and are partners with some of the suppliers), not a situation likely to generate much variation in pricing.

So, who's paying $70 a barrel? Well, there are some consumers of petroleum who aren't big enough to have long-term contracts. They're stuck buying what's left over, which is on the "spot" market. But, the spot market wasn't going high enough to suit somebody, so suddenly focus fell on futures. Futures are a promise to deliver a commodity at a later date. So, you pay me $60 to deliver oil to you at some future date. What I am counting on is that, when that date arrives, oil will be selling at less than $60, so that when I buy it the difference between what you paid me to deliver and what I pay for the oil is profit for me. If it goes the other way, I lose money.

Well, it's futures that went over $70. The thing is, with enough money, you can drive the price of futures through the roof just by buying tons of them, increasing apparent demand. Who's got lots of money? The oil companies. If I were a betting man and had subpoena powers, I'd be willing to bet that one could trace a lot of the speculation on futures right back to the oil companies. Is it any wonder they didn't want Congress to order them to bring in their books?

But here's what's really amazing. Since oil companies have long-term contracts, the futures and the current spot market have no impact on them. Therefore, gasoline has no business going up or down based on those prices, at least not in the short term. Over 6 months or a year, perhaps, but not on an hourly basis. Yet, the price of oil futures gets reported to have increased, and the price at the pump jumps three times in one day. Can you say "gouging"? I knew you could.

By the way, a coworker said to me one day that a friend of his who ran a gas station was telling him how he really wasn't making money on the price increases. Now, it's been widely reported that gas stations went from profits of about 10 cents per gallon to 40 to 60 cents a gallon, so that's hard enough to believe. But, even beyond that, when dealers en masse increase prices based on deliveries of gas they haven't received yet, that's just dishonest.

Recently, in nearby Montgomery, gas prices dropped below $2 a gallon. At least one station owner was quick to say we shouldn't get used to that because prices were only down because of a gas price war. Oh, really? Strange that, since gasoline price wars are illegal in Alabama (I wonder who got that legislation passed, hmmmm?). No, prices are down because the wholesale price of gas is down, buster, and you're still making 30 cents a gallon, in all liklihood.

So why is gas dropping in price? Probably because the petroleum boys have lined their pockets sufficiently for the time being. The cries for alternative energy and fuel efficiecy have gotten loud and are spreading. The oil magnates know when to pull in their claws for a while. If they can keep prices at around $2 for regular, they'll hold off until the next manufactured crises can be used to go for that $3 floor they're looking for. If gas drops significantly below $2, you'll see them move quickly to jack up prices, probably with an OPEC cutback (strangely enough, Venezuela and Nigeria announced cutbacks in production today; hmmmmm).

And what are we doing about this? Well, practically nothing. Oh, there's the push to ethanol, but how is that going to change anything? Guess who makes ethanol fuels? Right, the same wonderful people who are screwing us now. So, now it'll be corn shortages instead of oil shortages. But there's a darker side to the use of corn-based fuels.

If farmers can make a ton of money growing corn, they will do so, to the detriment of other food plantings. Worse, corn is a soil-depleting crop. It has to be rotated with something like rye or soy beans to replenish the nutrients in the ground. Greed will get the better of common sense, and before long, we'll be faced with corn shortages. This is more serious than paying $3 for gas; we're talking 20 bucks for a box of corn flakes, if you can find them. Because of the over-planting of corn, wheat, soy beans, and other crops will also be shorted. In other words, you won't be able to fill your car to go the grocery store, but that won't matter because the shelves will be empty.

Yet, ethanol is being peddled as a pancea.

There are only two ways out of this morass. One is to create a public transport system, like the one we used to have with passenger rail service to everywhere and reliable, clean bus service. That isn't going to happen any time soon, because the cost would be enormous, and you'd have to change the travel habits of Americans, which also isn't going to happen any time soon.

The other way, which has a chance, is to develop vehicles that use little or no gasoline. The ultimate car would be an electric-hydrogen-solar-cell hybrid. There are new battery technologies which will allow for fast charging, long-lived power storage. Honda has a project for producing cheap solar cells. Build a car that uses solar cells to charge batteries while you drive and can switch to hydrogen fuel when the batteries are low (and charges them while you run on hydrogen), and the oil boys will have to cut back on their yacht purchases a bit.

Oil usage wouldn't dry up, but now there'd be plenty for diesel fuel, power generation, and lubrication products. It is a lovely prospect, but it's going to take cooperation from government (whose politicians are deeply funded by guess-who), academia (which gets endowments from ... you know), and some daring entrepreneurs.

Oh, well, a guy can dream.