Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Brain Damage

Pro football is like nuclear warfare. There are no winners, only survivors. ~Frank Gifford

Like many college sports fans, I have the F1T1 virus. That is, I'm sick of everyone talking about Florida and Tim Tebow. In fact, I made myself a little personal pledge that I wouldn't even mention the existence of either unless they were thrashed by 'Bama in the SEC championship or by anyone in a bowl game. But, Florida Coach Urban Meyer needs to be taken to the woodshed and quickly.

For those of you who live on another planet, also known as those who never watch or listen to any sports program, or read sports on the internet or the newspaper -- In other words, for the two of you in the continental US who may not have heard, Tim Tebow got injured last Saturday. After taking a routine hit, he fell back and hit his head on a teammate's leg.

This might not sound like such a much, but having your head come to sudden stop against a leg or a knee is a recipe for getting seriously hurt, either because of a concussion or a neck injury. Mr. Tebow opted for the former. He got a concussion, and it was a doozy. Within a few minutes, he was throwing up and finally was taken to a hospital.

Unless Mr. Tebow is one heck of an actor or a major drama queen (and I don't think he is either), he had a very severe concussion.

His coach, the aforementioned Urban Meyer, has announced that Mr. Tebow should be ready to play against LSU in two weeks.

It is hard to put into polite language just how much contempt I feel at this moment for Urban Meyer.

Concussions used to be taken for granted. If a player "got his bell rung", he staggered over to the sidelines where someone stuck some fingers in front of his face. If the player could guess the number of fingers, give or take a couple, he was okay and likely to be back in the game. At worst, he might sit out the rest of the game and be back the following week.

This is why there are old football players who act like punch-drunk palookas. It's because they have they same kind of condition, repeated brain damage. A concussion is a brain bruise, nothing less. The more times you get hit in the head, the easier it is to get one. Roger Staubach, no stranger to taking a hit, finally retired because he was getting them so frequently.

When Ricky Craven, a pretty fair NASCAR driver, got a serious concussion in an accident, it took over two years for him to completely recover. Another driver, Steve Park went through a similar problem.

If you want a football example, you need look no further than Kurt Warner. Mr. Warner was a very successful quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, coached by the destroyer of quarterbacks, Mike Martz. Mr. Warner sustained a severe concussion and came back too soon. His first (and last) game back for the Rams was a fiasco. He fumbled a couple of times and looked totally lost on the field. He was sent to the bench and languished there until he was cut a year or so later. He has made a comeback with the Phoenix Cardinals, getting them to the Super Bowl last year, but it was a long and trying recovery. It was a recovery that might have been impossible had Martz kept him in any longer.

Concussions, then, are very serious business, not to be taken lightly. Once a player suffers a severe one, there will be more. No amount of additional padding in the helmet will help, because it's not the impact, but the sudden stopping of the head that causes the damage. The brain -- I'm explaining this for Coach Meyer, who apparently doesn't have a clue -- the brain floats inside the skull. When the skull stops suddenly, the brain keeps going and slams into the skull, which has no padding, thank you.

Concussion is the polite term. What this gives you is brain damage. The only cure is to avoid sustaining those sorts of impact until the brain is completely healed.

Mr. Tebow is a running quarterback who likes to put his head down and take on tacklers. He is a potential poster child for brain damage.

No one can tell within a day or two just how severe a concussion might be or how long a player might need to recover. Yet, on Monday after the game, here's Coach Meyer saying Mr. Tebow will rise up and smite, yea verily, LSU. Mr. Tebow is apparently a nice guy; he's also a very competitive individual. It's likely that a doctor would have to threaten to sedate him to keep him out of a game. Yet,apparently worried that said doctors might try to get Mr. Tebow to be sensible or that Mr. Tebow just might be worried about the long term effects of scrambled brains, Urban Meyer is essentially telling Mr. Tebow he expects him to suck it up and win one for the Gators.

More importantly, he's telling him to win one for Urban Meyer.

If Coach Meyer had waited until next Monday (Florida is off Saturday) after full medical testing, clearance from the doctors, and the disappearance of the headaches that Mr. Tebow still has, it might make sense for him to be saying that his star would play. But, making such an announcement while Tebow's head still aches, and almost surely before doctors have cleared the player, is disgusting.

I guess he figures he needs the wins to put him into a better position to replace Charlie Weiss at Notre Dame at the end of the year.

Mr. Tebow is risking further brain damage; his coach's brain is evidently missing a few critical components of its own, like ethics, compassion, and fair play.

And probably no one kicked Coach Meyer in the head.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Not So Smart People?

When I grow up, I'm going to get a job spelling. ~ Linus Van Pelt, quoted by Charles M. Schulz

I stumbled across an article entitled "Eight Spelling Mistakes Even Smart People Make", but, frankly, it wasn't exactly what I expected. I had anticipated something about tricky words like "foreign" (which I've been misspelling since the fifth grade) or "judgment" (shouldn't there be an "e" after the "g"?). Instead, the author dwells on the sort of mistakes "smart" people shouldn't even think about making.

Now, I don't want you to get the impression I'm getting all snooty here by pretending to be smart or intellectual or something like that. I got disabused of that opinion a long time ago, when I attended Case Institute of Technology. I think the Case admissions people used to let people like me in only to provide amusement to the real geniuses who they were actually looking for and to provide the lower portion of the grade curve.

However, I did learn that guys who are geniuses in physics or math or engineering may be absolutely useless when it came to writing simple English sentences. Some of the most atrocious grammar I have ever seen was written by guys who could do matrix algebra in their sleep. On many occasions, I did some editing of an English essay for one of these Einsteins, which was another reason I think the admissions people let folks like me in.

That being said, on their worst days, most of these guys would not have made the errors in the article. Oh, they might make one as a typo. In fact, I've had my moments. I'll type "youre" (omitting the apostrophe) which the spell-check will correct to "your". And if I'm in a hurry, I might skip an "o" and type "to" instead of "too".

I just don't buy the author's assertion that "smart people" don't actually know the difference between "your" and "you're", "its" and "it's", "they're", "their", and "there". And I really don't think there's too many smart people who think "alot" is a word.

In fact, the Smart Person who wrote the article did not think "ahold" is considered a word. Well, Merriam-Webster begs to differ. It even cites a Norman Mailer quote as an example. Take that, Smart Person!

Of course, one issue here is what constitutes a "smart person." If it means "a person with a high school education", then I'd say that a great many so-called smart people have bigger problems with their spelling and grammar than the examples given in the essay. If, on the other hand, it means "a person who actually leaned something in school", then I say that smart people don't make these mistakes, except when they're being lazy -- or typing too fast.

I think the author is yet another to fail to realize the impact of e-mail, texting, and, most recently, tweeting. People today are in such a hurry to spit out text that they seldom check what they write. They are also so taken with abbreviating that worrying about an apostrophe (its, it's) or an extra "o" (to, too) is simply not something they do.

I will grant the author one of her complaints: The use of "irregardless" instead of "regardless". The former simply is not a word. Well, it has weaseled it's way into some dictionaries, but it is listed as "nonstandard." I suspect, though, that it's very existence is due to smart people, because it sounds very high-brow, and, possibly, because they confuse it with "irrespective." To once again invoke Charles Schulz, people are generally never quite so stupid as when they are being smart.

Nonetheless, if the Smart Person authoring the essay is going to complain about the copy she's given by people whom she thinks should know better, she may want to reassess her definition of "smart" to exclude those who were actually paying attention back in the sixth grade.

And she should look up "ahold".

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

It’s easy to get good players. Getting them to play together, that’s the hard part.~ Casey Stengel

This is not a story about Brett Favre. I am sick of hearing about Favre, his selfish attitude, and his general I-wanna-play-but-only-on-my-terms attitude. I used to admire his toughness and ability; now, I'm just very tired about his retirement speeches, his comebacks, and his whole soap opera.

This is not about Michael Vick. To all those who talk about how Vick paid his debt to society and how truly sorry he is, all I can say is that I firmly believe that the only thing Vick is sorry about is that he got caught. To all those who say that America is about second chances, I offer this comment that someone posted on one news site. He said he was an auditor and that if he was convicted of a felony, there would be no way on God's little green Earth that he would ever get a job in that field again.

No, this is about a couple of young men for whom I have a new-found respect.

Last year, as most college football fans know, Auburn University had about as dysfunctional a season as it's possible to have. To begin with, coach Tommy Tuberville hired his third offensive coordinator in four years, Tony Franklin. It seems Tuberville wanted to jump on the spread offense bandwagon and Franklin was supposed to be the guru of spread. For reasons known only to him, Tuberville retained all his old assistants, just as he had with previous offensive coordinators. As a footnote, you should be aware that one of those assistants was the offensive coordinator at one time. All of those assistants were fond of straight-ahead running offenses.

As if that wasn't a sufficient recipe for disaster, Franklin looked at the roster and decided that starter-in-waiting Kodi Burns, who would seem tailor made to run a spread, wasn't his sort of quarterback. So, he convinced Chris Todd to transfer to Auburn. The problem is that Mr. Todd had undergone shoulder surgery in the off-season, and his passes had as much velocity as a blimp. Despite that minor inadequacy, Mr. Todd was obviously Franklin's choice to be the starter, leaving Mr. Burns kicked to the curb.

When the season began, a number of things became painfully obvious. First, the team wasn't learning the spread very well, which may have had something to do with all those assistants who didn't much care for the offense. Second, the average Chris Todd pass would bounce off a sheet of facial tissue. Third, Mr. Todd didn't look all that mobile, which would seem to be death for a spread offense.

It was.

The net results were as follows:

  • Chris Todd was totally ineffective.
  • Kodi Burns was installed as starter.
  • The offense continued to stink.
  • Tony Franklin was fired in mid-season.
  • Tommy Tuberville "resigned" (read: was fired) at the end of the season.
  • An entirely new coaching staff was hired.
Then a strange thing happened. During spring practice and through the summer, the battle for the quarterback position was supposed to be between Kodi Burns and three other guys, none of whom was named Chris Todd. However, when the dust settled during August practice, guess who was named the starter. Yup, it was Chris Todd.

You see, Mr. Todd, rather than sulking about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, hung around. At the end of last season, he had another, evidently more successful, shoulder surgery, probably followed by some serious rehab. He then showed up for practice with a positive attitude and managed to convince all the shiny new coaches that he could, in fact, do the job.

Meanwhile, Kodi Burns found himself kicked to the curb yet again. Not only was he not the starter, he wasn't even a quarterback any longer. He was now a receiver. Now, while Mr. Burns may have been a quick quarterback, most people seem to feel he doesn't have wide receiver speed, so the odds are not in favor of him getting a bunch of playing time (especially considering he has to learn an entirely new position).

Mr. Burns could have gone into a profound sulk at this point. He had been through four offensive coordinators (Al Borges, Tony Franklin, and his interim replacement). The Auburn offense in his only time as starter was a cobbled-up mess, with players having no idea what they were supposed to be doing. He did his best, and the thank-you he got was "go long."

But, Mr. Burns didn't sulk. Instead he called a team meeting. He told the players that Chris Todd was the starter and the whole team needed to get behind him. He said that the divisiveness of last year must not be repeated; he didn't want to see cliques of players grumbling that Kodi should be starting. They had to play as a team or they would be doomed to fail.

Do you have any idea how amazing that is? In this day and age of selfish I-am-the-star athletes, to have one stand up in front of his teammates and say, "The team matters more than any one player," is beyond amazing. To have another work his way back from flop to starter when most people had forgotten he was still with the team is beyond remarkable.

Chris Todd and Kodi Burns are both deserving of praise for their attitudes and effort. Mr. Burns just might surprise everyone and become a useful tool in the offense that everyone is surprised to see Chris Todd running. They both seem like fine people, the kind you can point to and mark as examples of teamwork and unselfishness. They also have another attribute worth noting: Maturity.

Messers Favre and Vick might want to take notice.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers. ~Sydney J. Harris

All those people predicting the apocalypse and waiting for the Antichrist have been looking in all the wrong places. The Antichrist is not some world leader or charismatic religious figure. It's Bill Gates.

Now I know a lot of people are going to be screaming, "I knew it!" It's not what you think. The reason he's the Antichrist is because his company created Powerpoint. It is Powerpoint that will cause the demise of humanity, at least according to The Inquirer.

Okay, the end-of-the-world part is tongue in cheek. The point, though, is that because of the ubiquity of Microsoft's presentation software, communication is being reduced to bullet points. And those bullet points aren't always the really important points that need to be raised. Interestingly, the article quotes Andrew Brook-Holmes of Microsoft who points out that Powerpoint is just a blank canvas dependent on what users do with it. According to the article, Mr. Brook-Holmes then backtracked, saying that perhaps Powerpoint wasn't suited to all users or uses.

The gentleman is so close yet so far.

The problem is that people no longer understand how to communicate information and the receivers of information have become so lazy that they don't want to have to determine what information is really important. The easiest way to explain what's going on is to go back in time.

When I first got into business many, many years ago, presentations were handled very, very differently than they are today. To begin with, the presenter actually created a report that included a description of the data acquisition method and the analytical methods performed. If the report required it, it would contain any graphs or tables necessary to summarize the data. In many cases, there would be an appendix that actually contained the data.

This report would be put into the hands of the people who were the target of the presentation before the event. Those people were expected to actually read the report before showing up, because the main function of the presentation was to summarize the research, present the conclusions, and recommend actions. All of this was in the report, of course, but now the audience, having read the document beforehand, could ask informed questions and raise objections or offer counterproposals.

Occasionally, some particularly clever presenter would use a flip chart or -- if the company was really up to date -- present some bullet-point slides on an overhead projector. If either of these was used, it was only to accentuate the points the presenter thought were important. However, everyone realized that this was the presenter's opinion. Only a foolish person accepted everything said at face value just because it was on a clever slide.

Well, times have certainly changed. I can't recall the last time I attended a presentation where I had so much as an outline of what was to be delivered. On a couple of rare occasions, I received a copy of the Powerpoint slides when the presentations were done, which is essentially useless (after all, I just saw those things). I can recall only one occasion in recent years where I actually got all of the data that was used to justify a recommended course of action. That came from a storage vendor, who I guess figured we might as well have the data, since we ran the program (which they supplied) that gathered the data.

In other words, we already had a copy of the data the vendor now generously gave us.

I have also sat in meetings where someone complained about some sort of "network problem" but was unable to tell us how often it occurred, what errors were generated when it occurred, or even when was the last time a user had encountered the problem.

No Powerpoint presentation in the world is going to fix that sort of "communication."

Somewhere along the line, we stopped caring whether what we were being told was accurate or even true. It's not presentation software that's causing disasters to occur; it's our unwillingness to say, "On what is that based?" or "Have you considered other alternatives?" or even "Is this the only course of action available?".

All of these are questions people used to ask. Now they just ask, "Can I have a copy of the slides?".

Powerpoint isn't the problem. We have gotten lazy. Oh, we blame it on "information overload", which is a lame way of saying, "I can't be bothered to determine what is important and what isn't." Well, the important things have a way of making their presence known. Unfortunately, that presence frequently becomes known as a result of something very bad happening. After that happens, of course, someone will create a bunch of bullet-point slides to explain why it was no one's fault.

And everyone is happy --- until the next catastrophe.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Again with the Instant Replay Stupidity

In life, there is no pause button, no rewind, and definitely no replay. ~ An anonymous but wise person

I have something to say.

AAAAAAUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHH!


Thank you, I feel better now.

The idiots are at it again, demanding more instant replay, this time in baseball. The current focus for this misguided attempt to screw up a great sport came about because of a blown call in a recent game between Minnesota and Oakland. Minnesota lost the game 14-13 because the umpire missed the runner's foot hitting the plate before the tag was applied.

Well, that's a shame, but it's not the end of the world, and the screams for replay overlook a couple of things. First of all, it's a 162 game season. If the Twinkies miss the playoffs because of this loss, you'll probably be able to point at 75 or so more losses that didn't involve blown calls and ask, "Why didn't you just win one of those?"

Second, Minnesota had a 10 run lead and flat blew it. With any sort of decent play, they shouldn't have been trying to tie the score. Don't blame the umpire, blame a miserable job by the pitchers.

I have ranted and raved about using instant replay to second guess officials. I ranted when baseball sold it's soul. I got upset when the subject came up during the Chicago-LA-Angels-of-Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga playoff series. I railed on and on about replay officials blowing calls. What set me off this time was Mike Greenberg of Mike and Mike in the Morning reprising his stupid logic about the wonders of replay.

Basically, his argument comes down to "We've got the technology, so why not use it?" As I explained, using that brilliant reasoning we should be embracing performance enhancing drugs. After all, what better use of technology than to manufacture our athletes? Better yet, why don't we just do away with them altogether and just let computers play the games? I mean, given the state of modern computer-generated graphics, the game would look as good, and we wouldn't have to listen to all that whining about contracts.

Mr. Greenberg says not to tell him about the "human element." The players are the human element; the judgment of the officials should be totally mechanical and utterly correctable, even though replay has been proven to be as fallible as the guys on the field (see the "blowing calls" link above).

So, I'm going to try to explain why replay detracts from sports in a way that even Mike Greenberg can understand it.

  • The umpires and referees are part of the human element. They're in the rule book, and their judgment is as much a part of these games as the judgements made by coaches and players.
  • Replay is performed by human beings, too, and those guys are fallible just like the guys on the field. It just takes them longer to make their mistakes. Which is utterly inexcusable. You can understand blowing a bang-bang play, but missing whether a football went 10 yards after watching endless replays? That's criminal.
  • Officials come to depend on replay. In college football, where every stinking play is reviewed, we've all seen times when officials on the field deliberately held up play waiting to help from above.
  • Thinking that replay will always save their butts, officials in football and basketball have gotten miserably sloppy. Worse, it's extending to things that aren't even reviewable, like penalty calls. Has anyone else noticed that their is no referee in college who knows what pass interference is?
  • Replay reviews destroy the flow of the game. When a great basketball game gets delayed for 10 minutes while the refs review replay after replay trying to decide if there are 10.5 or 10.6 seconds left (and having them decide there are 14 seconds left), the entire complexion of the game can be altered. When a football team is driving down the field late in the game, it is pitiful to watch the replay official let the air out of the stadium by taking forever to confirm a ruling on the field.
  • Which brings us to what the original point of replay was supposed to be: To correct obvious, egregiously bad calls. Instead, games are interrupted at key moments so we can be told, after a totally unsuitable delay to detect whether or not a player was out of bounds by a millimeter, that "The ruling on the field stands."
Sooner or later, the morons who think replay is the be-all-and-end-all will have penalties being reviewed. Worse, penalties will be called from the replay booth, ensuring that no football game can be played in under six hours. Advertisers love replay; it gives them that many more opportunities to put commercials into a game. As the games get longer and longer, rules makers will find imaginative ways to screw up the game (whichever game it is) by "speeding it up" because play has become too slow.

The NCAA tried this a couple of years ago, and succeeded in sucking the very air out of games by essentially doing nothing but reducing the number of plays, while the games stayed as long as ever.

All sports have evolved over the years, sometimes getting better, sometimes not. But when you screw up the game with technology, you're destroying the very spirit of sport.

Y'know, Congress seems to be very interested in avoiding addressing the important issues, what their kvetching about steroids and the BCS. If they really wanted to do something for the world of sport, they would ban the use of replay in officiating.

Now that's change I can believe in.

Monday, July 20, 2009

From the Earth to the Moon -- and Back

Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don't count astronauts among them. We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: 'above and beyond the call of duty.'~ Michael Collins, command module pilot, Apollo 11

Do I remember where I was on July 20, 1969? You bet your Aunt Fanny's bloomers I do. I was at a friend's house where we huddled around his old TV set watching astronauts land and walk around on the moon.

I've been watching some of these programs over the last few days about the Apollo mission. Some of them have been pretty good, but I do get tired of the many shows that harp on the "primitive" technology available and how fallible all the equipment was and how it's amazing we got there at all.

Well, here's a bulletin for all those young producers: The technology was a quantum leap over what NASA had in 1961 when the project started. Those pitiful little computers were more powerful than anything that had ever been used before. And the people involved were the most remarkable aggregation of genius and determination since the Manhattan Project -- and this time a city didn't have to be vaporized in the process.

Yes, we lost three astronauts, the price of the builders not listening to what the geniuses, in this case the guys who were going to fly the thing, were trying to tell them. When they did, NASA ended up with a flight system could overcome an explosion in a fuel cell and return its crew in tact. The Saturn rocket, which, if you believe the current shows, was just waiting to blow up at any second, is the only U.S. rocket to never have a failure.

Now, we can't keep the toilet working on the ISS.

But, I'm not going to crab about the current space program, because I prefer to remember when we had inspired and dedicated people working toward a concrete goal. Sure, you can argue it was done because of cold-war politics. But it was still a magnificent example of what people can do with a purpose.

Michael Collins, the often forgotten man of Apollo 11, offers a collection of thoughts over at Space.com. I was stuck by the quote that starts this article. Mr. Collins is making a point lost on so many people. There are brave people doing their jobs everyday, but calling them heroes is devaluing the term. The astronauts came into the program with eyes wide open; this was their job, and they did one hell of a fine piece of work.

I suspect he feels the same way about the way the word "great" is thrown around as well.

He has no use for "celebrity" either, calling it an "empty concept". For a man who journeyed a half million miles through space, he has his feet planted firmly on the ground.

I also like his idea, shared by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, that we should quit piddling around and commit a dedicated mission to reach Mars. We've been to the Moon; going back serves no great purpose. You want a launch pad in space? Build a proper space station and launch from there. Going all the way to the Moon to launch rockets to Mars is absurd.

Collins, by his own admission is a bit of a grumpy old man, as is Buzz Aldrin. But, that astronaut's optimism and drive still sneaks out. In answer to the question, "Don't you have any keen insights?", he says:

"Oh yeah, a whole bunch, but I'm saving them for the 50th.

I'll be looking forward to reading them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Remarkable Level of Badness

The wastebasket is the writer's best friend. ~ Isaac Bashevis Singer

I have been told, over the years, that I have a distinctive writing style. I think there are three reasons. First, I spell words properly and use reasonably correct grammatical methods. Both are becoming lost skills. Spell-checkers should render the former impossible, but people are very clever about either not paying attention to them or simply misspelling words so badly that the spell-checkers give up.

Second, I have a a fairly extensive vocabulary. I have found this to come in handy over the years, particularly in business writing. As the adage goes, "if you can't convince 'em, confuse 'em."

Third, I write long, involved sentences with lots of dependent clauses. As I've explained before, commas are small, cheap, and easy to use, so why not use 'em?

Sometimes, though, I fear I just might qualify for the Bulwer-Lytton competition that's held annually. The web site proudly proclaims that it is where "www means Wretched Writers Welcome." There's been more than one time I've felt over-qualified in that regard.

The competition was created as sort of an homage to Edward George Bullwer-Lytton, who is best known for two things: the novelThe Last Days of Pompeii
and for writing the most atrocious opening sentences in all of English literature. The contest uses as it's inspiration this opening sentence from Paul Clifford:


It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Charles Schultz, of course, made the opening phrase famous.

Bulwer-Lytton was nothing if not consistent when it came to this sort of thing. For example, consider this gem from
Calderon the Courtier:

The Tragi-Comedy of Court Intrigue, which had ever found its principle theatre in Spain since the accession of the House of Austria to the throne, was represented by singular complication of incident and brilliancy of performance during the reign of Phillip the Third.

Now I don't think it's entirely fair to lay the entire blame for bad writing on Bulwer-Lytton. After all, many writers in the 19th century used similar techniques with similarly mind-numbing results. But, few if any wrote as many books as did the Earl. At any rate, each year modern would-be bad authors are invited to submit opening sentences that capture the sleep-inducing, head-spinning, eye-crossing essence of the master. This year's winner, one David McKenzie, came through:

Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.

Sort of a cross between Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, and a deranged sitcom writer.

There are even sub-categories, like Purple Prose, which has this gem as its winner:

The gutters of Manhattan teemed with the brackish slurry indicative of a significant though not incapacitating snowstorm three days prior, making it seem that God had tripped over Hoboken and spilled his smog-flavored slurpie all over the damn place.

You gotta admire the sheer awfulness of something like that.

However, I have discovered someone who wildly surpasses Bulwer-Lytton: Amanda McKittrick Ros, who is, according to one expert, the greatest bad writer who ever lived. Thanks to a husband who was willing to pay to have her books published, we have such gems as "Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!" One can imagine the besieged Irene simply staring in horror and saying, "Say what?"

In one book, Helen Huddleston, all her characters are named after fruit. There's Lord Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, and Madame Pear. One wonders if the creator of the parlor game Cluedo (better know in the U.S. as Clue) was a fan of Mrs. Ros.

I am forced to admit I'm probably not in Mrs. Ros' class, if only because I don't know enough types of fruit to populate an entire novel. This is probably a good thing.

Bulwer-Lytton is another matter though. I fear that I have moments when I sort of drift into a typographical reverie where the fingers simply float over the keyboard, releasing an outburst of verbiage that approaches the flow of the Niagara cataract following the endless rains of the typically gray and gloomy northern April, when weeks go by without the warming gaze of the sun.

Or something like that.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Modern Minds

Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself. ~ Henry L Mencken

I am amazed to announce that America's Greatest Thinker (at least for 2009) has been found in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. John Pollock has been granted that exalted title as a result of winning The Great American Think-off in that international center of deep thought, New York Mills. The issue was settled among four finalists by having them address the earth-shaking question, "Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?"

Two of the four, including Mr. Pollock, argued that the answer was "Yes."

Why is it that I am not the least bit surprised that the two that would argue that way would be a lawyer (Pollock) and a former E. F. Hutton employee (the other guy)? In case you're curious, the other two occupations were Air Force Master Sergeant and environmentalist (and part time operator of an ice-cream store).

Anyone who ever took a philosophy course will recognize the question as one of those absurdist sort of problems that would get posed in a first-level ethics course. An intelligent student would immediately raise the issue of the definition of "right". Do we mean "correct"? If so, the question is ridiculous because it can never be wrong to do the correct thing. Or does right mean "moral"? If so, does it mean moral in a legal, religious, or ethical sense?

In other words, as stated, the question doesn't mean much. But that's never stopped a philosopher.

I'll leave it to the reader to make up his/her own mind whether the "yes" arguments even make sense. To me they don't. The Wall Street guy uses an economic example to say, basically, it would be stupid for a failing company to admit their situation, so they should lie about it. His logic is that if the company was truthful, they would fail. Well, the lie-like-a-rug method hasn't proved to work out so well, now, has it? Only a stock brokerage employee could find that a rational argument.

As to Mr. Pollock, well, I can't make heads-or-tails about what his point is. His penultimate sentence, though, is "And in the end, I have realized that what matters is what one does, yes, but also how, and why." So, Mr. Pollock, to put it another way, the end justifies the means.

That is one sad philosophy. This is also an odd philosophy coming from a civil rights attorney. But, let's consider that most of our politicians these days are lawyers. That would explain a lot.

Frankly, the saddest thing is that these dissertations would be regarded as profound thinking. They read like sophomore essays that might have garnered a C+ from any of the philosophy teachers I had.

I guess that's what passes for great American thinking these days.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Shakespeare Caper

We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep. ~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Not too long ago, a portrait belonging to one Alec Cobbe was announced as being a true portrait of William Shakespeare, which would not be a big deal except that it looks very different from other portraits. Now it turns out that Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel says most emphatically, "Nein, mein Herr". Her technique involves comparisons with other images along with some basic detective work about wardrobe.

So here we are, once again, dealing with that age-old question, "Just who was this Shakespeare cat anyway?" I've discussed this before at some length, and I've allowed as how it basically doesn't make a crinkled farthing to me who wrote the plays. It does, however, seem to bother some folks a great deal. So, what the heck, let's take another shot at it.

Some time ago, I read
Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare by Bertram Fields, which takes a little different tack on the subject: Now, I'll warn you in advance that people didn't come flocking to his point of view, but I find it intriguing. Besides the book is a fun read.

Fields spends most of the book discussing what few actual facts are known about William Shakespeare. There is the Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon who seems to be an ordinary Joe who was a merchant, who sort of mysteriously goes off to London for a time. There's the Shakespeare who was an actor, who was a principle in running (and possibly writing for) a theatre. It turns out to be a little tricky to tie these people together. If you do tie them together, then you have to deal with a number of issues. For example, how did a grammar-school educated Shakespeare come to know history so well? How did he become so wordly wise in his writing and imagery? And why did he write such a lousy epitaph for himself?

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
to digg the dust enclosed heare!
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,

And curst be he yt moves my bones.

That has all the charm of "There was a young lady from Nantucket."

After attempting to separate what is fact, what is surmise, and what is plain old conjecture, Fields lists the candidates for authorship of the collected works of the bard, and it's quite a list. It includes, in no particular order: Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford; Christopher Marlowe; Francis Bacon; Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland; and Elizabeth I, Queen of England. So who does Fields think is the culprit?

He thinks it was a committee. Well, he uses the term "collaboration", but you get the drift. Essentially, Oxford is the main author of the group, since he's been penning a few poems and plays on the side. It isn't considered proper, however, for nobles to be stooping to show biz, so he hooks up with this struggling actor named Shaksper and gets him to be a front man (for which Shaksper will be paid well), but only after changing the name on the frontspiece to Shakespeare.

Things chug along nicely. Christopher Marlowe provides assistance on some of the plays, and even Shaksper provides some suggestions, what with his being an actor and all. Oxford, meanwhile, holds some plays back, mostly because he doesn't think he's gotten them quite right. Meanwhile, "Shakespeare" is turning out plenty of pretty good stuff.

Then Oxford becomes ill and dies. His son-in-law, Lord Stanley, finds the plays and consults the family lawyer, Francis Bacon, who, it turns out, knew about Oxford's little hobby. Plays are dusted off and, in some cases, punched up by other playwrights, like John Fletcher and Thomas Middleton.

No, I've never heard of them either.

Anyway, this all goes on for sometime until Shaksper himself kicks the bucket. Once Oxford's family finds that the "bard" hasn't spilled the beans about Devere's little arrangement, Stanley decides it would be a good idea to collect the plays and sonnets together, so he gets Ben Jonson to do this. Jonson being the editor of the First Folio is a major irony because he had no use for Shaksper, but, on learning of Oxford's arrangement, he thinks it would be a hoot to immortalize the man he considered to be a two-bit thespian.

So there you have it. Oxford, Stanley, Jonson, Middleton, Fletcher, and Marlowe (plus some other minor characters) are the authors of the plays. William Shakespeare is a front. Sorry, no Queen Elizabeth. She was busy doing queen stuff.

Now, does that diminish the plays somehow? Not to me. Those works stand (or fall, in the case of a few of them) on their own merits. Frankly, it matters not to me if Shakespeare's butcher in Stratford wrote the things. I'll still find enjoyment in Othello, Macbeth, or Richard III. And I'll be frustrated by Hamlet.

Really now. With all those authors, couldn't someone have helped Hamlet make up his mind?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rituals

Without cultural sanction, most or all our religious beliefs and rituals would fall into the domain of mental disturbance. ~John Schumaker

A young lady in Florida, a student with a 3.89 GPA, who had been chosen as class valedictorian, was pressured, if not outright forced, into changing her graduation speech. Her sin was that she was going to give a speech that was, shall we say, reality-based. Instead of the usual flowery "As we venture onto the seas of life" garbage, she was going to give some sound advice, like get a steady job before you worry about changing the world.

This upset the powers that be, and she ultimately gave the traditional speech. What a pity.

Allow me a couple of stories. When I graduated from high school during the late Pliestocene, I was chosen as a graduation speaker. In our case, we didn't do valedictorian, salutatorian, or whatever. No, our speakers were elected by the faculty. I came to learn there were some who were concerned about choosing me because they were worried I just might do something on the other of the Floridian. Well, I thought about doing just that, but, realizing that my parents would have a fit, I decided to go the route of writing an abstruse philosophical treatise that no one understood.

The advantage of wrtiing a speech no one could figure out was that no one could think of a good reason to object.

At the end of the ceremony, we did the funeral march out of the gym. Once we exited the gym, we broke into a run for the auditorium where we could dump our robes and mortarboards and get the heck out of Dodge. About half the students were out when the doting parents, grandparents, and assorted other relatives, who were duly absorbed in the solemnity of the moment, heard a piercing, "YAHOO!" ringing out in the hallway. Some were amused, and some weren't.

Flash forward to the graduation of The Daughter. After an interminably long program, the principal finally brought proceedings to a close. As he mouthed his last platitude, the student body rose as one with a cheer and began tossing confetti, streamers, and toilet paper in the air, punctuated by streams of silly string.

I loved it. My mother hated it. I gave The Daughter all sorts of praise for the celebration, while Grandma gave her a sullen peck on the cheek (and probably chewed her out at some later time).

Immense scholarly tomes have been written on the importance of ritual in society. Ritual is a key in human development that bound groups together and brought order to a disordered world. There was time when ritual may have served some sort of purpose of that nature, but, to me, ritual and ceremony are an immense pain.

Ritual pervades our lives. There are graduations, weddings, funerals, initiations, and on and on. All these events seem to involve a lot of time, fancy dress, and regimented behavior. Yet many people cling to these endless wastes of time, all the more as people get older.

Not me. I thnk life it too short to take three days to bury someone. Gatherings where platitudes or "sacred" phrases are mouthed endlessly are a crashing bore. If it were up to me, diplomas would be mailed out.

Ritual has, in fact, often been a divisive force, since, while it binds one group together, it excludes others. This comes to mind everytime I see references to the "secret" initiation rituals of the Freemasons, which evidently aren't very secret any more, since you can see them portrayed about once a month on any of the documentary channels. These rituals have been exaggerated and misinterpreted by those not privy to the inner circles of Freemasonry and used as an excuse for persecution.

One person's ritual is another's satanic rite.

I recognize that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do away with ritual. Totalitarian regimes have tried to do that, because the dictators don't want people to bind against them. What they end up doing, though, is replacing one set of rituals with a new set that glorify the regime. The dictators simply replace one set of ceremonies with another.

Despite the difficulty, it would be helpful to the growth of the human race if we could become independent of baccalaureate breakfasts, viewings of the deceased, and the tallying of the happy couple's wedding gifts. Just imagine the time we'd gain to do something useful with our lives.

By the way, I was the kid screaming, "YAHOO!"

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tony Franklin Speaks. Some People Should Listen

The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely to be the one who dropped it." ~ Lou Holtz, Arkansas

Tony Franklin was a significant part of the soap opera at Auburn University last year that ended with the "retirement" of coach Tommy Tuberville. Franklin was supposed to bring in his high-powered spread offense, which definitely turned out to be a very low-octane affair. I commented on his termination at the time, but I never got around to talking about Tubervilles' exit, mostly because I was being lazy and not writing at the time. All of that is very old news now, and I wouldn't be mentioning it now except that Coach Franklin gave an interview to Josh Moon the other day and appeared on a local talk show as well.

The article on the web doesn't do justice to the article that actually appeared in the paper. Evidently, the coach, who had refused to talk about the whole business at the time, happened to be in a more gabby mood when Mr. Moon contacted him. In fact, he couldn't shut up.

I'm not overwhelmed by genius offensive (or defensive) coordinators. They come and go. Today's genius is tomorrow's has-been; just ask Al Borges, who could do no wrong when he had Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown destroying defenses but became just another coach once that duo left. Franklin, though, was so over-hyped it seemed like he was destined to fail from the start. He certainly didn't help matters by the way he handled the quarterback situation.

For a spread offense, you need a quarterback who can throw and run. Kody Burns, the logical incumbent, could run, but his passing was a little suspect. For some reason, Franklin induced Chris Todd to transfer to Auburn and promptly made it clear that he was the clear leader for the starter's spot. The trouble was that Todd was coming off shoulder surgery and threw the ball about as hard as I can, which ain't very much.

That's not necessarily so bad. Some weak-armed quarterbacks have been very successful by using their feet to give them better passing opportunities or to keep the defense loose and allow receivers to get open. Unfortunately, Todd, who had no surgery on any of his leg parts, couldn't run a lick, either. A spread quarterback who can't throw and can't run should be holding a clipboard.

Add to this Franklin's weird play calling and generally confusing approach to players, and you have a recipe for failure. Which he did.

So now he's at Middle Tennessee State. He still doesn't see where he did anything really wrong, but he does go out of his way not to blame the Auburn coaches for the failure either. Apparently, it was all the fault of the trustees and boosters.

Now, let me make it abundantly clear that Auburn does have a long and tiresome history of trustees and boosters exerting idiotic influence on the athletic programs. Auburn is almost legendary in the number of coaches that they have paid not to coach, due to firing them with quite a few dollars left in their contracts.

While I might not agree with Franklin's rationalizations about what happened to his offense at Auburn, I do find his comments on the attitudes of influential fans very interesting. By "influential fans", I mean, of course, big money boosters and trustees. What the average fan thinks is immaterial to these people. It has become obvious, though that the influential fans are exerting control on big time programs that is unprecedented.

Franklin, while trying to remain complimentary, essentially says that the SEC has led the way in allowing the big-money guys to determine the actions of a program. I think there's something to that, although it's obvious that most of the big-time schools (the perennially highly ranked schools, like Texas, Ohio State, USC, and so on) are in the same boat. Even a successful coach is, as Nick Saban said, one 7-5 season from being kicked out.

It's because of the money, of course. Which actually makes no sense. Colleges are running around pleading poverty in droves, raising tuition or, if they are state schools, begging for more state money and raising tuition. Yet, they hand out huge contracts to coaches and spend obscene amounts on their athletic programs. Sure, they recoup some of that in booster donations and television money, but if the big athletic programs were bringing in money in proportion to coaching salaries, schools like Alabama and USC wouldn't have to charge tuition at all.

It's also generating the culture that Franklin spent a lot of time decrying in his newspaper and radio interviews. Franklin could well have avoided it, but even he admits he was "seduced by the money."

It is, of course, an illusion that schools are making any money from major sports. It's gotten to the point that,in recent years, teams are actually losing money to attend bowl games. Most recently, despite receiving around $300,000 for the Papa John's Bowl, Rutgers ended up out about $100,000 just because of the costs of dragging the band, cheerleaders, and about 200 players, coaches, and assorted hangers-on to Birmingham.

The sad thing is that big-time college sports have been a mess almost since the beginning. The sport was so brutal at the outset that Theodore Roosevelt consider banning it. Once that problem was resolved, teams paid ringers to play; now at least players have to at least make a pretense of attending school. Basketball's gambling scandals are legendary. Steroids in the pros? Colleges were doing it first and are probably still have a serious issue with performance enhancers.

I've been a fan of college sports for years, so I'm part of the problem, too. Because the only way this is going to change is when the fans stop spending obscene amounts of money to have the privilege of buying seats, or when the rest of us stop watching the big games on ESPN. It is not, however, outside the realm of possibility that those things could happen. After all, NASCAR has thought they were bulletproof all these years. Now, with track attendance and TV ratings dropping, they're wondering what they're going to do. College presidents are liable to be in the same position if they don't watch out.

Because I haven't watched a NASCAR race in two years.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Time: The Great Unequalizer

Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable. ~ Franz Kafka (often attributed to Peter Drucker)

It's interesting that Drucker, the great business guru, seems to have lifted that line from Kafka (at least, I can't find where Drucker made an attribution). When I went looking for the source of those words, I came across many other Drucker quotes that seemed more geared to the results-oriented approach that leads to the results-at-any-cost approach so common in business in the last few decades.

It just seemed a little out of place for Drucker to be a moralist.

This little digression is by way of introducing a discussion of a couple of studies that while seemingly on two different subjects, seem to dovetail. First, there was a study (there is always a study) that showed that project teams under time pressure are not innovative, instead relying on the tried-and-true just to get the bloody project done.

I'm not sure if this is supposed to be surprising to anyone. It certainly isn't news to me. I've been involved in enough projects to know that. When a team is under the gun, it doesn't have time to try out and test new methods. First of all, it takes time to develop truly new concepts, and second, it costs money. Managers pay a great deal of lip service to "thinking outside the box", a hideous phrase, but what they really mean is, "Get it done on time, even if you're not really changing anything."

In addition, managers are just like other folks: They don't like real change. Unlike the other folks, managers have the authrority to prevent change from happening. Years ago, I worked for a company where the president decided the company needed to be more forward-looking and innovative to move into the future. He hired a consultant to train all the managers in the concepts of planning, then had them meet once a week for weeks at an off-site location, developing the long-range strategy.

This was serious work because between meetings, the managers had to do research, prepare revenue estimates, draw up new plant layouts, and so on. After about six months, they proudly presented the president with a detailed 5-year plan. He praised their effort and then announced his own plan, which had nothing to do with their work. It was, instead, based on some equipment he'd seen on a vacation to Europe.

So much for thinking outside the box.

Another study (they're everywhere, they're everywhere!) came along the other day that showed that morality was also affected by time. In this study, it was shown that people would condone actions in the immediate present that they would condemn if the action were linked to some people in, say, ten years' time. Similarly, the same action performed in the past would be considered immoral, but current necessities would override that moral indignation.

In other words, it depends not only on whose ox is being gored, but when it's being gored.

We've all experienced this phenomenon. People will decry the polluting activities of their forebears and expect future business actions to be green, green, green. Yet, when faced with environmental requirements or the need to conserve energy today, they will go to great lengths to try to rationalize their way out of having to do the right things.

The business methods introduced in the 1970's by those accursed MBA's have heightened the need for such situational ethics. Thinking for the long term is a lost art that has been replaced by the "what have your earnings been lately?" approach.

If you really want this put into perspective, consider the new automotive fuel efficiency requirements signed into law recently. The auto industry has done nothing to increase average fleet mileage since the 1980's, the last time such requirements were imposed. In fact, by excluding gas guzzlers like SUV's and trucks from the figures, they have been able to disguise the fact that fuel efficiency has probably declined.

Now the industry is in all sorts of trouble, primarily because they put off making more economical and affordable vehicles. Instead, they were instituting all sorts of project teams that had to come up with results without actually changing anything.

Of course, there is a prevailing theory that the auto companies have been in cahoots with big oil. While I certainly wouldn't automatically dismiss the possibility, what I've seen of the American auto makers convinces me that they couldn't keep that a secret. What they saw is that, as long as gas was affordable, they could get away without having to innovate annything, which left more money for bonses. They could show all manner of concept cars that showed that the future would have to be green, but today the only green they would respect was coming out of the consumers' collective pockets.

Had there been a conspiracy, the oil companies wouldn't have upset the applecart by running gas prices up to the point that they would collapse the economy.

Enron, Healthsouth, GM, Chrysler. It didn't take academics doing studies to find out that our business leaders' heads weren't screwed on straight. The situational ethics and cultures of doing-what-we've-always done have been aroudn for half a century.

Shakespeare says in one of his plays, "The first thing we do, we kill all the lawyers." That's only because they didn't have MBA's in those days.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Does Not Compute

The main impact of the computer has been the creation of unlimited jobs for clerks. ~ Peter Drucker

I've used that quote before, but I think it's actually a paraphrase of the following Drucker wisdom about the effect of the mainframe computer on business:

Few companies that installed computers to reduce the employment of clerks have realized their expectations... They now need more, and more expensive clerks even though they call them "operators" or "programmers".

Personally, I've always preferred the first version, because it inspired me to update the thought for the client/server era:

The main impact of the PC has been to turn managers into clerks.

What brings all this to mind are a couple of comments I heard this past week. First, my boss was mentioning he'd be stopping by work this weekend. Being the respectful employee that I am, I allowed as how this was an indication of either dedication or mental illness. He replied that he simply didn't have a life, which was a third alternative we had considered. At any rate, he said he'd be stopping by because it was time to do payroll, and he preferred to do it on the weekend to make sure he got it in by the deadline.

The second comment came from my partner-in-crime and co-sysadmin, Bud, who had been checking out something mainframe-related (he backslides occasionally). Basically, the total storage capacity of the mainframe, which once held all our working information, was less than one of our average servers. And that storage capacity had never approached being fully used.

Now consider that we have almost 100 servers, several of which are over 75% full of accumulated data (some of which, of course, has nothing to do with business, but most of it does). I don't know about you, but as we considered it, we just shook our heads in wonder as we put that datum together with the boss' weekend payroll duties.

What we wondered is how organizations could so thoroughly screw up a good idea like the computer.

If you've been around for even half as long as I have, you'll remember when payroll was done by clerical people, who seldom had to come in on weekends to keep the system up to date. About the only time they had to work over was at the end of the fiscal year and to get tax forms out. Now the payroll clerks are gone, and managers are doing the clerk's job, despite the payroll system being supposed computerized. Supposedly, a time clock system is directly tied to the payroll system. Employees can input time-off requests directly into the time clock system, which the manager can approve or disapprove using the the same system.

And yet, the managers (and my boss isn't the only one by a long shot) have to work on weekends (either on site or remotely) to get the payroll done in a timely manner. Or, they can take the alternative of just being late, incurring the wrath of superiors and (perhaps worse) the Finance department.

Never tick off the people who control the money.

Having been associated with computers in one capacity or another since the Univac 1107, I am continually amazed how much labor the supposed labor-saving mainframe, and later PC's and servers, have created. We were supposed to be working 30-hour weeks by now thanks to all the time saved. Instead, the ongoing complaint is about how much unpaid overtime exempt employees put in.

The problem is that we've never really figured out how to use the marvelous machines. All anyone knew is that we could now generate bags and bags of data, and all that information must be worth something. Managers who once spent their time running their organizations now spent hours creating spreadsheets and typing their own memos. When e-mail came along, people got obsessed to the point of forgetting how to simply pick up the phone and call someone instead of exchanging a hundred e-mails to clarify a simple point.

Of course, with the advent of internet access, those incredibly busy employees now spent all manner of time "researching" important topics, like how their NCAA basketaball tournament bracket was going. They would interrupt that activity once in a while to send e-mails to anyone and everyone with links to fascinating sites about cat pictures captioned with brilliantly humorous lines like "I can haz cheezburger."

For this, all those vacuum tubes gave their lives.

Of course, we techno-geeks haven't helped things any by insisting on constantly upgrading hardware to be able to run the last version of Windows as fast as we ran the previous version. Meanwhile Microsoft is busy pushing out a new version of Windows that will end up devouring all the new resources, forcing another upgrade cycle.

Not to mention having to retrain all the users to use the new OS or latest "productivity" application. And I'm not even counting all the specialized applications that organizations spend gobs of money for, which get upgraded all the time, requiring mass installations and more retraining.

We're doing this wrong.

I don't know when companies forgot that running the business was more important than generating lavish multi-media presentations, with multitudes of bullet points and glossy charts that look really great projected on a big screen. By the way, has anyone ever noticed that presenters end up skipping quickly thorugh half their slides because the slides are redundant, self-eveident, or just useless?

It's the fault, of course, of the MBA's. Somewhere during the late sixties and early seventies, the MBA became the ticket to the corner office. Prior to that, the people who ran companies actually had worked in the industry and knew how products were made. They had a knowledge of the complexities of manufacturing or providing services, depending on what the organizaiton did. For reasons that have never been clear to me, MBA's who never saw a factory floor or served a constituency (if we're talking about government) became the people who made the decisions. And they made those decisions using the reams and reams of data that the computers could churn out.

The trouble is that, not knowing what was really important to the business, they couldn't discriminate between useful data and white noise. So the theory developed that, if you only had more computing power and complexity, maybe something would come out that would solve the company's problems. Using that philosophy, these guys got the economy into the state we find it today.

Maybe they figure that the way to get to that short work week we were all expecting by the 21st century was to unemploy everyone. If that was the goal, they're succeeding admirably.

Another Drucker saying I've used is: The computer is a moron.

I think he may have missed his target there.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Filling the Mental Data Banks

When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not. ~ Mark Twain

Over the years, I have amassed a huge collection of information, much of it utterly useless but most of it interesting. Some people find this fascinating; the Wife doesn't, but she's gotten used to it. Besides it's helpful having me around when she's doing crossword puzzles.

For some reason, odd facts stick with me, maybe because they're fun. For example, I can instantly recall the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse. Of course, that doesn't come up in conversation much, but when it does, by golly, I'm ready.

Some facts I picked up as part of the educational process. When something was interesting, it stuck. Otherwise, it was memorized for the test and quickly forgotten, which explains why I can remember more about physics than accounting, even though I got much better grades in accounting (I said the information stuck, not that I understood it).

A lot of facts, though, I picked up from cartoons, particularly Rocky and Bullwinkle. Now, in this day and age of brain-dead potty humor that passes for cartoons, the idea of actually learning things from a cartoon may seem odd, but believe me, the guys who wrote these cartoons loved to put in all manner good information. In particular, Peabody and Sherman's trips in the Wayback machine were actually fact-filled. They were also pun filled. In fact, the worst pun in the history of cartoons (and quite possibly anywhere else) occurs in an episode about World War 1. Peabody is telling Sherman about a master plan the Germans (or the English, I forget which) had to save the population in case of an invasion that involved the use of a gigantic lighter-than-aircraft: One nation in dirigible.

These days, having lost such an invaluable source of knowledge, I have to rely on other sources. There's the Internet, of course, but just browsing around for information is such a hit-and-miss proposition, and accuracy is always suspect, like the infamous Highway 69 fiasco. A few years ago though, my co-worker Bud put me on to the Uncle Johns Bathroom Readers. These books, of which there are many, are collections of very short articles (perfect for reading during quality time spent in the porcelain palace) that cover just about every topic under the sun. As if that isn't enough, each page has a tidbit at the bottom like "Kodak founder George Eastman hated having his picture taken." Or this: "Lemon Pledge has more lemons than CountryTime Lemonade."

Right now, pride of place in the Gog john [har-har], is Uncle John's Monumental Bathroom Reader Thanks to the intense researches of the Bathroom Reader's Institute (BRI), I have been enriched with all manner of oddball facts to dazzle anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. To wit, I have learned:

  • The ingredients of toothpaste, and the fact that brushing with plain water would be almost as effective;
  • A plethora of folk cures, such as rubbing a live frog on your face will get rid of freckles;
  • That two companies are authorized to make and sell the Swiss Army Knife (one sells the 'original" while the other sells the "genuine");
  • That Thomas Watson, Alexamder Graham Bell's trusty assistant, invented the phone booth to use in his boarding house, because the landlady complained of the noise he made shouting into those old phones in order to be heard.
In fact, on the very same page as Watson's invention of the phone booth, is the origin of the slot machine. In 1910, the Mills Novelty Company was marketing a new brand of gum that came in three flavors: cherry, orange, and plum. They devleoped a vending machine, which was the first slot machine, with wheels that turned when a coin was deposited and a lever pulled. What kind of gum you got depended on what came up on the wheels (cherries, organes, plums, or some combination). Just to make things interesting, they added lemons and bars to the wheels. If you got three lemons, you got no gum (hence today's term of a "lemon" being a bad product). On the other hand, 3 bars got you extra gum. To this day, the same symbols are used on traditional slots.

As a little bonus, I learned something else, which was not mentioned in the Uncle John's article: the origin of the name of a 1960's bubble-gum band. The name of Mills Novelty Company's gum was 1910 Fruit Gum. The band that gave us such forgettable hits as "Simon Says" and "1-2-3 Red Light" was called the 1910 Fruit Gum Company. Like Mycroft Holmes, I have this uncanny ability to bring disparate facts together to form a cohesive whole. Of course, this is obvious to any regular readers of this blog or my other one, or it would be if there were any regular readers of these blogs.

Oh well, time to stop whining. The Wife is working a crossword puzzle and needs to know who was the third baseman in the Cubs infield of Tinkers, Evers, and Chance.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Formula Found -- and Lost Again

Why did I take up racing? I was too lazy to work and too chicken to steal. ~ Kyle Petty
Y'know all those nice things I wrote about F1 racing?

Never mind.

I should know better, but I keep underestimating just how stupid sports owners can be. Remember how I said F1 racing had gotten exciting again? That was before the Spanish Grand Prix, or, "El Pace Lap Grande". Once again, an F1 track was a no-passing zone, with most of the position changes happening in the pits. Case in point: Sebastian Vettel was demonstrably faster than Felipe Massa but somehow could not pass him. Thanks to yet another stupid piece of Ferrari strategy (they have been leading the circuit in dumb this year), Massa ended up woefully low on fuel and had to slow so much that he had to let Vettel around him. Had he not had a fuel issue, it's unlikely Vettel could ever have gotten round the Ferrari.

Then there's the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). KERS is cursed so far, since all it seems to do is enhance the ability to block, but not to pass. That's when it works at all, which isn't a sure thing by any means.

It appears that all the excitement of the first few races was generated by the wet conditions. Rain is a great equalizer, providing a demonstration of who really can drive. But, in the end, Brawn, the former Honda race team that was on the rocks a couple of months ago, has shown that they've got more car than anyone else. Red Bull is trying to hold up their end, but so far, they're a distinct second best.

So, it's the usual two-team deal. The funny, and interesting, bit is that Ferrari and McLaren have been completely unable to figure out how to win under the new rules. Their strategy to recovery is, as usual, to throw obscene amounts of money into their program (and we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars here), just so they can get things back to where they're the only competitive teams again.

This is, of course, how F1 got down to only 10 teams.

The FIA, attempting to stem this, has proposed a budget cap of a measley $60,000,000 per team, excluding driver salaries and engine development. However, and here's where it gets stupid, it's not a mandatory cap. If you want to, you can still spend a half a billion bucks, but you won't have as much "technical freedom" as a team that stays in budget. I'm not sure what that means exactly, but I suspect it means that teams under the cap can essentially cheat, while those above it can't. This is being uphemistically called a "two-tier championship." In practice, it's being called a "smoldering heap of dung."

In response to this attempt to curtail runaway F1 spending, the big money factory teams have threatened to pull out of F1. That's Ferrari, Red Bull, Toyota, and Renault. Only McLaren has remained mum so far, probably figuring that, with only 10 other cars to beat (and all of those living under the cap), they'd be a shoo-in to win the championship.

Oh, and the drivers are supporting the boycotters wholeheartedly. Of course, they are because the next thing the FIA might cap would be their own egregious salaries.

The FIA isn't done being stupid. They have proposed returning to the olden days of no fuel stops. There would still be pit stops for tires, but no fuelling would be permitted. Ironically, fuel strategy has long been a very integral part of F1 racing, and this year, for the first time, teams had to announce their race starting fuel loads (they qualify with this load). Fans could now see the stratgies to be employed and make their own judgement about whether a car was really fast in qualifying or just running on a smidgen of gas.

No, says the FIA, we'll save money this way. Or it'll be safer. Or something. I don't know how they figure eliminating fueling is such a savings while they still insist that teams run two different tire grades in a race.

Things are so screwed up with the FIA rules-making process, that Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 majordomo, managed to sneak his idiotic "wins only" scoring system (complete with gold medals), which would award the championship solely based on wins. No one, and I mean no one but Bernie likes this rule because it would kill any attempt at racing for position beyond the first two or three spots. It would also promote wrecking a guy just to prevent his winning a race.

Anyway, when the FIA put out their proposed rules for 2010, they were embarrassed to find someone had slipped Bernie's medals into the mix. It isn't clear who or how, but it's been quietly dropped.

I don't know how the budget cap thing will work out, although my suspicion is that the FIA will knuckle under one way or the other. But it's pretty clear that, like NASCAR, Formula 1 and the FIA can't stand prosperity.

Someone needs to point out something to the FIA gurus about what happens when racing becomes really boring. The time trials for the Indianapolis 500 began last weekend. You would be excused for not knowing that because it wasn't on ABC or ESPN. It was on Versus, which is beamed into hundreds of homes nationwide. Versus used to be the Outdoor Channel or something like that. Their biggest claim to fame was landing the NHL contract, mostly because no one else wanted it.

I can see it now, tuning in to watch a grand prix race sandwiched between a fishing show and bull riding.

Or else, F1 could suffer the fate of Champ Car racing (formerly known as CART). They got bought out by the Indy Racing League (IRL) when they went broke. Just think: Danica Patrick as F1's best known driver.

Michael Schumacher would just die.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Warped Factor

One of the advantages of being a captain is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it. ~ James Tiberius Kirk, stardate 2715.2

Unless you've been living under a rock, don't have a television, or are unaware of the advent of moving pictures, you've probably heard that there's a new Star Trek movie. I've seen the previews, and I do believe that there are more explosions in the preview than occurred in all of the original series (TOS) and all six TOS films. But, that's what sells these days, so it'll probably be a huge hit.

As is normally the case when there's a new blockbuster out, the various media outlets have all sorts of stories that, while having little or nothing to do with starships or even explosions, manage to have a Star Trek tie-in. The Montgomery Advertiser had a lulu.

NOTE: The Advertiser web site has a shortened form of this story. I'm going to talk about the version that appeared in the print version on May 5, 2009. See? Not everything is on the web. Besides, it's a Associated Press story, and they've been weird about linking to their material.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the article. Seems someone decided that one could apply the James T. Kirk management style to the business environment. He provides several cases, starting with Kirk's Dilemma, followed by Your Dilemma (which doesn't seem to have much to do with Kirk's problem), and finally, What You Can Do (which has practically nothing to do with Kirk's solution). F'r Instance:

Kirk and the gang from the Enterprise have arrived in a planetary system that has two planets at war. Being, in their mind, ultra-civilized, they don't actually throw bombs or anything at each other. No, they run computer simulations, which compute casualties. Then, people who correspond to those casualties happily march into a disintegrator. Kirk, faced with his crew being casualties, deals with the situation by destroying one planet's computer, so they'll actually have to throw bombs and blow stuff and people up in person. Naturally, the planets decide negotiating isn't such a bad thing.

Your dilemma, on the other hand, doesn't involve anyone being disintegrated. It seems in these difficult times, employees can't understand that they'll have to change to survive. What You Can Do is to "Gather your staff and talk straight."

Now, anyone who ever saw that show knows that Kirk tried talking to these people and only received the answer, "Disintegrator chamber at 2 PM, Captain. Please be prompt." His solution was to break the computer. Kirk was always breaking computers, usually using some ridiculous paradox to get the machine into an infinite loop so it would blow up. Fortunately, Kirk always dealt with really dumb computers.

It is unlikely, though, that your company's management is going to think kindly on your staff running over to the IT center and blowing up the mainframe. Mind you, a "professor of management" is quoted as saying (and this is straight from the story), "In a business situation, what Kirk did would have been a first step." Talk about the first step being a doozy.

Another example involves one of the best TOS shows, involving the planet destroyer. In this one, William Windom plays a captain who has gotten the snot kicked out of him by some sort of infernal machine that destorys entire planets, including the one he beamed his crew onto. Naturally, he's depressed about this. Kirk and the gang happen on the scene and get involved in trying to fix Windom's nearly wrecked ship. Windom, left on the Enterprise, takes command and intends to fix that planet destroyer once and for all. Kirk tells him in no uncertain terms that he's not going to do that and orders Spock put in command. According to the article, this is an example of constructive insubordination.

Well, it would be insubordination if Windom actually outranked Kirk, which he doesn't (the captain of a ship outranks everyone on his ship, including bigger brass). But, what the heck, they could have chosen any one of a dozen episodes where ol' Jimbo cussed out some superior or another. At any rate, your dilemma is that your boss has come up with a really stupid idea that is going to be "disastrous" to you, the department, and your company. That, brother, is one really dumb idea.

Your solution to this is to anticipate that this will occur, which Kirk certainly doesn't do in this case. How often exactly do you run across a monstrous machine from another galaxy that eats planets? At any rate, in anticipation of your boss losing his mind and going all Captain Ahab, you become his best buddy, always helping him out, and being a general brown nose. Then, when the really, really dumb idea surfaces, you basically turn on him. Another "expert" quoted offers this advise: "Explain: 'We've always done it this way because...' "

That particular argument will earn you a big negative in the "adapts to change" section of your review (assuming the company has survived the really, really dumb idea), and all it'll do is get your boss' back up. Following up on this suicidal advice, it is suggested that your ultimate solution might just be to find another job.

Yup, that's just how Kirk would have handled it.

So, the James T. Kirk management style would involve blowing up computers, insubordination, quitting ... oh, and communicating like crazy. Especially with the "weird guy with the facial tic" (Kirk's dilemma was landing on the planet modeled after gangster society in the 1920's).

Of course, this sort of management training would explain the mess GM, Ford, and Chrysler have got themselves into. Having worked for an automotive supplier, it would make sense that would be channelling Jim Kirk.

On one of his really, really dumb days.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Congress Investigates

Our government has become too responsive to trivial or ephemeral concerns, often at the expense of more important concerns or an erosion of our liberty, and it has made policy priorities more dependent on where TV journalists happen to point their cameras. ~ William A. Niskanen

Back in September, 2005, I opined, "I don't know how I missed a news item this big, but it appears that Congress has balanced the budget, saved Social Security, solved high energy costs, prevented the coming fuel-induced recession, and fixed the whole mess in Iraq. At least, I think they must have, because how else can one explain the Senate actually wasting time on Major League Baseball's steroid problem?"

Well, here it is, May of 2009. The budget deficit is at record levels, Social Security is still a huge mess, the fuel-induced recession arrived (aided and abetted by the greed of the financial community), and we're still in Iraq. In addition, those In addition to those things, the auto industry, which has been trying to commit suicide for decades has finally succeeded, thanks in large part to the energy boys making the profitable gas hogs suddenly very unpopular.

But, there's a new sheriff in town and the Democrats are in charge, so we look with hope to all this change everyone is on about. What do we get? Congress wants to hold hearings to investigate the Bowl Championship Series, better known as the BCS.

Sorta makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it?

Interestingly, in December, 2005, I reported that Congress was considering doing precisely the same thing, investigating the BCS. For some reason, they didn't get around to it then, but this time they can point to none other than the President of the United States having come out in favor of a playoff. Also, they're probably still patting themselves on the back for having "solved" the steroid problem.

As to the latter, any progress made in cutting down steroid abuse can be attributed to the DEA and whoever else has cracked down on the illegal sales of steroids and to Jose Canseco, who wrote a book exposing the whole sordid mess. By the time Congress got into the act (and made fools of themselves by mispronouncing names of star players), Barry Bonds was already in hot water, and Roger Clemens' personal trainer was already in trouble with the law. Aside from exposing a few names that Canseco missed, Congress did little or nothing, beyond putting on a show while ignoring substance abuse in football (you really think 300 lb. lineman who run like cats got that way in the gym?) and basketball (where its thought as many as half the players are doing marijuana).

So these guys are going to solve the BCS. This is the same Congress that has been bought and paid for by lobbyists for so long that nothing of substance ever gets passed to regulate industries that need it. I've noticed that calls from that same President for increased regulation of financial insitutions have gone largely unheard by the same Congressmen who were so attuned to his opinions on college football.

Everyone knows that Division I-A football is the only NCAA sport that can't seem to figure out how to get a playoff in place. Further, everyone knows that the reason for this is that there is too much money involved in the bowl system for anyone to change things. Even though the bowls could be used as the framework for a four- or eight-team playoff, that would leave the majority of them as small time sideshows. It would no longer be possible to jam 15 bowl games into one week, so they can all be held around New Year's Day.

The college presidents all seem to be against the playoffs, ostensibly because it would add so many games to the schedule (for the teams that win). Now, they don't seem to have this concern about the basketball playoffs, which now can add six games to the finalists' total. If they're so worried about the length of the football schedule, why did they increase the season to 12 games, with a championship game in most conferences?

Well, they get all the money from those extra home games for starters. And don't kid yourself, the BCS conferences added those extra games to HOME schedules, bringing in non-BCS teams in most cases to play those games. Ohio State, Alabama, USC, it doesn't matter; check their schedules and you'll see 8 home games in a 12 game season.

They also see the payouts from non-playoff bowl games shrinking because they'd have to be played in and around the much more interesting playoff games. That would also cut into the dough rolling in. And, of course, a fair playoff system would elminate the 'BCS" conference system anyway, which would really hack into money that the Big Ten, Pac 10, SEC, Big 12, and whoever else is BCS add to their coffers.

The irony is that they need all this money to support the bloated athletic programs they have created, with huge highly paid coaching staffs in football and basketball, huge recruiting expenses, monstrous stadiums and arenas to support, and endless athletic scholarships to fund.

If Congress is so anxious to investigate college sports, a look into where all this money goes would be a lot more worthwhile than worrying about whether Utah will ever get to play in the National Championship Game.

Yeah, when pigs fly -- or the banks get re-regulated.