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.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pranks

Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: It's good to be silly at the right moment. ~Horace

I have never heard of Fruita Monument, but that's okay; they've never heard of me, either. At any rate, they are getting their flash of fame across the Internet right now because a) they pulled a senior prank, and b) it got greenlighted on FARK, which means it's all over the WWWeb. Well allow me a "big, fat, hairy deal" comment right here because, as we say down here, they ain't such a much.

For the record, the Fruita Monument seniors (which evidently refers to a high school class, not the residents of a retirement village) pulled a senior prank consisting of welding a car around a flag pole.

What a bunch of amateurs.

Of course, in our modern era, senior pranks have become a standard part of the curriculum, ranging from the mildly amusing to the generally destructive and everything in between. Such things used to have panache, some derring-do, or as Sherlock Holmes would say, "A touch! A definite touch!"

Just so all you Fruitas know what I mean, let me introduce you to the Madison, Ohio, Class of 1966.

Madison had a history of senior pranks, which, regrettably, I no longer can enumerate because they happened over 43 years ago, and there's only so much room in my personal memory bank. The 1966 event sticks in my mind though. To begin with, we were in homeroom that morning when a motorcade of Madison seniors came careering through our parking lot. That told us something a little unusual was going on.

To begin with, Madison High officials had decided they didn't want to be pranked on that particular day (if I recall correctly, Madison had a Senior day; we didn't, durn it). The powers-that-be contacted the local gendarmes and asked them to keep guard over the school grounds all night to ensure that no hijinks could occur.

Well, Madison was (and is) a small town, and it wasn't like they could keep a patrol car there all night, so around 5 or 6 AM, the cop decided that nothing was going to happen, so he went home. Not a good idea.

Evidently, the seniors had kept watch and were waiting for just this opportunity. With planning that rivaled Eisenhower's at Normandy, they swooped in with their sawed-in-half VW, which they promptly welded around the flagpole. They then went the Fruitas one, or rather four, better. One by one, they tied the cars tires to the flag pole rope and hoisted them to the top. With a sharp pull, they flipped each tire over and lowered down the pole. So, when school officials, teachers, and students came wandering in, they saw not only a VW wtih a flag pole going through it; they also saw four tires neatly stacked on top.

And nary a senior to be seen, because they were parading around our parking lot, among other places.

You see, it's one thing to weld a car around a flag pole. It's another thing to weld a car around a flag pole and pile four tires on top of it. And it's quite another thing to weld a car around a flag pole and stack four tires on it when the school has had a guard in place to keep you from doing it.And, none of them came sheepishly forward to confess. The best pranks are those where no one gets hurt, nothing gets damaged, and everyone may know who did it, but no one can pin it on them.

Over at Geneva High School, we weren't much for pranks. First of all, my class, the Class of '66, had a bit of a persecution complex anyway. For some reason, throughout our academic careers, we were always being chosen to be guinea pigs for some new teaching technique or wonderful new text book or amazing new testing technique. To add insult to injury, we didn't seem to get much love from the teachers. The class ahead of us seemed to be smarter and better looking, or so teachers seemed to imply with the comparisons of our performance to theirs. Well, sure they were smarter, they got to use the good text books while you were giving us the weird ones.

Since they went back to the older techniques after the experiments didn't work on us, they figured the class that followed us was smarter and better looking, too.

We were the ugly ducklings, except we never got to turn into swans.

So, by the time we were seniors, all we wanted to do was graduate and get on with life. Pranks? Who needs 'em?

Well, there was the incident about the "[Principal's name] Go Home!" painted on the side of the building, but that wasn't us, although we were unjustly accused. A couple of underclassmen were outed for that one.

We did have one little moment, though. In the fall, there were hayrides (Lord, this is another age) given at Kiwanis Park by, naturally enough, the Kiwanians. The park was down a hill from the high school, a distance I would put at around a mile or less. A group of enterprising souls, made up mostly, if not completely, of seniors, hauled the wagon up the hill and endeavored to raise it onto the roof of the gym.

Now, we're talking about a haywagon here, which is not a lightweight article. These guys managed to push, pull, and otherwise manhandle this thing up a reasonably steep grade, roll it to the front of a two-story gym and then, somehow, begin to haul it to the roof. Unfortunately, they were interrupted when they had only managed to get two wheels hung on the roof, so that the wagon was hanging off the roof like a huge Thanksgiving decoration. The miscreants were able to make their escape with the wagon in that condition, where it was seen by the entire student body as they came in that morning.

Well, the entire student body but me. Wouldn't you know I picked that morning to be the first and only time I'd be late the entire year. But, I sure heard about it.

Now came the inquisition. There was a group of guys who had formed the -- and I am most certainly not making this up -- White Shirt and Tie Club or the WSTC, and, as I recall, they were considered prime suspects.

Keep in mind that this was a more innocent time. Today a bunch of guys in white shirts and skinny ties would probably be white supremacists or rogue accountants-in-training or something similarly sinister. Back then, it was just a bunch of guys who thought it would be fun to show up for pep rallys dressed to the nines.

At any rate, because this group had more than its share of well-known class jokers, they were considered to be guilty until proven innocent. One by one, there were called to the Office and grilled mercilessly. Well, maybe not mercilessly but definitely endlessly. Finally, one of them cracked and admitted to doing the deed -- by himself, with no assistance from anyone.

Remember, we're talking about a full size haywagon hauled up a hill and halfway up the side of a two-story building. By one guy. One really unathletic guy. Eventually, they got a couple more confessions which followed the same tune. One guy hauling that haywagon up from the park and almost up to the roof. No amount of threats or cajoling could get anyone to change their story, so the whole thing was dropped.

In the end, it's not the prank; it's the chutzpah.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Finding the Formula

Finishing races is important, but racing is more important. ~ Dale Earnhardt

How bad is it going for NASCAR these days? Well, it's hard for me to say exactly since I stopped watching Nextel/Sprint/Whoever Cup races two years ago, but I found a little barometer of note. My son still watches those guys (even though he claims to totally dislike Cup racing) run around Talledega, and he told me about the race and who won (some guy named Kesolowski). Since I don't like the eternity it takes for NASCAR.com to load, I wandered over to SI.com to check out the final results.

They hadn't updated their article from three hours earlier that only mentioned an early accident. Now that may not be entirely fair, but what caught my attention was the number of linked stories. More importantly, what caught my attention is that the article on the F1 race this morning at Bahrain has twice as many linked stories as the NASCAR story.

More coverage for F1 than for one of the biggest races on NASCAR's schedule on an American sports news web site. Wow. It's almost as sad as seeing ads for tickets to Bristol.

The trouble with NASCAR is multifold. The races are dull; they've eliminated most of the interesting tracks, like North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, and Darlington, in favor of cookie cutter tracks like California, Texas, and Michigan, all of which are modeled on Charlotte --excuse me--Lowes. Because they've removed the skill tracks, they don't have very skilled drivers any more. What they have are lots of wrecks, which is apparently what NASCAR thinks fans want. Finally, NASCAR decided to take a bunch of equally unskilled drivers and give them a cookie-cutter car as well. There is no difference between the cars, except for a logo on the front.

Ordinarily, you'd think that last item would bring the good drivers to the fore. Instead it simply allows whoever has the most horsepower to win the race, as long as he can avoid getting wrecked by the incompetents filling out the field.

What NASCAR has forgotten is that racing is about the drivers AND the cars. In fact, historically, NASCAR has always penalized teams that came up with legal innovations (better engines, better aerodynamics, better mileage) by either making those innovation illegal or finding ways to negate them, such as allowing other teams to have higher spoilers.

NASCAR attendance and ratings are down. People are bored with parade-lap races and wreck-fests, and they're saying so with their feet. Brian France needs to read the handwriting on the wall or the red ink of his racing teams (whose books were scarlet long before the recession started).

What he needs to do is look at what F1 is doing.

A couple of years ago, Formula 1 racing had gotten about as dull as racing can get. All the excitement took place during qualifying, because the qualifying order was pretty much the race finishing order, because no one ever passed anyone on the track. Barring a wreck or a mistake in the pits, one-two-three in qualifying was one-two-three in the race.

To make matters worse, F1 was dominated by two teams: Ferrari's factory team, and McLaren-Mercedes. The four cars fielded by these teams (each F1 team runs two cars) were so dominant that everyone else become irrelevant. When you do that, not only do fans get bored, other teams get frustrated and lose lots of money and quit.

The final insult was that to ensure their supremacy, Ferrari and McLaren were spending obscene amounts of money on their programs. At one point, Ferrari spent $500 million in one season on their two cars. Yes, that's right, they spend half a billion dollars to develop and run two cars. I don't think the total money spent on all the teams that run You could probably fund 30 of NASCAR's teams for that money.

Fortunately, the Lords of the FIA, under whom F1 falls, came to realize that this couldn't go on. There were only twenty cars running each race, and some teams were so non-competitive, it was unlikely that would continue much longer. The prospect of a 12-car field was not impossible.

So, the FIA sucked it up and made sweeping changes. They realized that to keep fans interested they needed real racing. Real racing is combination of driver skill and automotive engineering. F1 had become nothing but automotive engineering. In fact, it had become aeronautical engineering, since more time was spent in ensuring that the car was glued to the track, which lessened the skill needed by the driver.

FIA mandated that the cars would change. They dumped traction control, which helped drivers go faster by making up for their mistakes. They made the rear wing much smaller and forced the removal of the dizzying array of protuberances teams were putting on their cars to increase downforce. Oh, and they aded something called the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), which basically is the same method some modern hybrids use to give the engine additional power when acceleration is needed (climbing hills, getting on the freeway, and so on). The hybrid, though doles out this additional power in small quantities as needed. KERS is designed to proved it in one six-second belt, amounting to an 80 HP increase.

Now, FIA could have mandated KERS, but they did something far more interesting. They may KERS an option. So, you could add KERS and get a power boost once a lap for six seconds, or you could not add it and save the significant weight of the KERS system, so you might be able to have more speed all the time.

Oh, and you might prevent you car catching fire. KERS is a work in progress.

FIA also put in some money-saving features, such as limiting the number of engines and transmissions that could be used in a season and cutting back on testing (something NASCAR has also done).

So what's happened? Well, Ferrari and McLaren are no longer dominant. In fact, they're nowhere near the top of the qualifying charts, and their race finishes are even worse. Ferrari picked up their first point in today's race in Bahrain, in the fourth race of the season. The team to beat has been Brawn Mercedes, closely followed by Red Bull Renault, who is being shadowed by Williams Toyota.

Despite Brawn having won three of the four races (thanks to some clever and perfectly legal innovative design), the season has seen the most interesting racing F1 fans have seen for years. Passing, which was once occurred with the frequency of solar eclipses, is now common. Oh, and F1 threw one more cookie to the fans. Unlike NASCAR, your fuel load during qualifying is the fule load with which you start the race. Well, until the first round of pit stops, you never knew if someone was quick because they qualified on fumes. Now the total car weight is announced after qualifying, so you get to guess how strategy is going to play out.

In other words, F1 has found a way to increase fan interest leading up to the actual race.

Now F1 may not have all the answers, but they've recognized some of their problems, which is more than NASCAR has been willing to do.

Brian France should take note.