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Archive for December, 2009

ABC News has discovered that the Federal Aviation Administration has just held a series of parties which cost the taxpayers $5,000,000.00 .

Your tax dollars at work.

ABC News is, of course, shocked, shocked.  A quote;”  “It Beats Being At Work,” FAA Manager Exclaims as 3,600 Meet in Atlanta; An Excuse to Throw a Christmas Party?

Personally, I’m not the least surprised about this sort of stuff.  The liberal media may be surprised, but, in point of fact, the FAA people were simply doing what everybody else in the government is doing.  They’re spending like there’s no tomorrow, from the President on down.  They’re spending everything they can because if you have any money left over at the end of the fiscal year, then the politicos take your funding away and give it to someone who can spend everything, and more.  Of course, in the end, the people responsible for this extravagance will be punished.  But only because they got caught.

This is all state of mind.  Consider:

This

or

This

Let’s face it.  There’s not enough time or bandwidth to detail all the obsessive compulsive spending by government.  But there is time to show up at the polls next November.

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Running in the Halls

One of my favorite sayings is “What used to be college pranks are now felonies“, which is to say that there once was a time when I was a real handful.  Now, at age sixty, I have developed an appreciation for the consequences of certain actions and an aversion toward being detained by the legal authorities.  This does not mean that I am incapable of tart amusing comments and actions, but I’ve let up on the gas pedal a bit over the years.

In looking back at my misspent youth, more than a few of my amusing episodes have occurred in hotels, motels and other places of hospitality.  There’s something about the venue; the room looks like your living room, but you don’t own the furniture.  If something accidentally happens, the consequences just don’t seem to have the same impact.

History is replete with examples of such behavior.  In particular, I am reminded of an episode at a hotel which was the lodging site for a number of automobile racers who were competing at a nearby track.  Competitive automobile drivers already enjoy a reputation for excessive drinking and outrageous stunts.  The place where they were staying was an old and elegant European hotel, one with wide halls and long corridors.

A member of the automotive press, holed up and drinking in his room after hours with other members of the press, heard an unusual sound in the hallway.  He got up from his seat, and opened the door to the hall, only to see one of the racers driving by in a Citroen Deux Chevaux.  He was being hotly followed by another driver in another small European sedan.  In the hotel hallway.  In another variation upon the same theme, I have personally seen such contests by less-then-sober individuals driving maid’s carts.

I never was that bad, but a recent event reminds me, with mixed memories, of a time when I was twenty five years old.  Fresh and full of myself, I was operating with an unlawful excess amount of energy.  Upon reflection, it is still an amusing episode but I am thankful that the statute of limitations have applied.

The venue was an older hotel in a Southern city that was about a five hour drive away from home.  The perfect distance; not too far, not too close.  There had been a time when this hotel had been an elegant one, but it had clearly fallen upon hard times.  Likewise, the hotel staff was both ancient and sullen, a rare combination.  When we complained to the front desk, we were dryly advised by management that there was nothing that could be done about the situation, because we were going to be the last guests in the hotel.  Once we left, the wrecking ball would arrive.  Everybody that worked at the hotel, many had been there for decades, were all out of jobs.  It was a sobering moment, until one of our number asked, for reasons unknown: “So, you wouldn’t mind if we accidentally broke something?”  Management’s reply was: “No, just don’t hurt yourself, sir.”   I will leave it to your imagination what the result was, but it was an interesting, beer-fueled weekend that I still vividly remember.

I say all of this by way of background, for my lovely bride and I became inadvertent observers of similar activity while staying out of town recently.  There’s no reason to name the place, because it is irrelevant to the story.  Let’s just say that it is an elegant location that has changed its business model in recent years, but is a place of nostalgia that plans on being in business for many years to come.  Likewise, there’s no reason to name names, both to protect the innocent, and the guilty.  The only thing that you need to know is that, on this particular weekend, this venue was the site of two weddings and a birthday for someone turning twenty one years of age.  Truly a harmonic convergence.

We returned to the lodge at a late hour, only to be greeted by a large crowd of drinking twenty-somethings.  Our notion of a nightcap in the cozy bar listening to a piano player evaporated.  There simply was no place for us.  Instead, the kids saw a vision of their grandparents waddling through the lobby to get to their room for a warm glass of milk.  Once in our room, we battened down the hatches.

This is not to say that it was all that bad.  I know bad, I’ve seen it personally.  Like when I looked out of my hotel in a small Central American country only to see tanks and soldiers, with all of their weapons pointed toward the hotel.  No room service that day, for sure, but I digress.

The balance of our evening at our hotel was highlighted with periodic crashes and bangs, yelling people.  All not in keeping with the character of the hotel.  In the cold light of morning, I ventured down for coffee.  Not a creature was stirring.  Several other innocent guests were quietly debriefing after the frantic evening.  Many had never been there before and seemed unlikely to ever want to be there again.

The hotel staff were demoralized and exhausted from a long frenetic night.  Most had little, if any, sleep and they were understandably angry and frustrated.  Certainly more than one was contemplating the wisdom of having entered the hospitality business in the first place.  We talked for a bit, and it became clear that a plan was being developed to insure that this sort of thing never happens again.  Certainly one element would be that any wedding would require taking all of the rooms at the facility.

My spouse reasoned that we should take breakfast relatively early, since eventually the celebrants of the previous evening would awaken and realize that they needed to eat.  We sat down to breakfast in a nearly empty dining room.  As the morning wore on, people started dragging themselves in.  One late-night reveler commented repeatedly that he had been puking all night, perfect breakfast conversation.  Been there, done that, and it’s not that it’s cracked up to be.

Of course, we’ll see what happens next.  Perhaps there will be a letter of apology to the guests that were inconvenienced, maybe even a make-good of some sort to lure the offended back for another try at the hotel’s hospitality and ambiance.  This will be the measure of how good management will be.

As for me, I know that we’ll be back for another try, just to see if it was an anomaly.  And, I’m more forgiving than some, just because.  But I overheard one of the younger guests sheepishly asking management for assistance.  “I left my coat on a hanger in one of the rooms.  When you find it, could you return it to me?”  At least he used a hanger.  As for my generation, it would have been more along the lines of “Uhhhh, I left my pants in one of the rooms…..”  Times change.

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Computers

Things have been inordinately quiet around here for good reason; I’ve been wrangling with a cranky computer. It’s my own fault, I tend to hold on to computers until they become impossible to operate.  Now, I have a new machine and it  is like a housebroken puppy, fun.  Of course, because it is considerably faster than my old one, I’m very happy, but it is more than that.

I’ve lost count, but this is probably my twenty-fifth computer, and it is nice to see that the technology has matured to the point where a lot of things that were once required to get up and running are now accepted to be something that is necessary, right out of the box.  It hasn’t always been that way, and when you had to wade in and start looking at IRQ’s and DIP switches, it is little wonder that computer geeks and computer companies got away with the things that they did.  As my new computer was doing its little start-up thing, it was a time for me to reflect.  In the earlier days, I would have been reading the manuals as the little machine chugged away, but now, there’s almost no paperwork with the new machines, just a superfluous “How to plug things together” sheet.

Of course, none of this would be possible without Willis Adcock.  Nor without the NASA Moon Program and the integrated circuit board.  Nor without PARC, etc.  And, Moore’s Law.  As with all technological advances, we stand on the shoulders of those who worked before us.

I got out of college in 1971, and like many other liberal arts graduates, I became curious about what it was that I was supposed to do with the thing called a BA.  Naturally, I went to the college career counselor, who slapped a bunch of standardized tests on me to help me grasp what my life’s duty was supposed to be.  It turned out that I had a promising career as a computer programmer, even though there was not enough data to establish if I really was going to be good at computer programming or not.  It was really too soon for the standardized test makers to have firm data.  The computer field was that new.

Fortuitously, I was shanghaied and ended up in another field, sparing me from a life of sitting in a cubicle underneath fluorescent lights, staring at a computer monitor, poring over endless lines of code.  Now of course, I spend a good deal of my time in a lovely home office, staring at a computer monitor, etc.  At least the lights are incandescent (for as long as that lasts) and I have my own executive bathroom.  Instead of vending machines, I have a well stocked larder downstairs.  Instead of snippy co-workers, I have calico cats Alice & Bess.  And, both my spouse and I could not do what we are doing without the benefit of personal computers.  I am thankful for my new computer, but it’s been a long and strange trip, indeed.

When I got back to Atlanta in the early 1970’s, computers were still reserved for big financial institutions and big companies.  At lot of record keeping was still conducted by hand.  The “big” computer in town was at the Federal Reserve Bank; it had 128K worth of memory.  Other big institutions used computers with 64K worth of RAM.  These computers were housed lovingly in special rooms with special air systems and security guards.  Let’s face it, if you spent the money necessary to obtain a computer in the 1970’s, you’d put a guy with a gun in a chair nearby.

I saw my first “personal computer” at a place called Ancrona Electronics, on Piedmont Road near Tower Place.  It wasn’t much to look at:

It cost zillions of dollars, and didn’t even have a monitor or keyboard.  Programming was done with toggle switches and programs were stored on paper tape.  I stared at that contraption, with its indicator lights & toggles and shook my head.  I really expected more.

I had been primed by Star Trek.  Of course, the computer on Star Trek was unrealistic considering that the scene was hundreds of years into the future.  But it was pretty much what television viewers in the 1960’s were able to grasp at that time.  You figure that human beings were able to travel across the galaxy faster than the speed of light, they should have had a computer that didn’t make mechanical noises as it contemplated a question.  Of course, maybe computers had become so sophisticated that the computer realized that it needed to let the humans think that they were superior, instead of the other way around.  Thus the slow response times, which evidently lulled Kirk and Spock into believing that they were in control.  Of course, because so many of us caught the Star Trek bug, there was spillover into reality; consider the 3.5″ floppy disk, which looks remarkably like what Spock would hand to Kirk every week.  No matter, it got us there.

My first computer was a VIC-20, little better than a contemporary child’s toy.

No doubt, the people in marketing struggled long and hard to come up with a term that conveyed the capacity of the VIC-20.  The Dumbass Computer is a bit harsh, yet accurate.  It did have a keyboard, and with your television, it did have a monitor.  And, it did give me access to Compuserve; I was 73465,155.  I found out much later that I had what was reverentially described at Compuserve as “One of the early numbers”.  It was interesting.  As an aside, the VIC-20 had 4K worth of RAM, and I paid $100.00 (in 1980’s dollars) to bring it up to 16K worth of memory.

From there, it was an easy leap to the Commodore 64.

Notice that this unit was Only $595.00 (again in 1980’s dollars).  It was marginally better than the VIC, and, for additional cost, it had a 5 1/4″ floppy drive for data storage.

There were a lot of computer toys on the market, and perhaps the most interesting of these was the Timex Sinclair.

Yes, that Timex.  It sold for around $200.00, and if you wanted to save money, you could buy it as a kit for $50.00 less.  (The growth on the back of the computer is the additional memory).  There is nothing that gives you a notion of the size of this quaint machine, but it is about the same size as a handheld video game controller.

Meanwhile, the business market was getting serious and the “real” personal computers began hitting the market.  Credibility was given to the concept when IBM began marketing the PC, a term which we use to this day.  What followed was a rapid series of new models, the PC-AT, using CPU’s like the 8086, 8088 (the CPU for the IBM PC), 80286, 80386, 80486 and on.  The computer buyer, either an individual or business, began to feel like a rodent on a treadmill.  The new computer would be blazingly fast only to be stopped in its tracks when new software versions came out.  Eventually, business put its foot down about the constant flux of technology.  The computer makers and software writers began to concentrate on reliability.

Along the way, as more people got involved with computers, a slow process of losing control began.  With so many people entering the market, most inexperienced with computers, computer design slowly took operational control away from them.  It’s the same with automobiles; you can’t go in and fiddle with the carburetor any more.  You probably shouldn’t.  When you open the hood on some cars these days, there’s a little sign that tells you to close the hood and call your dealer.

It’s good news / bad news, but it is part of a long term trend toward losing direct control over a lot of things in your life.  Airline pilots comment upon the fact that the aircraft they fly and the land-based aircraft simulators they train on are merging.  That is, the simulators have the look and feel of a real plane and the planes fly like simulators.  The last “real” airplane with wire cables was the DC-8, with pilots flippantly saying the “DC” in DC-8 really meant direct connect.

Fortunately, the computer companies want us to have an enjoyable experience, and so the operating software has been increasingly automated, taking away a degree of control from the end user but also serving to improve reliability.  A lot of maintenance procedures such as backing up, disk defragmentation and error report are now automated and largely invisible to the typical computer owner.

The really good news has to do with my new purchase.  It is a Hewlett Packard, a hard decision for me after many years of owning Compaq machines.  It replaces a six-year old, 2.6 GHz Compaq.  While the new machine’s processor speed is similar (although it has a dual core processor), everything else is bigger and better.  Likewise, the new machine operates with Windows 7, while the old Compaq was holding on with XP; I managed to successfully avoid Vista entirely.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that I ended up paying, with tax, $500.00 for this unit.  Note that the Commodore 64 retailed for $595.00 in the 1980’s, more valuable dollars for a much less valuable machine.  I bought the Hewlett at a place where all the prices end in “88”; I hate this place but I am like a moth drawn to the flame of low, low prices.  I won’t go into certain other stores, such as the one that profiles its customers with names such as Buckhead Biff.  My profile appears to be old-fart with no money or knowledge.  You can make up your own cutsey name.  Suit yourself, but in the end, I chose low price at a store in my home county, because we need the sales tax revenue.

I’m happy with Windows 7, while acknowledging that I don’t have the same degree of control over the machine’s operation.  At the same time, because the OS is new (released in October, two months ago), there are still a few quirks and stutters.  I can’t get the machine to backup to a Seagate 500 GB external drive; trying to do so results in the feared Blue Screen of Death.  Likewise, the machine tells me that there is a video driver problem, but I’m still trying to figure out what the symptoms are.  But these not the traumatic events of the old days; the Hewlett quietly resets, tells me that it has reset and presumably sends error data back to the mothership for problem solving.  Eventually, there will be the Service Pack 1, and all will be reasonably right with the world.

Overall, things are good; I bought much more machine for much less money, and the computing experience is satisfactory to me.  Holding on to very old technology until you eventually break down and buy something new also gives you an initial extra euphoria of blazing speed.  As an aside, the old Compaq was scheduled to become my train room computer.  Stripped of all the resource hogs such as iTunes and MS Office, I planned to continue using it for mundane chores.  However, when I attempted to restart it, the power supply had failed, probably because of all the jostling during the move out of my office and down the stairs.

I look back at all the computers that I have owned and I smile; things are so much better.  A lot of personal fortunes were made by individuals and companies that wanted to make better computers.  More than a few fortunes were lost, too.  In the end, things are so much better, and we are better for it.

Capitalism did this, but I do wonder what sort of computers would have resulted if government had handled this instead of private enterprise.

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