A Curmudgeon's Look at Business and Technology
June 14, 2000
by Kevin G. Barkes
In This Issue:
"Oh My God! They Killed Library!! Those Bastards!!!
Useless Web Sites of the Week
Quotations of the Week
Be A KGB Agent
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"The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem." -Milton Friedman
Library, Pennsylvania died earlier this month. It was almost 160 years old.
It was replaced by South Park, Pennsylvania, named after the county facility located within its borders and not the notorious Comedy Central animated cable television series bearing the same moniker. (Those familiar with the show recognize the above paraphrase of the cartoon's running gag, the repeated weekly demise of Kenny by various unpleasant means.)
Why would any sane group of people vote to rename its local post office after a century and a half?
The answer, of course, is money. A complete explanation requires a bit of background, so please bear with me...
There is no town named Library. It's the name of the post office that happens to serve what is now South Park Township.
It opened in 1842. Local legend has it the area around the post office was popularly known as "Loafers Hollow". Pennsylvania is well known for its odd post office names (Blue Ball and Intercourse immediately come to mind), but fortunately, the powers that were exercised some restraint and called the new facility...
Library, due to its proximity to the local library. This is particularly significant, since it's the only part of this story that makes any sense.
Anyway, people started calling the village near the post office Library. Three years later, in 1845, when the local leaders decided to form an actual governmental entity, they of course named it...
Snowden Township, after John M. Snowden, a prominent Pittsburgh businessman and politician who died earlier that year.
Actually, it worked out okay, since people knew that Library was at the south end of Snowden, and Broughton (formerly Curry) was at the north end, and nobody really ever called Snowden, Snowden.
Not much happened for about 80 years until the Allegheny County commissioners decided to buy up a bunch of farm land at the north and south ends of the county to preserve the region's original rustic charm. It acquired almost half of Snowden Township and called the recreational facility...
South Park, which sorta made sense, since the other park on the northern end of the county was called North Park.
Things remained pretty quiet until 1960. That's when the neighbors started causing trouble, specifically Bethel. (Bethel broke off from Snowden in 1886. Originally formed as a township, Bethel reorganized as a borough in 1949 and then became a home rule charter community in 1978. Obviously a bunch of malcontents.) The nastiest thing they ever did was change their name to...
Bethel Park, in an effort to cash in on the rural allure of its proximity to South Park. Which, as you recall, is actually in Snowden Township, which everybody called Library.
Around this time, the federal and state governments started using zip codes as the primary method of determining where they should send their payments to local municipalities. This caused quite a problem, since Snowden didn't have a zip code of its own. Some of its mail was delivered by the Finleyville post office, some by Pleasant Hills (Pittsburgh 15236). The bulk of its residents was serviced by the good ol' Library post office. Indeed, when people thought of South Park, they thought of the county park, not Snowden. Those portions of Snowden that weren't in the Park were commonly referred to as Broughton, Piney Forks and Library, and Library was the only part of Snowden that had a real business district. So, in the late 60s, Snowden Township changed its name to...
South Park Township, which didn't really have much effect, aside from changing some municipal signage and stationery. The post office kept the name Library, and everyone seemed to be happy...
Until this year, when the post office announced it was going to move from its current location in a rented building across from the Rite Aid to a brand new facility that would be built next to Bavarian Village, down the road from the township municipal building in the area roughly between Broughton and Piney Forks.
Perhaps emboldened by the fact the post office was, technically, no longer in the area of the township known as Library, the township supervisors decided to petition the United States Postal Service to a) change the name of the post office from Library to South Park, and b) have the few residents who had their mail delivered by the Pleasant Hills and Finleyville post offices included in the new South Park post office's delivery area. Finally, everyone who lived in South Park Township would have their mail delivered by the South Park post office, and the morons in the state and federal governments would no longer send money belonging to South Park to Pleasant Hills and Finleyville.
This grand unification plan had only one flaw; it required the consent of the postal patrons, including the lunatic fringes in Pleasant Hills and Finleyville. A ballot was prepared and mailed. The South Park residents who had their mail delivered by Pleasant Hills decided to keep their Pleasant Hills addresses. The South Park residents who had their mail delivered by Finleyville decided to keep their Finleyville addresses.
Only about half of the people serviced by the Library post office responded to the ballot, but a majority of those who did voted to change the name of the post office to South Park, believing that, as in the past, not much would happen.
Despite reassurances in the letter accompanying the name change ballot, the USPS said Library postal patrons have to send change of address notices to everyone, including Social Security and PennDot. The letter also said the post office would continue to "forward" mail addressed to Library to South Park for a year, which shouldn't be too hard since we haven't moved anywhere.
And since the South Park residents with Pleasant Hills and Finleyville addresses voted against the change, they won't have South Park addresses and the township will still, theoretically, lose state and federal funding due to supposed zip code misdirection.
Library, PA was the only post office with that name in the United States. It was unique, easy to remember, and had been around for more than a century and a half. It was abandoned for no good reason.
Residents of Anaheim, California didn't rename their town Disneyland after the major recreational facility within its borders. No community in the northern half of Allegheny County has expressed any interest in changing its name to North Park. The local newspaper boasts that pop singing sensation Christina Aguilera hails from the northern Pittsburgh suburb of Wexford. Guess what? Like Library, Wexford doesn't really exist. It's just a post office serving Pine Township and a number of other communities that don't suffer from South Park's insecurity and identity issues.
But unlike Wexford, Library is now history.
Well, not really.
Thanks to its reliance on technology and the zip code system, the postal service really doesn't look at the city and state addresses on mail anymore. Everything is driven by zip code. Off the record, an unnamed source at the main post office in Pittsburgh admitted to me that since Library/South Park's zip code isn't changing, mail marked for Library, PA 15129 will continue to be delivered indefinitely.
He's not kidding. As a test, I sent myself a letter to my street address, but in Loafers Hollow, PA 15129. It arrived the next day.
Sometimes shortcomings in technology have a definite upside.
http://www.zonelabs.com gets the KGB Approval stamp this issue. Free to non-business users and quite nominally priced for commercial sites, ZoneAlarm is a must-have utility for persons whose PCs are permanently connected to the Internet. It's a software firewall that prevents hackers from accessing your system, stealing information or planting malicious programs that can damage or take control of your PC.
Unlike some firewall applications, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to install or run ZoneAlarm. The software automatically configures itself to your system. It can even run behind an existing corporate firewall, a useful feature when you discover there are in-house hackers who like to browse through your system's files.
Not only will ZoneAlarm notify you when someone is trying to get into your machine, it will also let you know when a program on your system tries to transmit over your local area network or the Net. You may be surprised and/or somewhat peeved to discover that some programs want to announce your presence, location and identity every time you log on or, even worse, pass along some information about you to a software vendor.
Even if you aren't permanently connected to the Internet through a cable or DSL connection, you ought to consider installing ZoneAlarm, especially if your system is connected to your ISP for hours at a time. Hackers know the IP address blocks that Internet service providers assign to dialup users, and routinely poll them to see if any machines are vulnerable. ZoneAlarm caught a port scan initiated by an unknown source when I forgot to log out during a recent dial-up session. Was it an attack or just a mistyped URL? Thank goodness I don't have to worry about it.
The relatively uneventful arrival of the year 2000 created a void in KGB Report: specifically, the retirement of our "Y2K-A-Rama", the weekly litany of impending computer and technology- related disasters. Grieve no more. We proudly present Paranoia Weekly, a compendium of dire events hanging over our heads. As usual, some of the concerns listed here are valid while others are of dubious certainty. We provide them as a reminder that technology isn't necessarily our friend.
Ok if pre-installed on new laptops. Otherwise, not yet.
Answer to our previous question: The X-Files was the television series in which John Fitzgerald Byers (Bruce Harwood), one of the three hackers better known as The Lone Gunmen, accesses a secure Department of Defense site running version 5.2 of VMS. "I know a couple of login tricks," Byers modestly boasted as he hacked his way in. Interestingly enough, there actually were some security quirks in VMS 5.2, but it's unlikely they affected any DOD systems. Military installations usually didn't run plain vanilla versions of VMS.
The episode featuring the VMS hack, "Unusual Suspects", is one of the series' best. The show's fifth season premiere, it aired on November 16, 1997, revealed the origin and motivations of the trio and explained how they became associated with Agent Mulder. Hopefully Fox will rerun the episode before it airs next season's The Lone Gunmen, a spin-off series based on their X-Files characters.
More trivia: Before DEC began sticking dashes and letters on the releases, VMS was said to suffer from the " Inverse Star Trek Curse".
Most VMS system managers skipped installing the even numbered releases of the operating system, which had a reputation of being somewhat buggy.
On the other hand, even numbered Star Trek films are generally considered to be superior to the odd numbered releases. Star Trek III (1984, directed by Leonard Nimoy) is sometimes cited as the exception to the rule, but even fans admit the film's somber tone and obscure references to the series' canon made it less accessible to non-Trekkers. Most folks went to see Ghostbusters that summer. Still, Nimoy completely vindicated himself with 1986's Star Trek IV, usually referred to with the Friends-like title "The One About The Whales". IV garnered universally glowing reviews and remains the highest-grossing film in the series ($110 million).
This issue's question: The "Unusual Suspects" episode of The X-Files featured a guest appearance by Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch of NBC's now-defunct Homicide series. Belzer's Munch now appears regularly on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. The actor/comedian had a recurring role as a different police office on another series that aired in the 90s. Name that series, and no fair using the Internet Movie Database. First correct answer wins a KGB Y2K compliant pop-up calendar, sure to be a collector's item. (There won't be any KGB calendars in 2001.)
KGB in the UK. The nice folks at Datalogics (http://www.datalogics.com) are sending me to Swindon, England for three weeks to teach some classes in DLPager, their tactical nuclear automated composition system. I'll be across the pond from June 18 through July 8. I know there are a number of KGB Report readers in the UK, but my grasp of English geography leaves a bit to be desired. I'm completely booked during the week, but so far the weekends look free. If you're in the neighborhood, so to speak, drop me a line at mailto:email@example.com and let's see if we can arrange a meeting. (It'll also let me see if I acquired the right power plugs and phone jacks for my laptop.)
KGB on the Radio. You can listen to me regale listeners with my stirring "Network Solutions Made Me A Child Pornographer" tale online via RealAudio at http://www.techtalkradio.com/kgbcom.htm. I was recently a guest on TechTalk With Mike and Andy, a weekly radio show which airs on KNWZ-AM near Palm Springs, California. The show's also syndicated and available on the web. Once you hear how I perform on the radio, you'll understand why I think my best move is to stick with writing.
Power Problems. I was somewhat concerned the electrical power reliability piece that appeared in the last newsletter might have been a bit too pessimistic. No more. In one 24-hour period last week we experienced five outages of two to three seconds in duration. The weather was fine, the temperature was in the 60s, there was no wind and since it was the weekend, utility crews weren't out cutting trees back from the lines. Those annual pruning efforts are the primary cause of most of our interruptions, followed by bad weather and auto accidents. Another lesson learned: underground utility lines are of relatively little value when they all terminate on a decades-old wooden pole that's located at a blind intersection at the highest point of the local terrain. Might as well paint a bull's eye on it.
Purely personal. My wife Pam and I are celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary on June 15, which is also the day our daughter Sara (http://www.sarakay.com) closes on her first home. (Sara's getting married on September 16.) Our son Doug is now the assistant editor of Virginia Lawyers Weekly (http://www.virginialaw.com), which must be a pretty good gig because the newspaper has a cover price of $6.50. On the downside, our senior feline, Hobbes, has developed diabetes. The good news is we've finally found a cat food that produces hairballs the color of our carpeting. All in all, not a bad month.
If you want to kill an afternoon, check out http://www.epguides.com, which has episode guides for over 1,500 television series from The A-Team to Zorro and Son. Most entries just contain basic information and a list of episode names and airdates. Over 350 series receive special treatment, with full plot summaries and detailed cast lists. The site can be somewhat frustrating, though. You can't get detailed data on M*A*S*H, but, by God, Homeboys In Outer Space is catalogued in excruciating detail.
For real frustration, it's hard to beat http://www.halfbrain.com/open?id=000f4551_05b7, a spiffy little web applet that calculates Bill Gates' net worth and presents it in a way that puts everything in perspective. For example, did you know that Bill could buy all the gold in Fort Knox and still have about $15 billion in spare change? Or that a penny to you is the same as $1,491 to Bill? Since the figures are tied to Microsoft's current stock price, be sure to check back often. It's not often you can see someone gain or lose the equivalent of NASA's annual budget during your lunch break.
But perhaps the ultimate useless web page can be found at http://www.wackycreations.com/lastpage.html, although an argument can be made that the advice contained thereon is particularly useful. Thanks to Andy Green for pointing that one out.
The new Disney animated film Dinosaur is being criticized by some as scientifically inaccurate. Lemurs, the primitive primates who play a major role in the picture, didn't appear on the planet until 15 million years after the mass extinction of the big lizards. You'd have thought these keen-eyed observers would have picked up on another significant gaffe: it's highly unlikely the lemurs and dinos spoke English.
Why is the amount of time required for an out-of-town check to clear the bank inversely proportional to the size of the financial institution in which it's deposited? My now former bank has scores of branches, ATMs in every convenience store in the county, phone and web banking... and wouldn't let me touch the proceeds of foreign deposits for five business days.
Actually, my experience was worse than that. I made the mistake of depositing an out-of-town check the Friday before a Monday holiday. Federal regulations require the bank to fork over the cash "not later than the fifth business day following the banking day on which funds are deposited." Okay, the check goes in on Friday. The next business day isn't until the following Tuesday. Day two is Wednesday, day three is Thursday, day four is Friday, and the fifth business day doesn't arrive until the following Monday. That's 12 calendar days-nearly two weeks-before I can access the full amount of the check.
I can understand a bank's reluctance to part with its cash if the account owner's name is Beauregard Gatorfoot, the financial institution is Big Mama's Bank and Gumbo Emporium of Bayou Le Crawfish, Louisiana and the nearest Federal Reserve branch is two days away by mule. But a check from a Fortune 50 company? Drawn on the nation's second largest bank? With systems that can debit my account in microseconds from any location on the planet?
Fortunately, the Fed's guidelines are maximums. Banks have the discretion to clear checks faster if they wish, and the relatively tiny outfit where I now do my business makes the full amount of the deposit available to me the next morning.
And some of the tellers have lollipops.
Have a pet peeve? Send it on to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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If you disliked this newsletter, you certainly won't enjoy Stan Kelly-Bootle's monthly "Son of Devil's Advocate" column at http://www.sarcheck.com.
KGB Report, Number 30, June 14, 2000 (electronic ISSN:
1525-898X; print ISSN: 1525-9366)