April Week 2, 1999
Stuff you need to know.
Copyrightã 1999-2013 by Kevin G. Barkes
Written by Kevin G. Barkes
(See http://www.kgbreport.com/kgbrep.shtml for the latest online version of this newsletter, updated several times daily.)
Surf's up:Research firm Media Metrix says workers spend an average of seven hours a month surfing the net while on the job. Strictly professional, of course: virtually all respondents said they looked at business or government sites. We've always wondered why employers haven't developed software robots to harvest the history files web browsers keep and most users forget about. Technically speaking, www.bodaciousbutts.com is a business site, but is it directly related to your operations?
Stay put. US Mail readers are getting this too late, but be aware the FAA will test the Y2K readiness of the air traffic control system in the wee hours of the morning this Saturday and Sunday. The main participant is Denver, which is the only site that has parallel systems running. Denver, of course, is well known for its computer controlled baggage system. Your joke here.
Cell Phone Smarts? The British magazine The New Scientist says your cell phone won't give you brain cancer; in fact, using one can actually make you smarter. Tests showed persons exposed to radio frequency emissions similar in intensity to those generated by hand-held cellular telephones had better reaction times to stimuli: about a 4% decrease in response to yes or no questions. Some attribute the boost to changes in the brain's protein synthesis process, a result of immune system reaction. Others felt it was due to increased blood flow caused by radio frequency energy heating the brain. (Heating the brain? This is a good thing?) The study may explain why drivers who use cell phones don't have as many accidents as you'd expect. It also removes the last inhibition I had against sticking the heads of particularly dense convenience store clerks in the microwave and hitting "defrost".
Bright Lights, Dim Bulbs: My son took me to the theater last Sunday to see the cyberthriller "The Matrix." About 25 minutes into the movie, the screen went dark. Shortly thereafter, theater personnel appeared to offer refunds, explaining "some technical thingie broke" and couldn't be repaired, at least not by the knuckle-dragging popcorn-pushers on duty. Any wonder why George Lucas and other forward-thinking movie executives are espousing the distribution and exhibition of motion pictures using digital technology? Any moron can hit a reset button, but the wage demands of sentient beings possessing the physical dexterity and attention span required to thread film through a projector apparently exceed the sums budgeted by most theater chains. To paraphrase Louis Sherwin, today's movie exhibitors know only one word with more than two syllables, and that word is "fillum".
Windows Waffling: Remember how Microsoft said Windows98 would be the last "home" version of Windows, that future releases would be based on Windows NT/2000? Nope. There will be another release of Windows98; actually, a number of releases, packaged to maximize revenue. There are at least three different update/upgrade paths planned by Microsoft, depending on which news report you believe. There will be a free "service pack" available to fix bugs in the current release of Windows98. Then there will be a $20-$30 "StepUp" CD-ROM for current 98 users that fixes bugs and adds some features. Finally, there will be "Windows98 Second Edition", which is designed for people still on Windows95 or 3.1. What about Windows 2000, running late and loaded with incompatibilities? ZDNet says Microsoft will release the latest beta this month as if it were in final form, and some manufacturers will actually install it on new machines. Sounds like they're using the old corporate strategy dartboard again.
Aptiva Alert: IBM accidentally infected some computers with the CIH virus during the manufacturing process last month. CIH will activate on April 26 and destroy the bios and hard drives of machines on which it resides. The company said Aptiva model numbers 240, 301, 520 and 580 with the codes AM909, AM910 or AM911 appearing after "mfg date" on the id label could be affected. IBM already has alerted its retailers and persons who have sent in their registration cards.
Gored. Again. Al Gore is starting to rival Dan Quayle's record for stupid statements. He's followed up his ludicrous claim that he helped invent the Internet by announcing his website is "open source", which is, technically speaking, a non sequitur. It's like saying your dog is media neutral. Which isn't quite true. Ours prefers newspapers.
Buy Your Portable Now? Liquid crystal display supplies are getting tight due to the increased popularity of flat screen desktop displays and poor production capacity planning. Since the LCD display makes up about 30% of the cost of a notebook computer, the recent 10%-15% price hike announced by manufacturers could soon cause a spike in laptop pricing.
Not Quite Yet: Although Intel's AnyPoint Home Network system looks like a winner, don't buy it yet. The product simplifies networking Windows-based home/small office computers by using existing household telephone wiring. One end of the device plugs into the computer printer port, the other to the phone jack. The network signals are "piggybacked" on the telephone line, allowing computers to exchange data without affecting phone service. The first cut of the product transmits data at a relatively pokey 1 million bits per second. Wait for the enhanced version, due late this year or early next year, which will have ten times the speed.
More Than A Boat Anchor: Before Windows, back when the world was a simpler place, when 286s roamed freely and 386s were high power machines, there was an operating system named Geos. Developed by Geoworks, it was a graphical user interface that worked on regular PCs with small memories and slow processors. Of course, Windows squashed it, but a company called New Deal Software now supports Geos. Its New Deal Office Suite features a desktop manager, word processor, spreadsheet, web browser, database, checkwriter, etc. It passes the critical test of most computer users... it has its own version of solitaire. All you need is a 286/386 PC, 640K of memory (!), and MS- or PC-DOS 3.0 or higher. The software sells for under $80, and a free limited-feature shareware version is available on our website. (Go to our Ephemera page. It's the one with the picture of the flying beagle.)
Says Who: One universal myth is graphical user interfaces are easy to use. Really? Open any office application and look at the icons spread across the toolbar. Identify as many as you can. Go ahead, we'll wait. Revealing, eh? Using those pseudo-Egyptian hieroglyphics is simple? Like Bruce Ediger said, "The only intuitive interface is the nipple. After that, it's all learned."
The Right Tool For The Job: We recently received some hate mail in response to our suggestion the Apple iMac is probably the best choice for new computer users who just want to surf the net. Lighten up, guys. If you had to buy a computer for your mother, which would you get, knowing the support demands between Mac and Windows machines? Unless you get a hefty retainer from dear ol' mom for 7/24 technical support, the iMac seems to me to be the way to go.
Ask A Simple Question: Search engines on the web can be a pain to use. Entering a search topic can result in thousands of "hits", most of which are irrelevant to your query. Ask Jeeves (www.ask.com) uses a plain English interface: you pose your question as if you're asking another human being. It works fairly well. Our favorite search engine remains www.hotbot.com, though. It seems to be updated more frequently and is a bit more discriminating in its searches.
Why Your PC Fails: I frequently have problems explaining to folks why I prefer OpenVMS and minicomputers to PCs and Windows. Byte magazine (which, alas, exists only in electronic form these days) ran a marvelous article last year explaining why PCs crash. Look at http://www.byte.com/art/9804/sec5/art1.htm, or give me a call and I'll try to get you a copy. It's must reading.
Favorable Fallout: Because of the rapid capture of the Melissa email virus' author, other virus writers have run for cover, shutting down hacker-related websites and curtailing email discussion group participation. The New Jersey man charged with creating the virus could face up to 40 years in jail and $480,000 in fines. However, his attorney has raised an interesting point..."The Melissa virus does not corrupt any file, does not erase any files, does not delete any files," he noted. He didn't mention the denial of service to thousands of users and the costs of cleaning up after the virus. Further muddying the issue: reports that a German hacker also had a hand in the development of Melissa. Late reports indicate another email virus, boa.exe, is making the rounds. It supposedly closes open programs unexpectedly and threatens to reboot your Windows machine for no reason. I guess the danger here is not knowing you have the virus, since it appears to mimic normal Windows operations. Joke of the week: The difference between a virus and a Microsoft operating system? You don't pay support for a virus.
More Incompetence : Microsoft owns the free Hotmail service, so you'd think the latest upgrade to Hotmail would work with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, right? Nope. Thousands of users are unable to get their messages because the new Hotmail software seems to incorrectly interpret IE 4 and 5 cookie and security settings. The problem was being "researched" at the time of this writing.
Overlooked Virus Source: One place your computer can pick up a virus is, surprisingly, shrink-wrapped software purchased from big commercial outlets. These places get lots of returns, and some of the less scrupulous managers just stuff everything back in the box, stick it on their shrink wrap machine, and toss it back on the shelf for the next unsuspecting buyer. If the previous user had an infected machine, you now have one, too. (Of course, this only applies to software distributed on diskettes; CD-ROMs are generally virus-free, unless one sneaked into the manufacturing process.) To protect yourself, always closely examine the contents of the box. Are the diskettes in sealed envelopes? Is the warranty card there? Does the manual look used? Another tip... almost all software sold off the shelf in stores is at least one version out of date. If you can, register online and download the latest version or upgrade from the manufacturer's website.
Know The Seller: Before using your credit card on the Internet, be certain you know who the seller is. And if you're selling stuff on your web site, be certain your business name and address appear prominently. As for credit card sales... unless you farm out your credit card fulfillment, you're taking a big risk. Visa says Internet purchases make up only two percent of their volume but half of their fraud incidents. Encryption of data isn't the problem. As Gene Spafford said, "Using encryption on the Internet is the equivalent of arranging an armored car to deliver credit card information from someone living in a cardboard box to someone living on a park bench."
Don't Forget The Follow-Through: If you get an email account for yourself or your business and begin promoting it, for heaven's sake, read your mail and respond to it. The number of "dead" business email accounts is astounding. Not answering email is as bad as not answering your phone. You don't have to act instantly, but do check your mail at least once a day and try to respond within 24 hours.
Deja Vu : Western Pennsylvania is covered with old frame houses originally built by steel, coal and rail interests to provide housing for its employees. Silicon Valley is embracing the old idea, building affordable apartments within the industrial parks where hi-tech businesses congregate. The average house in California's Santa Clara County goes for more than $350K, forcing many employees to commute long distances from areas where living costs are more reasonable.
Subcontractor Gotcha. One danger small businesspersons face is having independent contractors reclassified as employees. Should this happen, penalties and back taxes could be substantial. Here's a quick test. Record the number of yes and no answers to the following questions. More yes answers than no indicate independent contractor status. More no answers than yes mean you have an employee, not an IC. Does the person: work on his own; decides how work is to be done without your supervision; receives no training from you; can hire his own employees; can set his own hours; usually doesn't work at your site; provides his own equipment; hired on a per job basis, not long-term contract; can't be fired if he meets contract requirements; legally obligated to complete job; has an investment in his own business; takes care of his own expenses; provides his services to other businesses or the general public; can take a loss on a job (outcome depends on successful performance); is paid on commission or per-job basis, not hourly; doesn't have to file progress reports; and, finally, decides pace and sequence of services performed? To be safe, check with your tax expert. One thing not to do: ask the IRS to make the determination for you. History shows independent contractors have the worst record of under-reporting income, so the IRS naturally has a tendency to lean toward employee status.
What About Linux? Pronounced LEE-nicks, this flavor the Unix operating system has been getting a lot of press lately, primarily as a potential replacement for Microsoft's NT operating system. Initially developed by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, Linux is "open software", maintained and enhanced for free by a dedicated group of programmers spread across the globe. Extremely reliable, it's made a significant dent in the server market. One study claims Linux installations will grow 25% a year over the next few years, double the rate of its nearest competitor, NT. Should small businesses get Linux? Not quite yet, unless you have a specific need for a "closet" computer-a server machine that sits in a corner somewhere, routing email or performing networking functions. Wait until desktop applications become available from major-name software houses. That's when to make the jump. Rumor has it Microsoft is debating whether to port its business applications to Linux. That's not as strange as it sounds... Microsoft also makes software for Apple's Macintosh, which runs on a non-Microsoft operating system. At a developer's conference this week, Microsoft President Steve Ballmer acknowledged gains made by Linux and said the company was considering releasing the source code of portions of the NT kernel to selected developers to counter negative perceptions of NT's proprietary design. Do companies really want to see the house of cards upon which they've bet their businesses? Microsoft would be better served keeping the wizard hidden behind the curtain.
The Ides of April : Yep, it's getting near time to file the old 1040. If you can't make the deadline, you can file IRS Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, which automatically gives you until August 16, 1999 to file (the 15th is a Sunday). Bear in mind, though, that you still have to pay the taxes you owe on April 15, and you better be close to the actual amount due to avoid interest and penalties. The IRS really deserves commendation for their web site, www.irs.ustreas.gov, where you can get just about any form or booklet online. No more dashing to the post office or library- which is good, since those traditional resources probably don't have what you need, anyway.
Where to Dash: Unless things have changed, the only Post Office in the South Hills that stays open until midnight and has postal employees stationed roadside is Castle Shannon. Check the online version of this report for updated information.
Why I Finally Went to an Accountant After 15 Years in Business: Aside from the chaos associated with incorporating, this gem pushed me over the edge: "Passive activity income does not include the following: Income from an activity that is not a passive activity."-Instructions to IRS Form 8582, Passive Activity Loss Limitations. As Dave Barry would say, I Am Not Making This Up.
High Profile Target: While the actual selection criteria is a dark secret, any of the following increases the likelihood of an IRS audit: high mortgage interest deduction but low income; self-employed Schedule C returns with deductions higher than 60%; Schedule A deductions higher than 40% of adjusted gross income; sloppy returns; returns with rounded numbers that fall just within the audit triggers; large medical expenses; charitable deductions; uninsured casualty losses; moving expenses; and business use of your home. Certain professions, such as lawyers and taxi drivers, are also examined more closely. On the plus side, relaxed regulations make it easier to claim a home office. In the past, it had to be a "principal place of business". The Supreme Court in 1993 ruled against an anesthesiologist who deducted a home office he used for administrative functions, since his principal places of business were hospital operating rooms. The more reasonable law defines a home office as a place used exclusively on a regular basis for administrative and management functions, where no other fixed locations are used for those activities.
Showing off: Certain computer terms which begin as acronyms become words in their own right, and their true sources become lost in antiquity. Take the term spool, for example. Spooling a print job means sending it off to print in the background, while the computer does something else. I recently heard a trainer explain "Think of a spool of thread; just like thread winds off a spool, a print job unwinds from the computer to the printer." Colorful, but wrong. Spool is an acronym for Simultaneous Peripheral Operations On-Line. I don't know which is more pathetic; actually knowing what spool means, or thinking the young trainer would be impressed by my depth of knowledge. Another way to disclose your true age: admit you took Latin in high school.
Pennywise, et al: Forget about call waiting for your home office. Nothing tags you as a clueless newbie more than a call waiting interruption in the middle of a business conversation. Ditto for those distinctive ring gadgets which route calls from your single phone line to your fax machine or PC. If you can only afford one voice line, get the phone company's answering service feature. If your line is busy, callers are directed to your voice mailbox where they can leave a message. And fork over the dough for a second phone line for your fax/PC. The phone company frequently offers specials for customers adding a second line.
Useless web site of the week : http://www.spinnwebe.com/dfc/ An amazing copyright violation but marvelously twisted humor, if you're not easily offended. The site features Bil Keane's Family Circus cartoons with reader-supplied captions. If you had any doubts the Internet is a corrupting influence, this site will remove them.
Quote of the Week: "The trick is not to think of it as your money."-An IRS revenue agent
We Have A Winner : Vanessa L. Ash of the Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic answered last week's trivia question. ABC World News Now, which airs in the wee hours of the morning (locally from about 3 to 5 am on WTAE-TV Channel 4), is the only broadcast network newscast with its own polka. Accordionist/lyricist Barry Mitchell's clever musical in-joke runs every Friday morning at about 4:55 am. WNN is a quirky little show that's a welcome break from the typical pretentious self-importance other network news offerings provide. And once you're hooked by the simple elegance of the World News Now National Temperature Index, you'll never look at meteorology the same way. Give it a try, and if you like it, send a letter to the network in support of the newscast. ABC News is in the process of being decimated by parent company Disney's bean counters and WNN (even though its budget is probably in the tens of dollars) may be in danger of cancellation. This week's trivia test: According to the comic book, what is Superman's birthday? Extra point question: why was that date chosen? Winner gets an official KGB Consulting, Inc. pop-up calendar, now gracing the desks of banks and psychiatric institutes throughout the Pittsburgh area.
No News is Good News: As mentioned last week, April 1 marked the beginning of fiscal year 2000 for Canada and New York City. You didn't hear anything about it because... nothing happened. No meltdowns, no missed check payments, no collapse of civilization as we know it. You'd think that some major news media outlet would have made mention of it, at least to assuage public fears. Nope. A properly functioning computer does not warrant dispatching Chopper Whatever. There are still a lot of problems to address, and a lot of money will still need to be spent, but this gives us the first indication that Y2K may be this generation's Comet Kohoutek.
Power System Passes "Test": The nation's electrical industry is patting itself on the back for having successfully conducted its first country-wide Y2K test on April 9, which involved manual control of the power grid after a simulated computer breakdown. Don't be too impressed. As we noted two weeks ago, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) told participants on its website prior to the test "not make the drill too complex" since the goal was "to have a successful and meaningful story for publication." That part of the exercise was certainly successful. Typical media coverage: the headline over a Reuters wire story in the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette said "North America power grid passes first Y2K exercise."
After All, It's Only Paper : Chicago Federal Reserve President Michael Moskow said the Fed plans on distributing an extra $200 billion in cash to the nation's banks to cover the anticipated hoarding by consumers worried about Y2K banking problems.
Good Sports: Professional sports organizations are making Y2K plans as well, with the NFL perhaps requiring visiting teams to arrive in host cities on or before Friday, December 31 for weekend and Monday games. ComputerWorld said the NBA and NHL are considering not scheduling games over the Y2K weekend.
Don't Be Too Smug : Apple Macintosh computers handle the change to 1/1/2000 fine from the hardware side. That doesn't necessarily mean you're home free if you have a Mac. You may still have software issues, especially if you're running older programs. Be certain to check the publishers of your application software to confirm Y2K compliance.
Fun With Numbers: A closer examination of the numbers supplied with the Federal government's recent Y2K compliance claims shows that over 3,300 systems disappeared from the original list circulated last August. No explanation was given for the discrepancy, and most major news agencies didn't mention the "missing" systems.
Windows95 Fix : Microsoft announced it will release a patch April 12 which will make Windows95 Y2K compliant. The apparent change in policy was prompted by user complaints after a ComputerWorld article quoted a major outsourcing vendor. The vendor, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), claimed Microsoft had told them 95 would not be made compliant, which would have forced EDS to upgrade thousands of its clients' desktops to Windows98.
Close To Home: The South Park School District (we're located in South Park Township; Library is our mailing address) set January 3, 2000 as Y2K Day. Similar to a snow makeup day, it's an optional date students may have off due to Y2K-related problems. The district isn't expecting trouble with its systems; it's in the event non-school-related occurrences prevent kids from making it in.
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All About Us:
Kevin G. Barkes publishes the KGB Report, a somewhat curmudgeonly-skewed weekly look at technology-related issues. Our main business is database publishing/automated typesetting services and system design, which means we take huge gobs of database information, convert it into neatly typeset material, and design systems that can do the same. We perform Year 2000 compliance auditing for small businesses, and help companies adopt appropriate computer-based systems if needed. ("Three by five cards don't crash."-Ian Shoales.) We operate the www.kgbreport.com website, which contains an online version of this newsletter, additional information about our company and links to other interesting places on the Internet. Paid subscriptions to the print version of KGB Report are $50/yr. Fax and email subscriptions are also available. The paid print edition contains material not available in the online version. Advertising space available for all media. CopyrightÓ 1999-2013 by Kevin G. Barkes. All rights reserved. So there.