April Week 3, 1999
A Curmudgeonly Look at Business and Technology
Copyright ã 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.)
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Overexposed:It turns out one of the most frequently mentioned names on Compaq's AltaVista search engine is: Pamela Anderson Lee. The Wall Street Journal says the plastic princess is referenced on 145,000 pages, or 0.1% of the 150 million web documents AltaVista indexes. The percentage sounds small, but the Journal notes it's equivalent to "walking into the New York Public Library and finding that 13,300 of the volumes there are written about her." And that doesn't include publications with centerfolds. Frankly, the Journal's research is rather badly flawed; there are far more popular names indexed on AltaVista. Bill Gates also appears on about 145,000 pages. Monica Lewinsky shows up on only 60,000 web pages, but Bill Clinton scores a hit on about 194,000. It's somewhat reassuring to find that Jesus Christ appears on 448,000 pages. And He doesn't even have any video or audiotapes. He does have His own website, though: www.jesuschrist.com, registered to a company in Simi Valley, California. Even He's outranked by God, whose name is invoked on 3.8 million web pages. God.com actually belongs to a company called Groves Online Delivery, but I suspect they would (wisely) relinquish the name if approached by the One True Host. Their email must be pretty interesting, though. More Pam Anderson Lee news: giving a new twist to the term downsizing, her media spokesperson said on 4/14 Ms. Lee had her breast implants removed because she "just wanted her body to go back to its natural state" (a "C", for the detail-crazed among you). Conan O'Brien remarked the extracted devices will be distributed among 200 underprivileged and underdeveloped actresses.
AltaVista Sellout: In another form of AltaVista overexposure, the search firm announced it will permit advertisers to buy search placement for about 500 keywords. In other words, if you want to show up near the top of an AltaVista search, you'll have to pay for it. This may reduce the engine's usefulness to some, but it will undoubtedly please investors when Compaq spins off AltaVista as a separate public company later this year.
Buffett Won't Bite: Add bazillionaire uberinvestor Warren Buffett to those who won't buy Internet or high-tech stocks. "We have no positions in high-tech stocks and we won't have," Buffett told Reuters. The investor said he doesn't invest in things he doesn't understand, like cocoa beans and the Internet. Buffett warned high-tech failures would outnumber eventual winners, and some of the losers would be those with high market capitalizations boosted by speculators. The KGB take: The difference between investing in Internet stock and Beanie Babies is that with Internet stock you don't get Beanie Babies. The continuing mergers and buyouts of Internet firms are attracting another form of attention as well: antitrust regulators. California's senior deputy attorney general said his state will be monitoring Internet business activity closely.
Amazons Clash: The small, feminist-oriented Amazon Bookstore, Inc. is suing cybergiant amazon.com and asking the Feds to cancel the online bookseller's federal trademark. The small Minnesota store, founded in 1970, never officially registered its name with the trademark and patent office, but says it has first dibs since it preceded amazon.com's debut by 25 years. It claims its business is being hurt due to consumer confusion. Actually, it's easy to tell them apart. The bricks and mortar Amazon Bookstore apparently generates profits. The stock market still isn't worried: on 4/16, amazon.com stock climbed to 188 13/16, up 21 9/16 points, on an analyst's estimate share price could climb to $280 in a year.
Wrong Reason, Same Effect: Pennsylvania now has nine area codes, with the addition of 570 for northeast PA. Area code proliferation is frequently blamed by phone companies on the explosive growth of cellular phones, fax machines and computers. Not really. Only about 25% of available phone numbers are ever in use in any area code. The real problem is due to the increase in the number of local phone companies. For example, when a new phone company starts business in an area primarily served by Bell Atlantic, Bell gives the other company a new exchange, consisting of a block of 10,000 numbers. Every new company gets 10,000 numbers per exchange, even if its actual customer base is a fraction of that size. Until the major players are forced to implement systems that permit individual exchanges to be shared by multiple phone companies, the wasteful block assignment system will force the continued creation of even more area codes. I'm beginning to believe the breakup of AT&T was a conspiracy by printing firms who are raking in the cash by constantly redoing business stationery. Another irony: notice how MCI/WorldCom's TV ads brag about the fact if you use them all of your calls will be handled by one humongous company on one humongous network? Where's the Justice Department when you need it? And why is there only one monopoly commission?
Damned If You Do: Claiming the outage was due to an extra backup of its computers, Intuit's online TurboTax system was down for 14 hours on Tuesday 4/12. The backup was unannounced, infuriating thousands who were attempting to access the electronic tax filing system. Intuit normally schedules backups on Friday nights when access demands are sparse. The additional procedure was performed in anticipation of a last-minute filing crunch. Intuit claims more than a million returns have been filed through its system as of last week. Bonus quote of the week comes from paleontologist Robert Bakker, who said "I want to find a voracious, small-minded predator and name it after the IRS." Lawmakers and tax preparers are praising the "kinder, gentler" IRS that resulted from an embarrassing Senate committee investigation. Which is like thanking the shark for stopping at your elbow instead of taking your whole arm. In defense of the IRS, independent Internet auditing firm Keynote Systems gave the IRS a fairly decent rating for its web site. On 4/14, the agency's "Digital Daily" page had a rated availability of 93.6 percent, just a bit below the average large business rating of 96.6 percent. The average big business web site takes 5.6 seconds to download; the IRS page was relatively slow, at 14.5 seconds. During peak usage, the loading time increased to a glacial 85 seconds. Considering the last minute rush for information and forms, even 85 seconds isn't that bad. At least you know the forms won't be out of stock.
Email Madness: In Bill Gates' latest book, "Business @ the Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System", his Microsoftness claims businesses must use email to remain competitive. A survey quoted in the current issue of Business Week indicates, however, that email isn't exactly an ultra-efficient communications medium. Almost a third of corporate email is not work related, consisting of spam, leaked confidential information, jokes, viruses and profanity... and it costs businesses about 50 cents per day per employee to sort through the debris. Another nasty thing about email is that it's practically indestructible. Many companies (including Microsoft) have had their email used against them in court, and an entire industry has flourished retrieving supposedly deleted electronic correspondence from trashed disk drives and backup tapes and deciphering encrypted data. I know of one savvy entrepreneur who thought he was covering his nether regions by printing out his email and then shredding it. (4/15/1999) Addendum: A while back we said to be wary of most warnings or alerts you get via email from "a friend of a friend of a friend" concerning some horrendous evil or product being foisted on an unwary public. The latest one I received warned that Febreze stain remover was fatal to pets. It isn't. See http://urbanlegends.miningco.com, the Mining Company's special web site for urban legends and unfounded rumors. Good rule of thumb: official product warnings and announcements usually don't contain bad spelling or excessive exclamation marks!! Like this!!! So quit forwarding these things to hundreds of friends via email!!!! Now!!!!! Even More Madness: About 24,000 persons completed a form on the Nissan website for additional information about the company's new Xterra SUV. Each person who completed the form received an email containing the entire list of 24,000 names. Nissan called this monumental breach of privacy "a technical error." Said one recipient of the errant mailing: "This sucks so bad it bends light." More Better Email Madness: On 4/16, Cnet reported the "To:" line of a message sent by AT&T to some of its customers contained 1,800 names. Usually, when you're on a mailing list, the software sends individual messages to single recipients. AT&T blamed the problem on "human error", which lets some software designer somewhere off the hook. These mailings show that despite their best efforts, it's not unusual for companies to inadvertently violate their own privacy policies. For that matter, many sites on the Internet have no privacy policies at all. The Center for Democracy and Technology notes 22 of 46 major federal government websites have no posted policies. Remember rule number one for email: don't use it if it contains anything that could be considered private or damaging. Wired magazine reports that almost half of US businesses monitor their employees' email, phone calls or computer files, and with very few exceptions are within their rights to do so. Final Email Note: When you receive spam that gives you an option to be removed from the list by replying to a certain address, don't do it. All your response does is verify the spammer has a good address and that you actually looked at the message. By asking to be removed, you may end up on even more spam lists.
Network Madness : Home networks are big, and some predict that virtually every device in the home will be connected to one. Best take on the matter: former Intel boss Andy Grove, who told the American Society of Newspaper Editors "I'm of the belief that you don't want to talk to your refrigerator."
A Great Resource: If you're an ancient computer user (pre-IBM PC) and serious about the subject, you were probably a BYTE magazine devotee. The best part of BYTE was Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor column, where he described his ongoing struggle to get bleeding edge hardware and software to work properly. The print BYTE is gone, but Dr. Pournelle's column now appears on www.byte.com. Be sure to stop there and read his stuff (so he gets paid) and then go directly to www.jerrypournelle.com. This gem of a site is sort of like all BYTE, all the time, with new information posted daily.
Reboot Relief: Dr. Pournelle's site is where I learned about www.memturbo.com, home of the splendid MemTurbo utility. As all Windows users know, systems slow down and become less stable when they're used. As user programs execute and exit, system memory becomes fragmented. Eventually memory becomes so filled with unusable holes that programs, and sometimes the operating system itself, can no longer run. This phenomenon explains "insufficient memory" warnings on machines with 128 megabytes of memory and only one running program. A reboot is generally the only solution to this situation. The MemTurbo program eliminates the need for most reboots: it cleverly manipulates and restructures system memory, virtual memory and the paging file to increase usable resources. It won't completely eliminate reboots, but it will minimize them.
Computer Prices Still Heading Downward: Chipmakers Intel and AMD announced price cuts as high as 43% on certain processors, moves that will continue to drive down PC prices. Some firms are selling machines in the $500 range now. Before springing for a cheap system, remember that you get what you pay for. Support for low-end machines is notoriously spotty, and on razor-thin margins the life expectancy of cheapie manufacturers is somewhat suspect. You may also pay higher rates for Internet access, surrender a lot of personal demographic information and endure endless on-line ad pitches. Still, it looks like PCs for non-demanding home uses may be heading toward the cellular phone business model: sign up for a couple years of Internet access, get the machine for free. In any event, don't feel too bad for Intel; it's first quarter profits were up 57% to $7.1 billion. Update: ZDNet says America Online is considering the distribution of an "Internet appliance" computer, designed by partners Sun Microsystems and Netscape. Users get the computer for free if they agree to sign on to AOL for Internet access.
Open Source Infighting: The success of the Linux operating system has garnered a great deal of serious interest in the open source movement (http://www.opensource.org). To quote the organization's own definition,"Open source promotes software reliability and quality by supporting independent peer review and rapid evolution of source code. To be certified as open source, the license of a program must guarantee the right to read, redistribute, modify, and use it freely." Since, at first glance, it appears there's no money to be made in open source software, it's been a hard sell to get businesses to take it seriously. Enthusiasm bordering on zealotry hasn't helped, either. A recent spat between leaders of the movement brought attention to http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/geeks-with-guns/, the "Geeks With Guns" web site. Before dismissing open source out of hand, visit the organization's website and read the information and case studies posted there. Persons capable of producing unusual software sometimes have unusual personalities.
Keep The Dial-Up Account: When we switched the office over to a T1, we toyed with the idea of dropping our dial-up accounts. After all, why use a 56K modem when a T1 is plugged into the local area network? Because you still may need to be able to reach the Internet when your LAN goes brain dead. Twice in the last three months we managed to lose the configuration files on our Internet protocol adapter (IPAD) and discovered our tape backups were bad as well. We use the Atrieva online backup service, but with our IPAD figuratively drooling in its lap, there was no way to get from the LAN to the net. Fortunately, we still had our dial-up account, and while it took a half-hour to download the files, we were able to restore everything and get back up and running in about an hour. The lessons? Keep your dial-up account, and always backup to multiple media.
Sue 'Em All: The families of the students killed by a classmate during a 1997 shooting spree at a Kentucky high school have filed a multi-media lawsuit, charging internet porn and game sites, video game marketers and movie studios produced materials which caused the teen to go ballistic. When we hear of these suits, we're reminded of Dick Cavett's rhetorical question: "There's so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?" Of course, the media firms are the targets because they have the money. Still, one nice feature about modern technology is that most devices have an off switch which parents should actively use.
Use Your John Hancock: Last week we urged businesses that use email to be certain to respond to customers in a timely manner. We forgot to mention that your email should always have a "signature"... a few lines of text containing your name, mailing address, phone number and similar data. You can set up your email program to insert this information automatically. Nothing is more frustrating than getting a message saying something like "Good idea! Let's talk!" signed by "Joe" and finding the from: line contains something like firstname.lastname@example.org. I know 20 Joes. Which one is it? Also, given the various email delivery time warps on the Internet, I may want to telephone Joe to be certain we talk while he still thinks my idea is a good one.
False Security? Microsoft's upcoming Office 2000 suite will include an application programming interface (API) which will permit independent software vendors to design programs that scan documents for viruses before they're opened for use. While not particularly fragile, the API does have some design characteristics that can give users a false sense of security. For example, a failed reinstallation of software using the new program hooks won't alert the user that the virus scanner may not be operating properly. Suitably motivated individuals should look at http://msdn.microsoft.com/workshop/security/antivirus/overview/overview.asp. As good ol' Scotty once said, "the more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain."
Quote of the Week: "I do not believe that loyalty should demand defending behavior that I find abhorrent."-George Stephanopoulos
What, Us Worry? December 31, 1999 travel bookings are running ahead of last year's figures, indicating the general public isn't panicking over the possibility of planes falling from the sky on Y2Kday. The Sunday 4/11 FAA-sponsored public test of the air traffic control system went off without a glitch, although officials admitted they conducted a number of "dry runs" before the actual event. Another thing to keep in mind: Denver is a new airport with new equipment. It will be interesting to see how old facilities fare. Boeing Co.'s 10,500 in-service aircraft make up 3/4 of the world's fleet, and appear to be in good shape. Boeing says the problem was not as bad as it first anticipated, with only simple to correct "nuisance errors" appearing on test systems. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also feels flying in American and western European airspace will be low-risk. A spokesman said there will undoubtedly be systems problems and minor inconveniences, but safety isn't an issue. We still like the Chinese approach to insuring Y2K compliance: the government has ordered all its airlines' executives to be in their airliners on actual flights at midnight 1/1/00. A Boeing president said he'd fly then with no qualms, claiming he's more worried about his VCR. Meanwhile, the head of Australia's Qantas Airlines said he and his top executives would not fly on New Year's Eve due to potential problems with suppliers and international air traffic control uncertainties. Most experts aren't too concerned about US airspace; eastern Europe, Africa and Asia are the potential trouble sports. An IATA spokesman said some governments think Y2K is an "Anglo-Saxon invention" designed by consultants to generate new revenue streams. Frankly, I'm more worried about the fact US air traffic control system computers still use vacuum tubes. (A few years ago, Newt Gingrich claimed the US government was the largest purchaser of vacuum tubes in the world.) When you consider the digital watch on your arm has more raw computing power than some of the ancient systems tracking the nation's skies, you'll understand why flying isn't one of my favorite activities.
Your Bank and Y2K: Now would be a good time to get into the habit of closely examining checking and other account statements you receive from financial institutions. Make certain to keep copies of everything, and if you use a computer to track your finances, get into the habit of printing out hard copies of your check registers and other records on a weekly basis. Also, watch out for Y2K scammers who identify themselves over the phone as bank representatives doing Y2K testing. Never disclose your account numbers to anyone you don't know. Finally, reconsider those automatic payments that are electronically deducted from your checking account on a monthly basis. Date-triggered transactions could go awry next January.
Bill Says We're Okay: Microsoft boss Bill Gates told a Columbia newspaper that Y2K problems will probably cause just "minor inconveniences". Of course when you're worth a bazillion bucks, just about any problem can be reduced to a minor inconvenience. We're waiting for one of the tabloids to start stalking Ol' Bill as Y2K day grows near. Imagine the reaction if Bill is caught buying bottled water or standing in line at the ATM on 12/31.
The Fed is Fine, Too: The US Federal Reserve System appears to be in great shape, Y2K-wise. The watchdog General Accounting Agency still has concerns about problems with international transactions, but all in all gave the Fed a thumbs up. This is significant because the GAO conducted the Fed's Y2K audit; most other federal agencies are rating their own efforts. The biggest threat to the nation's financial system still seems to be an expected run on the banks for extra cash prior to 1/1/00. The Fed is printing literally tons of extra paper money, just in case. If you feel a need to built up a cache of cash, start now, and maybe put aside $20 a week to avoid-or even better, eliminate-the anticipated rush.
But Just In Case: The US Senate could vote by 4/23 on a new bill that would modify existing Y2K legislation and curb potential litigation. Dropped from the new bill is the vague language protecting companies that make "a reasonable effort" to correct problems. The 90 day "cooling off" period for filing Y2K-related lawsuits was shortened to 30 days and a $250,000 liability cap was lifted in cases of deliberate fraud.
Boonies A Prime Target?: Ironically, those Y2K doomsayers who are stocking up on guns and food and moving their families to rural locations may be the only ones to find themselves without utilities on Y2K day. Various studies show that the large utility companies are in fairly good shape on Y2K issues; it's the smaller firms that are having problems. For example, the 20 largest telephone companies provide 97% of all phone service. Guess where the other 3% are located? Yep, out in the outback, where the survivalists are hunkering down. Hopefully, these folks will listen to their battery-powered short-wave radios when their power goes out and learn western civilization is still around.
Long, Hot Summer: Expect the next big glut of Y2K news at the end of June and beginning of July, the deadline set by many agencies and companies to meet Y2K compliance goals. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to report on the status of all nuclear power plants in early July.
Now, Here's Something To Worry About : The recent crop of Y2K good news got you down? You enjoy the tingle provided by the possibility of mass chaos and destruction? Have no fear. Unlike the wimpy Y2K problem caused by feeble human technology, Mother Nature has a couple potential knockout punches in the pipeline. There's been increased seismic activity in Los Angeles, with two minor but quite detectable temblors last week. Link that news to the recent discovery of a previously undetected fault right under the city, and The Big One could be closer than you think. This season's Atlantic hurricane season should be a fairly active one, at least equaling last year's. The biggie on the horizon is Cycle 23 Solar Max, the period in which the sun reaches its level of highest activity. (Solar cycles are sort of like the reverse of Star Trek movies, in that the odd-numbered ones usually have a much greater impact.) Our star will begin to spew huge chunks of plasma into space, creating magnetic storms that could wreak havoc in both space-bound and earth-based systems. The sun has already begun having intense storms on its surface-and the solar max won't hit its peak until March next year. High-energy particles can damage satellites, disrupt communications by altering the reflective characteristics of the ionosphere, and cause widespread power failures. This solar max cycle has the potential of being the most disruptive in history because of our increased dependence on satellite systems for communications and navigation.
Variations On A Theme: Readers of the KGB Report online version may note that in addition to the posting of new items, old items may disappear, combine with other items, or have spelling and grammar changes. That's because the online version is actually the rough draft in progress for our print issue. We're looking at ways to deal with this situation; your suggestions are welcome.
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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. Copyright Ó 1999-2013 by Kevin G. Barkes. All rights reserved. So there.