May Week 4, 1999
A Curmudgeon's Look at Business and Technology
Published by Kevin G. Barkes | 1512 Annette Avenue | Library, PA 15129-9735-125
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Copyright ã 1999-2013 by Kevin G. Barkes
Written by Kevin G. Barkes
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We're Syndicated!KGB Report has become an iSyndicate content partner, which means our humble publication will now be available via Internet online syndication. iSyndicate aggregates, packages, integrates and delivers a breadth of content from hundreds of sources, including leading media companies such as Reuters NewMedia, CNET, The Associated Press, ZDNet, Rolling Stone, CBS Sportsline and Salon Magazine, all in real-time. This content is delivered to thousands of participating Web sites of all sizes, including web portals/communities, e-commerce providers, Fortune 500 companies, alternative Internet access devices and vertical portals. ISyndicate is the second Internet start-up for President & CEO Joel Maske. Joel was co-founder of Pittsburgh-based GALT Technologies, Inc. GALT successfully launched the web's leading personal finance service, NETworth, in June 1994 and was later acquired by Intuit in November 1995. At GALT, Joel and his team pioneered the methods for integrating content from independent third parties and corporate sponsors to create full service electronic "marketspaces."
The Real Phantom Menace: George Lucas' latest Star Wars adventure indeed showcases an awesome threat- to the traditional methods of motion picture production, distribution and exhibition. Over 95% of the film's content is generated by computer graphic imaging and is indistinguishable from "reality". Most of the time the actors worked in front of blue screens into which computer generated backgrounds and characters were composited. Indeed, Lucas converted the five percent of the movie consisting of traditional photographic footage to digital format so he could manipulate the entire feature on computer-based editing systems. Ongoing geometric increases in computing power and decreases in hardware and software costs will mean that in less than a decade the resources needed to produce a Star Wars feature will be contained in affordable desktop machines accessible to anyone. Talented individuals will be able to produce their own Hollywood-quality features and exhibit them to millions instantly over the Internet. This is already happening in the field of animation: artists are making their creations available on their web sites, and the industry is noticing. Cartoon Network currently airs animated shorts originally produced for net viewing.
The real problems, of course, are how to protect intellectual property rights and make a buck in the process. We're currently seeing a similar revolution occurring in the music industry, with new artists bypassing record companies and going directly to the public by distributing their works over the net in the new MP3 audio format. Even more "out there" scenarios... computers which can analyze actors' appearances throughout their film careers and perfectly synthesize new movies. Imagine a film with Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, John Wayne, John Belushi, Peter Sellers, all appearing in their youthful prime, all giving Oscar-calibre performances. Far-fetched? Consider that Elvis Presley's estate makes more money licensing his image today, 22 years after his death, than The King earned during the peak of his recording career. And you thought colorized movies and that Fred Astaire vacuum cleaner commercial were bad...
Meanwhile, Back In Reality: Until such high-tech skullduggery becomes feasible, the old methods of stealing artistic works will have to do... like the thieves who stole a 400 pound, 35 millimeter theatrical print of The Phantom Menace from the projection booth of the State Theater in Menomonie, Wisconsin last week. The actual value of the print is about $60,000, but its revenue generating potential is truly staggering. It can be used to generate high quality video masters for bootleg tapes and discs, allowing the thieves to demand premium prices. Most bootleg tapes that appear immediately after a film's theatrical release are produced by sneaking camcorders into movie theaters, a method that insures inferior results. The print of the film can also be copied and the dupes cut into individual frames for sale to collectors. Expect Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century Fox to greatly supplement the Menomonie police efforts in retrieving the print and prosecuting the thieves. Also bear in mind copyright violations are federal offenses, so it's likely Janet Reno's real-life Jedi Knights at the FBI will also be called in to assist in the print's recovery and the prosecution of its kidnappers. Incidentally, after its official home video release next spring, The Phantom Menace will go directly to broadcast television. It will appear during the November 2000 ratings sweeps period on the Fox network, bypassing the pay-per-view and cable TV outlets.
Back To Reality II... Free Wake-Up Calls: www.mrwakeup.com will give you a wakeup or reminder call anytime you want. Just register at the advertising-supported site and enter your call schedule. You do have to disclose some personal information in addition to your telephone number, and there appear to be some bugs in the software. It called my son three minutes behind his wakeup time, but missed my first scheduled call entirely. It did get my second and subsequent calls correctly, so I may have made an error during the initial setup.
Cyberwar: The CIA has recommended employing hackers to wreak havoc on Yugoslavian banking and support computers. We here at KGB have a much more sensible suggestion: just declare the country the official international beta test site for commercial PC software. They'll surrender in under a week.
It All Becomes Clear: Problems with your Compaq computer? Although it's a bit out of date, take a look at http://members.aol.com/CClass450/page200.html and most of your questions will be answered. You won't be very happy, but at least you'll know the scoop.
Linux Boosts : Both Sun and IBM are modifying their proprietary versions of Unix to run application programs designed to operate under the freeware Linux system. A smart business move for both companies, it gives customers the security of their vendor-supported operating systems and access to the burgeoning Linux application market.
Careful With Contract Employees: Microsoft lost a stunner in the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals, and if the rule stands it could have major consequences to all companies that use "temporary" employees. The Appeals court overturned a number of lower court opinions and specifically requires Microsoft to offer discount stock plan participation to the thousands of temporary and contract employees it's used since 1986 at a possible cost of $15 to $20 million. High-tech firms frequently staff their businesses by obtaining workers through outside suppliers, classifying them as independent contractors or employees of the agencies. The problem is some firms then keep the "temps" around for years, functioning as full employees but with limited benefits. The ruling is basically a reality check for companies: if a "temp" performs the functions of a full employee for an extended period of time, the temp has to be treated like a full employee.
Reality check: The next great thing being touted by the trade press is the web-based personal information manager (PIM). Sure, I want my vital business data located on a web site of unknown bandwidth and reliability, potentially commingled with the data of thousands of other users, in a format which greatly limits its usability, and on a display polluted with advertising to pay for the service being "free".
Roots Online: Genealogy fans, rejoice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) has placed its online database of 400 million names on the Internet, and the free resource should grow to 600 million names by the end of the year. Check out www.familysearch.org. The site does tend to get busy, so have some patience or try accessing it during non-peak hours.
Calendar check: According to Microsoft, Memorial Day was May 24 this year. It's actually May 31, but Outlook98 apparently is confused by the fact May has five Mondays. A month with five Mondays is bad enough, but making you believe your three-day weekend comes a week early is unforgivable. Wonder if the company's using the same ace programmer on its Y2K fixes?
The Mac Is Back, Jack: Macintosh users are reveling in the news the Pentagon Mac Users Group is back in operation after nearly two years of inactivity. The 300 Pentagon/Department of Defense Mac fans are far outnumbered by the 15,000 or so Pentagon PC user base, but the organization's resumption indicates renewed belief in a future for Apple.
News Junkie delight: One of the better news aggregator sites is www.newshub.com, which features quarter-hour updates and fast page refreshes. If you set your web browser to normally open to a news-oriented portal, you ought to consider using this one as your default.
The Non-Evil Drudge: Internet rumormonger Matt Drudge is definitely not a chip off the old block. His dad, Bob Drudge, runs www.refdesk.com. "My Virtual Reference Desk" is just that, a marvelously indexed and categorized guide to thousands of reliable reference resources.
Out of context. Inc magazine curiously attributed one of the causes of failure of an impotence clinic to "overly rapid expansion", a condition which, one would assume, was the intended goal of the operation.
Beaming In Scotty: NBC, the television network responsible for the popularization of color television in the 60s and 70s and stereo television in the 80s, introduced the first regularly-scheduled high definition television program last month, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Commercial viability of the digital format notwithstanding, the network and Leno deserve credit for launching the new service with an appearance by actor Jimmy Doohan, portraying his Star Trek character Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. In an inspired bit during the opening monologue, Doohan's Scotty struggled with "overloaded high definition generators" in the bowels of NBC engineering, and solved the problem by "diverting power from one of the many NBC Datelines." We suspect there may be a closet Trekkie on Mr. Leno's staff- aside from the comedy angle, it's somehow appropriate and a little bit touching that Scotty would play a role in the first NBC HDTV broadcast. NBC, of course, originally aired Star Trek from 1966 to 1968. Doohan and the late Greg Morris, who played technical wizard Barney Collier on CBS' Mission: Impossible, are responsible for launching thousands of geekish techno-nerds into careers in computing. Imagine how much better we'd get along with technology today if Scotty and Barney ran Microsoft and Intel. Sigh. All in all, it's been a bad week for Trek fans, with the release of William Shatner's sardonic Get A Life! book about Trek culture and the theatrical film documentary Trekkies, featuring fans whose, er, warp cores are a bit unstable.
My Scotty Story: I heard Doohan tell this at a convention. In gratitude to NASA for its assistance on the Trek movies, Paramount sends series stars to various space agency sites for publicity junkets. One problem with being Scotty, Doohan noted, is that real technicians think of him as the ultimate expert. During a tour of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, an engineer was showing the actor a radio receiver that processed data transmitted from a deep space probe. "We've noticed a frequency drift that seems to be induced by thermal variations on the antenna emitter circuit, and we haven't been able to devise a compensation schema. Do you think a dynamic beat frequency oscillator would be effective?" Aware that scores of technicians were breathlessly awaiting his diagnosis, and not wanting to embarrass the engineer who posed the question, Doohan smiled, cocked his head, and said in his lilting Scottish brogue, "Ah, laddie... sorry, but I dinna ken a thing aboot antiques."
Real Wrist Radios : Lucent Technologies has developed a radio on a chip, using new technology to actually imbed the largest components, the RF filter and microphone, on the surface of a silicon wafer. This is a biggie. Expect a flood of really small radio devices within a year or so.
Full Capacity: The Skeptical Observer has debunked the media myth that we use only about 10% of our brains. It notes that brain scans show the majority of the organ is active during thought, and points out no one uses all the muscles in one's body at the same time, either. Apparently, the 10% number was pulled out of the air by someone decades ago and repeated as fact for generations. On the plus side, it removes a lot of the guilt about not working up to one's capacity. On the down side, it means there's not much room for improvement.
Why Paper? Why do we bother with a paper edition of this newsletter? Aside from our Luddite readers who lack or abhor online access, it's for archival purposes. Since I began my writing career, I've stored my work on over a dozen different forms of magnetic media as computer technology mutated to its present grotesque form. The only material readily accessible to me is the stuff that's preserved in print. I have a case full of floppy disks sitting in the garage, containing material written on five different computer platforms, nine different operating systems, and a dozen incompatible word processing formats. Some of that material will never be read again, because the systems capable of retrieving the information no longer exist. That's why I still make printouts of everything, and have about 50 cubic feet of material stored offsite in a fireproof warehouse. I can hear the archaeologist lecturing his class 500 years hence: "Believe it or not, these idiots stored valuable records by embedding unstable microscopic magnetic fields on rapidly rotating pieces of metal coated with high-grade rust. We don't know much about the last two decades of the twentieth century, except that its inhabitants were idiots."
Stealth Marketing Ban: Ever wonder why search engines return results that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with your original inquiry? Blame it on meta tags, special identification lines embedded in web page code that aren't displayed by browsers but are read by search engines in order to index a site. Meta tags were intended to help identify website content. But some unscrupulous web page designers use meta tags to misdirect users, such as embedding the name of a rival company in the code. A purely hypothetical example: Pepsi-Cola embeds the name "Coke" in its meta tags so the Pepsi page generates a search engine hit even though the name Coke doesn't appear in any user-readable material. A federal court in California issued an injunction barring the practice, comparing it to posting a sign with another firm's trademark in front of a store. The appeals court ruling is binding in California and a number of other western states. It does permit fair use of competitors' trademarks, such as in product comparisons and other legitimate uses. It's the first time the courts have addressed trademark issues dealing with the mechanics of Internet operations.
Why Paper II: Ironically, one sign of success in the online world is the creation of supplemental print media. Look for a magazine covering the eBay auction service to appear on newsstands in July.
Gender neutral. EMarketer newsletter says men feel computers should be considered feminine, while women feel computers should be addressed as male. We think it's a bad idea to anthropomorphize computers. They really hate it when you do that.
That's Entertainment? Despite the fact thousands depend on its stock chat rooms for information about the market, Yahoo! says it's all just for fun. The Wall Street Journal reports the portal service posted a disclaimer that says "Never assume people who are they say they are, know what they say they know, or are affiliated with whom they say they are affiliated." Just like long distance service telemarketers.
If Your Computer Told You To Jump Off A Bridge, Would You? An AP dispatch from Germany claims a couple drove their luxury sedan into a river because the vehicle's state-of-the-art onboard navigation computer had no way to alert the pair that passage across the waters required the use of a ferryboat. One wonders if the couple eventually drowned because the computer didn't tell them to get out of the car.
I'm Just So Limbic Today: Researchers at the Texas Health Science Center claim depression is caused by the failure of the brain's cognitive center, the neocortex, to communicate with the limbic system, which processes emotion. In depressed persons, blood flow increases to the limbic area, significantly reducing the activity of the neocortex. Simply put, the rational part of the brain is shut down while the full-tilt bozo section is placed on hyperboogie. The study is important because it shows the cause of depression is actually located within the brain, and that emotional balance can be restored via currently available treatments.
Sad But True: Satirist Bob Hirschfeld created a stir two weeks ago in his Washington Post column when he "reported" on the new Strunkenwhite computer virus. Named after Strunk and White, authors of the legendary writing guide The Elements of Style, the virus supposedly caused infected systems to refuse to deliver e-mail messages containing grammar or spelling errors. Hirschfeld was then inundated with urgent requests from companies worldwide for information about the new digital scourge. Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article about the hoax, Hirschfield sadly noted "It was drilled into our heads to proof everything carefully when we wrote traditional letters. Somehow e-mail has liberated us from the constraints of good grammar."
The Online Side of Sears: The department store giant is selling appliances on the web. Now you can receive impersonal service without leaving the comfort of your home. If you do venture to your local Sears store this Memorial Day weekend, you'll be able to buy an iMac there, thanks to an agreement inked last week. It's another indication of the Apple machine's burgeoning popularity.
Useless web sites of the month:
fathom.org/opalcat/bubblewrap.html - Virtual bubblewrap for popping. Clicking on "back" de-pops bubbles. Actually, the sound produced from the virtual pop resembles, for lack of a better description, that which might be generated by stepping on a duck.
http://www.deathclock.com - enter your birthday and get the date, according to actuarial calculations, when you're due to take the big dirt nap.
And, in case you still haven't had enough Star Wars hype, try these rather unusual sites:
I Hate Star Wars! - http://www.ihatestarwars.com/
Bizarre World of Star Wars: Caught On Tape! - http://members.xoom.com/LifeDay/Video.html
Disgruntled Ewok and Malcontent Jawa Page - http://netdial.caribe.net/~orinoco/jae.html
Fluffy Side of the Force - http://www.geocities.com/Area51/9624/
Redneck Jedi - http://www.hownowcow.com/redneck.htm
Society for the Extermination of Ewoks - http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Cavern/1959/see.html
Star Wars in ASCIIvision! - http://www.fortunecity.com/tatooine/lucas/339/page1.html
Star Wars Spankings - http://ww2.esn.net/~sermak/swspank/
Star Wars: A Kids Story - http://www.iamlost.com/features/starwarskids/
The Force is a Tool of Satan - http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Lot/9202/
The Star Wars Drinking Game - http://web.nmsu.edu/~rtelles/swdrink.html
Quotes of the Month:
"[Information Technology] people are so hypnotized by the technology they don't look for real results."-Peter F. Drucker
"Banks are the safest place to keep your money in the year 2000; it's the bank stocks that we're worried about."- Michael Mayo (Credit Suisse)
"In five years, there won't be any Internet companies because they will all be Internet companies. Otherwise they will die."Andy Grove, Intel Chairman
"In 20 years we'll be sitting across a table selling life insurance to each other."-Victor Kayam, Remington President ("he bought the company") in a 1980s 60 Minutes interview, bemoaning the decline of US manufacturing capabilities.
Overhyped Device of the Month: Pass on the Palm VII, which features a really hefty price and wireless features that aren't completely there yet. This is one of those products a company makes just to show it can do it and to make the ultra-technoweenies happy. Get a Palm III or IIIx, and wait until the whole wireless thing shakes out. Anyway, the unit's really only available in the New York metro area at the moment. Palm Pilots and other handheld organizers are still winners, though, with sales projected to increase 50% this year to nearly 6 million units.
No Winner: Several persons correctly identified Big Max Calvada as the gangster character who appeared in an episode of the same name of the original Dick Van Dyke Show, but no one caught the significance of the name Calvada. The show's production company was named Calvada, and was derived from the names of the show's owners: Ca rl Reiner, Sheldon L eonard, Dick Va n Dyke and Da nny Thomas. This week's trivia question: what situation comedy featured actor Herve Villechaize and newsman Eric Sevareid in the same episode? The first person with the correct answer gets a Y2K-compliant KGB pop-up calendar. It's Y2K compliant because it's a 1999 calendar. Our actual Y2K pop-up calendars are on order, meet our stringent Y2K remediation standards, and feature color drawings of assorted shore birds. Ah, back to nature.
Take a Step Up: If you find KGB Report barely tolerable, you will most certainly enjoy the erudite scribblings of Stan Kelly-Bootle, author of many fine technical books and The Computer Contradictionary (MIT Press, 1995), which provides clever, understandable translations to modern technobabble. Stan hitched his wagon to Unix; therefore, his Devil's Advocate column in Performance Computing (formerly Unix Review) is entering its 15th year, while my column on VMS in the now-defunct Digital Age (formerly DEC Professional) tanked in '95. I am frequently asked why I don't do NT consulting. I just explain that when I became a consultant, I took an oath only to use my powers for good.
Just Another Day in Paradise: Forget Y2K. At least we know it's coming. Technology blindsides us all big time on an almost daily basis. Nature reports 20 million acres of corn grown in the US, genetically altered to produce toxins that kill the corn borers which prey open it, also kills monarch butterflies. The corn's pollen can be spread by wind onto milkweed plants, which serve as the monarchs' primary food source. Half of all monarchs that ate the toxic pollen died in four days. Many scientists claim genetically engineered plants pose virtually no danger to "non-target" organisms. This event may change the generally held belief that crops with altered genes are intrinsically safe.
Rough Summer: Gartner Group claims the next big crop of Y2K problems will begin in July, when many firms enter fiscal year 2000. Only about 10% of Y2K failures will actually occur on 1/1/00.
Bubbly Alert: Now here's a really serious Y2K-related problem... a shortage of good champagne. The Champagne Wine Information Bureau, displaying either rare concern for the consumer or cashing in on Y2K fears, says really good bubbly may be in short supply because of the unprecedented revelry expected to mark the arrival of 1/1/00. Those residents of Pittsburgh with more parochial tastes may face an even grimmer prospect... with The Pittsburgh Brewing Company again changing hands, it's not known if the company's legendary Olde Frothingslosh ("the pale stale ale with the foam on the bottom") will be available for the upcoming holiday season. KGB recommends you take no chances... get a couple cases of Iron City cans, stick them in a nice, warm place, and don't forget to open them around Halloween.
What, Us Worry?: Only 3% of persons responding to a PC Magazine online poll said they feel "true fear" about Y2K problems. 28% are moderately worried and another 28% don't give a flying care. The magazine said 41% have only minor concerns.
Maybe You Better: Gartner Group says 81% of all commercial, shrink-wrapped software currently being sold is not Y2K compliant. Six percent of the 19% that is supposedly okay really isn't, Gartner claims, due to poor quality control. And Cap Gemini America reports that of the software it has reviewed for its clients, 10 to 15% of allegedly Y2K-ready shrink-wrapped applications have an average of four or five bugs per program.
Wussies: With the exception of Finland and Denmark, most European banks and stock exchanges will be closed on December 31 to give them some Y2K breathing room. The Fed nixed a suggestion US banks do the same, probably to inspire confidence. Or to give people time to get their wheelbarrows to the ATM machines.
The KGB Take: Look, Windows crashes on me at least three times a day for no ascertainable reasons. At least once a month I have to write checks manually because my printer forgets how to talk to my computer. I periodically forget the code needed to access voicemail on the office phone system, and I lost the manual that explains how to reset the date and time. On Y2K day and thereabouts most things will keep percolating along, some systems won't work right, some will make errors and, yes, some of those will be real doozies... just like any other day. Just use common sense: back up everything, keep paper printouts, and don't hoard. Civilization will survive if we just remain civil.
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.
Feeling left out? KGB Report friends and subscribers get the version of our weekly mailing that doesn't include our promotional literature. We do this in order to keep you as friends and subscribers. However, some folks (hi Mom!) want to receive everything we produce. If you'd like to get all the KGBstuff we generate, just give us a call or drop us a line.
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All About Us:
Kevin G. Barkes publishes the KGB Report, a somewhat curmudgeonly-skewed weekly look at business and technology-related issues. Our main business is database publishing/automated typesetting system design, which means we create systems that can take raw database information, manipulate it and convert it material that can be set into type, published on web sites, or "purposed" for just about any task. We also provide mailing list database services, which includes designing, cleaning up and maintaining your lists. 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 design home automation systems that can get you about 80% of the way to a "Star Trek"-enabled residence, including security, lighting and entertainment systems. 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. We're members of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and the Home Automation Association. Paid subscriptions to the print version of KGB Report are $50/yr. Fax and email subscriptions are also available: call 412-854-2550 for additional information. The paid print edition contains material not available in the online version. Advertising space is available for all media.
An optional personal note: This print edition of KGB Report is the first in about a month, for a number of reasons. Feel free to skip this section, since it is rather self-indulgent.
On Thursday morning, April 29, I had a sudden, severe drop in blood pressure. The condition was later determined to be a delayed reaction to a combination of hypertension medications, but at the time my situation alarmed and completely puzzled the physicians. I was admitted to Jefferson Hospital's ICCU, where my blood pressure dropped, at one point, to 30/20. Thursday evening, during a transesophageal echocardiogram, I had a severe allergic reaction to a local anesthetic and went into anaphylactic shock. I was placed on a respirator and my family was told I had only about a 10% chance of surviving. My wife left the hospital that night certain she'd be a widow the next day.
Paradoxically, I spontaneously recovered.
My blood pressure returned to normal, I recovered from the allergic reaction, and I was removed from the ventilator on Friday afternoon. Aside from a mild case of aspiration pneumonia caused by the emergency treatment, I had no other symptoms. The doctors kept me around until Tuesday, May 4, and performed a battery of tests that revealed my heart, lungs and assorted organs to be in excellent condition. One pulmonologist said I had the heart and lungs of an Olympic swimmer. Why I don't have the body of an Olympic swimmer is probably one of those great mysteries of life better left unexamined.
In a note to friends upon my release, I jokingly offered a friendly word of advice: never ask God the rhetorical question, "How can things possibly get worse?" I soon had my answer.
Two days later, on Thursday, May 6, my son fell asleep while driving home from work and had a glancing head-on collision with a Peterbilt. The car was totaled, but my son walked away with minor scratches and a small bruise on his leg. The state trooper at the scene said had the car swerved just two more inches to the left, my son would have been decapitated.
Around this time I began wondering if God was trying to tell me something. Like, maybe, "Duck!"
Or that He was tired of my moaning about business and financial concerns, and decided to get my attention with some real disasters of Job-like proportion. In any event, I began to feel rather put upon and filled with self-pity.
Then I realized I was looking at the events of that week from the wrong perspective.
All the doctors said I should have died in that hospital bed.
The police said my son should not have survived the head-on collision.
Instead of experiencing two personal disasters, we had instead witnessed two clear instances of what could be called divine intervention.
This really isn't a proper venue for heavy theological discussion, so just consider this observation from Simpsons creator Matt Groening:
"Sometimes God gives nuts to toothless people."
Take care of your spiritual teeth, folks, so you can take a big bite of whatever God sends your way.