June Week 1, 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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Punt or Reboot?Those not up to the daunting intellectual challenge of following the action in NFL football games will get a high-tech assist from ABC Sports in the coming season. The broadcaster will superimpose a yellow virtual first down line on the televised fields of this year's Monday Night Football games and next January's Super Bowl. ESPN, which is partially owned by Disney/ABC, first used the Sportvision Systems technology on Sunday Night Football last season. ABC previously used the display during the Fiesta Bowl. Now, we're not against advances in technology. Instant replay, the Fox-invented stats box and, to a lesser degree, the telestrator all have enhanced the football viewing experience. But is it really necessary to clutter the already graphics-laden screen with more digital detritus? If they'd remove the unnecessary junk so you could see the actual markers, you wouldn't need virtual ones. The new technology football really needs is an infallible computer-controlled coin tosser.
Listen Up: In a memorable Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, cartoonist Bill Watterson observed "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." Perhaps human technology simply lacks the resources required to recognize the radio messages extraterrestrials may be beaming our way. Good news: now you can help look for Mr. Spock's non-earthly brethren on your home or business PC and get a nifty screensaver in the process.
For more than 20 years, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Project at the University of California in Berkeley has been short on money and computer power. Time reports the SETI scientists have designed an ingenious system, which uses the data processing equivalent of the management principle of delegation. A staggering quantity of information is gathered by the radio telescopes listening for possible alien communication. So much, in fact, that even the fastest computer system in existence would require thousands of years to analyze the collected data. The SETI folks turned instead to the concept of distributed computing. They take the collected data and divide it into small, PC-digestible portions so it can be run on as many computers as possible. And the best place to find large numbers of computers is, of course, the Internet.
No modern resource is wasted in greater abandon than computer cycles. Think about it: most of the time your PC just sits there in screensaver mode, showing cartoon characters or bouncing geometric shapes. The SETI@home software displays a spiffily designed screen that resembles the readout of a Star Trek control panel. Beneath the surface, however, your PC is processing radio telescope data that could, just possibly, contain a message from an alien civilization. Time reports than in just two weeks, 390,000 persons signed up their otherwise idle PCs, downloaded the SETI software over the Internet (http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu) and began crunching numbers in earnest. The installation is painless and totally automatic. The software waits until your computer is idle, then asks the SETI system via the Internet to send it some work to do. SETI complies, and whenever you're not processing words or playing solitaire, your PC does some tactical nuclear math. When the bottom line is reached, your PC sends its homework back to SETI and asks for another assignment.
The program has been wildly successful; so far, the volunteer systems have spent more than 3,150 "computer years" (27 million hours) processing the raw data. There's a lot of it. My first SETI "assignment" was a 107-second chunk of data of just one-millionth of the visible sky recorded by Puerto Rico's Arecibo Radio Observatory on Friday, January 8. It's been running for about 30 hours on an old 90Mhz Pentium system, and it's only finished about 10% of its calculations.
The chance your computer will be the one to find an interplanetary "hi there" is astonishingly remote. SETI sets them at about 100 million to one, or roughly two and a half times longer odds than hitting the state Lotto. And that's assuming the ETs are bothering to send signals our way at all. Even if the SETI search is a wild goose chase, it's shown the Internet/distributed computing model does work and can possibly be applied to other math-intensive scientific undertakings, like discovering remedies for incurable diseases or developing the first warp drive generator. The potential for less speculative applications exists as well. Certain business computing tasks can be divvied up and distributed to idle PCs throughout a company's network, significantly reducing the time required to complete complex projects and, possibly, the need for some centralized mainframe computers.
I can just imagine the first extraterrestrial message popping up on one of my computers. "People of Earth: the secret to the universe is General Protection Fault, System Halted, Data Has Been Lost..."
Good Buys: Once in a while you need to replace old equipment for specific applications. Given the speed with which technology becomes obsolete, it's often difficult to get a direct replacement. The manufacturer may have gone out of business, or the latest and greatest version of the device may not be entirely compatible with what you have. A great source for this kind of stuff is the local thrift store, run by Goodwill or the Salvation Army or some other charitable group. You can often find the modem, monitor, keyboard, computer, coffee carafe or whatever you need at unbelievably low cost.
Acceptable Risk: Due to the proliferation of litigation, virtually every consumer product bears some type of warning label. My favorite is the one on the Superman Halloween costume that advises the purchaser the "enclosed cape does not enable wearer to fly". There's a label on the light fixture on the ornamental lamppost in our front yard that ominously recommends we "use bulbs smaller than 60 watts to reduce risk of fire." This poses an interesting dilemma. A 60-watt bulb does reduce the risk of fire; it also insures the lamppost is indeed merely ornamental. The feeble light generated looks pretty but is useless for navigation purposes. It simply doesn't illuminate the walk. So, I put a 100-watt bulb in the post, since I can't remember the last time The I-Team did an expose on outdoor ornamental lighting fixtures spontaneously combusting. The lamppost now casts a useful glow, but my cavalier attitude has caused my wife ongoing distress as she worries about the incipient conflagration. Life is filled with risks, but I'm far more worried about someone falling on a dark walkway than a sheet metal lighting fixture bursting into flames in the middle of the front lawn. I propose a universal warning label that states, "manufacturer assumes user is not a blithering idiot."
Recommended Stuff: Hello Direct (www.hellodirect.com; 800-444-3556) sells telephone-related equipment that can really boost your efficiency. I can't live without their cordless headset, which allows me to wander throughout the place and still answer the phone. They also sell answering machines, cellular phones, music on hold systems, phone systems, recorders and all sorts of telephones and accessories. They're rather pricey, but their branded stuff is top quality, guaranteed, and their customer service is peerless. I've used them for years and have never been disappointed.
Common Sense: Employers frequently assume those lacking a formal education also lack insight. Never discount wisdom gained from experience. At a recent commencement address, comedian Bill Cosby recalled an encounter with his grandmother. At the time, Mr. Cosby was a college senior majoring in education; his grandmother was a homemaker who had had to drop out of school in the fourth grade to help support her family. When his grandmother asked him what he had discussed in school that day, Mr. Cosby described his philosophy class. With great pretension, he told about the three-hour debate that had ensued over the classic question of whether the glass was half empty or half full. Mr. Cosby's grandmother, unimpressed, simply asked: "Well, are you pouring, or drinking?"
Quotes of the Week:
"Some things have to be believed to be seen."-Ralph Hodgson
"Let's have some new cliches."-Samuel Goldwyn
"The whole world is about three drinks behind."-Humphrey Bogart
"The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity."-Harlan Ellison
"What if the Hokey-Pokey is really what it's all about?"-T-shirt
"Information is money, but data is squat."-Angela Llama-Butler
"Cat. The Other White Meat."-T-shirt
"I was going to buy a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking, and then I thought: what the hell good would that do?"-Ronnie Shakes
Useless Web Site of the Week: http://www.hogwatch.org/resourcecenter/counter.html
The North Carolina Poop Counter, sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, provides constantly updated, second by second comparisons of poop generated by humans and hogs in the Tar Heel State. Decorum prevents further comment, although the technology might also be of use in Congress.
Lost in Translation: The Milk Marketing Board had to make some adjustments to its "Got Milk?" campaign before launching a Spanish-language version intended for Latino audiences. The Wall Street Journal article says the direct translation of "Got Milk?" to Spanish results in the catchy phrase, "Are You Lactating?"
Totally Non Technical, Non Business, Non Sequiturs:
While standing in line at a convenience store with a Diet Dr. Pepper, I realized that soft drinks and bottled water are about eight times as expensive as gasoline. (CoGo's charges $1.09 for a 20-ounce bottle, a bit more than a pint. There are two pints in a quart, four quarts in a gallon. The math is left as an exercise to the reader.) Isn't there something inherently wrong with this? And aren't you glad the Coca-Cola Company doesn't run OPEC?
On another beverage note: when you get coffee, put your creamer and sugar in the cup before pouring. You won't have to stir and you can just slap on the top and go. Be prepared for strange looks from the caffeine addicts around you, though.
Trivia Contest: Alan Fisher of CIGNA HealthCare in Franklin, TN correctly identified Taxi as the only sitcom to feature newsman Eric Sevareid and Fantasy Island star Herve Villechaize in the same episode. This week's question: "Beam me up, Scotty" is the most memorable line associated with the original Star Trek series, even though the phrase was never actually used in the show. Captain Jean Luc Piccard frequently did use the phrase "Make it so" in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the line's not an original. In which classic literary work did it first appear? Extra bonus question: who originally added "Make it so" to a script? The first person with the correct answer gets an official KGB Consulting pop-up calendar.
Hey! ABC! I'd give a lifetime subscription to this newsletter to the staff of the overnight World News Now newscast if they'd use the following intro to their frequenly interminable sports segments: "And now, one of the largest and most respected news organizations in the world dedicates several minutes of valuable broadcast time to air videotapes of millionaires hitting balls with sticks."
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: The AVweb AVflash newsletter reports a British Airways Concorde and an American Airlines 767-300 had a close encounter of the pucker-factor kind on May 24 at JFK. The Concorde had just aborted its landing at JFK for poor visibility when it had a near mid-air collision with the departing 767. Pilots for the American Airlines flight said in a report filed with the FAA that the distance was close to 500 feet both vertically and horizontally. Score one for technology in this case: the collision avoidance system aboard the 767 alerted the crew to the Concorde, although one wonders about the FAA's air traffic control systems. And it's still seven months until Y2Kday.
Getting Better: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) reports the vast majority of its member banks are prepared to handle the arrival of Y2K. Of the FDIC's 10,400 member institutions, only 205 are rated "less than satisfactory". That's a significant improvement from the last report. At the end of March, 357 banks were on the FDIC's trouble list.
Variations On A Theme: Readers of KGB Report Online 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 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 90% 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