ONLINE ISSN: 1525-898X
PRINT ISSN: 1525-9366
August 30, 1999
A Curmudgeon's Look at Business and Technology,
Featuring the Stuff You Really Need To Know
What Are They Thinking, Part I? The Wall Street Journal reports BP Amoco will introduce new gas pumps early next year that have built-in Internet web browsers and are run by Microsoft Windows CE. Aside from the questionable advisability of permitting a Microsoft operating system to control the dispensing of hundreds of thousands of gallons of potentially explosive liquid, does the gasoline pump/web browser combo actually represent a true synergistic combination? Most persons I know want to get in to and out of a gasoline station ASAP. And if I own a station, the last thing I want is some yahoo tying up a pump so he can check his e-mail or his stock prices.
What Are They Thinking, Part II? Antitrust provisions of the BP Amoco merger forced the new company to divest a lot of stations. Here in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, virtually all of the local Amocos turned into Union 76s overnight. I've been using Amoco gasoline for almost 30 years and the disappearance of the brand was really disturbing. The fact that Union 76 is the official fuel of NASCAR racing is not particularly impressive- I rarely drive in circles at 200 miles per hour. Resigned to my fate, I headed to the nearest BP, where I was told they don't accept Amoco credit cards. Well, at least next year I'll be able to send the chairman of BP Amoco a nasty email from one of his fancy new pumps before I head off to the Sunoco down the road. Someone ought to remind these bozos they're in business to sell gasoline, not Internet service.
Survive Y2K? How About Surviving Until Y2K? At least we know what the Y2K problem is and when it will arrive. Unfortunately, unexpected crises that emphasize the infrastructure's fragility whack our technology dependent society almost daily. Some recent events that blindsided us:
Big Dunked Apple: Three inches of rain in two hours, a broken water main and the resultant flash floods paralyzed highways, shut down the subway system, disrupted commuter rail service and was responsible for a severe taxi shortage in New York City last Thursday. Hundreds of thousands of commuters were forced to return home when it became impossible to access the city, and the deluge wreaked havoc with airline schedules. Things were back to normal by the end of the day, but even if you made it to Newark, LaGuardia or JFK...
Chicago Toddles: Some loony with a canvas bag ran past the security checkpoint at O'Hare Airport last Thursday and disappeared into the crowd, forcing the evacuation of 6,000 passengers and their luggage from the terminal. Air traffic across the nation was disrupted when about 130 United flights were cancelled due to the security breach. It was the first time such an incident occurred at O'Hare; other airports have been affected by similar occurrences. By the way, they never found the guy. Our guess: he's sitting at a gate, waiting for a cancelled flight. His canvas bag contains some beef jerky and a supply of potable water. Yep, a US Airways Dividend Miles member.
I Know You Are, But What Am I? Fuji Bank Ltd, one of Japan's largest financial institutions, accidentally e-mailed a computer virus to some of its global investment customers last week. Reuters said the virus causes the recipient's computer to display a message calling the viewer a "big stupid jerk" on the 14th of each month. Gee, I get that message daily.
GPS Glitch: Aside from owners of some older Garmin units, users of the orbital satellite-based Global Positioning System in the United States had no problems when the GPS clock rolled over on August 21. Japanese users weren't as lucky. Only about 170,000 of the quarter million GPS systems sold in Japan since 1996 were updated before the deadline. Japanese drivers depend on their cars' GPS-based navigation aids because most streets in the country's major cities are unnamed. Thousands found themselves looking at blank or frozen displays. Bear in mind that for the most part the affected units were non-critical consumer devices. There were no reports of problems with airlines or maritime users. This could be a glimpse of Y2Kday: minor inconveniences, but no major catastrophes. Still, if I find myself stuck in an elevator on 1/1/00 and, while killing time, a fellow passenger asks my occupation, you can be certain the answer isn't going to be "computer consultant."
They'll Never Learn: Sloppy, lazy programmers are responsible for Y2K problems says specialist Jocelyn Amon, and about a third of them are still creating bad code despite all the hoopla and the fact Y2Kday is just four months away. ComputerWorld says Amon spent six hours searching Internet web pages and was able to find over 300 Y2K-related errors. The most common excuses, that two digit years were used to save memory or that the authors felt the code wouldn't still be in use in the year 2000, are obviously no longer valid. Still, of the erroneous web pages Amon identified, 37% were created or modified last year and 33% were created this year.
Beware 9/9/99? Expect lots of Y2K-style media hype in the coming weeks as September 9 approaches. Legend has it some computers will keel over because ancient programmers used nines to do all sorts of magical stuff in their software, from destroying file systems to rolling back their calendars to 1900. Many consider the nines problem to be a myth, but find it interesting that the International Y2K Cooperation Center and the North American Electric Reliability Council have scheduled major exercises for September 9. Cynics suggest the date was selected so the nasty nines can be blamed if something goes wrong.
Small Business Apathy: Despite concerted efforts by trade groups and government, most small businesses are dealing with the Y2K problem by ignoring it, according to the Small Business Administration. The general attitude of small businesspersons seems to be that western civilization won't end if their systems aren't Y2K compliant, and if it does, at least they didn't waste money trying to fix things in advance.
What About Us Guys? A perfect companion to the KGB Y2K Beanie, a Japanese company is now marketing the Armageddon Brassiere. The undergarment contains an electronic sensor that warns wearers of objects falling from the sky due to Y2K-related failures. The news release did not detail the alert mechanism used. We're thinking rotating tassels.
Trivia: Alan Fisher of CIGNA in Franklin, TN correctly answered our last question: canola oil is actually rapeseed oil, renamed to be a bit more politically correct. This week's question: what major city in the continental US averages 156 heating (not cooling) degree-days in August?
Quotes of the Week:
"We have a heated battle with Palm in hand-helds, but we're winning in gas pumps and chicken terminals."-Jonathan Roberts, Microsoft Windows CE marketing manager
"Golf is an exercise in Scottish pointlessness for people who are no longer able to throw telephone poles at each other."-Florence King
The KGB Random Quotations Generator has over 3,250 entries and is frequently updated. Visit it online at http://www.kgbreport.com/kgbquote.shtml, and be sure to try the online search. Many of the quotes are also available on our Curmudgeon Tees... check out http://www.kgbreport.com/tshirts.html.
Useless Web Sites of the Week: http://www.midcoast.com/lobcam/ is the home of the "Lobstah Cam", located in a lobster trap at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off Spruce Head, Maine. Updated every two minutes, you can sometimes spot an antenna, leg, or other crustacean body part. The site helpfully notes the image "will be dark at night and muddy when the ocean is really rough."
KGB In The News. Well, to be accurate, KGB on the news. About two weeks ago I appeared on ABC's World News Now (WNN), the network's overnight newscast which airs locally on WTAE-TV from about 2 to 5 am Monday through Friday. WNN is a unique show. As the Rutgers Review said, the broadcast is "possibly the greatest program ever made that is not a Star Trek series." They aired a tape I sent in for their Viewer Feedback segment, and since I happened to be in New York on business, they invited me to stop by. Personable co-anchors Juju Chang and Anderson Cooper asked me to stick around after the tape segment, let me deliver the weather forecast, and for the rest of the show played with the pop-up calendars I gave them. Talk about your product placement! The WNN gang comprise a friendly and professional crew and, Rutgers Review notwithstanding, WNN is actually better than some Star Trek series. Not the original series or The Next Generation, but better than Voyager, certainly. Maybe even better than Deep Space Nine. Definitely better than the movie Shatner directed. Thanks to senior producer Sharon Newman, who let me sit in the control room; broadcast producer Jonathan Larsen, who extended the invitation; and Ms. Chang and Mr. Cooper, who are the primary reasons I record the show when I'm not awake at 4 am. How many news shows are worth saving for later viewing? When's the last time you taped Dan Rather? See what I mean? Special thanks to the lovely hair stylist and the charming make-up artist from Weirton, WV whose names I can't remember but whose affable conversation and encouragement allowed a hick from Homestead, PA to weather the experience without too much embarrassment. They even managed to conceal my Albert Brooksian Broadcast News flop sweat. (Okay Sharon, here's your plug. And I've destroyed all the copies of my solution to the WNN National Temperature Index. Really. Please return my wife at your earliest possible convenience, and don't forget to punch holes in the box.)
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They're Here! As seen on ABC World News Now (sorry, couldn't resist), the KGB Consulting Y2K Tetradecagon Pop-Up Calendar is now available! Check out our Desperate Sideline Enterprises web page at http://www.kgbreport.com/tshirts.html, which also features our Curmudgeon Tees, now with new lower prices.