FREE PREVIEW: Normally, only an abridged version of KGB Report is available on the kgb.com website. As an introductory offer, the next three issues will be posted in their entirety. Current subscribers will have four issues added to their subscription.
Online Ordering: Just in time for the holidays, we've implemented secure online credit card ordering on the www.kgbreport.com website. You can now indulge your heretofore-suppressed impulses to buy gift subscriptions, pop-up calendars and our curmudgeon tee shirts. Experts say online ordering increases site sales up to 1000 percent. Let's not prove them wrong, okay?
Gotcha. Turns out the scandalous story about fashion photographer Ron Harris auctioning the eggs of models on his web site may be nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by a hustler/pornographer who duped a gullible media overcome by its own Internet hype.
Originally carried by the New York Times, virtually every mainstream media outlet in the world redistributed the report unchallenged
Experienced web surfers who visited the highly publicized ronsangels.com web site immediately became suspicious, since there's a membership page remarkably similar to those found on commercial pornography sites. You have to purchase a "membership" in order to have "access to the statistics and larger photographs of all our donors", as well as to make a bid for the models' eggs. The membership solicitation also states, "we add new donors each week, come back often." Change the word "donors" to "models", and you have the traditional porn site come-on.
A search for Harris' name on various Internet search engines returned scores of sites with titles that leave nothing to the imagination (unless one is naive enough to think the Internet attracts an inordinate number of individuals who are fascinated by febrile kitty cats). Obviously, not much in-depth research was done before the story was published.
"People are willing to believe things on the Net that common sense would have kept them from believing,'' said Hunter College (NY) media professor Clary Shirky in a Boston Globe interview.
''If this story had showed up on your doorstep," he continued, "you would have had a million questions, but because it's on the Net, it pushes all the right buttons at the same time it dismantles everyone's skepticism. A sniff test on this alone should have made this story fall apart in five minutes.''
An anonymous spokesperson for Harris explained to the Globe why an uncritical media gleefully latched on to the tale: ''It's controversial. It's sex. It's power. It's money. It's the Internet."
What's particularly amazing is the frequency with which the media is suckered by net-related scammers. Remember the teenagers who were supposedly going to lose their virginity on line last year?
USA Today managing editor Thomas Hilkirk told the Globe, "We have been rapidly learning about using the Internet to check on all types of facts and sources for all sorts of stories."
Not rapidly enough, Tom.
Area Code Disinformation: A third area code is going to be added to the Pittsburgh region next year. As usual, the situation is blamed on the proliferation of cellular telephones and pagers.
As we noted here back in April, only about 25% of the available phone numbers are actually in use in most area codes. The real problem is the growing number of companies that are entering the local telephone service market. More specifically, it's the manner in which Bell Atlantic assigns telephone numbers to its new competitors.
Bell gives each new company an entire exchange consisting of a block of 10,000 numbers, even if the company doesn't have anywhere near that number of customers.
The phone company says technical limitations in its switching and billing systems are the reason it uses such an inefficient allocation scheme. Competing local service providers claim that since Bell controls the original 412 area code and its exchanges, it has a distinct marketing advantage: it can offer its customers the most familiar Pittsburgh numbers.
Until the major players are forced by various jurisdictions' public utilities commissions 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.
Regulators in Chicago now require the telephone company there to distribute numbers in blocks of 1,000, which is an improvement but not the ultimate solution to the problem. And the point is the problem can only be resolved by ordering the dominant local telephone companies to update their archaic exchange assignment methodology.
What's particularly irritating to those of us in Pittsburgh is that we're going to have to dial ten digits for all local calls beginning next year. That's because our new area code will be "overlaid" rather than assigned to specific geographic regions. It will be possible for three telephones in the same office to have three different area codes.
Okay, Luddite rant mode off. Realistically, the need to dial ten numbers is inevitable. The U.S. has 260 million people, and with businesses, fax machines, cell phones, pagers, Internet access lines and heaven knows what else, the universe of available phone numbers that can be generated from a three digit area code, three digit exchange and four digit number is going to run out, and not as far into the future as you'd think.
It's a foregone conclusion that at some point in our lifetimes, all telephone numbers will become as nondescript as Internet Protocol addresses. The digits will bear no geographic significance whatsoever. Just call it nostalgic resistance from someone whose first phone number was HOmestead 1-8588.
Related rant to advertisers... get rid of alphabetic characters in toll free numbers. 800-CALL-BOB is useless to me when I'm trying to initiate a call from a computer keyboard that doesn't have letter assignments under the numbers. And do you really want to force customers to punch in letters from memory, given the abysmal spelling skills the average young person has these days?
There's even a niche industry on the Internet that involves intercepting misspelled web addresses. Enter www.amazone.com. Even better, try www.amozan.com. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page. At least those guys have a sense of humor.
Sandman Squelches Telemarketers: Since we're talking about telephone aggravations: a company called "Mike Sandman... Chicago's Telecom Expert" has come up with an ingenious way to deal with those annoying telemarketing firms that use computers to control their sales calls.
These outfits' systems employ sophisticated predictive dialing equipment whose goal is to eliminate wasting the human operators' time on busy signals, disconnected lines, etc. Only calls successfully dialed and completed by the computer are passed along to the real people manning the phones.
This automated junk phone call is possibly the most annoying, since the computer plays a recorded message that demands you stay on the line "for an important message" that turns out to be just another unwanted solicitation. I hang up on this type of call immediately. Of course, by doing so I've alerted the computer that I really am at home. So after a few minutes the infernal device dials my number again, but this time a human is immediately available to pitch his message for Time-Life's Treasury Of Songs From The '50s And '60s You Probably Never Heard Of Or Can't Remember But We Could Get The Licenses For Really Cheap.
What Sandman's Telemarketer Stopper does is fake out the predictive dialer. You know when you call a number and you get three tones and the recording, "We're sorry, the number you have reached is not in service..."? The Stopper plays those three beeps when you answer your phone. If you're being called by a predictive dialer, it hears the SIT (Special Information Tones), updates its database, marks your number as being no good and hangs up. It should be quite a while before that particular telemarketer annoys you again.
This little marvel
costs a paltry $26. Sandman has literally tons of all sorts of
telephone gear, but, surprisingly, no Internet presence. You can
reach them at (630) 980-7710.
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 upside the head on an almost daily basis. Some recent events of note:
The Y2.038K bug: I was all prepared for the year 2000, but I got nailed by the year 2038.
The power supply in the computer that serves as our Internet interface died last week. When I rebooted it, I didn't notice that it came up with the date/time of 1/1/1970 00:00:00. Within a minute, half of the computers on our network had jumped ahead in time to January 18, 2038. And therein lies a tale.
Most contemporary software is written in the C or C++ programming languages. These languages contain a library of frequently used operations called functions. Built-in functions save programmers a lot of time, freeing them from having to re-invent the wheel every time they write a new application.
It just so happens that the most commonly used function employed for implementing time calculations contains a major limitation.
Midnight, January 1, 1970 is a date of special significance. Many computer operating systems and programming languages (including C and C++) use it as the start date for their temporal calculations. They define the current time as the number of seconds that have passed since midnight on 1/1/1970. (Why 1970? That was the year Unix was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Don't get me started.)
These systems internally store the elapsed seconds from the start date in a data structure that's 32 bits wide.
Unfortunately, all 32 bits aren't available for counting. The computer uses one bit to indicate whether the number stored in the remaining 31 bits is positive or negative.
The largest number that can be stored in 31 bits is 2,147,483,647, which also happens to be the number of seconds between midnight on January 1, 1970 and some time or another on January 18, 2038.
When our Internet server rebooted and incorrectly set itself to 1/1/1970, it initiated a cascade of errors that resulted in hitting the 2038 barrier.
The server automatically checks its internal clock and calendar periodically by synchronizing itself over the Internet with the atomic clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
The software that adjusts the local server's time to NIST time was designed to make corrections in the magnitude of hours and seconds. When it discovered it was being asked to set its clock ahead by almost 29 years, it had the equivalent of a nervous breakdown. The program crashed, but not before setting all 31 bits in the time offset to 1.
This in turn set the server's clock ahead 2,147,483,647 seconds from January 1, 1970 to January 18, 2038.
The other machines on our network synchronize to the Internet server to set their own dates and times. Each was erroneously thrown 68 years into the future, and a few seized up and died.
I had to boot the affected computers in DOS mode and reinstall certain applications that were date sensitive. Aside from the time I had to spend fixing stuff, no serious damage was done and no data was lost. I also discovered a few programs that were Y2K compliant, but not year 2038 compliant.
While the Internet server still checks and resets its time with the NIST clock, the other systems on our network no longer automatically synch their clocks to the server. We do that manually now.
Interesting thought: I wonder how much havoc would be wreaked if a clever enough hacker managed to "spoof" the Internet addresses of NIST and the other time servers on the net and returned the current date as January 18, 2038?
Also... shouldn't we be handling the Y2.038K problem now? The excuse that no one will be running software that's in use today in 2038 just doesn't cut it, especially in light of the Y2K debacle. And still I've seen recently drafted software design specifications that address Y2K issues but make no mention of other time-related calamities.
As someone once said, "History not only repeats itself, it frequently grabs you by the throat, shakes you forcefully and screams, 'Don't you listen to anything I tell you!?' "
Our preferred operating system, OpenVMS, uses a timekeeping system that won't run out of counting space until 02:48:05.47 a.m. local time on July 31 in the year 31,086.
Back in the early '80s, long before anyone said anything about Y2K, Digital responsibly pointed out in its system documentation:
"Note that the OpenVMS time display and manipulation routines allow for only four digits in the 'YEAR' field. We expect this to be corrected in a future release of OpenVMS sometime prior to 31-DEC-9999."
Positive Thinking. Recently seen on a t-shirt: "Y2K Complacent".
A matter of principle: Australian airline Qantas is going to pay $100 million to repair one of its 747s that overshot the runway and slid into a golf course in a September landing at Bangkok International Airport.
The tropical storm
induced prang severely damaged the jet's nose, landing gear, fuselage
undercarriage and engines. Why not just write the plane off? Because
Qantas has never totaled a plane in its history, and it's a record
it wants to maintain for as long as possible.
Y2K Determination: A refreshing approach to Y2K disclosure matters from the Hart Scientific web site ( http://www.hartscientific.com/y2k.htm) :
"Welcome to our unofficial Y2K page. It's filled with totally unofficial stuff which can't be relied upon by anyone for any reason, but it's okay to enjoy it. In fact, we hope you like it so much you'll stop sending us those twenty page long, complex questionnaires, which of course we never send back.
"Even if our accounting software stops working on January 3, 2000, you can count on us finding a way to bill you for whatever you bought from us prior to Armageddon.
"Even if we have to write your invoice on the back of bubble gum wrappers, we're going to bill you. This is the promise our lawyers made to us and it's the same promise we're going to make to you. It's the only thing we're going to guarantee you--but at least we're guaranteeing something.
Sign Me Up: I've always had suspicions that a lot of the "Who's Who"-type organizations have somewhat uncritical listing requirements. Now I'm certain. I received a "your name has been brought to our attention for possible inclusion" e-mail the other day. What made the solicitation particularly interesting was that it was addressed not to me, but to email@example.com. Yep, they certainly are a discerning group...
In Defense of Office Assistant: One of the most frequently asked questions on Microsoft Office related forums is "How the #@^!$ do I turn off that damned paper clip thing?" The reference is to Clippet, the default animated Office Assistant who pops up on the screen from time to time, offers advice or asks for information needed by the currently running application.
I recently moved to Office 2000 and, as a macho tough-guy geeky techno-nerd, I immediately began to take the steps necessary to send the irritating assistant into oblivion. Clicking through the available assistants, I accidentally came upon Rocky, a personable, friendly yellow dog.
For the hell of it, instead of turning off the Assistant function, I clicked on Rocky. A doghouse appeared on the screen. Out dashed Rocky, only to be stopped short by a chain connected to his collar. He reached behind his doghouse, put on a welder's mask and pulled out a torch, which he used to cut the chain.
He then sat quietly in the corner of the screen wearing an attractive doggy smile. From time to time he scratches, pants, wags his tail and sniffs at the icons in the task bar. He lies down and snoozes on the bottom border of the document in which I'm editing and periodically opens an eye to see what I'm doing. What made me decide to keep him, though, was a specific behavior that I found immediately endearing.
While you're writing an e-mail or word processing document, Rocky will turn his head as if reading it. He then looks back at you, gives you a doggy grin, and wags his tail.
What can I say? Writers need encouragement. And I really like dogs, especially those who don't shed, interrupt or demand to be let in or out of the cellar door at inconvenient times.
Rocky's also taught me a thing or two about Word and Excel, shortcuts I had never learned because, let's face it, who reads manuals anymore?
I think I'll keep him around, at least for a while. Lord knows he's a lot less creepy than that paper clip entity. Animated office supplies weird me out.
(Possible enhancement: a version of Rocky that's controlled remotely by one's editor. If your editor doesn't like what you're writing, Rocky growls menacingly and lifts a leg...)
KGB In The News: Not everything I write is technical in nature. The November issue of good times (subtitled "the lifestyle magazine for mature Pennsylvanians") contains my very own 30 Nifty Things To Do In Pittsburgh. (I can't believe I got something published in a magazine with the word "mature" in the title.)
It's not your average Pittsburgh puff piece. I doubt many writers would recommend visiting the unusual sculpture the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Peter Leo dubbed "The Tomb of the Unknown Bowler." And I dare you to locate any official Pittsburgh Visitors and Convention Bureau material that mentions the fictional Wilmerding Stretch Mark Museum popularized by local radio personalities Larry O'Brien and John Garry.
good times is edited by Karen Detwiler, who was my boss on the late, great VAX Professional magazine. Karen also copy edited a number of my DCL Dialogue columns in DEC Professional. The fact those of us on the VAX Pro editorial review board slogged to Philadelphia every February to attend Karen's scintillating planning meetings should give you a pretty good idea of the esteem in which she was held by her writers, an unruly mob of feral geeks.
Answer to our last question: Popular character actor Sid Melton played sidekick Ichabod (Icky) Mudd in the 50s series Captain Midnight (also known as Jet Jackson, Flying Commando.)
He played nightclub owner "Uncle Charley" Halper in Make Room For Daddy, later renamed to The Danny Thomas Show.
On Green Acres, he portrayed handyman Alf Monroe of the Monroe Brothers. (Mary Grace Canfield played his "brother", Ralph.)
This week's question: After initial marketing trials in Pennsylvania and Ohio, this was introduced in Carnegie, PA and Greensburg, PA on November 18, 1963. What was it? First correct response gets an official KGB Consulting Y2K Compliant Year 2000 Multi-Dimensional Tetradecagon Pop-Up Calendar, a $5 value.
"An unsupervised teenager with a modem is as dangerous as an unsupervised teenager with a gun."-Arizona State Attorney Gail Thackeray
"Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."-Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes
"Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand."-Unknown
"The most likely way for the world to be destroyed, most experts agree, is by accident. That's where we come in; we're computer professionals. We cause accidents."-Nathaniel Borenstein
"This man needs
help! Is there a pre-approved primary care provider in the house?"-Cartoon
"You have to be a real stud hombre cybermuffin to handle Windows."-Dave Barry
The KGB Random Quotations Generator has over 3,800 entries and is frequently updated. Visit it online at http://www.kgbreport.com/kgbquote.shtml, and be sure to try the search feature. Many of the quotes are also available on our Curmudgeon Tees... check out http://www.kgbreport.com/tshirts.html.
http://www.summum.org/mummification/pets/ is the website of a lovely little outfit that provides mummification services for your dearly departed pet.
All you need is a cooler, some ice, duct tape, and access to an airfreight service. Just don't forget the money order, personal check or cashier's check for a mere $4,500.
And just in time for Christmas; assuming, of course, that Fido or Kitty seems to be in a bit of a decline...
(If the price is too rich for your tastes, stop by http://members.aol.com/mumifyddog/, lean back in your surfing chair and learn how to do it yourself at your own leisure.
More Shameless Self-Promotion: Culturally enrich your employees or clients by getting them a subscription to the weekly KGB Report; quantity discounts are available. Items from KGB Report may be used in other media with proper attribution. And for heavens sake, buy a calendar, will you?
They're Here! As seen on ABC World News Now, (Hi, Jonathan!) the KGB Consulting Y2K Compliant Multi-Dimensional Tetradecagon Pop-Up Calendar is now available! Visit our newly designed and interactive Desperate Sideline Enterprises web page at http://www.kgbreport.com/tshirts.html, which also features our Curmudgeon Tees, now with new lower prices and secure online credit card ordering.
Kevin G. Barkes publishes the KGB Report, a somewhat curmudgeonly-skewed weekly look at business and technology-related issues. We operate the www.kgbreport.com website, which contains an online version of this newsletter, the KGB Random Quotations Generator, additional information about our company and links to other interesting places on the Internet.