Thursday, April 28, 2005

 

Coming soon, to a county near you ....

From the Tribune

IDOT official charged with DUI


By Jeff Long and Rudolph Bush, Tribune staff reporter. Long reported from McHenry County and Bush from Washington
Published April 28, 2005

An Illinois official who helps oversee mass-transit programs caused several drivers--including a sheriff's deputy--to swerve out of his way before he was arrested on drunken-driving charges in McHenry County this month, police said.

He also mentioned his job with the state in an apparent attempt to avoid arrest, Sheriff Keith Nygren said.

Daniel E. Stefanski, 47, of Mundelein, a deputy director of the Illinois Department of Transportation, refused a Breathalyzer test after being stopped April 15 by sheriff's police, Nygren said.

He is scheduled to appear in court Friday on charges of driving under the influence, improper lane use, having no proof of insurance, resisting arrest and felony aggravated assault, Nygren said.

Stefanski, a longtime friend of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's, has previously been charged with DUI and reckless driving in Lake and Cook Counties, according to records.

"`Do you know who I am?'" Nygren quoted Stefanski as saying after police stopped Stefanski on April 15 near Johnsburg. "`I am the secretary to the director of the Illinois Department of Transportation.'"
 

Let Fly

Since 2/3rds of commenters seem to believe their driving cannot be improved, I shall say no more on the subject.

So today let's tip our hats to the snail chewing developers of the Airbus A380 and the European taxpayers who contributed about a third of the $6-$12BN development cost (depending on who you believe and bearing in mind the opaque nature of EU funding)





So 35 years after the Americans came up with the 747, the Europeans now have a jumbo aircraft.

I think Boeing were absolutely right not to try to create their own, even larger, plane, but instead listened to what a lot of the airlines were telling them, which is to improve what they already have in the 777. The world does not need two manufacturers of (potentially) 800 seater planes. You don't win in business by playing 'catch-up'.

It will be very interesting to see if Airbus makes its money back. Apparently they need to sell 250 A380s to break even and have orders for about 150.

We have come a long way since Concorde was developed in the 1960s. Lavishly funded by European taxpayers, the designers created a beautiful, technologically advanced aircraft without even considering the commercial environment in which it would have to play; in the end, only 16 were built and they were virtually given away to the British and French state-owned airlines.

I don't think there is any chance that the A380 will be such a failure. But questions remain, mainly due to the logistics of boarding and deplaning 600-700 passengers efficiently in the world's overcrowded airports, and processing them efficiently through immigration and customs.

That said, most airports seem to be under round the clock construction as it is, so adding extra capacity to departure lounges, together with the extra washroom and dining facilities these huge numbers of passengers will require (particularly in the event of flight disruptions) should not cause any more disruption than there already is.

If the A380 is successful, it might put pressure on older airports which physically cannot be expanded to cope, and give an advantage to newer upstarts.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

 

Safe Driving #8: Signals

Signals are the most misunderstood things on cars. Where else do you entrust your life to the state of a colored light? But thousands do, every day. For example, you are in the middle of an intersection with traffic lights waiting to turn left. The lights turn red. If there's a filter light, you may get a green arrow. You go, right? Only if you believe that the oncoming cars will notice the lights are red, and actually stop. As for me, I don't go until I see the oncoming cars actually slow down or stop. This means I get beeped from behind. So what? Numerous times, my passenger will say, "go on, what are you waiting for!". I wait and sure enough the oncoming car just obliviously blasts through the red light or suddenly sees it and skids to a halt half way into the crossing.

Incidentally, always be thinking 'what-if'. When you're sat in the middle of the road waiting to turn left, the steering wheel should be pointed straight ahead. That way, if you're rear-ended, you'll be pushed forward and not left into the oncoming traffic.

People think traffic signals mean this:

Red. Stop
Amber. Go very fast.
Green. Go

What they actually mean is this.

Red. Come to a halt progressively. Don't see the amber, hit the gas, fail to make it and slam on the brakes at the last minute.
Amber. Unless you're right on top of the traffic signal, slow down progressively and stop. Ignore the idiot beeping from the rear.
Green. If you can see other vehicles have stopped and it is safe, go.

Here's another example of trusting your life to a flashing light: You are waiting to turn left or right out of a side road on to a busy major road. You see a car approaching on the left with a right indicator flashing showing that the driver intends to turn into the road you are emerging from. But is that what it really shows? No. All it shows is that sometime in the past the driver clicked the right turn signal switch. Don't go until you actually see their wheels begin to turn. There's every chance they will have just forgotten their indicator is on, or have turned it on too early.

While on the subject of indicators, a word about large trucks and semis and indicators. These vehicles frequently need a lot of road space to turn. If a semi driver needs to turn right and the bend is sharp, he will actually first pull into the left hand lane and turn right from there (to avoid demolishing a building, traffic signal or pedestrian with his trailer). So whenever you see a turn signal on a semi or large truck in front, remember, it means: I am about to do something bizarre so keep well back and be prepared to stop. To spell it out, if you see a semi turn any indicator on, he may intend to turn left, or to move left before turning right, or to move right before turning left, or to turn right. Or he hit it by mistake while getting his map out.

The three signals from other vehicles you should always take seriously are brake lights and reversing lights.

Brake lights. Absent a wiring fault these come on when a driver covers the brake. Always treat them seriously and be prepared to slow down and stop. A brake light coming on is a single to you that the driver is intending to carry out some type of maneuver.

Reversing lights. At the mall or grocery store parking lot, if the car has them and they are working, these may be your only indication of a vehicle about to reverse into your path.


Revolving or flashing lights. Farmers and building workers operate machinery on public highways as though they were in the middle of a field. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

 

Safe Driving #7: On the Expressway

Expressways should be the safest roads of all. There are no stop lights or signs, no intersections, no steep hills or sharp bends. But practically every day there are backups caused by four easily preventable accidents.

1) Rear-ending the car in front. How do people keep hitting the car in front? It's not exactly easy to miss, after all. Are you driving too close? Watch the car in front go under a bridge or past a sign. Say, "One Thousand, Two Thousand" slowly. If you reach the bridge or sign before you finish saying that, you are far too close and have practically no chance of avoiding hitting him should he stop suddenly. Remember: when the guy in front hits the brakes in a panic, and you see the smoke coming off his tires, you're toast.

2) Being rear-ended by the car behind. If you are paying attention you should be able to slow down progressively when you see an obstruction, giving drivers behind time to slow down as well.

3) Being side-swiped. Everyone knows that on single-lane roads, overtaking or passing or whatever you want to call it, is dangerous. But on expressways you are actually carrying out many, many overtaking maneuvers without realising it. When alongside another vehicle you are in a zone of danger where it does not do to stay too long. Why? Because you are in the other driver's blind spot. He will not be paying attention, see his exit looming up or decide to pass the car in front of him, and enter your lane because even if he looked it would be physically impossible for him to see you. Be particularly careful with semis and other large vehicles. They often have signs saying: "If you can't see my mirrors, then I can't see you". You should mentally append: "(if I bother to look)".

When passing another vehicle on the expressway ensure the car in front of you is sufficiently far ahead to allow you pass the vehicle completely and not be stuck alongside him. If not, hang back.

When passing, keep an eye on the tires of the vehicle you're passing and keep a finger on the horn. Compare the distance between his tires and the lane markings. If it starts to reduce, your finger's ready to start blasting the horn to wake him up.

When passing, look in the lane ahead of the guy you're passing. Is he coming up on a slower vehicle and likely to swerve out into your lane at the last second?

When passing, look in the lane to the right of the guy you're passing. Is somebody going to swerve in front of him causing a chain reaction?

You have to go through that thought process with every car you pass, but in time it becomes automatic.

When moving to a lane to your left, ALWAYS check your mirrors AND the blind spot over your left shoulder. American drivers love sitting in your blind spot, especially if you are driving the speed limit. They get level with you and only notice the speed when they're about to pass, decide they don't want to risk a ticket, and take up station where they can't be seen.

4) Being hit while parked. There is no safe place to stop on the expressway. To see what I mean, follow a semi for a few miles. Notice how he drifts all over the road, and on to the shoulder? Semis are susceptible to gusts of wind and also the absurd schedules their drivers keep, resulting in more than a few falling asleep at the wheel.

The only reason you should ever stop on an expressway is if your vehicle breaks down. Get it as far over to either the left or right side of the road as you can. Get everybody out of the car and stand as far from the traffic as you can. Never cross the traffic lanes on foot. Call for help on your cellphone or wait for the highway patrol. Leave your pets inside the car. Turn on the hazard lights before you exit the car. When you call for help, you were keeping an eye on the exit signs you passed, weren't you, and can tell the dispatcher where you are?

If you must stop to read a map, probably the safest place to do so on an expressway is the shoulder of an on-ramp. You have less chance of being rear ended or sideswiped by a sleeping driver, but have someplace to go fast if it turns out that on-ramp is in a dangerous neighborhood and you're menaced by the locals. I don't recommend stopping anywhere on an expressway, however, and it's probably illegal as well.

Don't run out of gas. I've been amazed how in supposedly car-friendly USA you can drive for miles even in California and not see a gas station. Always fill up if you're going somewhere unfamiliar. If you run out of gas you and your family are at the mercy of every crazy out there, plus you will be price gouged viciously on the recovery.

Monday, April 25, 2005

 

Safe Driving #6: Observation

Most drivers I have seen here in the US are totally oblivious to what's going on around them. For example, some mornings I commute Northbound on Lakeshore Drive here in Chicago. For some reason best known to the city, from April-October they close the Northbound outside lane during rush hour to allow landscape maintenance on the median. They park a large trailer with a huge flashing yellow "Keep Right" arrow on it at the start of the work. Last week I saw this in the distance as soon as I passed Ontario and moved right to the next outer lane. I watched as people blasted past me until they were almost on top of the trailer before noticing it, slamming on the brakes and swerving in to my lane of traffic at the last minute. As I was already aware of this hazard I was able to plan for it, and when approaching it I slowed down a little to allow room for these people. This improved their safety and my own.

While we're on the subject of oblivious, about two weeks ago there was a report on the news of a woman here in Chicago who was killed when her car was hit by a train at a crossing. It turned out she'd been talking to her husband on a cellphone and had driven straight through the crossing barriers and into the path of an oncoming Metra express. An investigation later showed that the crossing was functioning perfectly well.

So in order to get wiped out in this Darwinian way, she had to miss:

1) The flashing red lights
2) A number of loud clanging bells
3) The prominent sign warning drivers of a crossing
4) The 'railroad crossing' road markings
5) A large striped barrier down across the road with flashing lights on it
6) Maybe even the thundering express train itself, blowing its whistle

I feel sorry for the woman's family, but at least she took on a Metra train rather than a school crossing guard and a number of small children.

Even in the light of this I do not support a ban on drivers using cellphones. The state should not try to protect people from their own idiocy. If it hadn't been a cellphone, she'd have been opening a bag of chips, tuning the radio, inserting a CD or sipping a latte. If people don't care about paying attention while driving, they'll find some way of distracting themselves.

No. Cell phone bans, absurdly low speed limits and seat belt laws are just ways the state allows its agents to interfere with otherwise law-abiding people and are simply a revenue raiser. (Most cops don't wear seat belts - take a look!)

The goal of observation is to identify hazards sufficiently far in advance that you are able to change lane, slow down or stop. In other words, to give yourself and the drivers behind you time to plan and react.

In the example above I demonstrated how observation can make the difference between arriving safely at work and being splattered all over the front of an oncoming train. Here are some more examples of observation.

What's the weather like out? Is it getting dark? Don't be afraid to be the first to put your headlights on (not your main beam). Is it foggy? Fog lights. Is there no fog? Then turn off the goddamn fog lights, as they dazzle and reduce the benefit of your brake lights to following drivers.

Is it wet, is there ice and snow? Allow yourself much more time to stop. Drive slower. Leave a much bigger gap between yourself and the car in front. Is it starting to rain? When was the last time you topped up the washer fluid bottle? The first time you flip on the wipers, are you going to be able to see through the smeared road gunk?

What's the road surface like? A lot of American roads are poorly maintained (one reason speed limits are so absurdly low). Hitting a pothole can wreck your car or send you into oncoming traffic or worse.

Are you driving North on a clear day at sunrise? Why not get your sun visor down before turning East, rather than after you've been blinded?

Always look as far ahead as you can for hazards. If you look beyond the end of the hood of your car, you'll be looking further than most drivers. On the expressway, don't tailgate the guy in front. Hang back so that there are at least two seconds between you and him. Look as far ahead as you can. What hazards are you looking for? On the expressway, primarily brake lights signalling a crash or backup. On a wet day these will be reflected in the road surface and you can see high-level brake lights of others through the back window of the cars in front. As soon as you see brake lights, you should start covering the brake pedal with your foot. Remember: when you see the smoke coming off the tires of the car in front as he emergency brakes, it's too late. You've had it.

Just for fun, try to be the first to spot a cop parked on the shoulder or median. Who among the other cars is the last to see him? You'll often see people's brake lights go on when they are right on top of the officer, and in many cases, when they've already passed him. I have never had a speeding ticket in 18 years motoring. And I am no big respecter of speed limits.

Observation means more than being aware what other drivers are doing. The Darwin award nominee mentioned above didn't notice there was a railroad crossing right in front of her.

People have likewise pulled over to read a map or ask directions in an inner-city war zone.

People have pulled up on the shoulder of the expressway to change a diaper or swap drivers and had their car or family wiped out by a passing semi.

People proud that they never exceed the 55MPH limit on an empty expressway in the middle of the night happily drive at 25MPH through a residential area on a Sunday afternoon when kids are about chatting to their significant other, opening packets of chips, and answering calls on their cellphones.

If you regularly lose concentration on the expressway you're likely to end up in the ER. If you lose it in a 25MPH residential zone you're likely to end up sending your neighbor's kid to the ER, or worse. There are simple techniques you can use to reduce the chance this will happen to you.

- Expect the unexpected. Slow down. Be able to stop in the distance that you can see to be clear.
- Keep your eyes on the sides of the road and peoples' driveways. Look for kids and dogs and soccer mom's SUV backing out while she chats to her husband on her cellphone and sips a latte. As soon as you see something like this, be covering the brake. This warns following drivers and reduces your chance of being rear-ended if you have to stop suddenly.
- If there are cars parked at the side of the road, take an 'axle-view' where you look under them. Look for pairs of feet about to propel their hidden owner right in front of you.
- If the road bends to the left or right, take a cross-view in that direction.
- Don't be intimidated by the guy behind into speeding through areas like these.

In summary, obervation means being aware of the hazards you're likely to come across in any given situation and actively looking as far ahead as you possibly can for them.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

 

Safe Driving #5: Position For Safety

Ever thought about where you position your car on the road?

Or yourself in the car?

If you are about to carry out a maneuver, you might need to physically move your head round and lean forward to see if it's safe. Modern cars are so cluttered up with head restraints, huge thick window pillars containing airbags, and so on, intended to increase your safety in an accident, they make it harder for you to carry out the effective observation you need to avoid one in the first place!

If you are driving alongside a line of parked cars to your right, and it's safe to do so leave a gap in case a door suddenly flies open or somebody walks out into the road in front of you.

If you can't see the road ahead - the top of a hill, or a sharp bend, for example - you should position the car as far to the right as possible. If someone coming the other way misjudges the bend and ends up in the middle of the road, you then have more chance they won't collide with you.

Always stop at stop signs. But if you can't see whether the road is clear to go, because of parked cars or trees, you'll need to edge out very slowly, checking each direction as you go.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

 

Safe Driving#4: Your Vehicle

My comments refer to any vehicle, but I will talk about cars for brevity.

Modern cars require virtually no maintenance compared to those of 20 or 30 years ago. That's good news for lazy people like me who are not mechanically minded, but the problem is that people forget that they are in control of a complex and highly developed mechanical device. Because they never look under the hood or change a wheel, they don't develop a sense of mechanical sympathy and have no idea of the capabilities of their vehicle.

At the very least you should regularly walk around the car and make sure your tires are properly inflated and don't have any obvious damage such as bulges in the sidewall. Do you have a spare tire, is it inflated correctly, and do you know how to change a wheel? That could be the difference between waiting 3 hours for recovery stranded in a dangerous location and being home for dinner, albeit at the cost of a ruined pair of pants.

Do you know where the switches for the various lights on the car are located? This is particularly important when picking up rental cars. Don't start trying to figure out where the windshield wash/wipe or headlights are while on the expressway.

Before driving off, what can you see in the mirrors? Are they positioned so as to be of any use at all? Is your seat positioned to allow you to sit close enough to the wheel to allow you to press the brake pedal all the way to the end of its travel? Can you see over the wheel? I see many people driving vans and SUVs which are far too big for them to control safely.

Friday, April 22, 2005

 

A Quiz

Here's an exercise if you have a few moments to spare.

Check out the following sites. Two of these are genuine consulting firms, but one is completely fictional. Can you tell which one it is?

Berkeley Partnership

Herring & Waffleman

Diamond Cluster

Thursday, April 21, 2005

 

Safe Driving #3: Attitude

The most important part of safe driving lies in your attitude to the task.

- A willingness to accept that everybody's driving can always be improved, including your own.

- The ability to recognize and acknowledge when you have made a mistake and learn from it

- A mindset which allows you to rise above and not get sucked into confrontations and dangerous situations, by placing your own safety and that of your passengers above your natural desire to retaliate in situations where other drivers act aggressively toward you.
 

Safe Driving #2: I'm a good driver - I passed my test!

In Europe it is difficult to get a driving license. There are extended tests, theory tests, hazard perception tests, highway tests, tests on simulators, car maintenance tests, tests of tests.... basically a large bureaucracy aimed at making it as expensive and difficult as possible to get behind the wheel, and supporting a large number of civil servants in the process.

In the USA, it is much easier. As befits the ethos of "the land of the free", provided you can pass the eyesight test and a simple written test, the driving test administered in most jurisdictions is designed to examine your ability to drive a car very slowly around residential streets for a period of about fifteen minutes without hitting anything or blowing through a stop sign. I passed mine first time without any preparation of any kind and obtained such a high score that the examiner and staff thought there was something suspicious going on.

I don't know why people spend money in the US on driver's Ed. I could teach anybody with basic hand-eye coordination and a willingness to learn to pass the driving test, in Illinois at least, in about three hours.

My point is not to denigrate the driving examination process here. On the contrary, I believe it is the job of the state solely to prevent visually impaired or obviously incompetent drivers from obtaining a license, and the system achieves that objective admirably. Beyond that, people should take responsibility for their own safety and that of their passengers.

My point is that when the state hands you a piece of paper granting you the privilege of driving, that should be the beginning of learning to drive safely, not the end.
 

Safe Driving #1

Over the next few days I want to focus on driving safely. People worry endlessly about food pyramids and the latest food and drug safety scares. But nearly everybody who holds a driving license ignores the one thing they really can do in life to protect their health and wealth, which is improving their driving skills.

Think about it. You stop taking some over the counter medicine because a study shows that when fed to lab rats their chance of contracting some form of cancer increases by .00001%. But while commuting to or from work or when grocery shopping, your skill behind the wheel directly affects the likelihood you'll be in a fender bender which at best will cost you a lot of money and inconvenience and at worst will cost you or some other unfortunate their life.

The primary measure of how good a driver you are, is the number of miles you do, divided by the number of accidents you have. Since 1987, I have personally driven, I estimate, about 600,000 miles, in a large variety of different vehicles, from vans and light trucks to high performance cars, driving all over Europe and the US, on business, at high speeds, for extended periods in unfamiliar places, in both LHD and RHD.

I have had precisely three accidents, the most recent being in 1990. Two involved other vehicles; one was a scrape against a hidden post while parking. In one case my car was undrivable as a result.

Over the next few days I will share techniques and thoughts from good drivers I have learned from over the years, which will hopefully improve your driving, and help you stay alive!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

 

Enron Broadband Trial Kicks Off

There's a bit of a worrying development in the ongoing saga of the Federal Government's attempts to prosecute people for various shenanigans at Enron.

Over at the Houston Chronicle the fragrant Mary Flood reports how bosses at Enron Broadband Services (EBS) allegedly exaggerated the capabilities of their network and software.

Well, as someone who was heavily involved in the Internet boom and bust, in my opinion, this development should cause a lot of tech company bosses sleepless nights.

If the Justice Department managed to convict every tech executive who extolled the virtues of an unfinished (or not even started) product he knew nothing about, claiming it would reduce time to market, revolutionize the industry, convert base metals into gold, etc., etc., they would soon start to outnumber gang members in the Federal Prison system.

If you've ever worked in a tech consulting firm or in software sales, you'll know what I'm talking about.

For example, in the late 1990s I worked in the Insurance practice area of a large consulting firm. Now, the big problem confronting all consulting company bosses is that they lack of a unique selling proposition (USP). In an area like tech - where the technologies have all become interoperable and well understood (at least compared to the situation pre-1990) - the only thing that distinguishes one consulting firm from another is the quality of the business contacts of the senior management.

A few rungs down the management ladder, consulting firm executives look enviously at software firms selling products. They look at the license revenue from sales of software products and - not knowing anything about developing, selling and supporting software products - think it represents free money. And of course they are always looking for that elusive USP.

In this particular company, management decided to build a component-based software development environment which would enable, they thought, more rapid application development, and also open up a stream of license revenue (I don't know why they thought a client would pay for the development platform, but customers are even more ignorant about technology than consulting firm bosses)

So they poached a hotshot young guy from one of their clients who looked great in a white shirt and bouffant hair-do as he wrote a bunch of diagrams on a whiteboard. The premise of this tool was that if you look at what a program actually does, in theory, you can compartmentalise into three logical layers: screen, business rules, and database.

The plan was to build a tool where the behaviour of the interactions between the three layers could be defined and stored as metadata. It would be so simple that customers could paint their own screens! In their haste to bring this wonderful tool which we'll call "PHB" to market, they overlooked two key points:

1. Although you can define what a program does conceptually on a whiteboard, the process of realising any design on an actual computer reveals many unanticipated subtleties

2. If drag and drop metaprogramming was really possible, Microsoft would be there already

If management had thought to consult somebody who had previously successfully delivered a working piece of software to a customer and been paid for it, that person would no doubt have brought point number 1 to their attention. This being a consulting firm, however, I can only surmise that at the time this stuff was under development, they didn't actually employ anybody fitting that description.

So a bunch of contractors were brought in to build this tool. After about a year I was hired on and the tool was demonstrated to me. The first thing I noticed was that both the designtime and the runtime were very slow for C++ applications. After a few minutes research I discovered the cause. "It's all compiled in Debug mode!" I pointed out to the division's chief architect. "Yes, if you compile it in release mode, it crashes!". I started to realise all might not be well. "It needs debugging, then", I pointed out. Unfortunately the contractors who built it had by then all gone. I shouldn't worry, pointed out the architect, when he'd worked at a major European airline, all _their_ production C++ applications had been deployed in debug mode.

They'd now spent about a million pounds building a slow, buggy and practically useless development environment which merely served to cripple developers who could otherwise use the marvellously productive tools like VB (which Microsoft's experts had invested ten years and billions of dollars developing).

Nevertheless, pressure started to come down from on high that they'd better use this thing, and fast.

Management attention turned to another product (which we'll call the front office app) which was being built from scratch in VB. It was virtually finished, and was a robust and functional app, built by a small team of employees and contractors who knew what they were doing. Everybody was in an acquisition frenzy around this time and as part of this the company had recently bought a software house which offered a package we'll call the back office app. Management decided that we would build a new version of the front office application to integrate with the back office application and also change the entire thing to use the PHB tool at the same time as creating a new integrated data model. Perfect!

In a meeting sometime afterward, this momentous decision was explained to me by the divisional manager, who then asked, "why is morale on that team so low?"

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, the team had given up trying to get PHB to work. Instead they began rearchitecting the application to work like a PHB app, but without actually using any of the PHB code. (Nothing like keeping the needs of your customers uppermost in your mind!). At this point I went to work in another area for about a year. When I came back, the integrated front and back office application had been handed over to a team in another division following the latest in a seemingly endless series of reorganizations. That team then spent a further year stripping out all of the PHB code and rebuilding the whole thing from scratch as a straight VB application.

Now, a client came along who had a FoxPro for DOS application which had been written by somebody at this consulting firm about ten years earlier when they were still in the business of delivering technical solutions to actual problems, rather than indulging a fetish for technologically-based masturbation on whiteboards. It was a straightforward case management application which their business used on a daily basis.

"So just get a couple of consultants to rebuild it using VB or ASP, right?"

"No! We need to use the PHB tool. OK, the original one didn't work. So before we start rewriting the case management system, we need to have another go at re-writing PHB. "

"What!?"

"Because we sold the rewrite to the client on the basis they'd be able to modify the screens themselves."

Now here we really do start slipping into another duh-mension. From a naive client's point of view, they wonder at the long delay between their asking for a new box on a form, and the appearance of said box in the production application. As developers, we know that if the box they asked for was for example a currency box on a financials form, the ramifications would be potentially huge. From their point of view they are paying a lot of money and waiting a long time just to add a currency box. But what are management doing selling a tool on this basis?

Fast forward another year. The client has already paid about a million pounds. Unfortunately so much time has been spent on the PHB rewrite that two months before planned go-live they are still only 70% of the way through the functionality, while all that money has been burned. Proving senior management never read Brooks ("Adding more people to a late project makes it later") the team is boosted to a total of 21 consultants. (To redevelop, remember, a straightforward FoxPro/DOS case management system originally written by one man).

By this time I was being slated for not working weekends. Management didn't like it when I told them that if in my opinion the system had any chance at all of an on-time delivery, I'd be happy to work nights and weekends to make it happen. As it was, I told them, the client would never accept the system as it stood because each time the client sat down with the team to look at progress, they discovered more things that the old app did, that the new one did not. As the client would never accept the product in its current form, in my opinion, working overtime - without a clear plan - just hoping against hope everything would turn out right was futile.

Where did I get off having an opinion, they wanted to know.

My response was that I thought as consultants we were supposed to give clients the best advice we could based on our knowledge and experience. I pointed out that I had developed and delivered several large systems to demanding clients which had gone live and been paid for. Who in this room can say the same, I wanted to know.

A month later I moved to another division.

This is the best example I can come up with from my personal experience where clueless management paints a totally unrealistic picture of a product or technology (there are others). Now if the Enron Broadband Services bosses get jailed for this, it sends a very worrying warning shot across the bows of technology managers in America.

Friday, April 15, 2005

 

The Shield Back on Form

My favorite cop drama of all time, The Shield, returned a month ago for its fourth season. It kind of lost its way in Season 3, and the early Season 4 episodes didn't look too promising either. That all changed this Tuesday with a kick-ass episode where the whole thing suddenly jumped right back on form.


Today I read on IMDB that the Parents Television Council has renewed its campaign against the program. On their website report in detail on what makes The Shield so appalling in order that their tiny handful of members can check out what they should all be getting virtuously worked up about.


As I've mentioned before, this is also a useful resource for Shield aficionados, as in so doing they inadvertently provide a summary of all the best bits of the show.

From IMDB:
Family Group Renews War Against 'The Shield'
Conservative activist Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council has launched a campaign to urge advertisers to drop sponsorship of the FX cable network hit, The Shield, which it said, "depicts the most explicit sexual content and nudity, obscene language, and graphic violence imaginable." The PTC pointed out that FX airs on basic cable, "which means that if you have a cable subscription so your children can watch The Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or The History Channel, there's a good chance they could have stumbled across this horrific content by mistake." The PTC urged members "to send a loud-and-clear message to FX and the show's sponsors that we're not going away until they either get rid of the obscene filth on this show, or stop forcing us to subsidize it." Producers of the program have pointed out that it airs at 10:00 p.m., that viewers are warned of the graphic content, that the program can be blocked with the V-chip and that cable subscribers can ask their company to block it at their homes.

As for me, I'd like to lock Mr. Brent Bozo in an interview room with Vic Mackey...



Roll on next Tuesday when I can get me some more of that "obscene filth"!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

 

Blogger Woes

I am not the only blogger frustrated with how unreliable blogger.com is

I prepare my posts in Notepad and then paste them in, because a lot of times, you will get an error thrown and lose it. The site's so well designed, after an error, you can't use the 'back' button to get your post back.

When you log in to blogger you see "Blogger News". It says "A problem with the problem page is being fixed" with a hyperlink. If you click that you get a 404. Great!

In other news, Blogger say the "recover post" feature which attempts to address the lost post problem has been taken offline because it doesn't work.

I have discovered a workround; normally I use Firefox and I suspect that it is your client side state which gets corrupted or invalid because once you see that server error, nothing on the site works any more. But if I switch to my almost-never-used Internet Explorer, I can create posts fine.

Google bought blogger, didn't they? These are the guys who make you sick with constantly boasting and bragging about how fucking clever they are.

They are all straight A, speak ten languages, give you the 13th root of a 200 digit number, went to MIT and Stanford but found it too boring guys.

In that case, why can't they make a simple site like blogger work?

1. Customer Logs In
2. Customer Enters Text
3. Text Saved In a Database
4. Somebody hits customer's site
5. Text is displayed with some formatting

Am I missing anything? If so it must be because I don't have a PhD from Harvard.
 

Political Brinkmanship

Here in Chicago there is a lot of talk of 'doomsday' on July 17th which is the date the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has set for large-scale service cuts and fare increases.

On Public Radio this evening there was the usual left-liberal horror of the effect a cut in public transport will have on congestion. Well to these people I say, firstly, I have never seen a city less congested than Chicago. And secondly, what little traffic there is, would be considerably reduced if you started taking buses off the road. These vast articulated monsters jam entire streets as they maneuver (turning left or right from the center of the road), stop in the middle of the street, and enter junctions when their exit is not clear, blocking cross-traffic when the lights change. And considering how empty a lot of buses are, if their riders took to their cars instead, it wouldn't increase the amount of traffic greatly. (The "L", obviously, is another matter.)

Apparently this will happen if lawmakers in Springfield can't cough up an additional $55M.

Am I the only one who finds this rather odd?

Here you can download a 4MB PDF file containing the CTA's 2004 budget. On pages 38-43 it appears that their annual operating budget is just south of $1BN.

When you consider they spend $14M on "General Counsel" and $2.7M on "Government Affairs and Affirmative Action" it starts to look like the $55M they need to stave off "doomsday" starts to resemble a drop in the ocean. Why is the CTA making such a big fuss over it?

I wonder what's really going on?

UPDATE: Probably something like this
 

Don't Mess With Texas

KFC in Texas greets PETA with sprinklers

By Associated Press
Published April 14, 2005

BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- A trio of animal-rights protesters didn't find any welcome mat when they stopped at a KFC, but the restaurant manager did turn on the sprinkler system for them.

Manager John Olivo turned the sprinklers on full blast to soak the protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who were standing by the curb. They were campaigning for more humane methods of killing.

The protesters, including one in a chicken suit, were followed by a man with a microphone who said he eats beef.

"You're not going to win, not in Brownsville," David Ingersoll shouted through his microphone at the protesters at a busy intersection. His stepchildren passed out anti-PETA pamphlets to stopped drivers.

The PETA members did not give up on their message.

"It hasn't been quite like this in other parts of the state," said Chris Link, PETA's campaign coordinator, who is traveling to protest KFC in 12 Texas cities.

"It's a rarity that we get this," he said after being doused by the sprinklers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

 

Halls of Academia

I'm a graduate, but it was out of a sense of necessity rather than purely for the love of studying for its own sake. In my opinion, all a degree says about a person is that they have the ability to withstand extreme boredom for three or four years, which means they are perfectly suited to the world of work.

If they have progressed to PhD level, that also illustrates they are good at playing political games too, as participation in such a course requires working for long periods with higher levels of academic staff noted for their bizarre and capricious natures.

Back when I was in college we read a fair number of bullshit academic papers as you'd expect ("the literature"). The best stuff was written by people like Dijkstra and Brooks back in the 60s and 70s - you know the kind of stuff, "GOTOs considered harmful", "The Mythical Man Month".

As Computing Science progressed, all the low hanging fruit in terms of research topics got picked, at the same time as more and more students flooded in looking for research topics. Therefore, the papers got more and more bizarre and esoteric.

To write a successful paper, you have to know what's fashionable at the moment. Most of the papers I wrote back in college had the key phrase ".... may be represented by a directed graph ...." which was required to pass muster with the professors. As long as you know what's "cool" at the moment, you'll be fine, as with so many papers to grade, they just allocate marks for the buzzwords.

So anyway I saw on Slashdot today that a group of CS students wrote a program to actually generate research papers. What's more one of the papers, "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy", was actually accepted for WMSCI 2005. Another randomly generated paper was rejected via email: "....Thank you for your comments. We think we understand your perspective and we definitely respect your opinion. As you know there are more perspectives and opinions on this issue...."
 

Family Ties


We married guys will often buy our significant others gifts. I have been known to spring for leather coats, flowers, bags, perfumes and watches.


But most of us would be hard pressed indeed to match noted philanthropist and AIG boss Maurice Greenberg's extraordinary generosity.


He has just gifted $2,000,000,000 worth of AIG stock to his wife, just before stepping down.


What a truly generous gesture.


With that, she'll be able to buy a welcome day at the spa... or maybe even a new swing-top bin for the kitchen.


Tuesday, April 12, 2005

 

She's Got Balls

While the increasingly useless and discredited British Police spend their days asleep in vans parked on motorway bridges, raising cash like an arm of the Inland Revenue, citizens are exposed to all manner of attack should they venture out on the streets. If you manage to avoid the mental patients who roam the streets with impunity, there are plenty of good old fashioned muggers out to get you.

In this story the tiny Nicola Horlick, a high-flying City fund manager, was accosted by two thugs on a motorbike. Nicola rose to fame in the UK as a 'superwoman', with five kids, she still managed to become incredibly wealthy, fought back when sacked by Morgan Grenfell, and now runs her own investment firm. She also suffered the tragic loss to cancer of one of her daughters.

Anyway they bit off more than they could chew with Nicola. They threatened her with a handgun (hold on - there's a total ban on handguns in the UK! How did that happen?). With admirable pluck, she refused to give them anything, throwing her diamond ring into some bushes to prevent them getting it. They ran off, pausing only to pistol whip her.

Good on you Nicola! Why don't they sack the useless Ian Blair, and let you have a go at running the Met Police?

There was a statement from the Police about this event but I fell asleep while reading it.

Monday, April 11, 2005

 

RE: Black Rat

I had a post up here before where I referred to a blogger, Black-Rat.

Some of my comments on his blog were a bit off-colour and he wrote me a (very polite in the circumstances) email requesting satisfaction!

I've no wish to get into a blog war... so I deleted the post, and offer him my apologies.

Check out his site, he's a good writer.

Friday, April 08, 2005

 

Tragedy in the UK

This probably won't be of much interest to US readers, but this week saw the demise of Britain's last volume car manufacturer, MG Rover.

From time to time Rover had a go at selling cars in the US, most recently under the 'Sterling' brand. I saw a 1986 Sterling 2.5V6 in Santa Clara a few weeks ago. Up until the early 1970s the cars were excellent. With the dead hand of state socialism upon Rover and its predecessors, however, quality plummeted and by the end of the 1970s Rover was a byword for cars which fell apart after a couple of years.

Since 1980 Rover has gone through four owners - British Aerospace, Honda, BMW, and finally what was left was bought in 2000 from BMW for the princely sum of one pound by the directors. Now the whole thing has gone into administration (the UK version of Chapter 11).

I used to work for a company which supplied Rover, and even back then in the early 1990s you could see the skids were under the place. They had a number of large factories which were half empty.

I also used to drive a Rover from their glory days, a true classic car, a P6, which looked like this



Here's another picture. There aren't many better-looking cars.




Even after 25 years this car was as good to drive as a modern car.

A 1975 Rover P6 V8 is a better car than a 2003 Lexus ES 300. It's no less economical; it is quicker, far more comfortable, and a lot safer as you have better all round visibility due to not having enormously thick A-pillars containing airbags.

Too bad Rover followed up this classic with the SD1:



This car had a well-deserved reputation for unreliability; I knew a guy who bought one in 1980 and within three months he could put his hand through any of the body panels, as the factory had ommitted the rust-proofing, and prior to delivery the car had stood in a field in the rain for six months due to a strike.

From the mid 1980s onward Rover quality improved, but they could never shake off a lack of public trust, and together with cheap overseas imports by 2004 they were down to a 3% share of the UK market.

Rest in peace Rover. Truly great cars, but an example of how Government interference is the death knell of industry and innovation.

More information here.
 

Words Fail Me

I am very happy to be living in the greatest country in the world. It's always the immigrants who are the most patriotic and to anybody who criticises the US, I would point to the long lines outside US embassies and consulates around the globe, people knocking on the door, trying to negotiate the unbelievably tricky and complicated immigration system with the objective of securing a green card.

My former home, the UK, used to be a pretty good place too. But since Margaret Thatcher was unceremoniously ousted in November 1990 for not being sufficiently keen on having Britain's affairs run from Brussels, I have each year been astounded by the bizarre antics in that country. Each time you think you've heard the most ridiculous thing ever, they will come along and top that with something even more likely to make you think the place is run by lunatics.

Here's the latest. Britain has a huge and thriving underclass of what are called NEETs: Not in Education, Employment of Training. They lead lives fully subsidised by the taxpayer, and their pursuits include binge-drinking, drug-taking, having kids, and petty crime.

Here is a tale of a 25 year old NEET, a heroin addict and mother of three, who in January 2003 set off on a shoplifting expedition with her sister, brother and another man. She ended up being arrested for attempted burglary and released the same day. The police drove her within five miles of her (state provided) home. She ended up freezing to death in a field.

The bizarre part? The three police officers involved, one a former Marine, who have more than fifty years service between them, are now being tried on charges of manslaughter by gross negligence.

What is wrong with this picture?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

 

Fuckin' A

Great news from the Sunshine State

In the UK as we all know, the law exists to protect criminals. Pity the unlucky householder who inadvertently injures a burglar instead of heeding Government advice to hide in the bathroom.

In Florida, it's different

Governor Jeb Bush has signalled his intention to sign into statute the 'Stand Your Ground Bill', which allows members of the public to "meet force with force, including deadly force and defend themselves without fear of prosecution".

Mr Bush, the President's brother, described the Bill, which has been backed by the National Rifle Association and was yesterday passed 94-20 by the Florida House of Representatives, as "a good, commonsense, anti-crime issue".


More here. Some wet-dicks understandably have problems with this, however

"But critics warned that it would trigger an escalation in gun crime in the state, and engender a 'shoot-first, ask-questions-later culture"

They never learn, do they - the more you nationalise crime fighting, the worse the crime rate! I would bet that the crime rate in Florida will fall as a direct result of this bill.

It's things like this that remind me why I moved here.


God Bless the USA

Friday, April 01, 2005

 

More About The Good Old Days

I got quite a bit of email following my article on life in the "good old days" of proprietary mini computers, so I thought I'd do a bit more on the subject.

One thing it's worth pointing out is that back in the 80s the fact you and your colleagues at work or in college were all hooked up to the same computer promoted a real sense of community which has vanished now that your computer is a window on virtually the entire world.

You were all sharing the system, so what was happening in the computer center was of great importance to you all. Were they adding more disk space; more memory; maybe a second processor or were they upping the Async baud rate to the terminals from 1,200 to 4,800 baud? People would get together and bitch about the lousy response times or how long it took for the center staff to get your printouts from the high speed line printers and put them in your pigeon-hole.

The community feeling you got from all being in the same (digital) boat was one thing; the other thing was that you were at the mercy of the center staff. What did that mean? Today, you are in charge of your own computer which comes on when you want and on which you can work whenever you want, even on the train or plane. Imagine if, instead, there was a social retard in charge of your computer and you could only do what he allowed ......

The first computer I used was a Texas 990/10 at school in the early 1980s. It had 14 terminals, 4MB disk, 384K memory (K, not MB) and less processor power than an IPAQ. What was life like for we students? Well the guy in charge of this machine decided to make things fair by allocating time on the machine based on what class you were in. He divided the out-of-school hours in the week by the number of students and came up with a timetable which allowed every boy in the school fifteen minutes per week. As he proudly surveyed the empty terminal room, it never occurred to him that of all the boys in the school, probably only about ten were going to be interested in computers, the rest preferring to pass their spare time bullying weaker kids, shoplifting, playing sports, etc., etc. So of course in a lesson in how the world works, sucking up to this guy became the key to getting any time on the machine at all. Sometimes he would let you on; sometimes he wouldn't. So you spent a lot of time hanging around in the (half-empty) terminal room just in case. In a further lesson as to how the world works, there was of course a "core group" of four of this guy's favourites. They were allowed on whenever they wanted.

It gets better. The operating system on this machine had eight privilege levels so it was perfectly suited to the hierarchy of a British Private School. The core group were up on level 7, where they had Fortran, Assembler, a text editor and COBOL to play with. Most of the rest were on level 0 where they had 4K Basic to play with. I got Level 1 which meant I could have up to 32K memory in Basic. The core group at one time were commissioned to write a device driver for a special kind of terminal. This low-level shenanigans resulted in the computer crashing regularly, to the dismay of the level zero people who were using it at the time. But what did they matter, right?

I once asked the boss why he'd chosen to buy a TI minicomputer which was obscure even then. His response was that he looked at DEC PDP-11 minis, but the character set of the VT100 terminals they came with did not have 'true descenders'. (He had a lisp, so his exact words were 'twoo descenders'). The TI got round this by making lower case characters simply half-height capital letters. Well, that's one criteria for buying a computer, I suppose!

This guy was deeply religious and opposed to gambling. As a result, he had his favourites patch the image of the Basic interpreter to create a "restricted Basic" for use by the Level zero drones. This did not have keywords allowing cursor positioning so you could not develop elaborate screens; it also had the RND keyword removed so you could not generate random numbers to allow you to write games (because they might have an element of - gasp - gambling!).

The next computer I used was a PDP-11 at college. So confident was the computer manager in the security of the RSTS/E-v7.2-04 operating system that he locked all the manuals away and wouldn't let anybody see them. Further, he was so paranoid about somebody figuring out a backdoor into the system, he wouldn't let anybody on the machine unless he was physically present in the computer room. So when he went to lunch, everybody got kicked off. The bizarre thing was, only one user account was allocated per class, meaning every user already shared their account with about forty other people, making hacking a bit pointless.

So then on to university. Now I have very little respect for anybody working in academia. If you were any good, you'd be doing, not teaching, right? So it's my considered opinion that people who work in colleges are there because they are fucking useless at dealing with everyday life in the real world. (Ever visited the admin offices in a college? They are dead quiet, the most activity you'll find is a fly buzzing aimlessly about. But talk to the staff and they'll do nothing but complain about "stress" and "pressure". Yeah right, go and work at McDonalds and then tell me about stress and pressure!)

The boss of every computer center I worked in had his own pet obsession. At school it was ensuring lower case characters looked right. At college it was preventing people looking at the work of more than forty other people. And at University the obsession was preventing users sending messages to each other. Now this may sound strange to people who are used to IMs popping up all the time, but the manager of this computer center was obsessed with people using the primitive IM facility the Prime operating system offered. So the first thing that happened was they modified the operating system to disable the "MESSAGE" command. This didn't deter Computer Science students for long, as they discovered the Primos SMSG$ subroutine, which was the facility underlying the MESSAGE command, and wrote their own MESSAGE/CHAT programs. So of course the Subroutines reference guide got removed from the Computer Center. (But left in the main college library!). Next, the computer center wrote a batch program which, overnight, iterated through every user's account looking for any file containing the tell-tale SMSG$ string. Unfortunately they made it case-sensitive, so the programs got changed to call SmSg$.

So the upside of using Minicomputers and mainframes was you had an instant community which had something in common. The downside was it was usually discussing the latest incident of idiotic behaviour by the people running the machine.

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