December 2002 Archives

Cisco Sucks

DSL service was down all weekend, due to a defective Cisco 678 router. I got a replacement promptly, but there was nobody at my ISP who knew how to configure it until today. Internet Navigator gets a major thumbs-down for their weekend response. If you stick your junior techs with weekend duty, you still need to have the the senior techs on call. I understand that everyone needs their weekend time off, but hey, 5 minutes on the phone would have saved me 2 days of downtime.
The Golden Age of Computer Sales surely must have been Christmas 1984. The Macintosh had just been released, Compaq and IBM offered powerful new CPUs, but the real action was a massive Christmas sales battle between the Apple//c and the IBM PCjr. I remember it well, I was working at ComputerLand in Los Angeles, and I was at the very center of the battle.
The '84 christmas season would be an inversion of our usual high-end sales efforts. Professional computers from IBM and Compaq were too expensive for the seasonal retail market, and the Macintosh was too new and little software was available. ComputerLand was always intensely busy in December, handling christmas shoppers as well as large corporate customers who had to spend their budgets before December 31. Amidst all this flurry of year-end sales activity, Apple and IBM decided to fight it out in the low end consumer market.
The Apple//c was a pretty darn good computer. It was inexpensive, with nice peripherals including a mouse, which had just made its debut on the Macintosh. The //c and the Mac casings were produced by Frog Design, so consumers got some of the cachet of the Mac even if they could only afford a //c.
IBM's competition was a notorious flop, the PCjr. It had just been revamped, the "chiclet" keyboard was replaced with a better model, an inexpensive (but blurry) color monitor was standard. Microsoft produced a "sidecar" with extra memory and a Mouse, and bundled it with primitive apps like PCPaint and PFS:Write. Some of the PCjr's programs came on ROM cartridges since there was only 1 floppy disk drive, with no room for both programs and data. Naturally, the Apple//c outsold the PCjr. about 10 to 1. Despite IBM's renewed sales push, the PCjr was dying. It was made specifically with the intention of eroding Apple's lucrative consumer market. IBM desperately wanted to damage Apple by killing their lucrative Apple II cash cow, at a time when investment in the new Macintosh was a heavy drain on Apple's financial resources (and let's not even mention the Lisa debacle).
Apple did one really brilliant thing, they worked with Frog Design and their ad agency Chiat Day to produce a most excellent point-of-sale retail experience, foreshadowing today's Apple Stores. And my store in Studio City was a showpiece. Apple produced glossy 4-color packaging for the //c, it had all the sales information written right on the box. We received dozens of empty boxes and we folded them all up and it looked like we had hundreds of computers on display, it reminded me of Andy Warhol's Brillo box sculptures. Apple claimed that all you had to do to sell the //c was put one of the dummy boxes in the customer's hand, get them to a demo station, or do anything to get them to touch the product, and they'd fall all over themselves to hand you money. It worked.
Even better for us salesmen, ComputerLand pulled a trick unheard of in the LA computer market: we negotiated a mass purchase deal so our cost for the //c was $100 lower than any other store in town. We sold the //c at a price $1 less than other dealers' wholesale cost, we had a lock on the //c market because our competitors had to sell at a loss to match our prices. But the ComputerLand salesmen wouldn't go for it, they thought the //c was a huge waste of time. The profit on a //c was only $99 and the sales commission was $8, and nobody wanted to waste time with a sale that would net you $8 when the phone was also ringing off the hook with year-end corporate customers making hundreds of thousands of dollars of year-end purchases. But our store figured out a way to juggle things, and Apple sweetened the deal for the salesmen with "spiffs."
Spiffs are Sales Person Incentive FForms (or something like that). For every Apple you sold, you fill out a form and get a bonus. Suddenly everyone got interested in the //c. Apple had no idea we could sell so many computers. The top prize was a //c computer plus a cash bonus, Apple expected a few salesmen would reach the goal by late December, but I had already won the top prize twice over by the end of the first week of December. During the busiest store hours, sometimes a dozen customers would be stacked up at the register, listening to us explain the features of the computer as we wrote up the sales receipts as fast as our pens would write. And Apple forced a time-consuming duty on us, we had to get the customers to fill out the warranty forms and give us a copy for our spiffs. Customers were hesitant to fill out the forms if the machines were purchased as gifts, it was a real problem to get them to do it. But we persisted because that was how we got paid.
Throughout Los Angeles, ComputerLand had a complete stranglehold on Apple//c sales. Some of the other chains switched to pushing the PCjr, and we started to get some inquiries, and even I sold a few despite my best efforts to push the //c. IBM had a spiff program too, and I won a PCjr of my own. My boss knew I had both a //c and a PCjr, so I was designated as the chain's expert on these units. My phone started ringing off the hook with sales inquiries from employees at the 5 other stores. I was working 70 or 80 hours a week with corporate customers and retail sales, and now I got stuck handling //c sales questions for other salesmen in our chain. This was supposed to be a computer that took very little time or effort to sell, so I decided to write a few memos on how to sell the machines, just to get these constant questions off my back. I've scanned one report and produced a downloadable Adobe Acrobat PDF file. This is a fun old document full of bad attitude, I wrote it on my PCjr, and printed it on a daisy wheel printer. I could only find final copies of the first two pages, so I've substituted an incomplete draft copy of the last 3 pages, along with an illustration.
This document is interesting for a variety of historical reasons, it shows an early attempt at desktop publishing. The draft pages were printed on my Epson dot matrix printer, it had a bad pin in the print head so the text is barely legible, and it printed so faintly that I always used boldface. Illustrations were xeroxed from books, then glued in place on the printed page, and the final copies were xeroxed like a 'zine. It is rather amusing to see what was considered a complex word processing document in 1984. It had italics and indented columns and everything!
IBM heard about our massive Apple//c sales and called up our store's owners to find out how we did it. They wanted to know why the PCjr wasn't selling as well, and how to get a piece of the action. My boss asked me to work with IBM and I said absolutely no way was I going to help IBM, I was selling dozens of Apples and I didn't see how competition from the PCjr was going to make me any more money. My boss made it an order, if I wanted to continue to sell anything in their store, I better help them out. It was already the end of the first week of December, there was nothing IBM could do to catch up in the two remaining weeks before christmas, so I agreed. The owners said they'd come with a guest right at closing time on Friday evening.
The owners arrived at my locked-up empty store at the end of a long work week, and I was introduced to the VP of the IBM Personal Computer Division. There was no doubt I was dealing with the highest levels of IBM, and they took this problem quite seriously. I could only think of one thing to do, I asked the VP to walk in to the store and browse as if he were a customer, and I'd greet him and treat him the way we handled customers, then we'd compare the //c and PCjr sales experiences. I'd just spent all week delivering this sales pitch to hundreds of customers, and now I had a solo command performance in front of the IBM VP in an empty store.
The VP walked in and came up to the first sales kiosk, the PCjr. It was on and operational, but there was nothing on the screen. He stopped and looked at the unit, then moved on to the second, less favorably placed kiosk and looked at the //c, which was running a demo disk. He poked a few buttons, moved the mouse when prompted, as I watched him from a distance. Then I came up and said, "hello, may I help you?" and treated him like a customer. He said he was interested in comparing the two machines, so I gave him my best demos on both the machines. And I do absolutely killer demos, we did a simple word processing document and printed it in mere seconds, using Appleworks vs. PFS:Write. At the end of the demos, the VP was baffled. The demos were relatively equivalent, demonstrating the same functions, the computers were fairly evenly matched in cost and features, why wasn't the PCjr selling? I told the VP that he'd failed to observe one thing. Notice that the PCjr was inactive and had a blank screen when he first approached it, but the //c had a nice demo disk that attracted him to interact with the machine. I explained that we could not leave the PCjr in an operating condition, customers would shoplift the expensive ROM cartridges, so we had to keep them locked up and only demo the machine on demand. But if someone swiped the Apple demo disk, I had an extra disk in the back and I could just make a new copy. I explained how this was the crucial difference, the Apple attracted customers all by itself, but PCjr was an inactive lump of plastic unless we actively demoed it. Apple had a carefully planned retail experience, IBM basically had none.
So the question was posed to me, how does IBM fix this? I told the VP there was absolutely no way to catch Apple, their campaign had been building for months. I said they desperately needed an interactive demo disk like Apple's, but there was no way they'd be able to write and distribute anything like that before christmas so they were pretty much screwed. I was completely blunt in my opinion. IBM has huge marketing forces, but they are notoriously slow to get into action. The IBM VP seemed to agree that any new sales effort was too little, too late, but he asked for a copy of Apple's demo disk, so the owner quickly popped it out of the //c and handed it right to him. We wrapped things up, and the VP thanked me for my help and we all went home. It was a Friday night, and time for some rest before the big sales weekend was upon us.
On monday morning, a courier arrived with a package from IBM, containing new demo disks for the PCjr. I looked at the dates of the files, they were all created from scratch on saturday or sunday. It was obvious what happened, the IBM VP had cracked the whip, and a huge group of programmers had labored continuously through the weekend to produce this disk, and shipped copies out to every IBM dealer in the US overnight at huge expense. We ran the demo disk and it was absolutely fantastic. From that moment forward, the PCjr matched the //c in sales. I had given IBM exactly the information they needed, I didn't think they could respond in time, but they did the impossible. IBM put a huge dent in //c christmas sales, and that was the only reason the PCjr existed. It had no function except to kill Apple II sales. Still, it was a Pyrrhic victory for IBM, they lost money on the PCjr, but they gladly flushed money down the toilet as long as it kept people from buying Apple computers.
In the end, it was a very successful sales season for everyone, money was moving and we couldn't grab it fast enough, and everyone went home believing they had achieved their goals. It was peak of the 8 bit computer era, and the dawn of mass-market computing. But it was also the end of the 8-bit microcomputer era, and a harbinger of Apple vs. PC battles of the future.

What is the Body Count in Afghanistan?

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The US press has been conspicuously silent about the casualty figures for US forces in Afghanistan. But after a recent death by enemy action, The Washington Post reports the current figures:
...26 American servicemen had been killed by hostile fire and 137 wounded since operations began... a further 28 have died and 115 injured in "non-hostile" incidents..
That's 54 deaths and 252 wounded. But tonight I heard the NBC national news say the total death count was fifty. What are the real numbers?
Update: The Washington Post has scrubbed the article, it no longer contains any reference to 115 injured in non-hostile incidents.

Programming is Like Cutting Diamonds

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When people talk in abstract terms about methods for programming computers, I always describe how Diamond Cutters work. A diamond will cleave cleanly along a plane alligned with the crystal structure, it only takes a small tap to cut the stone. But if you apply the pressure in the wrong direction, it will shatter the whole stone. When a cutter receives a huge raw diamond, he will study it for days, learning the stone's raw structure, and plan how it will cleave into efficient sections for the production of smaller cut diamonds. After lengthy deliberation, the diamond cutter will decide where to inscribe a small groove on the diamond, to mark the cleavage planes. He places a wedge in the groove, and then with one carefully controlled tap of a mallet, the job is done.

Inexplicable 1/2 Power Outage

Half the electric power is out at my home. The computers and TV in my office are powered up, but the room lights won't turn on. The TV upstairs doesn't turn on. Lights in the bathrooms are so dim they barely light up, but the kitchen lights work. The microwave oven works but the stove and refrigerator are out. I checked the house circuit breakers and they're all OK. This is incomprehensible, electricity just doesn't work that way. A power company truck is parked out on the street and they're working on something, I don't know what could be wrong but I hope they fix it fast, my furnace is out and it's geting cold!
I rarely have power outages, I'm less than 1/2 mile from the main power substation. The last time I lost all power, a tornado knocked down the main power lines into the whole city, and it wasn't restored for 3 days.
Update: the power guy came to the door and told me they were replacing a bad buried power cable, so I'd lose power completely for about an hour and then it would be up and running. I had to turn off the server, now my 60 day uptime is reset to zero, darn it!

Japanese Language Blogging

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A friend in Japan asked me what I thought about the future of blogging in Japan. I thought about it for around 5 seconds and suddenly realized that I don't know if Movable Type, or any blog software supports Japanese language encodings. So now I'm curious, I have to find out.
Movable Type runs in Perl, and there is a Perl extension for Japanese language encodings, so it should be possible to add Japanese support to MT, if it isn't in there already. I know the RSS XML specs have a language tag, but some blog programs (like the notoriously buggy Radio ) can't handle anything but ASCII.
So I must do some experiments. I really should set up a Japanese language blog on this server, but there are a few major maintenance tasks I should do first. I can't do an experiment without taking everything apart and putting it back together properly. And this blog sure isn't put together properly. I have a feeling this is going to all blow up in my face.
Update: I found a few Movable Type blogs in Japanese, they're using UTF-8. Looks like only a few minor changes to the page templates to add the encoding flags, and it's all set. The RSS feed even works in Amphetadesk/Mozilla, it decodes and displays nicely. It works!

QWest DSL Really REALLY Sucks

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Another day in DSL Hell. My QWest DSL line died due to a hardware failure at the telco. I've been offline for a full day. If there were any alternatives, I'd switch, but I'm locked into QWest, they are the only broadband provider in my area. I hate QWest.


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Once upon a time, I used to work at Christmasland. Christmasland was a shabby, disused warehouse that my father's florist shop used to store massive quantities of christmas decorations. Throughout the year, it gradually filled up with cheap Chinese-manufactured plastic christmas trees and decorations, then in November, it opened to the public. It was my after-school job to run the cash register, and everything else for that matter, I was the only employee.
Working at Christmasland was sheer torture. That was not because of the crush of customers, most days we would be lucky to have one customer. The torture was from the Muzak. This was the real official Muzak, my dad purchased a tape loop with a 10-minute medley of christmas carols. I had to sit there hour after hour, with nothing to do but listen to the same damn christmas carols, over and over and over. I used to complain to my dad, couldn't I turn off the music when there was nobody in the store (which was almost always)? He would reply, "the music isn't there for YOU, it's there for the CUSTOMERS." I always thought that he proved my point, I could just turn on the music when the rare customer came in. He didn't go for that idea.
To this day, I cannot stand christmas carols. Whenever I hear one, all the blood rushes to my head, and I cannot help myself from becoming enraged. I'm programmed to hate carols, like I was Pavlov's Dog. I warn you, don't ever play christmas carols when I am within earshot.
Entrance examinations for schools, juken, are a distinctive characteristic of the Japanese educational system. Pressure to succeed on the exams is intense, because success means acceptance in a prestigious private school. This video from FujiTV (15 min in Japanese only) gives us a look at the world of juken, and we can even take a sample juken test ourselves, to see if we are as smart as Japanese kindergartners.
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Our voyage through the world of juken begins at 4AM on a rainy morning, as anxious parents stand in a queue in front of a famous private school. Today is nyuugaku gansho teishutsubi, the day for filing applications for new elementary school students. It is every parent's hope that their children will score well on the nyuugaku shiken (entrance exam) and be accepted into a prestigious private elementary school. All the best schools are connected with the best high schools and universities, so getting into a famous elementary school at age 5 could eventually get you into top university, and determine your destiny.
Quickly the scene shifts to 5 year old children taking the test, and again shifts to gates of Keio and Waseda elementary schools. These young children will not pass through these gates unless they ace this test! And to pass the test, children must study in juku, cram schools. In the back of this cram school session, anxious mothers sit as their children prepare for the test. These are kyouiku mama, an odd phrase literally meaning "childrearing mother" but the meaning implies a near obsession with childrearing. A kyouiku mama will stop at nothing to insure her children have the best preparation for the juken, time and money are no object. Unfortunately, the children really have no say in the matter, and it is the children that must achieve those goals, and live up to the pressures to succeed even at such a young age.
Now we meet young Yuki, our juken examinee, and his family. Yuki comes out and immediately starts bouncing his ball with a fury. His parents explain the advantages that a child will have, if he can pass his juken. We can follow in Yuki's footsteps through cram school, we are even going to take a sample question that is representative of an elementary school entrance exam. Stop the video at about 3:35, or view an enlarged image of the test question. Notice the four balance beams with boxes marked with a circle, x, diamond, double circle, or triangle. Which box is heaviest? You have 60 seconds to solve this puzzle, just like our 5 year olds. Two of the famous FujiTV network anchors agree to take a full test. They score about 45 to 55%. They can't believe children can pass this test.
Back at the cram school, the mothers are also cramming for the exams, the teacher instructs the parents on developing the essential skills their children must master to pass the juken. The children are tested for mental as well as physical condition and coordination. We see a juku taiso (calesthenics) class, and the children bounce their balls and jump around in strict coordination to the teacher's shouting and drumming. Every innocent playtime must be turned into an opportunity for physical and mental development. The difference between passing and failing the juken might depend on a child's rhythm in ball bouncing and playing hopskotch.
But to remedy the slackers, there is a whole industry of instructional materials for the kyouiku mama, covering every aspect of the juken experience. We see a few excerpts from an instructional video that shows how to pass the school interview. We begin with precise instructions on how to enter the room and in what order (father, then child, then mother) and how deeply to bow. Immediately upon observing the courteous bow, the interviewers start furiously writing their observations. Don't let this unsettle you, the tiniest little mistake and the interview is down the tubes! The interview begins with a soft-ball question to the mother, what kinds of things are important in raising your child? She smiles and answers that she is an only child, so it is important to take time for her to play with the neighborhood kids, so she learns to cooperate with others. The child looks up with adoring eyes, like she's the best mom in the world. Now that is how to conduct an interview. Now it's Dad's turn, he's asked if he has any worries about his child's rearing. Dad says he's awfully busy at work, and he worries that he should be spending more time at home with his children rather than spending all his time in cheap love hotels doing drugs with whores. Well, that's not quite what Dad says, but he could just as well have said it, judging by the reacton. The moment he said he put work ahead of his child's welfare, his family was judged to be unsuitable for this prestigious school.
No detail must be overlooked, our first impression is the only impression we will make on the interviewers, so our wardrobe must be meticulous. Conservative black and white clothes are in order, particularly for the children.
We follow little Yuki on his way to cram school. The family hops in the car, our brave little warrior is fed by hand and gulps a juice box on his way into battle. We watch as another juku student practices from a workbook even in the subway. But as we arrive at juku, Yuki is sick. But there is no rest for the weak or injured, the fight must go on. Yuki's mother watches like a hawk as he bravely pushes forward with the practice exams.
A group of kyouiku mama are gathered, to compare what they have spent in preparation expenses. The report spending between 3.5 to 4 million yen, between US$29,000 to $33,000.
Now all the preparations are done, and the test day is here. The families and their children head for the exam, and our cameras cannot follow. The test will take 4 hours, and then there is nothing we can do but wait. The results are posted on a board in front of the school. The excited parents rush to see if Yuki's number appears. They search and yes, there it is, Yuki is accepted! Dad uses an interesting phrase, shibireta, he "slid in." Now all the hard work is over...or is it? As Yuki settles down for a well deserved rest, he is barely aware that he will soon be facing these pressures every day at his new elementary school.