The Northern Spy — A Perfect Graveyard of Buried Hopes

The Northern Spy

With apologies to “Our Anne” (with an “e”)

the Spy this months takes note of some notable disappointments, failures, and wonders who or what is on the brink. We start with the technological realm itself of course, but this column has always been about much more than machinery. 

The industry giants have had their share 

of embarrassments over the years. The much-touted, but poorly assembled Apple /// from late 1980 gets an honourable mention, as does the Power Mac powered G4 Cube of 2000-2001. Prizes in this category go, however, to IBM, for the much hyped “Peanut” computer, released in 1984 as the PCJr, which some wags dubbed the “Pathetic Computer–junk; recycle” and as the story goes, most of the units manufactured went into a landfill unshipped–a business and public relations disaster. Mind, just four days before the formal announcement, Texas Instruments left the marketplace for very-small computers after losing a then unprecedented quarter of a billion dollars in less than a year attempting to undercut Commodore by pricing its own offering at a company killing $99. Whoopsie.

The Spy is minded to give a second place to IBM as well, for selling its PC business to Lenovo in 2005. The latter now has the number one selling brand, though it is largely confined to the mediocre quality end of the PC market. IBM was left with no public face, confining itself to business consultation and research. But its reputation as a visionary business partner has suffered badly in recent years, and the company’s stock can scarcely be viewed as a wise long term investment these days.

The pundits regularly end up with mud on their faces 

and no more so than when the press nearly universally torched Apple as a dying maker of mere toys compared to glorious IBM, which could have bought Apple for a pittance. In retrospect, some of them might now wish they had instead invested at the time and realized gains of over three hundred times the money they put in. Ditto Amazon and Google. Mind, even the Spy missed the Amazon phenomenon (and had no investment money to speak of anyway). A big fan of online selling even then, he saw Amazon for what it was at first–a purveyor of books–and pointed out in this very space that even if the company cornered the market on all book sales world wide it was not worth a small fraction of its then stock market price. But Amazon reinvented itself (necessary in the information age) as the on line retailer of anything that could be shipped, and the rest is history, or at least money. There is now a minor (but gigantic) distribution centre in his own neighbourhood, from which he recently received a package just a few hours after placing the order. Meet the new corner convenience store at your nearest device.

The next relevant revolution could be in clothing. Step into a booth, get your sizes taken exactly by some combination of laser and sonar, pick the style and colours you want, and it arrives next day, cut to order with a guaranteed exact fit. The Spy, for instance, has difficult feet, with the left a full size bigger than the right, and never a hundred percent after surgery for Morton’s neuroma four decades ago. His feet hurt even thinking about trying on shoes, and it would be nice to have them custom made to order with a guaranteed perfect fit on both feet. This should no longer be all that hard.  

After all, in the Spy’s Alternate History SF, the Hibernians were 3-D printing basic meals centuries ago. Clothing is much easier, and done no other way.  

In a slightly different industry

the Spy has previously mentioned here (and it’s well worth rehearsing in this context) what he considers one of the worst business decisions in the history of Canadian technology companies–when CP-CN telecommunications was sold off to Rogers because the railways, who owned the finest state of the art network built to that time saw no future in the telecom industry. Ahem.

A similar miss-the-boat fate awaits those corporations who shy away from electric car design and production. After all, nobody will be making anything else in the not so distant future. Moreover, steering wheels will go the way of the typewriter, punch card machine, cassette tape, DVD player, TTV (thick TV, already being replaced by rollups) and the pocket/purse phone (think implants). Now if someone would only invent the ideal textbook reader and put that whole sadly broken industry to rest. C’mon, iCook, you personally told the Spy back in the early 00s that Apple would do it when it could be done right. We both know it’s hard, but…  

In the context of this column’s theme

some of today’s superstar corporations will vanish the way of yesterday’s smoke, or this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs–up three games to one in the best of seven series one week and also rans the next. Who knows but that some decision even now being made in the boardroom of Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Alphabet, Facebook, IBM, or… will lead to one or more being confined quickly to the dustbin of history? Such are not “if?” questions, but “when?” answers. The high tech industry does everything faster, including disappear catastrophically. (One never computerizes a bad office system in order to improve it, for all that would achieve is to ensure that everything goes horribly terribly wrong in microseconds instead of requiring weeks.)

At least an automobile can be expected to have an average lifetime of a decade or so (Spy and wife have kept them running twice as long) whereas the average piece of brand spanking new computing hardware is doing very well if it lasts five, whereas the major release of an operating system or application is good for one, and a minor one has a lifetime of weeks or even days. (Again, the Spy writes this on a 2012 MacPro running Catalina and driving a Thunderbolt 3 dock, but that is not everyones cup of hack-café.)

Consider cables, for a moment. Remember (if you can) when RS-232 serial cables were standard? Well, actually they weren’t, because there wasn’t general agreement on whether a given side of a communication was a sender or a receiver, so to connect two devices one used a breakout box. This had flashing lights for each line, betraying which side wanted to do what on which pin. Armed with this information, one wired up a custom cable, carefully labelling it to remind oneself to use it only for those two devices to talk to each other–usually on three to five of the twenty-five possible pins.  

We moved from that to SCSI (which morphed into ever faster versions) then over the years we saw Firewire one and two, USB one, two, three (pay my fee) and now C, plus Thunderbolt one through four (close the door), Bluetooth (up to five already), wireless (now version 6), and Ethernet (nine). The perfect graveyard of buried hopes is piled higher and deeper with the bodies of obsolete cables, including all the transitional ones that connect (current version of A) to (older version of A, B, c, and D). In this industry, obsolescence is not just planned, it’s the light on the freight train at the end of the technology tunnel. 

One could long for some stability–machines that last a decade, software that works just as long? Possible? Nope. For the first, there’s always something more-better-gooder, and for the second, there’s always one more bug. At least in the latter case, we could improve things by professionalizing software development, so that people and companies that produce products that don’t work safely, securely, and reliably can be sued for damages. For the former, we have to live with the fact that a computing device is not an appliance like a toaster, but a tool like a compound articulating mitre saw. Once makes of it what one can, and they are all not only different, but constantly changing. Whose working environment remains stable for as much as a month? 

On a related note

The Spy noticed an article in the Canadian Stamp News Volume 46 No 1 concerning an email based scam that had bitten a few collectors. Actually, it is a very common one with numerous variations, but might be worth a mention here in case his reader has not seen it. 

Typically, the sender of an email purports to be an educator, child care worker, or to represent an organization working with children. The usual pitch cites a child by “name”, usually a young girl, and mentions a project the child has worked on that somehow relates to a web site of the intended victim, in this case a stamp collecting related project (but insert any interest of yours the scammer strips from your web site). 

It then asks the mark to post a link to the child’s project web site (say, to encourage other children), in return for a link from their site to the victim’s (which they usually claim has already been posted). Of course the link the victim is given to post is to a malicious site, to which even a visit could inject malware onto one’s computer. 

This is a many-years long-running scam that targets informational web sites in literature, hobbies, and the like–anything that looks like it might be run by non-professional webmasters or webmistresses, as the latter would normally immediately recognize the attack attempt for what it really is. The only thing mildly surprising about the published article is that it took the scammers this long to target philatelists. 

The Spy has received dozens of these “requests” over the years as he has many interests–teaching computing science, providing web services, and running several informational sites of his own covering hosting, domain names, general literature, Christian fiction, science fiction, writing hints, this column, a word play garage, and so on. He even has a philately page with links to many other sites, but he never asks for links back for the very reason that too many such requests are indeed malicious scams. Y’all oughta beware of any and every request for a link back, especially if it sounds even vaguely like what’s described above. 

The relation to the topic of the month? This is yet another example of the Internet, touted as the great unifier, but used to divide, touted as the universal source of free information, but used instead to disseminate falsehoods, porn, scams, malware, and assorted other black hat activities. Toss in a few preposterous echo-chamber disseminated fabrications about elections, vaccines causing COVID, climate not changing, the fomenting of hatreds, shaming, harassment, the displays of naked greed and abusive authority, and one almost begins to wonder if it was really worth doing. It is one thing to disappoint with products that were poorly thought out, badly designed, falsely advertised, that don’t work, don’t compute, don’t sell, and flop. It is quite another to disappoint hopes for good, for a better informed and more cooperative society, by using products and people for out of greed, to advance dark political schemes, out of greed, or for malicious and destructive evil. 

The bottom line this month: We are not forecasting here  a corporation or two teetering the brink of collapse for its mistakes. Rather, civilization itself has become suicidal. The swamp needing cleaning up is not the capital cities of our various respective nations, nor do we require a political transplant, for the left and right wing putative autocrats and the greedy hold-for-ransom hackers are indistinguishable in action. Rather, we individually and en masse are in need of new hearts. As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The Spy adds, “Them guys and gals on the brinks are us.” 

See you all again next month–DV.

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fiftieth year as a high school and university teacher in 2020. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972. 

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises: 

  • The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
  • opundo : http://opundo.com
  • Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org
  • WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
  • WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net
  • nameman : http://nameman.net

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books: 

  • Author Site: http://www.arjay.ca
  • Publisher’s Site: http://www.writers-exchange.com/Richard-Sutcliffe.html
  • The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http://www.arjay.bc.ca/EthTech/Text/index.html

Other URLs of relevant interest: 

  • BC Government COVID site: http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19
  • TWU COVID Info: https://www.twu.ca/covid-19-information
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