#32 What if the Twentieth Century Really Likes Us? (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

We're approaching Y2k as I sit at my computer and hack this Rat out. Three days away from the turning over a big one on the calendar's odometer. As I wait, almost perfectly unprepared, for all the disasters that the really paranoid types (as opposed to my own mostly paranoid state) are sure will mark "the end of the world as we know it," it struck me that this could turn out a lot differently than we all expect.

On a cosmic, geological, or cultural level, Y2k is as arbitrary a disaster marker as a pothole sign on a New York City street. Year 1 wasn't declared until the sixth century, and that was based on a sloppy calculation made from biblical dates and the estimated origin of the Roman Empire. All of this makes the precision of this date something like a really sloppy statistical calculation, like an economic prediction. Even more foolish is the fact that we've decided that a date system invented by a religious leader of a cult that represents less than 5% of the world's population is some kind of benchmark for the entire universe. Europeans are nothing if not arrogant.

Then there are the nitpickers who claim there was no year zero, therefore, somehow that proves that the millennium doesn't actually start until 2001. And you're not really a teenager until age fourteen and you're not in your forties until you're 41, by that precise, but boring, logic. Let's get past all that by admitting that we're no longer a world controlled by events and religion and that we've "moved on" to digits and sophisticated stuff like computer glitches that can cause international calamities due to shortsighted programming and buggy operating systems. The world's odometer is about to roll up three zeros and that's what matters. No computer on this planet will give a flying damn about 2001, so why should we?

So, having resolved that important philosophical argument, I want to move on to the really important concept that just snapped into my mind after downing my usual late night Jack Daniels tranquilizer: what if the Twentieth Century doesn't want to go quietly into history?

Think about it. Of all the dumb things humans have animated and anthropomorphized, the century that produced the largest growth in human knowledge (by a factor of several bazillion, by my last count) ought to be at least as sentient as your average straight-ticket Republican voter. And if that brain-dead logic works for you, consider this; why would the Twentieth Century go out without a fight? Based on the amount of money put into defending our public utilities, communication systems, personal computers, IRS data, and VCR clocks that always flash 12:00, someone thinks Y2k is a serious danger to all the things humanity holds dear, or manages with a remote control device. Consider the possibility that there is a government conspiracy to keep us from finding out who is really in control of this planet's calendar.

So here's my scenario: January 1, 2000 arrives and all that Y2k programming turns out to be a waste of effort. All of the world's computers start the Twentieth Century over again, date-wise. After a few months of wrestling with the hopeless task of forcing the world's computers to admit to the year 2000, humanity gives up and starts the 1900's over again. After all, we are the generation that can't make change without instructions from a cash register, the dumbest of all computer systems. How could we ever hope to defeat the efforts of the really smart computers, like PIII's and Gameboys?

The downside is, for a couple of decades, all of the working class will be negative years old, sort of the reverse of vampires; the walking unborn. That will create a momentary ethical problem for the government, who may be accused of taxing . . . something less than fertilized eggs? A pre-gleam in a father's eye? Whatever. Governments can always find an excuse to tax their victims, so that won't be much more than a blip on the radar of the repeated century.

The upside will more than make up for this little ethical hitch; no one gets to retire for another 65 years. All those deadbeats currently hanging out in Florida and Arizona will be put back to work. The Social Security system will be "saved." Even the military and government employment retirees will be forced off of the public dole, most of them will have to work another eighty years to put in their "twenty." Think of the tax rebates this will produce!

Of course, the other possibility is that the "system" will simply choose to ignore anyone who is not yet "born." That would serve us Boomers right, since we once advocated not trusting anyone over thirty. That philosophy could be carried over into completely disregarding anyone over fifty, or some other totally arbitrary age (just like "thirty" was in the first 1960's). It wouldn't take more than a year or two of unemployment and digital non-existence for starvation and exposure to weed out the "unborn" and provide the planet with a clean slate for the second Twentieth Century.

The second and most importantly cool vision of a total Y2k meltdown is the possibility that the entire credit system might collapse under the weight of its own bloated and greedy butt. If any system in the world is going corruptly and ineptly into the Twenty-First Century, it's the IRS and other federal government agencies. The candidate voted "most likely to imitate the federal government" is the banking system. Here's a test: what's the interest due on a loan that won't be made for eighty years? (Hint: Excel provides you with Microsoft's infamous 'ERROR!' result for this sort of calculation.)

You can bet your sweet patootie that most of us have meticulously hoarded our banking records, in case our bank balances go into negative numbers on January 1. You can also bet the patootie and its connecting limbs that any errors recorded in the favor of banking patrons will widely welcomed without many moral qualms. The only public sector group disliked more than bankers are the bankers' trust fund babies.

Politically, a sure way to get elected in 2000/1900 will be to promote "Y2k debt forgiveness" to all those yuppies and guppies who have buried themselves in credit card debt and house payments. Add the liberal arts majors who are now paying off their college loans working as assistant managers in fast food joints and you have a landslide election triumph.

If you couple our burning desire to get something for nothing with the possible mortality allergy of our ole' friend, the Twentieth Century, and we might be living the past century all over again, number-wise. Too bad it's just a numerical illusion, I wouldn't mind being -48 again.

December (just barely) 1999


#31 Unions, Double Failure (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

[In retrospect, I have misgivings about this Rat Rant. I don’t disagree with the general proposition that the existence of a union is a sure sign of mismanagement. However, I do disagree that unions are unnecessary. All human activity is corrupt, so there is no special information contained in the idea that unions are often corrupt.]

A sure sign of a mismanaged business is the presence of a union. Union membership is also a sure sign of a mismanaged career. Here's what the existence of a union says to me:

1. This business is so abusive that the people who work there need Jimmy Hoffa to "protect" them from mismanagement's idiocy.

2. The lives and careers people of who work at this place are so screwed up that they need Jimmy Hoffa to keep them off of the unemployment line.

The recent foolishness in Seattle, the protests of the World Trade Organization meeting, gives us a great picture of the capacities of the second group. Pretty much every one of our great unions was represented in the protesters. While an occasional speaker provided some useful information and analysis, too many were self-serving and simpleminded. In particular, the union speakers were pointedly simpleminded. Their speeches were full of the same "common man" drivel that they've spouted for the last 75 years. Sooner or later, you'd think one of those guys would get tired of being called "common."

A union leader from the American Federation of Teachers was especially proud of that organization's turnout. (Which made me wonder who was minding their classrooms?) Speaking in a pre-riot interview with a NPR reporter, this union representative convinced me that there are far too many teachers in today's classrooms. Students would be much better off spending their days with comic books and video games. Babbling about solidarity against everything from the "unfair" prices for farmers' produce to the loss of minimum wage, unskilled manufacturing jobs, the AFT bureaucrat proved to me that she had absolutely no comprehension of market forces and economics. Without the protection of a union, this particular "educator" would be asking us if we "want fries with that" for a living. It's scary to think that anyone would believe hiring more "teachers" of that caliber would improve public education.

My father was a high school math teacher for thirty years. A big part of the reason he didn't protest his mandatory retirement was due to the declining quality of people he had been surrounded by in his last decade of employment. Even worse, for him, he had predicted this would happen twenty years earlier when the teachers in his school voted to join the union.

In the debate over the arrival of the union, one of the most incompetent high school teachers ever to grace the long lineage of incompetent Kansas teachers had said something like, "When the teachers of this institution join this union, the standards of education will improve. I will stake my professional reputation on that." In my father's finest moment as a professional, he stood up and said, "I'll put my reputation against yours, anytime, and I'll guarantee that, once this school system is unionized, the schools will belong to the teachers, not the students." And he was right. Since that time, the sole focus of the education system has been on those who are employed by that system.

And that's the way it goes for everything that's unionized. From the perspective of a customer, it makes sense to avoid anything that's been touched by union labor. The presence of a union tells a consumer at least two things about a company: 1) the management was so incompetent and arrogant that the employees were driven to join a union to get the minimally fair treatment that unions provide, and 2) now that the company is unionized there is no chance the company will ever get a functional quality control system in place or find a way to convince employees that customers should be treated differently than serial killers.

The usual spiel about unions is "they had a purpose in their time" or "they're a necessary evil." The purpose was supposed to be protecting unskilled labor from the whimsically brutal hand of management. In most cases, what actually happened was another brutal hand was added to management, union management. From a consumer and competitors' perspective, the purpose has turned out to be to protect unskilled labor from losing their jobs to skilled labor and automation, and, if there are any spare resources, from the usual management idiocies. Unions have become a self-serving refuge of the incompetent and, otherwise, unemployable.

Sometime, in the near future, I'm going to write a Rat Rant about how we can determine which occupation will be automated next. One of the indicators is the presence of a union in that occupation.

December 1999


#30 Doing A Job vs. Doing The Job (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

Believe it or not, the Rat is being heard. Last week, I received a note from an executive who objects to my belief that, if everyone of the executive floor of a typical company were to die from catered lobster bisque poisoning, it would be weeks, months, or years before the rest of the company noticed. My lone protesting exec claims that execs are hard-working, over-stressed, and reasonably paid for the value they provide to their companies. I beg to differ.

There's a difference between working hard and being productive. For most adults, spending a dozen hours a day with the nose buried in the next-guy-up-the-ladder's butt is difficult, stressful, and only gets done with an expectation of something of value (like lots of money). However difficult that kind of activity may be, it isn't something that provides value to the business.

This is along the lines of my arguments about MBA degrees. Several readers have protested that the path to earning an MBA is as difficult as the route to something more useful. Academia can make anything hard. That doesn't prove that the actual course material is complex or hard to master, it just proves that academia would complicate selling (or giving away) ice cubes in Death Valley.

The history of the management class of humans, ever since the earliest days of clan chiefs, has been self-serving. In the dirt-floor days, a guy got to be king because he was an effective military leader (or he was the only guy left alive after the battle and the ones who stayed home mistook survival as a battle skill). It seemed to take one generation of inherited power for early royalty to forget their purpose and function. It might be true that war skills could be handed down a generation or two, but it probably wasn't. Humans tend to drift toward easy answers and the concept of inherited intelligence, skill, and courage is, mostly, a myth.

Not all that long ago, business leaders were, mostly, business founders. When a company survives the first decade or two, there is usually some skill behind the start-up. However, that skill doesn't necessarily reside in the founder, let alone his genes. Sometimes, a lucky early hire provides the talent and drive that pushes a company past the early failure zone.

Henry Ford was a great example of a founding father who couldn't have kept an ice cream truck business alive, on his own. A certifiable fruitcake with the magnetic personality of the guy holding the pitchfork in the Grant Wood painting, "American Gothic," Ford lucked into a couple of key employees who created his "legacy" and fortune. The assembly line, the mechanical genius that separated the early Ford cars from the rest of the automotive pack, and the organization systems that were necessary to Ford's survival (and which Ford did his personal best to destroy) were all created and supervised by mid-level managers. Now that we're a dozen generations away from that sketchy origin, the Fords who are left in control probably can't even drive a car, let alone make one.

These days, what passes for business leaders are too often a dramatically different group from "founder" types. The typical management types are in the Roger Smith (of GM infamy) class. Their claim to leadership is more based on their ability to avoid critical decisions, suck up to whoever's currently on top (while positioning themselves for an opportunity to slip a knife between the ribs), and an unerring obsession toward their own personal power and profit. This sort of character is the origin of the old rule that anyone who wants to lead is someone who ought not to be allowed near the job. Again, while all those devious activities are complicated and energy draining, they're not productive.

The biggest flaws in the ointment of many of the largest companies' organizations starts at the top and slithers its way down the ladder. Management is paid so outrageously that long-term corporate goals are sabotaged in the interest of making the next quarter's financial objective. The stock options from a single strong quarter can make a CEO a rich man, eliminating any interest in building a solid foundation for a company's long term success and health. Still, none of this stuff adds any value to the business.

As a culture, we seem to be able to recognize why this is unmotivating and corrupting when it happens to professional athletes, but don't seem to notice it when it's going on in our own companies. I suppose this is yet another thing we should thank the media for ignoring. Otherwise, we'd all be a lot wealthier and more secure and . . . where was I going what that?

The incestuous relationship between corporate execs and stock analysts complicates these defects even more. Analysts are no more interested in a company's long term health than that company's competitors might be. When a CEO and a pack of analysts climb into bed to create a bump in the stock value and a run of short-term profit taking, employees and non-conspiring investors have no protection. The SEC pays a little attention to this kind of stuff, but only if it's so blatant that there's no way to ignore it. The government's job is, primarily, to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. The rest of us are on our own. Still no value added.

While there's a lot of "work" going on, in climbing to and hanging on to those luxurious corner offices, hardly any of it benefits the organization. Most of the effort expended by the executive class is self-serving and always has been.

So, Mr. Exec, I'm sticking with my popguns. Until I see some evidence that you guys actually do something useful, I'm not going to make the leap of faith that you seem to think is due. But thanks for playing and try again when you have an argument that makes sense.

November 1999


#29 The Good, They Die Young (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

WingspanBank.com died this year.  The BankOne PR hacks say Wingspan was "absorbed" by its parent company but to those of us who were Wingspan customers "absorbed" means "digested."  Too bad, especially for Wingspan's customers.  The difference between Wingspan and Bank One is similar to a comparison between Mother Theresa and Osoma bin Laden.  Both have causes they believe in, but their motives are justified by very different philosophies. 

According to revised business history, Wingspan was a BankOne experiment in Internet commerce.  It's possible that is true, but it's more likely that Wingspan was the brainchild of something of someone a bit more renegade in the customer-hostile BankOne organization.  Wingspan's philosophy was an attempt to reflect the lower cost of electronic banking to its customers.  BankOne's philosophy is something much closer to the gang-raping that we're all more familiar with from our banks. 

Not only did Wingspan do odd things like pay higher interest rates on savings and checking accounts, but Wingspan provided services in exchange for being allowed to hold its customers' money.  Wingspan rebated up to $5 a month in ATM charges.  Wingspan provided features like BillPay, electronic cash transfers, fee-free accounting software data downloads, and 24/7 customer service.  Bank One, of course, charges for those services, on the rare occasion that it's capable of providing them at all.

Banks have been whining that U.S. customers haven't taken well to electronic banking.  Even ATM use is amazingly low, less than 10% of bank customers use ATMs.  Almost no bank customers use Internet bank features.  Of course, most banks look at these features as a way to generate more income and charge for their use.  Since a typical Internet transaction costs the bank a couple of cents, an ATM transaction costs less than a dime, and a teller transaction costs nearly a buck, you'd think it would be obvious to the folks who mismanage banks that electronic transactions should be encouraged.  Unfortunately, banks employ way too many MBAs, so simple logic escapes them.  Their complex logic tells them that any activity that doesn't produce gross income is inefficient, even if they lose net income on the transaction.

Even more humorous, to an MBA, is any activity that doesn't result in low-tech empire-building.  Efficient management exposes the fact that there is very little need for management.  Tellers, supervisors, managers, and HR departments are empires.  ATMs and accessible websites are not. 

According to bank analysts, Wingspan was not a money-maker for BankOne.  Its two closest emulators, NetBank.com and everbank.com are profitable, but Wingspan was not.  Of course, neither of those competitors had to bear the kind of executive and corporate overhead that BankOne imposed on Wingspan, but we all know executives and their entourages are rarely punished for being redundant or an unnecessary expense. 

You have to admire BankOne's "marketing" skill, or gall, though.  In that ever optimistic, "nobody's dumber than Americans," spirit, they are happily advertising that losing all of the features that attracted customers to Wingspan is an "improvement in services."  Wingspan's customers have received a half-dozen letters from BankOne, detailing the changes and reductions in service and increased costs, and every one of these letters is accompanied by large-print blather exclaiming how much better we'll all be served by Bank One. 

I gave BankOne a two week trial and suffered the consequences.  Afterwards, I started looking for a Wingspan replacement.  Netbank is where I ended up, but Netbank is no Wingspan.  It appears, in this economy, if you build a better mousetrap a large corporation will buy it and turn it into an overpriced foot massager. 

November 1999


#27 Sneaking Talent Past HR (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

From 1976 to 1995 all of my job titles contained the word "engineer." Through that period, I did an electrical engineer's job without an engineering BS, MS, Ph.D., or any other disabling affliction. In fact, for all but the few years of my engineering career I had no more than an associates degree from a fairly awful Midwestern "Engineering Technology" program. However, for part of that period, I was an engineering manager so I was constantly exposed to plenty of BS, mostly generated by company executives.

During my engineering years, mostly surrounded by boys and girls with degrees from high-priced schools, I was exposed to an incredible variety of "skills." A large part of my general purpose disdain for the output of MBA programs and engineering schools comes from my experiences working with folks who owned those misbegotten and overrated credentials. The rest of that impression was gathered during my own 25 year struggle to earn an engineering degree as a part-time, "non-traditional student."

I've worked alongside E.E. Phuds who couldn't bias a transistor, flip a flip-flop, or complete a two component circuit if their existence depended on it. I've been saddled with BS, MS, and Phud types who brought the show to a halt while they struggled with comprehending the project design well enough so that they could explain what we were doing to management, who only needed a broad concept description to justify our budget.

The hands-down best engineer I ever worked with got his education from the U.S. Air Force, as a repair technician. He made a good living re-engineering incredibly complex and incompetently designed electronic measurement and control equipment. When faced with an technical obstacle, he never considered the possibility that his lack of formal education limited his ability to solve problems. He just waded in and fixed things faster than normal engineers can screw them up.

In my college engineering classes, I was regularly disappointed by the poor quality of the technical "education" provided. On the other hand, once I stumbled on the title of "engineer," I was regularly impressed with the much higher quality of the education I received on the job. Technicians never get the educational perks that are tossed at engineers. Technical support from component manufacturers and suppliers. Hands-on component application seminars and software training. Most important, the time to study problems and research their solutions. If these resources were spread around among technicians and engineers, alike, it would be hard to tell one from the other. It seemed to me that companies could save a lot of money and time by identifying uncredentialed talent and grooming those people into experienced engineers. I had an opportunity to test that theory a few years later and found that it proved to be true.

Of the collection of people I've known who were called "engineers," my experience splits the good from the bad at about 50-50, degreed and undegreed. On the other hand, the number of degreed and incompetent engineers vs. the undegreed and incompetent is a divide by zero insolvable. You can be awful and still employable, if you have a degree. Without the credential, you must have talent.

What I also learned, in a better time and place when a few companies weren't ruled by the idiot iron hand of HR departments, was that many of the best engineers from other industries were degree-less. In fact, I suspect that if you grouped degreed and non-degreed engineers and measured their competency you'd find that the non-degreed folks are, on average, considerably more talented than the other boys and girls. They're also cheaper to employ; no tuition debt to pay off and less ego to coddle.

There's a reason for that, a degree is a passkey into a world where you don't necessarily belong. Getting through that door without the passkey requires actual, hard earned, talent. Getting the passkey is a lot easier than earning skills and experience, especially if your parents are willing to pay for it. A degree provides absolutely no evidence of actual talent or inclination for the work.

The hardest aspect of finding and hiring uncredentialed talent is getting them past the HR obstacle course. Once they are in, their abilities will take them the rest of the way. The real trick is figuring out where the door is, when you don't have a degree.

On the large scale, the examples of men like Steve Wozinak, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and hundreds of other famous engineers and inventors ought to have taught us that universities are not the only place people learn creativity. In fact, we see examples, every day, of where designs executed by companies full of degreed engineers and scientists are complete failures. They're called "product recalls."

Usually, the door the best of these talents go through is the one they create themselves. Steve Wozinak couldn't get an engineering position at Hewlet Packard, so he started Apple Corp. in his garage and went on to riches and fame. In the meantime, HP has failed, multiple times, at selling their mediocre computer products to the PC market. What computer products they do sell are to frat-brat engineers who grew up on RPN calculators and other academic relics. HP is a large and, intermittently, successful company, but one that never made a dent into the personal computer business when they introduced their "me too" products late in the history of PC's. Even HP executives have wonder where the company would be if it had realized the value of talent over degrees. Their most successful products, laser and jet printers, were purchased from Canon. I guess we should be impressed that they were able to recognize an engineering feat, if they weren't able to create one.

Small and start-up companies, usually, don't dither over unimportant stuff. When talent is more important than credentials, a lot of doors open up with incredible efficiency. I've seen excellent examples of this sort of company with a dozen or more engineers and not a degree in sight. Not even in management. In the early days, software companies were mostly staffed with geeks who thrived on uncovering obscure programming tricks. The early conversion stage of technology, when a concept is turned into a product, is when academia is rarely useful. Even today, the majority of leading edge software companies skip lightly over the academic credentials to get to the applicant's experience and personality. They know that if you're good, you'll be doing it, and if you're not, you'll get a degree to compensate.

Established companies are much harder to break into. Incredibly hard, more often than not. Once the corporate arteries harden enough that the HR department has grown teeth, the backdoor is the only way in. You either have to plan on putting in some years working up from a technician position or you have to know someone. Someone with power.

Getting a couple of years experience on the tech bench, preferably in the engineering department, of a large brain-dead company can often be a credential to an engineering position in a smaller, faster moving company. I know a tech who was always referred to as "brilliant and indispensable to our department, but not a real engineer because he doesn't have a degree." After a couple years of being indispensable, he took an engineering management and partial ownership position at a start-up competitor of his previous employer. After a few years, he made life so difficult for those who once believed he wasn't a "real engineer" that they filed for Chapter 11 protection and may never resurface.

The two places that credentialed talent can't enter are the halls of corporate welfare businesses and government. Credentials are everything where performance means nothing. If you invented a mechanical heart that ran for three years on two AA batteries and turned grandpa into Ben Johnson (without steroids), it wouldn't buy you a work bench in the smallest medical devices or aerospace companies. While technicians often do the actual work in in these places, degrees rule both the salary scale and the patents-applied-for lists. There are some rare examples where incredible, unstoppable talent rose above this brick wall of academic segregation, but not many.

Too bad. Since the Fortune 500 won't come to them, Bill Gates and others like him will be bringing new rules to technology and we'll be seeing some new company names on that list in the future. As information becomes easier to get and the cost of developing technology is driven down by international competition and capacity, just about anyone can make just about anything if their idea is good enough.

Consumers don't care where the inventor went to school. They just want to get the best product for the best price. Cutting out useless overhead is how that standard gets met. So tell me, what did your degree contribute to the work you did today?

September 1999


#26 By Degrees (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

Many of us who attended US colleges in the last couple of decades will admit that our academic careers were . . . less than academic. Little rich boys and girls, whose parents paid for their "education" mostly majored in non-stop partying. Less rich boys and girls, who paid for their education with student loans and grants, mostly majored in sucking up to the people who provided the money; with minors in identifying courses that wouldn't negatively affect their GPA. The least rich of all, those who paid for their own education out of their own pockets, majored in getting in and out of college in the shortest amount of time with minimum cost. Only freshmen and a few very dense sophomores waste time trying to locate the educational part of higher education. Those intent on becoming educated either give up on college and head into the real world where they can educate themselves or suffer through the paper-gathering phase of life and try to suffer as little permanent brain damage as possible during their academic incarceration.

The problem with colleges is that they are the home port for every corporate malfunction described in a Dilbert cartoon. Corruption, lethargy and indolence, inefficiency, and nepotism are all SOP (stupid office practices) in academia. If you can't do, teach. If you can't do or teach, administrate. If you can't do, teach, or administrate, there's always research. In Academia, we've created a home for every sort of incompetent.

The idea that the worst run organizations in the country, our disheveled and dishonest universities, can find the gall to offer "Master of Business Administration" degrees is as unlikely as your local YMCA Jazzercise instructors offering a "Masters of the Universe" self-defense class. How many times have you said, "I sure am impressed with my school's Admissions Office?" When was the last time you heard "enrolling for classes in this school is easy as ordering a pizza by phone!" Or how about "the thing I love about my school is that, after four years of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars, my college didn't make a single mistake on my transcript." On the other hand, if you've ever uttered any of the above sentences, you're going to be very happy in an MBA program. If you often thought "I can't imagine doing a better job than this school is doing," you can skip the "corporate internship" and go straight to a Ph.D. and a Business Department professorship or a CEO's desk.

Life never lets us down in the humor department, though. Not only are universities churning out MBA degrees, but companies seem to prefer losers with that useless credential to experienced employees with skill and ability. Many of the Fortune 500 types won't put you in the mail room if you don't have an MBA at the head of your resume's "education" section. Almost all of those companies absolutely refuse to consider you for any kind of supervisory position unless you have evidence of your ability to fail IQ tests and put up with extreme absurdity evidenced by an MBA degree. Note that the low-tech schools that used to argue for the importance of a Liberal Arts education, because of the minimal investment required in equipment and talent to offer those degrees, now specialize in "Business."

Imagine, if you will, how this trickles down into the companies for which we work.

For example, college profs are infamous for assigning grad students with sections, or entire presentations, of, research they intend to present as their sole effort. It's easy to see where that carries over into business. For one, the infamous "Six Stages of A Project" rule ("wild enthusiasm, disillusionment, total confusion, search for the guilty, punishment of the innocent, and promotion of the non-participants"). By their very lack of useful background, many of the degreed types are always non-participants, which guarantees success in the typical dysfunctional corporation or education system. This is a good thing for the credential collector and a very bad thing for the business. Eventually, all of the "guilty" (those who do work) will be purged from the system, leaving nothing but those who are innocent" and incapable. The hot business trend of the moment is the guilty are starting home businesses and abandoning cubicles in droves. Soon, all functional employees will be "contract labor" and all full time employees will be wandering, hopelessly, through the dead halls of the Fortune 500. Not a bad future, if it holds up.

Another of the many forms of academic corruption is unbelievable laziness, especially in state funded schools or federal funded programs. It's never hard to find a prof who hasn't stood in front of a class in decades. Even Paul Harvey can recognize "research" that is pointless, expensive, and has been done so many times by other academic deadbeats that copy machines have worn out the template. This routine is rearing its ugly corporate heads in gutless, me-too products. Look at the various versions of the Ford Taurus produced by every car company from GM to BMW and back to Ford. Look-alike consumer electronic products are churned out each year with no improvement more substantial than color and model number changes to distinguish the new stuff from the previous year's models.

The best of all academic aberrations is the totally useless and obscure specialty. Degrees are handed out for any damn thing, these days. You can practically study yourself and get a Ph.D. It used to be that FizEd majors took all the basket weaving classes. Now, the pushup-majors are taking College Algebra while the Fill-in-Your-Nationality-or-Sex Studies, Communications (learn to talk in your native language) hog all of the underachiever classes. There are even simplified Engineering programs that make Liberal Arts requirements look technical. In fact, some of the low-science program core classes make basket weaving seem scientific. Once you move this habit into business, it's almost impossible to figure out what department does what. Engineering departments masquerade as "Research and Development," because that gets a better tax break and inflates job titles. No one knows who Marketing serves, especially Sales. The rush to eliminate middle management has become an avalanche of middle-non-management positions with vast numbers of workers unsure to who they report. It appears that most companies have done what the federal government did in 1996. They identified "non-essential employees" and promoted them.

The fecal icing on this steaming mound of BS is that we are packing our companies with people who have been "educated" by those who can't do, teach, or administrate. If you're looking for the fatal flaw in our booming "Alice in Wonderland" economy, this is it. If you're worried about Y2K, your problem may be that you spent too much time in 400-and-up classes. If you want something to worry about, worry about companies that form the foundation of our economy and who insist that their most critical employees be college graduates. That's like insisting that a surgeon be blind and nervous. Or that your dentist only use tools made by Black & Decker. In Hitchhikers' Guide to the Universe, Douglas Adams wrote about a world where MBAs and Marketing types spend their days arguing about what color the wheel should be and burning down forests so that their leaf-based monetary system doesn't collapse in devaluation.

There is a glass ceiling in American business. But it's not just gender based. It's also a sort of academic aristocracy. Aristocrats are the ruling class version of hillbillies. Branch-less family trees and all. When a college degree is what we use to determine competency, we're screwed. Every honest fast-tracker can tell tales of being tutored, on the way up, by superior quality people who were stuck where they are because they weren't rich enough to loiter in a college for four years. It doesn't take any effort to find examples of incredibly successful, degree-less, self-employed multi-millionaires (or billionaires, in Mr. Gates' case). Seems like this ought to make someone think twice about where a degree's importance fits into a prospective employee's decision. Doesn't it?

August 1999


#25 Building Teamwork (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

Lots of companies like to debate (and re-debate) "who works for who" arguments.  Marketing works for Sales.  Engineering works for Marketing.  Everybody works for the CEO.  And on and on.  This stuff never gets settled because these mismanagers haven't established or committed to the most basic corporate "quality" or "customer awareness" concepts.  It's not a guy-fear-of-commitment thing, either.  Once men or women grab hold of a little power, neither sex seems to be able to let go of it for the good of the organization.

There is a short, euphoric period that companies go through when they first become aware of how many problems vanish with a corporate customer orientation attitude.  That euphoria turns to a puff of dust when mismanagement people realize how much work and responsibility is required from them to make these things happen.  In the time it takes to find someone to blame, most companies drift back to their natural attitudes and disorganization.

Personally, I think developing a company "service" attitude and structure is the only way the big and chronic company issues can be resolved efficiently and completely.  Companies and their departments need to determine who their "customers" are and who their "vendors" are and then expect and deliver service on those standards. 

In a manufacturing company, Marketing is a service to Engineering, Engineering is a service to Manufacturing, Manufacturing is a service to Sales, and Sales is a service to end users. 

In a small Ma and Pa store the customer is easy to identify and vendors are pretty obvious.  In a multi-employee/department company the lines of service and supply become blurred by everything from ignorance to empire building.  It is critical that management establish and enforce customer identification because the company can't operate as a team until everyone knows what the objectives and responsibilities are. 

What kind of football team would argue about whose job it is to protect the kicker?  "I can't do that, I'm a running back . . . I've got a science degree, you want me to hurt my brain? . . . that fool wouldn't know a decent block if you could throw a party on it. . . he's a high school dropout, what does he know about management?"  Imagine a team that has to debate who the stars are going to be and what the "real' objective is; now imagine a sport that group will succeed in. 

It is popular for hip, yuppie-types to put sports and its participants down; and the sport analogies go down with the athletes.  I don't know where a person can get better situation training and practice; except, maybe, in war.  If you think that managing a group of oversized, spectacularly talented, high paid, self-motivated athletes is simple, what would you qualify as a difficult management task?

Here's a more yuppie, scientific analogy for you.  A collection of cells group together, programmed by DNA (a type of management), into a coherent organism.  The organism is more complex and more functional than the sum of the individual cells.  It can control its environment by moving to food, trapping or out running its food, choosing its breeding mate, and planning its future. 

The organism can be contaminated by a virus or a cancer and the function of the organism can be completely destroyed by the disorganized and random actions of the intruder; unless the intruder is destroyed or managed.

I have some experience working in a "team" and too much experience watching teams dissolve; that is a process a lot like having your family come apart.  A team is still-born or murdered if just one self-serving member sours the powerful, single-minded creative process that a real team effort is.  One childish, selfish "upwardly mobile", or gamesmanship type can wipe out the gestalt by making the other members of the team re-evaluate how much they are sacrificing so that this Bozo can step up the corporate ladder. 

Teams are delicate, rare, valuable, and the output is always greater than the sum of the participants.  When a team is split, the fabric that kept the members working together is difficult to repair.  I suspect the most effective cure is to remove the divisive component and the team members should have the major voice in selecting the replacement.  If corrective action isn't immediate the independently competent ex-members of the team start looking for a more productive situation and the dependent members, who depended on the team to draw out their best, sink back into obscurity.  The company is left with the back-stabbers, the selfish, and the uninspired.

August 1999


#24 Watching the Doc Stocks (1999)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

Medicine and it's associated hardware are the aerospace industry of the 90's. Don't believe me? Just look at the relationship. The government is the primary customer (52% of all "insurance" coverage issued as of the 1997 census), through Medicare and Medicaid, military, and government benefits. The national health costs are expected projected to total $1.3 trillion and reach 14.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by Y2k. $594 billion of this cost will be paid directly by public financing. $723 billion will be paid for by private sources, but a substantial percentage of the "private" funds are actually purchased with public funding, via military and government employee insurance coverage.

The only portion of the country's medical costs that is absolutely privately financed is $222 billion of out-of-pocket payments. The government never pays for anything out-of-pocket. Since cosmetic surgery gets wrapped into "medical" cost statistics, it's probably not hard to figure out where most of that $222 billion gets spent.

So, it's a fairly safe bet that either the government is paying the bill or it's plastic surgery for rich geeks. Sounds like the military-industrial complex, doesn't it? Either the government is buying their products or it's gangbangers, terrorists, or drug cartels. I wonder how many of the second group needs cosmetic surgery?

Whatever. The real deal is, the medical industry has its hands into the same ultimate deep pockets as their aerospace predecessors. Boeing, Harris, McDonald-Douglas, Fairchild, GE, General Dynamics, and the rest of those now-burnt-toast companies gorged on public funding until they popped. Popped they did, though. When that brand of corporate welfare ran out, so did the gangsters who profited from it. It would be interesting to see how many of the escapees, who didn't take the bank with them, ended up in medical device and drug companies.

As investors, this is the reason we all have to closely monitor these investments. If you think have found a medical device company that is running efficiently and producing products that sell for something resembling a real-world price, you need to look again. From the incredibly fat cats at the top to the field personnel, these companies don't spend a penny where a dollar will do. This is the home of limos for every excuse, thousand dollar lunch meetings, expensive booze on every occasion, expensive cars, multi-million dollar stock options and golden parachutes for the totally incompetent, and money spent like Y2k (or the next three-day weekend) is the end of time.

Just like the bomb manufacturers, the differential between the haves and the have-nothings, power-wise, is as wide as the spectrum of what Danny Quayle doesn't know. The execs are packing their pockets and golden-parachuting their way into mansions on the cliffs of Mendocino and the beaches of Hawaii. All the while, folks on the assembly lines might as well be knitting labels on sweatshirts or picking cotton, since corporate affluence only trickles down when it slips through the executives' fingers. This is always a sign that no one's building a business that's expected to last long enough for the cement to dry.

A short attention span is the shape of the industry. These aren't companies that spend time worrying about the distant (more than six months') future. The "big picture" is being painted today and tomorrow may require digging a whole new gold mine. The little companies are hoping to slither through their clinical trials and get bought up by a big company. The gangsters who run the big companies hope to get through the next couple of quarters with their stock options and bonuses intact. Once they bank their payoff, who cares if the business swirls down the drain? If the check didn't bounce, the millions the executives rake off of the top will set them up for a lifetime of luxury. Did you expect them to go job hunting afterwards?

On the fringes of corporate maneuvering, the FDA looms over everyone and those dreams of massive independent wealth. One significant product recall and the whole show goes down the tubes. Stock analysts are totally incapable of knowing anything about this aspect of a stock's value. In fact, the most important criteria for a medical product company CEO is how well he can lie about rumors of product problems. The second most important ability is hiring an idiot who will take the fall if the inspectors with the handcuffs show up looking for someone to blame for the latest homicidal product screw-up. The only way to get advance notice of this sort of impending disaster is to work in the bowels of the company's Reliability Assurance Department. Is your financial security worth that kind of sacrifice? Even the FDA's inspectors rarely go into those dark and depressing places.

Even if the company isn't run by a pack of Mike Milkin and Charley Keating clones, the future is beating hard on the door of this industry. Someday, a manipulated strand of DNA will put all kinds of implantable devices out of business. Pacemakers, ICDs, stents, catheters, and all of the cardiac paraphernalia could become ancient history with one good breakthrough. The same goes for dialysis equipment, transplant technology, cochlear implants, and, even, drugs. What's gold today could be dust tomorrow. And tomorrow could, literally, be tomorrow.

These are the reasons that knowledgeable analysts (if they still exist) consider medical device companies "high risk." The bubble could break, for a half dozen very good reasons, on any company at any point in the near and far future. This may be the ultimate in "buyer beware" in the stock market.

August 1999


#23 How the Poor get Poorer (1999)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

Because I wasn't smart enough to apply for financial assistance when I was young, poor, and scratching out a living, my kids didn't get much of a role model when it came their time to look for handouts. Just like me, they are working their way through times of no money without asking for much help from anyone. So, I'm getting a second hand view of what it's like to be poor in America in the 1990's. My oldest daughter's taking the most risk, as a single mother and a freelance writer, so she's getting the most experience at living on the edge.

Her recent run-in with the systems that keep the rich, rich, and the poor, poor, has taught me a lot about what puts and keeps people in poverty. The number of "systems" aligned against poor people is astounding. The protection offered to the powerless, from the abuse of the powerful, is non-existent. As I see the trials she suffers, I'm constantly hearing the theme song from "Falcon and the Snowman." ("This is not America, oh no!") It is truly a wonder that anyone ever survives poverty, let alone escapes it. There must be a lot of profit in keeping fellow citizens underfoot and downtrodden.

Recently, she was robbed by two different rental property owners. One, illegally, took a large deposit on an apartment as security, rented the apartment to someone else, and kept the deposit. The other inspected the apartment she was leaving, signed off on the inspection, only asking for $20 in damages, and, a month later, sent her a bill for $200 additional repairs while keeping her original $700 deposit. No surprise here.

Landlords are often evil bastards. Everyone who's rented a place for less than $2,000 a month has a tale of the hell that living in a rental can be. The surprise came when she exercised her legal options to get the money back. Small claims court, where lawyers who can't comprehend the law pretend to be judges, is where citizens are supposed to go for protection when they can't afford civil court. For all I know, there isn't even a GED requirement for the clowns who masquerade as small claims court judges, let alone a law degree. Based on my daughter's experience, I'm not sure a small claims judge even has to be able to read.

On the same day, the two sets of scumlords slithered into the court house on, essentially, the same issue; is it legal to steal from a renter?

My daughter was well prepared with receipts, dates, names, and an honest description of the transactions' events. The first scumlord didn't bring anything but his lying butt into court. After an unconvincing tale of blundering and illegal activities, he was told to return the money in 30 days. No punishment for attempted theft, no punishment if he decided to ignore the court's order. He wasn't even reminded that taking a full deposit as security is illegal in this state.

The second set of trust fund-baby-scumlords was even more blatant. They, also, brought nothing but their bloodshot eyes for evidence. However, they were a lot more creative. Before their case was presented, in the hall outside the court, they tried to bully my daughter into dropping the suit. The courts are so busy protecting themselves from the civilians they abuse, they don't have the resources to protect victims from the criminals that might have been brought to court. Under slightly worse conditions, my daughter might have been intimidated into abandoning this suit in fear for her and her three year old son's safety. Luckily, my wife and a bailiff managed to move these clowns into the court and the court system barely avoided total injustice. The judges probably like to deal that out themselves.

In the courtroom, the scumlords invented their testimony as it occurred to them. While every piece of documentation refuted their fable, somehow, the judge decided to reward them with $200 of my daughter's $700 deposit. They, also, had 30 days to decide if it was convenient to obey the court order to return approximately $500. So, for the price of an hour's time and a trip to downtown Minneapolis, these rich boys made $200 for violating the terms of their own agreement and telling a few tall tales. Clearly, the moral here is "lie, cheat, and steal, and you will be rewarded." A message that this country's ruling class has always held near to its cold and shriveled heart.

While this was going on, my daughter was out somewhere around $1200 for three months. That is about 15% of her gross income from the year, so it mattered. A lot. Between the crooks and slow paying magazine accounting departments, she bounced some checks. One of those checks was the deposit on her new apartment.

She is not alone or friendless and the banks were paid back, quickly. Still, as far as banks are concerned, a couple of bounced checks and you are history. USBank closed her account and she was left with no economical way to cash the many out-of-state checks she receives from her customers. No way to pay many of the bills that required non-cash payment. Without her family and friends, she would have been in a very difficult financial and physical position.

Because bad isn't bad enough, she discovered that she couldn't open an account with any other bank. Her driver's license and social security number were illegally used to do a credit check, without requesting her permission, and other banks wouldn't even allow her to open a savings account.

With all of the publicly provided protection and financial liberties banks are given, you'd think that some public service would be required of them. You'd be wrong. Apparently, we cover their brainless investments, criminal accounting activities, and basic incompetence with taxpayer subsidized insurance so that they can offer low interest rates on deposits and high rates on loans. No wonder shutting down welfare for the poor was so important, the rich and powerful need that money so they can keep being rich and powerful.

I know this doesn't even illustrate the tip of the iceberg that sinks poor people into chronic poverty. This is the kind of stuff that happens to you when you can afford to get into an apartment, in the first place. When you have a good enough education to know how to deal with small claims courts. When you have enough freedom to be able to waste a day with the over-paid, under-motivated public servants who administer the injustice. When you have enough money to be able to want to put some of it into a bank. And on and on.

This system isn't a conspiracy against the poor. It isn't smart enough to be a conspiracy. It's a collection of mindless rules and regulations designed to protect those in power from having to earn and deserve that power. There has got to be a way to write a piece of software to replace these drones. It couldn't take more than a couple dozen lines of well-written code.

July 1999


#28 The First Annual Rat's Eye Halloween Special (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

When I started fooling with this essay, I was thinking about "tradition," "classics," and something that would be easy for me to write once a year. I was going to start my Halloween Rat off in the vein of an intro to a Simpsons' Halloween Special, "My father would like to forewarn you about the contents of what comes next; 'Don't go there,'" I might also have him say something like "My son, Tom, has considerably less respect for common decency than other members of our family." Or something. And I'd go on from there.

The inspiration for all of this drivel came from a drive through the streets of St. Paul, one of the oldest cities in the Midwest and, even, the country. I was struck by the valuable entertainment resources we have squandered in this city. All over the nation, Halloween lovers have turned their homes into half-hearted to full-blown cardiomegaly displays of ghouls, ghosts, and gore. Some people put more into their Halloween effort than they do their careers. (Not a bad decision, based on my experience.)

But there is only so much you can do with the standard ranch or A-frame structure and 100' x65' lot. Even if you start with one of those "Texas whorehouse" monstrosities that developers are so fond of throwing up these days, it's still hard to turn out something that really does the trick, or treat.

In fact, I didn't even get a little nervous during my trip through a couple hundred attempts at superstition and terror (No, I'm not talking about being trapped in a meeting with one of my company's many MBA clones/drones.). This is pitiful. I look away from the screen in the scary parts of "Snow White." I'm famous for deciding the family needs more popcorn anytime the pitch in a movie's background music drops below middle C.

So what I wanted to do was to take it on myself to suggest some changes in the way we "celebrate" Halloween. If I'd have decided this was a good idea for a Rat Topic, here's how I would have suggested we go about effecting holiday process improvements and implementing strategic dunderfluzels to impact the BYOB. (I can never remember acronyms or which noun has been turned into a verb this week.)

First, I'd recommend that we all be reminded that the word "Halloween" is derived from "All Hallows Eve." The day before "All Hallows Day," (All Saints Day) when Catholics try to remember which saint is in charge of doing what for who. Lucky for us, October 31 is when the Irish Celts officially celebrated the end of summer; the Celtic New Year. Thanks to the Celts we get to celebrate all those disembodied spirits who died on our highways and in inner city gun battles. Our celebration is supposed to help them find new living bodies to inhabit for the next year, so they can get into more gory high-speed, multi-car freeway pileups or shoot up more peaceful neighborhoods so that . . . I forget why. I could go on, this is fascinating stuff. There are a couple dozen different explanations for Halloween's existence, but they're even weirder and now I'm bored.

Anyway, I think this establishes Halloween as a no-holds-barred sort of holiday. Going from there, I think we're passing up the Golden Opportunity to really make this holiday do its job?

For example, St. Paul, Minnesota, has a cemetery in just about every one of it's rundown, decrepit "historic" neighborhoods. Minneapolis practically uses mausoleums for street signs. I don't see any attempt to make these places, which are at the heart and soul of the holiday , part of the action. Why the heck not?

Just about every half-committed Halloween exterior decorator has a tombstone or two as the foundation of the presentation. I say "screw that!" Let's move the party to the party house. You couldn't find more cool stuff to decorate and rearrange than the headstones, mausoleums, and creepy spiked fences surrounding a typical graveyard (are they keeping people in or out?).

For the most part all the tools we need for the job will be a little paint (mostly red), shovels, a hundred feet of rope, some tripwire, some really big coil springs, a power source, some electrical wire and a dozen electric motors. If we really want to do it up right, a distributed sound system and a little special effect lighting would turn our little project into something really special.

And that's where I was planning on going with this year's First Annual Halloween Rat's Eye Special. In the interest of good taste, I not going to go there. However, in the interest of accomplishing the task I originally set for myself in coming up with this cool idea, this is all I'm going to write for this year's mid-October Rat. I can squish two birds with one Warner Brothers' anvil: I can remain my tasteful self and still not have to work very hard to crank this one out.

October 1999


#22 Perspectives: Skewed and Screwed (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

After being snow bound in our homes for six months, we start to think Minnesota is the craziest place in the country. We complain about politics, idiotically high taxes, crooked and moronic politicians, and things that ruin the fishing like we're the only people in the country suffering from these things. I'm not trying to tell you that Minnesota makes much sense, but I've lived in a lot of places and Minnesota is no different than the rest of the country. No better. No worse.

Having said that, we're hosed. Just like everybody else.

The argument over the Twin's domed-or-domeless stadium is a great example of an urban hosing. The news dorks are arguing over which politician has received the biggest unmarked brown paper bags full of money and they wring their hands over which special interest group gift-wrapped the cash. They argue this stuff like someone ought to give a damn. Who cares? We know it wasn't us. We know we're not getting the money and we're not sending it. We'll be asked to cough up a ton of tax money so that the fat cats can play their funny-money games, but when it's all over I still gotta ask "who cares?"

If we keep the Twins or lose them, it doesn't matter to 99.99% of us. Honest. That's pretty close to the percentage of citizens who support local pro sports; in the most rabid cities. If all the pro teams in the world moved to Pakistan and we only got to see them play every four years at the Olympics when they Dream Team'd us into second place, it won't matter to more than 0.01% of the population. The fact is that almost none of us ever watch a Twin's game, in person or on the tube. Almost no Minnesotans watch any kind of team with any kind of real interest. If you ask the average American if they'd rather see their local pro team win the championship or see NYPD Blue's Sipowitz naked, when they're telling the truth, the big, hairy butt would get the Nielson points and Busch wouldn't know what kind of beer ad to run that night.

Even among that group that does watch, the majority don't really care who's playing or what city got screwed into building the stadium. It's just a game. The guys run up and down some kind of playing field for a while and somebody plays with an oversized calculator to show us who won. It doesn't matter because it's designed not to matter. Before expansion watered the leagues down to semi-pro quality, some teams played each other so often that it was hard to tell the day's game from the weeks' highlights. And some of us still went to the game when there wasn't anything else to do. All that proves is that a few people need a good hobby.

I'm not really writing this to badmouth sports, though. I like sports. The thing that baffles me is why we are supposed to care about the management of these teams? While only one out of every thousand of us watches an occasional game, less one out of one hundred thousand makes any money out of pro sports. We get fed the maneuvering of team management like it somehow mattered to our daily lives. The local newspapers and the boob tube talking heads seem to be certain that we are interested at that level.

Actually, they don't care what interests us. They can noodle around the mindless sports drivel and, as long as we don't wise up and drop our subscriptions and turn off the tube, they're perfectly happy to feed us intellectual Gerber's baby paste. It's easy. They don't have to do any kind of real work to churn out a sports story. The teams have publicists who write the stories for them. The pretty boys and girls of the press can comb their hair and trowel on the makeup and never have to worry about digging for useful information; something rarely seen as "news." The media managers don't have to worry about pissing off advertisers by criticizing real companies that make real products and employ real people. It's win-win for them. Between pointless politics and meaningless sports stories, that about wraps up the eleven o'clock news every night.

There are three-hundred-and-some-million people in the country and the news goofs want us to believe that a few hundred men playing boys' games are the most important issues in the nation. They waste a fifth of the paper describing which basketball players are "doing real good" by staying out of jail this week, but they don't have a clue what kind of foolishness is going on in the nation's largest companies.

What is that all about? On its best day, a pro sports team barely turns over enough profit to justify its corporate status. Counting the peanut vendors, a team might employ enough people to support a small neighborhood. The people who give us "information" about the value of sports teams to the city are exactly the people with the most vested interests: sportswriters. Why would anyone listen to them? If the teams leave, they go back to writing about car wreaks and gangbangers. They're worried that they'll have to learn how to write something without "I just wanna help my team" clichés.

While the media is worrying us about who is managing and playing for dinky little basketball, baseball, and football teams, real stuff is happening out there that they miss. Important stuff. Billion dollar companies with thousands of employees are being mismanaged by pointy-haired, Dilbert-zone, MBA-zombie managers. Companies are being sabotaged because their management is too bottom-line focused and technical ignorant to see the hazards to which their products subject consumers. Products are being shoved out the door to meet deadlines that have no purpose beyond producing executive bonuses. Organizations are being "downsized" at the bottom end to make room for another batch of purposeless vice presidents. (I still want to know why piddly little companies need a dozen VP's and the whole freaking nation only needs one.) Every one of these companies makes products and employs people that have a direct effect on our daily lives and they get way less scrutiny than the average scrub pro basketball player's free throw average.

Let's look at this in context. For example, when an executive for a medical devices or drug company screws up, he screw up big time. If an auto company exec decides we don't need an extra bolt or two holding a mini-van frame together, people get maimed, killed, and have seriously bad days. When a corporate raider buys a company, strips it of its assets, and sells off the burning hulk, people lose their jobs, they leave town, more people lose their jobs, and we get a local recession.

If Phil Jackson sent his entire team out to guard the wrong end of the court, what happens? Nothing, that's what. Two diddly points or one game out of a hundred lost. Who cares? The Bulls get beat and it doesn't matter at all. The Timberwolves got beat about every winter night for the last five years and Minneapolis did quite well, thank you. Chicago is the home of the NBA's world champions, and Chicago is still a depressing dump. In the 80's the Lakers and Dodgers were world champs and that did Rodney King exactly zero good and L.A. was burning a good portion of the time. If the Twins, Timberwolves, Vikings, and whoever else plays with balls in Minnesota leave town, it's not a big deal. If a few key corporations pack up their toys and move to Idaho, we're screwed.

Someday, we're going to have to get a grip and figure out what really matters. Sports are recreation, but they aren't business. Sports hold the same value when they are played by you and I or Michael and the Jordanaires. It's not rocket science. It's not any kind of science. At its best, sports are a kind of art but we don't worry about artists' agents or managers and we should be worried about managing or owing pro teams. If they don't provide enough business to support themselves, forget 'em. It doesn't matter.

July 1999


#21 There but for the lack of courage . . . (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

Today, right here in St. Paul, Minnesota, the local newspapers spewed ". . .the woman, married to a doctor, with two children, is Kathleen Ann Soliah, FBI officials told WCCO-Radio. Her neighbors know her as Sara Jane Olson . . ." The lady was stalked by the nation's internal spooks and arrested, this week, for kidnapping (Patty Hearst) and bank robbery that she supposedly committed twenty five years ago.

Pretty exciting stuff, and a lot less dangerous than chasing down criminals who carry guns or have political connections. Once the FBI finds the scent of a safe target, they almost never give up, unless the target becomes mildly dangerous. In the historic tradition of their cross-dressing founder, the FBI is patting itself on the back for spending a few million of the taxpayers' dollars searching for Ms. Olson-possibly-Soliah for these last twenty-five years. They even think there's some kind of high moral victory in wrenching this woman from her home, husband, and two children.

In the exciting and well-documented (lots of TV) takedown, they used enough manpower and equipment to disable a well armed militia. Of course, they'd never consider actually taking on a militia because, as they say in the Bureau, "those guys have guns."

Here's my real point, though. Even if Olson-possibly-Soliah had committed the crimes for which she's accused, I wouldn't be happy about her arrest. The fact that this effort has gone on this long irritates too many old wounds and revives evil memories of my country's poorest hours.

The warped lenses of the 90's don't give a decent perspective of the actions of the 60's. Our government was hell-bent on destroying a tiny agrarian country, using the excuse that it was "stopping the communist dominos from falling." What was really happening was a lot of cash was transferred, mostly from middle class taxpayers to the filthy rich (and generally filthy). Low-tech industrial executives, military executives, and a few general purpose criminals (like the CIA creeps who imported tons of high powered drugs into this and other countries to finance their murderous little schemes) promoted this dirty little war for their own fun and profit. While this scheme produced nearly two decades of social instability and recession, it made some miserable examples of our ruling class very, very rich and powerful. Our parents, the adults of the time, had their heads buried so far into the sand that you need to know where to dig to find tail-feathers.

During the war years, a lot of kids actually exercised their consciences and did whatever they thought was necessary to stop the war. Some went to jail, willingly, for their beliefs. When they did, the miserable scum who managed the government's "justice system" intentionally tossed them into cells with the most vicious criminals available, not wanting to pass up any opportunity to commit atrocities. A lot more kids (and a very few adults) staged non-violent protests where they were sometimes mercilessly beaten and, then, jailed by the kind of cops that Los Angeles still employs wherever non-whites happen to live. The 1968 Chicago Police Riots (during the Democratic convention) and the Ohio State Student Massacre were fine examples of our police state employees in action. A lot more of us, probably the majority under twenty-five, took every opportunity to disagree with our elders' version of "patriotism" whenever the Vietnam subject came up. Sometimes even stating opposition provided the nutcases with an excuse to commit violence. During this cultural mayhem, the prevailing pro-government population's primary argument was "love it or leave it." There wasn't a lot of middle-ground in those days.

On the fringes of the polarization, a fair number of kids believed that they could change the system by joining it. A lot of those types were immediately sent to the battlefields where their ethics got them killed or maimed (the fatal shots could have been fired from either side). A smaller group of kids believed that "The System," our society, was so corrupt that it had to be destroyed and rebuilt. Soliah was probably one of those kids. It wasn't hard to make a good argument for that proposition, especially after Chicago and Ohio.

Now, you'd think, twenty-five years after history had told the story of our sordid Vietnam-ish escapade, someone would have learned something ethical from history. It appears to be un-bloody likely. Not in this lifetime. The government is still after vengeance on those who practiced what it preached.

I'm not making excuses for an accused kidnapper/bank robber (although it's damn hard to feel sorry for banks and their investors these days or those days). But a country that slithered into a vicious, amoral war like the one we called the Vietnam War has damn little grounds for posturing righteousness.

To make a current reference, we have dramatically greater justification for participating in our current involvement in Yugoslavia's dirty little war. At least a reasonable number of the surrounding countries and the United Nations are on our side. Even with that, the right wing Republican wackos, currently squatting in the House of Misrepresentation, are chanting the exact same anti-war verses and melodies used by the radical left twenty five years ago. It's "dé·jà vu, all over again." If Kosovo is an immoral, no-win situation, Vietnam was totally unjustifiable.

The right-wingers still pretend that the dirty little war from which a Republican president bailed out (chanting "peace with honor" while we abandoned all pretense of an ordered retreat and ran like confused rabbits) was "a different kind of situation." It was, too. The bad guys were our allies during the last real world war and only became our enemies after the French got their butts kicked in a failed attempt to colonize Vietnam. We actually had to fake an "attack" in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify our military presence in Vietnam.

Whatever. It was as righteous as any excuse generated by morally bankrupt corporations living on government handouts who needed a justification to be able to sell machines of war at a dozen times the going rate to a government that couldn't spell "right" if they knew which hand it was.

Back to the present. (I'm easily distracted today.) Olson's neighbors expressed amazement that she was "the perfect soccer mom" all the years they have known her. I'm not amazed, not even a little bit. Today is completely out of context with the mood of the Sixties. Olson was not much different than at least half of her peers, in those days. Her friends were more radical. She made choices that were more unforgivable, by today's (and yesterday's) standards.

Somebody once said, "choose your enemies well, for you will become them." The Sixties radical left missed that point. Worse yet, Pogo's creator wrote "we have met the enemy and he is us." Soliah and her friends became the people they hated. They looked at the weapons our government uses to enforce "order" and preserve the social status of the ruling class and they saw something that wasn't there; an alternative, positive use for violence. It was a mistake that could have been made by a lot more of us in those times.

In context, in those awful days, most of us stood our middle ground out of cowardice. It's not that we didn't burn draft cards, pour blood on military records, or march the streets in protest out of conscience or a belief in the goodness of our country. We didn't go to those places out of cowardice. Lots of us pretended to believe that our government knew something we didn't. We skated by on the mistaken prayer that Uncle Sam knew best. We pretended that "the best and the brightest" directing the activities of the federal government weren't the lazy, brain-dead, arrogant sort of public servants that we ran into every time we had any dealings with the government. Today, a remains of that hope is the nearly universal American belief that all politicians are crooks and all government employees are lazy incompetents. We may never again make the mistake that our government knows what it's doing, even when it does.

The people most responsible for one of the United States' darkest hours made out like bandits. Most of the presidents, and their pet fools, literally got away with genocide, disguised as a "war of containment." Eisenhower, who got the country into the mess, warned the country that the "military-industrial complex" (his term, I believe) would destroy the country if they weren't kept under lock and key. Kennedy, who may have been deciding to get the country out of Vietnam while the getting was possible, paid the price for those who came before and after him. Johnson escaped with nothing more than the reputation of a failed presidency. Nixon received an official pardon and within a few years the goofier members of the U.S. media forgot his screw-ups so completely that they called him a "statesman" in the last years of his life. The various criminals who headed the corporations that profited from the mass murder of rice farmers and peasants were all given golden parachutes and retired to wherever super-rich, amoral monsters hang out.

I knew a lot of young men who went, unwillingly, into the military because they didn't have whatever it took to face down the well armed power of their government. Some of those men, now, suffer sleepless nights reliving the things their government made them do to a people whose major crime was wanting to manage their own destiny. Some of those men pretend what they did was heroic, so they won't have to examine their failure to take the stand they knew was right. Some died. As a nation, we've allowed most of those men to live with their decision as long as they suck it up and keep their doubts to themselves. Even the few who were symbolically prosecuted for wartime atrocities have been, mostly, forgiven.

Vietnam, that vicious enemy of freedom and truth, is now, practically, a most favored nation. The same people who we tried to bomb into molten biological blobs are courting American business investment and cranking out athletic shoes and other junk by the boat load.

It looks like the people who violently protested our national violence are the only people who are unforgiven for their part in that disaster. Maybe it's time to consider closing the door on both sides who made errors in judgment in those dark times.

June 1999

June 1999 note: If you actually managed to read through all of these pages, you clearly need something (like a hobby) to occupy your mind. But thanks for slogging through my work. I truly do appreciate the compliment, however it was intended. This is the end of the original series of Rat's Eye articles. From here until I published the webpage, I simply thought a lot about what I'd expected this column to be and what it turned out to be. I had hoped to produce a written version of Dilbert, in the style of Dave Barry or someone equally clever. I've been told that it more resembled grumpy old man meets technology and doesn't like it much. I can live with that. From here out, the gloves are off and I'm gonna be me. Like my hero, H.L. Menken once wrote, "Writing does for me what giving milk does for a cow." It's not like I have a choice. I have to write somewhere, so this is going to be one of the places. Take good care of your self, gentle reader. There aren't nearly enough of you in the world.


When Conservatives Were Right

Historically, American conservatives have been on the wrong side—ethically, morally, economically, and intellectually—of every major argument in our history; almost. Currently, Teatards and the rest of the nation’s slow-learners and troubled old white people oppose the Equal Protection Clause as applied to anything that resembles fair and rational treatment for the nation’s substantial and growing population of gays and lesbians. Backwoods states like North Carolina and Texas are pretending that closets are where sex belongs and if you bury your head in the sand the stuff that gets into your ears, eyes, and nose is not cat litter. If there weren’t lives and families being destroyed by all of this stupid shit, it would be a lot funnier.

Not that long ago, conservatives went all out to try and stop Medicare and Medicaid because providing reasonable cost health care for the elderly and the poor was “socialist” and deprived the 1% of precious money that could otherwise be used to bribe Republican politicians. Conservatives opposed the civil rights movement to the level that when the majority of the John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson-led Democrats in Congress and northern Republicans voted to approve the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the southern Democrats all turned Republican and became the hate-filled, racist, recidivist pack of white-collar criminals we currently suffer from as our nation turns from a democratically elected republic to a superstitious theocratic corporatocracy.

Conservatives hated and hate the Clear Air Act and the EPA, regardless of the brief moment of clean air and water that those federal mandates provided before the Koch Brothers, Halliburton, and BP stuffed the House of Representatives and White House full of environment-hating corporate lackeys who gutted the nation’s environmental protections to provide a clear field for fracking, off-shore drilling, GMO freak-show crops, industrial disasters and a host of other Super Fund sites that will cost us all dearly in the future. Nothing worse than a government getting the way of a rich asshole who wants to crap in our drinking water, is there?

Social Security? “There you go again.” What’s with those liberals always worrying about old people, the handicapped, and people who have been injured on the job? That’s what death is for. Haven’t you read the Wisconsin Death Trip? That’s the way nature and the 1% planned on taking care of excess population, especially population that isn’t contributing to the bank account of the 1%. Republicans and conservatives of all stripes hated the “creeping socialism” represented by a program designed to keep people from starving in the streets. “That was good enough for our toothless stone-boiling Neanderthal grandparents and it’s good enough for you.”

Conservative opposition to humane treatment of animals was right up there with their attempt to block women’s suffrage and workplace protections (the dreaded OSHA!). Clearly the working class, women, and farm animals are all nothing more than objects intended to create more wealth for the ruling classes and any idea that they deserve rights or consideration is “socialist” and anti-capitalist. Child labor laws, a reasonable work day and week, vacation pay, sick leave, and communist ideas like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 are all ideas that conservatives still rail against and do their damnedest to oppose, undermine, and ignore. In the same vein, conservatives hated the idea of ending slavery. To them, the reason the various gods painted people with colors other than white/pink was to mark them for utility. Why would anyone imagine that a person might end up in slavery unless it were necessary to own slaves? One of the many wonderful things about being both religious and conservative is that you can justify any evil act with a passage or twenty found in the Bible.

Here is where conservatives had their moment in the sun, though. The place where conservatives have been proved right, however, was right at the start. The conservatives of 1776 were called “Tories” and they opposed the American rebellion. They argued that Jolly Old England and King George knew what was best for the “New World” and it turns out they may have been right. The British democracy would not be in the same fix as our stymied and beaten federal (and often state) government. In a situation exactly like the stalemate that has tossed our federal government into complete disarray, Wikipedia explains the British system of resolution, “the defeat of a supply bill (one that concerns the spending of money) automatically requires the resignation of the government or dissolution of Parliament, much like a non-confidence vote, since a government that cannot spend money is hamstrung. This is called ‘loss of supply.’” Further, their system is regularly restarted more to the satisfaction of their democratic public; “Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, Parliament is dissolved automatically 17 days ahead of a general election. Elections ordinarily take place five years after the previous general election, but may be held sooner if the Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence, or if two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons vote in favour of an early election.”

Per Wikipedia’s explanation, Canada’s government can be fairly efficiently dissolved: “The House of Commons, but not the Senate, can be dissolved at any time by the Governor General, conventionally on the advice of the Prime Minister. If the government is refused confidence or supply, the Prime Minister must either resign and permit another member of the House of Commons to form a government, or else advise the Governor General to dissolve Parliament. Also, the House of Commons automatically dissolves after five years, although no House of Commons has yet survived that long.” Likewise, the French government can get a kick start when it becomes useless, “The French National Assembly can be dissolved by the French President at any time after consultation with the Prime Minister and the presidents of the two chambers of parliament. The National Assembly elected following such a dissolution cannot be dissolved within the first year of its term.” In fact, the US appears to be about the only semi-democratic government in the world without a back-up plan when a group of mindless idiots manage to stumble into power.

There was a time, not that long ago, when I considered our Constitution to be a near-holy document and the men who wrote it to be as close to heroic as any who have ever lived. The ease with which the Teabagss have overthrown democracy and tossed the resources of the nation into the hands of the most corrupt elites who have ever lived has destroyed that simpleminded faith. Today, I suspect we’d have all been better off if we’d have just wrestled with fixing the problems in the British government and their representatives in America. This mess we will probably not call “The United States of America” appears to be pretty much a wreaked idea and ideal and if the most moronic minority in human history can wreak it this easily, it can’t have been made from substantial stuff.


#20 No Sympathy Here (1998)

All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

The Justice Department's antitrust suit against Microsoft has put Billy Gates and the rest of us in an interesting position. You'd think, since so many of us are stuck using Microsquash software, that someone would feel sorry for Microsoft. From where I sit, there doesn't seem to be much of that going on. Most users are completely uninterested in the delayed arrival of Win98. I even hear a lot of IS types giggling about life with a bunch of Baby-Bell-style-Baby-Microsquash's. Microsoft and Bill Gates seem to have the same number of friends.

As far as Win98 is concerned, it really is a non-issue. It doesn't matter if it never makes it to our desks. It doesn't do anything we want to do, or take us anywhere we want to go. It isn't faster, smaller, easier to use, or more powerful. It's just Win95 with the Internet Explorer 4.0 "interface" (a computer-dweeb word for "the stupid decisions computer programmers made to make your life miserable") crammed into every application. Big deal. If Win98 is the face of a monopoly, I wouldn't object to the Justice department stuffing Squirrelly Billy into a maximum-security cell with Buford and Mongo.

At first glance, I was slightly on Microsquash's side. The old "who needs the government's advice" attitude, mostly, was at work. After thinking about where PC software has gone, these last few years since Windows aced the pitiful excuses for competition, I'm having second thoughts.

Don't jump to any conclusions, though. It's not that I'm feeling sorry for Jobs and Apple, McNealy and Sun, Barksdale and Netscape, or Slick Willy and Ms. America. Those goofs dug their own cesspools and they ought to get to spend their vacations wallowing in them. It's even less true that I'm feeling sorry for Ashton Tate, Lotus, Borland, and the other boneheaded drone software companies that have, now or later, vanished into corporate zombie-moron history.

The real secret to Microsquash's success hasn't been the brilliance of their software or business strategies. It's been that they've almost always been the last to adopt the stupid practices of their competitors. Sometimes, Microsquash managed to hold out long enough that those anti-customer tactics became obviously stupid to, even, Microsquash's MBA's. Occasionally, after outrageous stupidity became publicly recognized outrageous stupidity, the Gates Boys cancelled plans to copy those tactics and did something less stupid.

If you push aside the last decade's incremental improvement in software and hardware, it might be true to say that "things were better in the old days." Sure, it was a strain having to decide between OS2, Microsoft OS, Microsoft Windows, GEM, Applesoft, Mac OS, CP/M+, and Unix. For those who hate making decisions, that was a "bad time" in computing. But all those operating systems gave us some choices in how we did our work. If you were a keyboard wiz, being forced to drag your fingers from the keys to screw around with a mouse was obviously inefficient. On the other hand, a marketing goof, hoping his computer would stir some synapse activity in his still-born brain, could waste hours poking an animated, sound-effected cursor through Mac's "folder" structure, until a lunch appointment saved him from another day's disappointments.

You are how you compute? Yeah, whatever.

Back when a large number of companies were competing with Microsoft, we had free and competent customer service that didn't require suffering Yanni-on-hold for 45 minutes. If the corporate guys priced themselves out of the market, a dozen hackers cranked out shareware programs that worked better than the expensive brands. Executives didn't churn out hundreds of pointless memos, because they can't type and they couldn't figure out how to connect their Speak and Spell to a printer. You could get a job just because you were the only applicant out of 600 who'd ever seen the company's word-processing program. There were more network protocols than Arkansas women who "knew" the President; and networks were just as reliable as they are today. (Will "I didn't get my work done because I spent the day rebooting," always be an incontestable business excuse?) Men were men, women were women, and dogs didn't bark at ducks in the night and wake you up so that you have to get up and do a few hours of work so that you can get tired enough to go back to sleep.

OK, so things weren't that great in the dark ages. But they weren't any worse, either. The real issue is "do we want to learn yet another version of Windows?" I think the answer is obviously "hell no!" Win95 is the least of my problems. The last thing I need is for the IS department to blast every work application from my desk in their lame attempts to force Win98 on company users. The longer it takes for Microsquash to bring their latest bugfest to the masses, the easier my life is going to be.

Putting off OS upgrades would also save all those companies from their "IS professional" (an oxymoron, if there ever was one) shortages. While my current employer seems to have one IS dork for every non-IS drone (like me), Win98 would most likely double that ratio. To save the country from having more IS goofs than government employees, it's Janet Reno's patriotic duty to hire a wad of government lawyers and force Microsquash to hire a wad of non-government lawyers and save us from the plague of Win98.

So I say, you go, Janet Reno. Bring Microsquash to its knees and save knowledge-working consumers everywhere from having to watch years of work flushed down the "Installshield" drain.

I rest my case.

May 1998


#19 The Company You Keep (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

One of "the rules to live by" that my Midwestern background ground into me is "you are known by the company you keep." What my parents wanted me to get out of that concept was that hanging out with musicians and motorcycle riff-raff would limit my chances of ever getting a college degree, becoming an certified public accountant, and ending up in middle management. They were right and they were wrong. These days, the consequence of violating that code has taken on slightly different meanings for many of us.

Our associations come in a lot of flavors. On a large scale, the company we keep is the company we work for, the corporation, even the industry. Military-Industrial complex ex-employees carried a "government work" stigma throughout the seventies and eighties. Of course, federal and state government employees carved out well-earned reputations for inability and inactivity (except for postal workers who are occasionally dangerously active) that has been established since the first civil servant sneered at the first civilian victim. Higher education is the refuge of the overpaid, under-worked, and irrelevant aristocracy. My home territory, the medical industry, is earning a wonderful reputation for gouging the sick and dying, but paying, public and doing everything possible to avoid social responsibility. Your mileage may vary, depending on your perspective and source of income.

Companies can carry a certain stigma or identity. There are tales of mythical companies that allow their employees a mind-boggling sense of pride in both the work and their contribution to communities. People often include unicorns and magic crystals in the same conversations, so this could all be a load of rancid rabbit kidneys. Still, I can imagine that it's possible. Remember, I'm a sixties guy and flashbacks are our middle name.

Most companies make you feel like you are an unwilling step-sibling in Chuck Manson's family. Between the executives with four shining rows of regenerating teeth and products that are flung from assembly lines with critical parts scattered around the floor, it's tough to feel like one of the good guys. It's hard to imagine that you've ever known a good guy; or saw one once in a movie When the few people who actually accomplish work are the first thing to go, when economic times turn inconvenient, it's pretty tough to believe in company loyalty. So no one does, except the extremely gullible.

But some companies are a lot worse than the average awful sweaty shop. Xerox, for instance, will go down in history as being as well managed as an overflowing cat litter box. These execs stumbled into the computer technology of the future, way back in the late 70's, tripped over their own incompetence, and flushed away the most incredible inventions since Og discovered barbecue sauce. We can thank them for Apple's Macintosh, Windows, networks, the Internet and the Web, mice (not the squeaky kind), laptops, palmtops, and more cool stuff than Jeff Beck owns. We can also laugh at them for not making a cent on most of that stuff. What a bunch of maroons!

IBM, Bell Telephone, Braniff Airlines, Apple, the long-dead CP/M computer companies, General Dynamics, and a zillion others all had (or have) brain-dead corporate attitudes that led to lost customers, dumb products, overpaid-useless executives, and monster crashes that forever screwed up lives and reputations. Admitting that you work/worked for one of those companies is about the same as admitting that you occasionally wet your pants while sucking your thumb.

Finally, sometimes the nastiest "company you keep" is the sector of the company you hang with. Executives have always been looked at as "the enemy" by labor, at least since the first feudal system. The Robber Barons had to spend their time with other Robber Barons, or by themselves, because they didn't make human friends easily. Like FBI or IRS agents, the Bill Gateses of history have had to make their friends at work or not at all. Funky Bill was not the first bazillionare to buy a life and a wife and still end up looking like a refuge from the intro to "Revenge of the Nerds."

An awful lot of people who would make excellent managers do their best to avoid management, simply to avoid being stuck in rooms with manager type ilk. The quality of conversation in executive meetings is several steps below good soap opera dialog. The quality of thought and ethical behavior doesn't even register on a scale created for politicians. If you get caught doing a good job or allowing anyone who works for you to do a good job, it's back to the MBA factory, yuppie-boy. Competence? We don't need no stinking competence.

Or you could be a proud member of one of the many self-preserving unions. You could be an electrician or a plumber whose union bought off politicians so that you are banned by law from "donating" your labor for anything but the full hourly union wage. Even if you were weird enough to want to do a little work for Habitat for Humanity or your own church, you can proudly decline the urge ("I'd like to help, but that's against the law.") because your union dues have made it so. After all, it's tough to keep the Mafia in zoot suits and still have time for other worthy causes, isn't it?

When you think about it, there's a reason why the vast majority of workers hang out in the low-to-mid-income territory. It's safe. it's where all the most interesting people live. And you don't have to feel guilty about who you're seen with.

May 1998