#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