Everything's Broken, Global Province Letter, 22 July 2015

A Long Way to Upper Slaughter.  Just 3 days ago we set out for Upper Slaughter, which in good times is only 10 minutes away. We motored over to Lower Slaughter, but there our torture began. Some four police cars blocked the intersection and we could not make our way up the hill. Instead we took several roundabouts, two switchbacks, and one hairpin turn. Finally at the top we could make our way down the hill and into the mud filled lot of the Don Quixote Café.

What had happened was that a tribe of stout workmen had decided to fix the bumps and grinds and holes in the parking lot. Whereupon they broke a water pipe down under. So they decided to fix the water pipe. Whereupon they broke a gas pipe just a little deeper below the surface. That brought out the police, who worried that a fiery conflagration was on the way. Apparently the baristas had to stand out in the hot sun for an hour until things became reasonably safe.

We made our way through the thorny brush to get inside the café where we liberated several lattes and one cortado to have at the counter. As we stand and have our quick sip, we pretend that we are in Europe where in some cities one finds good espresso on every corner.

One Day the World Just Seemed to Stop.  That we got slaughtered on our way to Don Quixote is only a small, mildly humorous example of the state of the world. Our world is broken. Technology itself, supposedly our hope for the future, is often the Trojan Horse of modern civilization, dividing us and eroding our innards. We now have cars that mechanics don't want to repair: they yearn for the reliable, fixable 1988 Volvo that one smart staffer in our office drives. Our online bank accounts are so vulnerable that each citizen has to worry about identity theft or odd losses of data or funds.

Back in 2002, the Global Province argued that modern technology is simply not all that it is cracked up to be. We thought then that technologists themselves are responsible for our quandary because they do not design systems robust enough to withstand the wear and tear and use of everyday operations. In "Systems on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown," we opined that our silos are not hardened and our gadgetry is not robust.

In that era, on one trip out of the Southwest, we found ourselves on an airplane that took 2.5 hours to repair. On board were a bunch of scientists who wondered why things seemed to be going screwy with greater frequency. One sharp, practical engineer said that systems do not have enough redundancy. If something goes wrong, there is no backup circuit to take up the slack. False economy and inflated egos claim nothing will go wrong with what turns out to be fragile systems. They assure us that the things won't break. But they always do. And today we put too much functionality in very flimsy gadgets: such complexity in underpowered systems leads to frequent blowouts.

July 8 of this year was a corker. On that day United Airlines, the Wall Street Journal (online), and the New York Stock Exchange came to a halt. In each instance underbuilding of systems brought the companies low with bad repercussions throughout the United States and the world. We caution readers that this disintegration is not a onetime event. For instance, cellphone users throughout the United States are often finding for at least the last month that they have many dropped calls or no service, something most did not experience before. There is more breakdown to come as data flows crowd out ordinary cellphone traffic.

Beat a Path to the Past.  What to do? We counsel friends, clients, and countrymen to go backwards. We have seen the future and it does not work. Instead, drive an old car that just seems to keep on going. Even the repairs will be cheaper than those for the new gaudy affair you are now driving that is not even stylistically satisfying since it looks like every other car on the road. When possible use older versions of software for your computer. Go back to old Windows because the new systems are full of bugs.

The risk of course is that hackers can easily invade older versions of common software. But the hackers often will not bother with old stuff. They tend to turn to newer machines and software where there are zillions of copies. One of the reasons why Apple has been fairly secure is that it has not been as popular as Windows, so the bad guys have left it alone.

In this vein, we were vastly pleased to just read Joe Queenan's "The Cutting-Edge Genius of Old Gadgets," which, in so many words, says that they work:

"There are many, many devices or traditions or foods superseded by exciting new inventions that in some ways are inferior to the thing they rendered obsolete. What if Caesar salads had been invented after kale? What if sound systems with powerful speakers and booming bass had been invented after tinny MP3 players?"

"What if department stores where you can actually try on the shoes had been invented after online shopping? What if Mustangs followed Priuses, and ice cream arrived after frozen yogurt? What if real beer that packs a wallop and actually has a detectable taste had been invented after lite beer? Wouldn't everyone stand up and pay attention?"

Queenan even proposes that we use cash instead of credit and debit cards. Greenbacks work better and are more secure than all the encrypted credit cards on earth.

Downward Dog.  The U.S. economy and U.S. productivity have been slogging along for a number of years now. There are many reasons for that. We are not inventing the products and services we need in a new world. We have fired the guys who really keep companies moving—middle managers. We have taken away the purchasing power of our middle and lower classes. We have been churning out too much stuff we don’t need, a practice which is an impediment to innovation.

It is with utter bemusement that we read of Google's chief economist Hal Varian who blithely claims that black is white and down is up. "The 68-year-old Mr. Varian, dressed in a purple hoodie and khaki pants, says the U.S. doesn't have a productivity problem, it has a measurement problem, a sound bite shaping up as the gospel according to Silicon Valley." For him things are not falling nor even flat. All's on the uptick and the sky’s the limit.

We do imagine that the flood of inventions out of Silicon Valley are moving the dial but in just the opposite direction than the nearsighted Varian detects. We suspect cellphones and computers and digital devices are lowering productivity, since they all so often vastly enable us to do things that don't need doing. In other words, they provide distractions that divert us from our main goals. To boot, when the new gimmicks from the Silicon Valley people fail, which they do frequently, we spend vast amounts of time trying to make them work, yet another drain on productivity.

P.S.  We cranked this letter out on a broken computer. Microsoft Windows simply went haywire and, yes, you guessed it, all its applications became dazed and hapless.

P.P.S.  Our tech manager lost contact with us while trying to suggest some quick fixes for this computer since his iPhone suddenly is not working at several locales around this region.

P.P.P.S.  Yahoo is an example of a fine company that is working its way downhill. The new boss, out of Google, endlessly tinkers with the email that used to be the best on the block. Now one or more aspects of the mail system are out of service frequently, spam abounds, the newer displays are hopeless, and on and on. One dreads updates and so-called improved versions of Yahoo. The best part of Yahoo today is an investment in a Chinese affiliate which is about to be spun off. Wall Street knows that the rest of Yahoo, and its endless small acquisitions, is not worth a hill of beans. It does not work.


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