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Monday, August 31, 2009

Any Estate Lawyers Want To Weigh In On This?

I am being pulled, kicking and screaming, into an inheritance dispute which I don't have much interest in getting dragged into. But given that I am being sucked into it anyways, I thought I would throw the question out and see if anyone has any opinions on it.

The estate in question belongs to my wife's mother's father (maternal grandfather). He lived in a two-storey house located on prime real estate with a lot of land around the house. Real estate developers are salivating at the opportunity to tear the existing building down and convert the whole thing into a multi-storey apartment building. Except for some minor details standing in the way.

My wife's grandfather had 4 children. Let us call them A, B, C and D. A and B are sons while C and D are daughters (C is my wife's mother). A has one son (let us call him E) and B has two sons (called F and G). My wife's grandfather was a learned scholar and college professor, but he was also old-fashioned. This was reflected in his final will. I have reproduced below, the relevant sections of the will as it relates to this piece of real estate.

  • Paragraph 1: The first floor of the house shall belong to and be owned in perpetuity by my son A's son, E. The second floor of the house shall belong to and be owned in perpetuity by my son B's sons, F and G.
  • Paragraph 2: The vacant land around the house (back, front and left and right side) shall belong to all my four children, A, B, C and D.

What possessed him to write the will as he wrote it is anybody's guess. But it has resulted in a big family dispute that shows no signs of being resolved anytime soon. Everybody is convinced that the best way for everyone to benefit from the value of the land would be to have developers tear down the existing structure and construct apartments on the land. There is no dispute on that issue. The dispute is in how to divvy up the proceeds of such a transaction. My wife's grandfather died about 3 years ago. The house is now sitting vacant with nothing happening because of this dispute.

To give some more background, the land measures about 7,200 square feet in total area. Out of this total area, about 1,800 square feet are occupied by the footprint of the existing building. The first floor of this building is 1,800 square feet in size and the second floor is about 1,700 square feet in size. For the sake of simplicity, we can assume that both floors are about 1,800 square feet each. The vacant land, therefore, is about 5,400 square feet.

After my wife's grandfather's death, one of the sons, B, also died. His widow represents him in the dispute. She and A are on one side of the dispute, while the two daughters, C and D are on the other side.

According to A and B's widow, the wording of Paragraph 1 in the will entitles them to the area of their respective floors. That would entitle them to 1,800 square feet each. They then want the remaining land divided up between the 4 offspring as paragraph 2 specifies. The problem is that since A and B will take over 3,600 square feet of area between them, the remaining land area is reduced to 3,600 square feet (given that the total land under consideration here is only 7,200 square feet). Dividing that up between all 4 of the offspring leaves A and B with about 2,700 square feet each, and C and D will get 900 square feet each.

Obviously, C and D have a very different interpretation of the wording of the will. According to them, Paragraph 2 trumps Paragraph 1 of the will. They want the 5,400 square feet divided up 4 ways, giving them 1,350 square feet each. They then want the remaining 1,800 square feet divided into two, giving A and B an additional 900 square feet each. So, that will give A and B about 2,250 square feet each, and C and D 1,350 square feet each.

That is where the battle-lines have been drawn and that is where they stand right now. On one end we have a split of 2700, 2700, 900, 900. On the other end we have a split of 2250, 2250, 1350, 1350. Because this issue has not been resolved, the house still stands on the land and there is no development going on. Because there is no development, nobody has been able to unlock the value of the land and make any money off it.

The daughters, C and D, have made some offers at negotiation and compromise to see if they can resolve the issue even it they don't get everything they feel they are entitled to. The first compromise they floated was to divide the entire 7,200 square feet into 6 parcels. They offered 2 parcels each to each of the sons and they would take 1 parcel each. This would result in a split of 2400, 2400, 1200, 1200. Because the will names the grandsons, E, F and G explicitly, they also proposed another compromise that would split the 7,200 square feet into 7 parcels. They would take one parcel each, give two to A and three to B (to account for B's two sons as opposed to A's one son).

That would result in a split of about 2060, 3090, 1025, 1025. B's widow is probably thrilled with this proposal, but A will hear nothing of it. C and D then said they would be happy with the 1025 square feet each that this compromise gives them, and A and B can split up the remaining 5150 square feet any way they want. But that has not been acceptable to A either.

Each side has tried to bolster their arguments with various legal opinions, etc. None of the opinions have been in written form and each side claims that the lawyers they have consulted have agreed with their interpretation of the will (huge surprise there!).

All the participants in this drama are getting old and they realize that it is important to get this resolved before more of them die. So, they have started pulling in bystanders into the dispute in hopes of convincing family members to take sides and exert pressure on the other side. My parents were approached by A for precisely that reason. My parents did not want to get involved in the dispute, so they passed it off to me.

I had never seen the will or delved into the details of the dispute before now (even though I knew my mother-in-law was involved in some dispute over the division of her father's estate). Reluctantly, I had to get a copy of the will, a copy of the land survey, etc., and start coming up with some way out of this mess.

Now, truth be told, I consider A's stand to be quite extreme and I think he should compromise to some extent. If not for legal reasons, then for purely family reasons. After all, he is in a dispute with no one except his own siblings. The wording of the will is ambiguous in an unfortunate way, so it does make for a dispute. But to come up with an extremely favorable interpretation and not budge from it seems mean-spirited to me. Unfortunately, I am not privy to all the other internal politics of my wife's family, so perhaps this is a manifestation of some other problems that have been unresolved in the past.

For my part, I did try a slightly different tack in my attempt at a resolution. The main problem, as I see it is the building itself. The land can be developed only if the building is razed. But, the building is two storeys tall and once it is razed, the land underneath it reduces the area back to just one storey instead of 2. That to me is the heart of the dispute.

I asked around if any real estate developer or anyone else could give me a value for the 5,400 square feet of vacant land, and the 2-storey house along with the 1,800 square feet it sits on, separately. I thought I would be able to then use those two values to come up with a split that would be in terms of total value.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get a proper valuation on the house by itself for various reasons. The most important reason for this is that the house is very old (almost 80 years old) and is not in very good shape. The house is valuable for its location, but not for its structure or the building materials or anything else that is divorced from the location itself. So, in essence, the house along with the 1,800 square feet it stands on is only marginally more valuable than the 1,800 square feet of land by itself. By some estimates, the house is not worthless, but actually has negative worth because tearing it down will cost money whereas if it weren't there that expense would be spared!

So, that is where it stands as of now. C and D are willing to take as little as 1/7th of the total proceeds, but A and B (or at least A) insists they should get only 1/8th of the proceeds. It is surprising to me given that the difference is a measly 125 square feet, but it looks like that is what is standing in the way of a resolution to this issue. I guess it should not be surprising, given that most human conflicts are about trivialities, after all!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Think Your Day Has Been Bad? It Could Have Been Worse!

This is a sequence of photographs that shows how your day could have been worse - much worse!

So, you lost control of your car and ended up driving off the road, into the water. Now that the tow truck is here, things are starting to look up! At least you are uninjured, you managed to crawl out of the car and the water is shallow enough that you can stand on top of your submerged car without problems.

Now your car is coming out of the water.

It is almost out. Seems mostly undamaged, except for all the water pouring out of it. Maybe it is salvageable after all!

WTF?! Who is the idiot tow-truck driver who did not know how to park his truck properly for doing the job correctly? And does it have to fall on top of your car?!

Great, now there is a car AND a tow-truck in the water. Time to call a bigger tow-truck!

There is the second tow-truck. Looks like things are back under control. Your car is out of the water - again!

The car is pretty much on terra firma now! Hooray!!

Time to get the other tow-truck out of the water.

Time to put the whole episode behind you and chalk it up to a little bit of bad luck!

Not so fast! Time to start the process all over again! Do they make bigger tow-trucks? Maybe it is time to cut your losses and leave these two in the water! Or do you want to tempt fate and see if your day can get any worse?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Work Frustrations Crystalize Into Long Email - With Mixed Results

After voicing my work-related frustrations orally on and off for the past couple of months, I decided it would be a good idea (and probably a cathartic experience) to put my concerns down in an email. At first, I did not know who to send the email to, but later decided that I would send it just to my manager. I have a reputation for being fair and reasonable at work, so I did not want to unnecessarily create the impression that this was a crisis, and I was going off my rocker. Yes, it was a big distraction and a pain in the neck, but it was not yet a crisis.

So, here is the text of the email I sent to my manager after word-smithing it carefully over the course of an hour or so. Names have been changed to protect the guilty, obviously!


I am convinced that right from the beginning, this project has not been about getting the users more capable tools, but about buying and installing a vendor’s product at our company. In fact, it is about buying and installing a SPECIFIC vendor’s product at our company. A certain director in IT joined our company straight out of this vendor, and I firmly believe that he has been driving the entire process towards this specific conclusion since the day he got here with this agenda in mind.

First of all, given the fact that he worked with this vendor before joining our company, he should not have been allowed to be in any position to influence purchases and other decisions with respect to this vendor. I am not saying he has a hidden agenda or anything like that, but it is certainly a conflict of interest. But not only has he not been stopped from these activities, he has carried them on openly, and at every step, taken pains to keep other organizations that might have a competing or more rational agenda out of the loop.

He sprung the idea of a vendor product to replace the current suite of tools quite suddenly while we were busy drawing up plans for going through a proof-of-concept of a new data infrastructure using our own tools. During this meeting, and in all subsequent meetings about this topic, he has deliberately distorted and misrepresented various aspects of the process just to advance his agenda of getting this vendor in through the door.

First of all, he painted a rosy picture of the vendor delivering a product to us within the next couple of years. He portrayed our product as taking more than 5 years of development time. Now, we know, and he knows, that the timeline we came up with (I am not sure whether we even formalized and presented such a timeline, but let us assume we did) was for a completely integrated suite of tools that would solve all of our users' problems all together. It would be a truly integrated product which would be a first of its kind in the entire industry. The rosy scenario of a vendor delivering tools in 2 years is of a suite of disparate tools that don’t talk to each other except through the data layer. A similar set of tools developed by us would probably be ready before the vendor can even understand our requirements given that we have all the individual components ready to go. We already have stand-alone models that solve individual user problems in a non-integrated manner and all we would need to do is develop interfaces with a new data layer once it is ready to go. We would need perhaps 5 months, not 5 years. But the process was never and has never been about comparing apples to apples, or making a rational decision with the best interests of the company in mind.

Next, he came up with a questionnaire that tilts the playing field further in favor of his preferred vendor by assigning huge weights to a small subset of questions that deal with current usage, and assigning tiny weights to a large set of much more important questions about functionality and capability. The answers to these questions from each of the vendors included in the RFP were already well-known, not only to this director in IT, but to everyone who is familiar with these vendors. It was purely an exercise in formality to make sure that the appropriate documentation is collected to justify the purported superiority of this vendor in comparison to other vendors.

After promising that we would be involved in every step of the process, he springs the next surprise on us by scheduling visits to clients of these vendors without a word of warning to us. It would have been better to just tell us he did not want us involved in the process and to get lost, but instead he feels compelled to come up with some inane excuse about cost savings to keep us out of the visits. Keeping us out of the visits is one thing, but keeping us out of the loop is an entirely different thing.

I don’t even understand how IT has been given such full control over the process of deciding what system should be bought, given that it is an optimization and solution system we are seeking, not some kind of hardware or pure IT infrastructure system. The process has been structured as if the system we are purchasing is being purchased purely from the standpoint of a software system for the accomplishment of IT functions. But it is not. The purchase is of a system whose primary function, functionality and capabilities, only we and the users understand and can mandate. What role IT has to play in this purchase process is a mystery to me. Their job should be to do whatever is necessary to integrate such a system into our existing IT infrastructure if and when it is purchased after due consideration by the users and us. It should not be their job to tell us what system to purchase given that they don’t have the faintest idea what functionality is required in the system to begin with.

IT’s role in this company has morphed into that of an overarching gate-keeper instead of being facilitators, even as their capabilities have degraded over time to the point of almost complete uselessness. With this new role has come the obstructionist attitude of it’s their way or the highway when it comes to getting any IT support for any project. They appoint themselves the project leaders of every project out there and insist that they be the ones to facilitate all communications regarding the project. Why should IT run any projects they don’t understand? If the users have an optimization problem to solve, they should be able to come to us directly, not go to IT as a gatekeeper organization to facilitate discussions with us. The gatekeeper role then gives them the power to short-circuit the process by eliminating us from the loop and deciding unilaterally to procure a vendor product to respond to the user.

In the beginning, I understood our need to play along since it seemed like that was the only way to get a data infrastructure built for our future use. Our meetings with the users to present our vision of what should be included in this project seemed to go well, and the users seemed to understand the importance of a unified, integrated suite of tools that can be used in various functions inside and outside the organization to perform various functions. I was also hopeful that IT’s plans will eventually be thwarted when the users realize that no vendor system out there has the capabilities we envision for the ideal system that will take care of the users' needs comprehensively.

But it looks like the users have been influenced much more by other factors while our backs were turned, probably by the visions of a quick deployment of high-quality tools painted by this director to his peers in the user groups. I knew we had lost completely when a director from the user group declared that all he wanted were stand-alone tools that did not need any programmatic interface with anything else inside or outside his organization. He did not even seem to understand the concept or purpose of a programmatic interface with something else in spite of our meeting with him where we explained the interconnectedness of all this functionality and the need for various parts of the system to interface seamlessly with other parts of the system. He also did not seem in the least bit concerned that we had been left out of the vendor and client site visits.

The fact that nobody responded to our last-minute request to be included in the site visits further cements my opinion that we have been out-maneuvered by IT in this regard. Maybe it is because this director in IT was able to exert influence because of his position within the organization while we were in transition without a dedicated director. Or maybe, the users have decided that they have had enough of us and our models, and specifically want to keep us out of the process. Why even include us in these weekly meetings just to rub our noses in it?

Given this confluence of factors, I think it would be in our best interest to openly withdraw from this process and focus our time and resources on other projects that would benefit from our attention. There are two advantages to this course of action. First, we will have more time to devote to the projects we do turn our attention towards. Instead of wasting our time and energy spinning our wheels, trying to get in on a process from which we have been evicted slowly but surely, we would spend our time productively working on a project where our expertise can make a positive difference.

Secondly and perhaps, more importantly, when this project turns out to be a total fiasco, there will be no opportunity for anyone to point fingers at us. At this point, I firmly believe that this project, as envisioned by IT and the users, will only end up making the user organization into a more siloed organization that functions less effectively than it does today. Our performance will suffer as a result. The users will become unhappy with the system and its results, and accusations, recriminations and finger-pointing will inevitably follow. By playing along on the fringes, we are giving the impression that the decisions being made today are vetted and approved by us even though we know they are not. That makes it more likely that when the accusations do start flowing, we will be directly in the path of the users’ wrath. The theme of the accusations will surely be that we should have known better than to go along with such an inferior system. It will not matter at that time that we had no influence over the process, and we will once again not be able to convince anyone of our “innocence” in the whole affair.

There is, in fact, a third aspect to this that is closely related to the second reason for dissociating ourselves from the process. IT is a large organization with a lot more turnover than our organization. The people who are working on this project from the IT side will almost certainly not be working on this project 3, 4 or 5 years from now. They would either have quit our company or at least moved on to other roles within IT. We, on the other hand, belong to an organization with a lot more stability. 3, 4 or 5 years from now, it is very likely that the principals working on this project right now will still be working in our organization, and quite possibly with the same users. When those users want somebody to blame for this fiasco, it will be a lot easier for them to find and blame us than it will be for them to find and blame IT employees who will probably not be around.

By withdrawing from the process and letting it take its course, we will be untainted by it. That will leave us in a better position to influence events when the time comes to actually give the users a makeover with systems that actually perform the functions we think they should. Yes, the purchase of a vendor product right now will proceed uninterrupted, and it could very well be a costly waste of the company’s money and other resources. But that is not going to change just because we stay engaged in this farcical process. IT has made up its mind, and has convinced the users that they know what they are doing. We are just left fighting an uphill battle without any traction on either the IT side or the user side. The fact that the vice-president on the user side did not even deign to respond to your note on vendor site visits convinces me that whatever we do to regain influence in this process will be too little too late.

I also understand that dissociating ourselves from this process might be tricky at this stage without us sounding like sore losers. But I think there are valid arguments for doing so, and I just wanted to present them to you. I do believe (and I know you believe also) that this process has become a big distraction to our group, and is dragging down the morale and productivity of our group. It is a constant irritant and becomes more of an irritant every time we attend these meetings that are just used by IT to tell everybody else what decisions have been made rather than to actually make decisions collectively. It has also become a topic of water-cooler discussions and it is only a matter of time before somebody ends up saying something politically incorrect to someone they shouldn’t have said it to. Also, I think it has the potential to create friction between our organization and IT in areas where there is none now. I think going our own way and getting busy on a different project will cool people’s tempers and occupy their minds so that all this blows over and cooler heads can prevail eventually.

There is also the bigger question of what exactly our role within our company is. We hear great things from our vice-president about how the company values us greatly and how user groups are encouraged to come to us for any analytical and/or optimization needs. And then we have certain user groups that have worked with us for years suddenly deciding that they would be better off believing some stranger in IT that vendor products can perform miracles that we can not. I think our status within the company is a bigger source of long-term concern than the isolated spurning of our solutions by specific user groups.

I understand that this might come off as a petulant whine or rant, but that is not my intention at all. I apologize if it came off like that. I tried as hard as possible to keep my emotions out of it and just present the facts as they have occurred so far. Moreover, I have not shared this with anybody else inside or outside our organization. At the very least, writing this email allowed me to get my thoughts off my chest so that I will, hopefully, not be burdened by them going forward, whichever course we choose.


I sent the email off around 2 PM and made my way to my manager's office right behind. I did not want to send the email off at the close of business and vanish. That might have freaked my manager out! I wanted to make this as rational a process as I could, so I hung around near my manager's office while he finished reading the email fully.

After that, he called me in and we had a long conversation about the whole situation. He started out by saying that he agreed with most of what I had written. The process was not fair, things were not being done correctly. But, he also did not agree with some of what I had written. He felt that we should take the high road and continue to engage in the process and make our concerns known at every step of the way. It does not guarantee that we will not be blamed if and when there is a disaster, but our role within the company demanded that we be involved in the process (though there were others within the company who wished we would be gone!).

He was also not convinced that everyone on the user side was convinced that the vendor product would solve all their problems by magic the way IT was portraying it. He had faith that there were some people in the organization who would catch on (either because of our insistent voices, or by themselves) and call IT on their bad assumptions and processes. I was not fully convinced of this, but he seemed to have more faith in the judgment of the users than I did.

He also reminded me that the budgeting process that had been completed so far only allowed for a brief proof-of-concept test to be conducted with the vendor product at this point. There was no budget for a full deployment, so a lot of people in the company, including the highest levels of finance and other organizations would have to be convinced that this was a good idea before it could become reality. We still have a lot of time and avenues to make our opinions known before any of this becomes set in stone.

Finally he repeated what he has been repeating since day 1 of this whole process: we are not interested in knowing what any vendor can do for our company. We are interested in knowing whether there are any vendors out there that have the capability to do what we want them to do for our company. The RFP process bypassed this important step by asking the vendors for their capabilities rather than presenting our requirements and asking for those capabilities. But there was still time to expose the truth by staying involved in the process and working on it diligently.

I did not have any interest in rocking the boat violently. The email was more to crystalize my thoughts and formalize my thinking than to give notice that I was going to part ways with my manager. I also understand to some extent the predicament my manager is in, being the face of our organization to our users in this area. He obviously did not want the users to think we were abandoning them at this time even though some users did not seem to care one way or another.

To put it frankly, this lull in my workload has enabled me to get some free time at work to devote to various other things (such as my blog posts). I did not mind the situation continuing to be a little vague in the short term. I just did not want the situation to deteriorate to such an extent that in the long term, it could jeopardize my or my colleagues' careers. I reiterated my agreement with my manager on some key points and then left to take care of other stuff.

I had made my point. I had let my manager know that there was concern. I had also let my manager know that the concern was under control for now. There was nothing mentioned, but the meeting had highlighted to my manager that he had to try and be creative about finding other avenues to influence the process positively in the near to mid-term before things became much worse. I think that is a good outcome for a couple of hours worth of email-writing and chatting!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Crazy Driver Rant + Crazy Work Rant!

So, here I am, minding my own business, crawling along at 5 miles an hour on a completely choked up freeway, following this bitch of a driver when she decides that she does not like the fact that I am following her with just one car-length between my car and hers. Never mind the fact that walking would have been faster than driving at that point or the fact that everyone else is following along behind the car in front with a similar gap.

Anyways, she decides to "test" me by slamming on her brakes and stopping in the middle of the road! Obviously, I stopped well in time (my car was practically stopped for all intents and purposes before she decided to pull this stunt on me anyways!), then I decided I did not want to follow an obviously mentally imbalanced person, so I moved over to the next lane. As luck would have it, that lane was marginally faster than the previous one, so I am forced to go past this crazy imbecile of a driver, and, would you believe it, she decides to flip me off!

I am not the kind of person who prays, but if I did, it would probably have been a good time to pray that some inattentive, uninsured driver slams into her when she pulls one of her stupid sudden-stop tricks and cripples her for the rest of her long life! I did wish I was James Bond and had access to some secret and invisible contraption in my car that would rip two or all four of her tires to shreds with the press of a button! I probably still would get caught because I wouldn't be able to wipe the smile off my face when that happens!

I was heading into downtown in one car with my wife and kids while my brother-in-law drove my other car with his family in it. It was Friday afternoon, and I had warned everyone that this would be the traffic situation, but everyone decided it would be fun anyways. And these are the kinds of crazies I had to put up with as we made our way through the mess of traffic. We managed to make it to a beach at an average speed of about 25 miles per hour (we covered about 15 miles in 15 minutes and spent more than an hour and a quarter covering the remaining 20 or so miles!).

We spent an hour or so at the beach, then headed to a restaurant about an hour away. We got lost a few times because the streets we were seeing out the windshield did not correspond to what I was seeing on the maps! We did manage to stay in touch over our cell phones (what did people do in this kind of situation before cell phones became so ubiquitous?), and made it to the same place about 5 minutes apart. Unfortunately, I had to circle the block several times to try to find parking. Eventually, I gave up and parked about 3 blocks away and walked back. The food was decent, but not great. Traffic on the way back home was, thankfully, much better-behaved and we made it home without further incident.

Saturday was Wii day. My brother-in-law and I went to the library that morning and picked up a couple of Wii racing games (GT Pro and Cars). I have only regular Wiimotes, not a steering wheel attachment, so it was a little more difficult to play than if I had had the right equipment. But, I did get the hang of it after the first few tries. The GT Pro game has a bunch of different modes to play in, including one multi-player mode that allowed me to race against others in the house. I managed to beat everyone else pretty handily, but when I raced against other characters in the game, I did not do that well. I lost most of the races by a few seconds (10 or 15 seconds), and I realized that it was because I was taking a couple of turns too fast and crashing into walls and other obstacles, costing me a precious few seconds each time I did it. These seconds added up, leading to the final deficit of several seconds. When I reduced my crash propensity a little bit, I did manage to come in first in one race and 2nd and 3rd in a couple of other races.

My brother-in-law's son is only 5 years old but he is very interested in cars. He can identify many makes and models on the road by look! And obviously, he was very interested in playing this racing game. But he was not as good at driving as his interest in cars would suggest! It was a day of endless frustration for him as pretty much anyone else who played against him (including my 2 daughters) beat him quite easily while he was busy disentangling himself from fences, barriers, etc. And he had a tendency to get into head-on crashes with other racers because he would get his car turned around completely trying to maneuver around some corners!

Late on Saturday evening, I dropped my brother-in-law's family off at the airport (I did not need a van this time because my mother-in-law is staying with us for now, leaving only 4 people to transport to the airport). I am guest-free for the next week or so before we expect a couple more guests for a couple more days. This summer has been very busy for my household as we entertain guests week after week, almost without a rest in between. Now that school is about to start, I hope things will settle down to a more predictable and less-stressful routine! I was relieved to be able to go to work everyday just so that I could get a semblance of order back into my life, at least during that time!

Today, at work though, things just got crazier even though I was convinced that they couldn't get any crazier than they already were. I have talked about the politics surrounding this project I am working on before. As I mentioned, this person is dead-set on getting his way with this project and wants to sideline us throughout the process. We manage to squirrel in somehow or the other, but today we found out that there have been some on-site evaluation visits scheduled with the vendors for tomorrow and a week from tomorrow. We were not only not included in the visits, but we were not even told about them. We were at a different meeting and this information about vendor visits accidentally slipped out.

It was quickly justified that we were not included in the visits to "keep costs low". Obviously, that is a complete eyewash because our department has its own travel budget, and we manage it pretty well, no thanks to this obstructionist! My manager has now sent an email to our business users asking to be included in the vendor evaluation visits.

I came right out and told my manager that if the IT department wants to dissociate us from this system purchase that they seem to have made up their minds on, we should dissociate ourselves from the process publicly too. We should not be running behind them at every step and waiting to be out-maneuvered by this guy who obviously runs his own show by his own rules. My biggest concern is that once the vendor's system is deployed here, it will quickly become apparent that it does nothing that the vendor promised. It will be a costly boondoggle that our users will hate and deride. At that time, I don't want the tables turned on us with the accusation that since we were involved in the selection process, we were responsible for the fiasco. By dissociating from the process while there was still time, we can sit back and enjoy the show while at the same time we work on something else useful instead of spinning our wheels on this project.

Unfortunately, my manager is not fully convinced yet and wants to give the process some more time. His attitude has changed though. Previously he used to counsel me not to be a cynic when I pointed out the kinds of dirty politics that were being played behind our backs. He used to advise me to keep an open mind and give the IT department the benefit of the doubt. Now, he just smiles and doesn't bother responding when I point out such things. There is still hope! In the meantime, I feel as if I am stuck on a grid-locked freeway, following some crazy, senile a**hole who is just waiting for me to relax so that he can pull a fast one on me. Or am I in a racing game with my wheels locked into a turn going noisily round and round at high speed, while not making any progress towards the finish line? I just want to take an exit and find the scenic highway that meanders around without going anywhere fast! At least, the drive will be tolerable then.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Baby Bush: The Worst President in History?

This is an editorial that appeared in the Casey Report, an investment newsletter. Makes for interesting reading (and I suspect, plenty of ruffled feathers and outrage! Or maybe not . . .).

Baby Bush: The Worst President in History?

By Doug Casey

I recognize that I've antagonized many of my subscribers over the years with "Bush Bashing." In January, just after OBAMA!'s election, I said I wouldn't mention Bush again, his departure having made him irrelevant. I only feel bad that he and his minions will apparently get away scot- free with their crimes; better they had all been brought up before a tribunal and tried for crimes against humanity in general and the US Constitution in particular. But that is objectively true of almost all presidents since at least Lincoln.

Most of our subscribers to The Casey Report appear to be libertarians or classical liberals - i.e., people who believe in a maximum of both social and economic freedom for the individual. The next largest group are "conservatives." It's a bit harder to define a conservative. Is it someone who atavistically just wants to conserve the existing order of things (either now, or perhaps as they perceived them 50, or 100, or 200, or however many years ago)? Or is a conservative someone who believes in limiting social freedoms (generally that means suppressing things like sex, drugs, outré clothing and customs, and bad-mouthing the government) while claiming to support economic freedoms (although with considerable caveats and exceptions)? It's unclear to me what, if any, philosophical foundation conservatism, by whatever definition, rests on.

Which leads me to the question: Why do conservatives seem to have this warm and fuzzy feeling for George W. Bush? I can only speculate it's because Bush liked to talk a lot about freedom and traditional American values, and did so in such an ungrammatical way that it made him seem sincere. Bush's tendency to fumble words and concepts contrasted to Clinton's eloquence, which made him look "slick."

I'm forced to the conclusion that what "conservatives" like about Bush is his style, such as it was. Because the only good thing I can recall that Bush ever did was to shepherd through some tax cuts. But even these were targeted and piecemeal, tossing bones to favored interests, rather than any principled abolition of any levies or a wholesale cut in rates.

Is it possible that Bush was actually the worst president ever? I'd say he's a strong contender. He started out with a gigantic lie - that he would cut the size of government, reduce taxes, and stay out of foreign wars - and things got much worse from there. Let's look at just some of the highpoints in the catalog of disasters the Bush regime created.

  • No Child Left Behind. Forget about abolishing the Department of Education. Bush made the federal government a much more intrusive and costly part of local schools.
  • Project Safe Neighborhoods. A draconian law that further guts the 2nd Amendment, like 20,000 other unconstitutional gun laws before it.
  • Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. This the largest expansion of the welfare state since LBJ and will cost the already bankrupt Medicare system trillions more.
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Possibly the most expensive and restrictive change to the securities laws since the '30s. A major reason why companies will either stay private or go public outside the US.
  • Katrina. A total disaster of bureaucratic mismanagement, featuring martial law.
  • Ownership Society. The immediate root of the current financial crisis lies in Bush's encouragement of easy credit to everybody and inflating the housing market.
  • Nationalizations and Bailouts. In response to the crisis he created, he nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and passed by far the largest bailouts in US history (until OBAMA!).
  • Free-Speech Zones. Originally a device for keeping war protesters away when Bush appeared on camera, they're now used to herd.
  • The Patriot Act. This 132-page bill, presented for passage only 45 days after 9/11 (how is it possible to write something of that size and complexity in only 45 days?) basically allows the government to do whatever it wishes with its subjects. Warrantless searches. All kinds of communications monitoring. Greatly expanded asset forfeiture provisions.
  • The War on Terror. The scope of the War on Drugs (which Bush also expanded) is exceeded only by the war on nobody in particular but on a tactic. It's become a cause of mass hysteria and an excuse for the government doing anything.
  • Invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush started two completely pointless, counterproductive, and immensely expensive wars, neither of which has any prospect of ending anytime soon.
  • Dept. of Homeland Security. This is the largest and most dangerous of all agencies, now with its own gigantic campus in Washington, DC. It will never go away and centralizes the functions of a police state.
  • Guantanamo. Hundreds of individuals, most of them (like the Uighurs recently in the news) guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, are incarcerated for years. A precedent is set for anyone who is accused of being an "enemy combatant" to be completely deprived of any rights at all.
  • Abu Ghraib and Torture. After imprisoning scores of thousands of foreign nationals, Bush made it a US policy to use torture to extract information, based on a suspicion or nothing but a guard's whim. This is certainly one of the most damaging things to the reputation of the US ever. It says to the world, "We stand for nothing."
  • The No-Fly List. His administration has placed the names of over a million people on this list, and it's still growing at about 20,000 a month. I promise it will be used for other purposes in the future...
  • The TSA. Somehow the Bush cabal found 50,000 middle-aged people who were willing to go through their fellow citizens' dirty laundry and take themselves quite seriously. God forbid you're not polite to them...
  • Farm Subsidies. Farm subsidies are the antithesis of the free market. Rather than trying to abolish or cut them back, Bush signed a record $190 billion farm bill.
  • Legislative Free Ride. And he vetoed less of what Congress did than any other president in history.

The only reason I can imagine why a person who is not "evil" (to use a word he favored), completely uninformed, or thoughtless would favor Bush is because he wasn't a Democrat. Not that there's any real difference between the two parties anymore...

As disastrous as he was, I rather hate to put him in competition for "worst president" in the company of Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, the two Roosevelts, Truman, Johnson, and Nixon. He is simply too small a character - psychologically aberrant, ignorant, unintelligent, shallow, duplicitous, small-minded - to merit inclusion in any list. On second thought, looking over that list of his personal characteristics, he's probably most like FDR, except he lacked FDR's polish and rhetorical skills. I suspect he'll just fade away as a non-entity, recognized as an embarrassment. Not even worth the trouble of hanging by his heels from a lamppost, although Americans aren't (yet) accustomed to doing that to their leaders. Those who once supported him will, at least if they have any circumspection and intellectual honesty, feel shame at how dim they were to have been duped by a nobody.

The worst shame of Bush - worse than the spending, the new agencies, the torture, or the wars - is that he used so much pro-liberty and pro- free-market rhetoric in the very process of destroying those institutions. That makes his actions ten times worse than if an avowed socialist had done the same thing. People will blame the full suite of disasters Bush caused on the free market simply because Bush constantly said he believed in it.

And he's left OBAMA! with a fantastic starting point for what I expect to be even greater intrusions into your life and finances. Eventually, the Bush era will look like The Good Old Days. But only in the way that the Romans looked back with nostalgia on Tiberius and Claudius after they got Caligula. And then Nero. And then the first of many imperial coups and civil wars.


Doug Casey

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Legoland Discovery Center: Decent But Too Pricey

With my brother-in-law and his family visiting us, we needed to find something interesting to do for the weekend. After tossing around several ideas, we settled on the Legoland Discovery Center. Part of the reason for the choice was that this place is completely indoors and the weather was dreadful outside, with frequent downpours, and occasional lightning and thunder.

Even before we left home, we found a coupon in a magazine at home that promised one free child admission for each paid adult admission to this attraction. We were a perfectly balanced group with 4 adults and 4 children, but it wasn't clear from the coupon whether one coupon would suffice for all 4 adults and 4 children or whether each adult/child pair would require one coupon each. We scrounged around and located 4 copies of the magazine and cut out 4 of the coupons just in case.

Right outside the Discovery Center there is a giant lego sculpture of a giraffe (with sunglasses on!). The pieces are glued together after assembly so that passersby can not damage the sculpture by prying out blocks at random.

The admission was quite pricey, with each adult ticket costing $19 and each child ticket going for $15. At the ticket counter, the employee took all 4 of the coupons and charged me for just the adult admissions. It was a savings of $60 from a coupon found in a free magazine! Sounded like an auspicious start to me. . .

Once you enter the place, you line up to enter an attraction called the Jungle Adventure. The line forms alongside a massive lego model of the entire Chicago lakefront, including all the famous buildings, a section of the CTA elevated railway, Navy Pier, etc. It is called miniland. On the wall are informational posters about the buildings, the model and its scale, how many blocks were used, how many people built it over how many years, etc. The lighting on this model cycles through day and night every few minutes, with lights coming on inside the buildings at night and going off during the day. It was quite an impressive feat!

Below are some pictures of miniland.

Jungle Adventure is just a walking tour of a jungle constructed out of Lego blocks. There are all kinds of insects, plants, trees, etc. all made out of Lego blocks. The reason for the line is because it is a narrow walkway through the jungle and there is not much room for people to crowd in. Moreover, they had some inane children's activity for the area with some questions written on the walls for which the kids had to come up with answers based on information that is also on the walls in different places. They were given a card with scratch off spaces to mark their answers. They had to let people into Jungle Adventure in small batches so that an overenthusiastic employee could explain the activity to the kids. Pretty much all the kids lost interest in the activity right away and just spent their time admiring the construction of the jungle itself.

Pictured below is a giant spider in Jungle Adventure.

Once you walk out of the Jungle Adventure, you get to go on a ride called the Dragon Ride. It is billed as a roller-coaster, but there is no rolling or coasting involved. It is a completely flat track with the cars going past some scenes from what looked like scenes from some medieval wizards and dragons kind of story. There is a large lego dragon towards the end of the ride that blows smoke out of its nostrils while moving its head menacingly.

After the ride, you enter the free area of the discovery center where you are no longer in lines, being herded from one attraction to another. There are several attractions that one can choose from in this area. One of them is a so-called 4-D theater that shows 3-D movies with special effects that include water being sprayed on the audience and snow flakes falling from the roof at the appropriate scenes. We watched two movies in the theater (one about Bob the Builder and the other about some evil wizard who tries to conquer a kingdom with an army of skeletons). The 3-D effect was quite lame, and the stories were lamer. I guess it was good fun for the kids though. My daughters were particularly fascinated by the snow falling from the ceiling of the theater!

Then there is the model builders workshop which was even lamer. We were anticipating being taught how lego models are planned and built, but instead, each person in the room was given 8 small lego blocks. They were supposed to make one large brick out of these 8 blocks. Then the workshop conductor walked around the room asking each participant to add their brick wherever they wanted to a growing, shapeless, meaningless scupture. As expected, the final result was a blob that the conductor admired (saying it was abstract art) more than anyone in the room did!

Some scenes from the Model Builders' Workshop below.

We then went on the factory tour which talks about how plastic granules are melted at 572 degrees to form a plastic liquid which is then molded into lego bricks. The bricks are then painted. An actual documentary showing the actual factory would have been more informative than the employee who was mustering as much fake enthusiasm as he could while trying to explain all this to a restless crowd of parents and kids. There were some fake machines that show the process and as a reward for going through this inane exercise, each visitor is given a single lego brick as a souvenir.

Some pictures of the factory tour.

There is a cafe on the premises selling various snack and junk foods. Next to it is an area where there are tables set up for people to build lego models. Large number of lego blocks of various shapes and sizes are provided for people to try their hand at building whatever they want to. This is actually probably the only worthwhile part of the entire attraction. All of us had a lot of fun trying to put together various objects. Apart from simple things like stacking bricks on top of each other to form something that looked like a building, anything else was much more difficult than I imagined it would be. My models broke and shattered quite regularly, and after a while, I gave up. I watched the kids having fun instead.

Some pictures of the Build and Test area.

You can also build vehicles here (they provide wheels in exchange for a picture ID) and there are a couple of tracks where you can race your vehicles against those of others. There is also a merry-go-round kind of ride in this area (pictured below).

About every half an hour, the staff conducts a creativity contest in this area. They give the participants a theme and ask them to build a model to that theme. At the end of the half hour, they judge the models and give "prizes". The first contest was themed roller-coasters. Our group constructed a rickety model that looked somewhat like a cartoon roller-coaster. Luckily, nobody in the area constructed anything to do with roller-coasters during this contest, so by default, we were crowned champions! The prizes consisted of paper crowns designating us champions in creativity, and entries into a raffle that promised 2 annual passes at the end of the month.

Below is a picture of the roller-coaster converted into a spider!

We stayed around for the next contest which was to build animals. This time several groups of people competed, building a cow, an alligator and a giraffe. We converted our roller-coaster into a spider by adding more rickety legs to the highest point of the original structure! Unfortunately, we did not win this time (surprise, surprise!).

Visitors are routed through a retail store to get to the exit. The store sells various lego products including boxed sets of bricks and assorted bricks by the pound ($28 per pound if you are curious).

Throughout the place were amazing lego sculptures and models which really made me appreciate the creativity of the model builders who had made them, but the place did not even begin to teach you how such things are planned and built. The models could be as simple as a tree built out of a few dozen blocks, or be as complicated as life-size models of people using a few thousand blocks, or be like miniland, which is an entire city-scape, made out of a few million bricks. A couple of them are pictured below.

Overall, it was fun for the kids and they seemed to enjoy the activities. It was not as interesting for adults. The number of attractions was too low, and the actual attractiveness of these attractions was even lower. Most of the time, it was high expectations followed by low outcomes, classic case of over-promising and under-delivering. It would probably be OK at half the price, but at $19 per adult, my verdict would be to skip it and find something else to do.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I Need A Van - And It Has To Be Right After I Get Rid Of Mine!

I wrote a couple of weeks back about how I traded in my van for a new Hyundai Elantra under the CARS program. I also wrote about how my wife gave me a grilling about the tradeoffs involved in making that decision. I am convinced that my decision is a sound one. Assuming that repairing the van was just throwing good money after bad, buying a car is a much better decision than buying another van. It costs less initially, and it cost less to operate over the long run.

But as my luck would have it, my brother-in-law came over on a visit with his family yesterday. He and his wife and two kids plus his mother make five people in all. And since I have to go to the airport to pick him up, we would need a 6-seater to make it back together.

My wife gave me a hard time about the decision to sell the van and move down to a car as soon as her brother's plans were clear. I told my wife that even if I have to rent a van for $100 each the 2 or 3 times a year when I need one, I would still come out ahead. My wife was not convinced. And she had some arguments of her own to throw at me. Given that I am a cheap bastard, she was pretty sure I would try to avoid renting a van when one was needed and instead come up with some hare-brained scheme that would scandalize her in front of her friends. Or I would ask her to drive all over town following me in my car and she would not like that because she is comfortable driving on regular city streets, but is not comfortable driving on highways at highway speeds.

I consider that an irrational fear. I have argued with her several times and tried to convince her that highway driving is much safer than city street driving. You don't need to change speeds as often as on city streets. You don't have to worry about signals, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. You don't have to worry about bone-headed drivers cutting you off by getting on road right in front of you from driveways. And in most cases, the speed limit does not change as frequently as on city streets, so you can set your cruise control for just over the speed limit and cruise in the right lane without any worries. But it takes more than my argument skills to convince my wife on this issue. Her main issue is that highway speeds are too high and she is convinced she will never be able to master driving on highways with comfort.

In any case, given my brother-in-law's plans, I started researching my alternatives pretty early on. My first stop was breezenet to check on rental car prices. For some reason, minivans were very expensive everywhere I checked. Most places did not have any minivans in the first place. The few that had them were taking full advantage of the shortage by charging up to $200 per day before taxes! My theory is that rental companies have not really added to their fleets since the recession started a year or two back and since then, their fleets have shrunk without replacement, giving rise to shortages and higher prices.

Whatever the reason, it looked like renting was not going to be a viable option. The next option I came up with was seeing if any of our friends would be willing to go with me to the airport and help me pick up everyone. I have given some of our friends rides to the airport in the past when they had lots of luggage or too many people to transport and I thought I was owed one when I needed the same kind of help now. My wife was not extremely comfortable with the idea, but I convinced her that I would do the asking and she did not have to do any of the talking.

In the meantime, I asked my brother-in-law to send me his travel itinerary so that I would know when exactly I would need a ride to the airport. His reply was a little unexpected. I had expected him to come in between 8 and 10 PM at night, but instead his flight was scheduled to land only at 10:50 PM. I knew that by the time we picked up the luggage and got home, it would probably be well past midnight. So, I decided that getting a friend to tag along was not a good idea anymore.

The next bright idea I had was to check the yahoo yellow pages for local car rental companies whose rates would not be picked up by sites like breezenet. Most of the major national chains have local rental outlets where I live (without having to pick up a car from the airport), but there were surprisingly few rental outlets other than these national ones (such as Hertz, Avis, etc.). I did find one called USave that had a minivan for about $65 before taxes per day. I filed it away for future reference, but even $65 was a little high for just an airport pickup. I researched taxi rates and found out that it would cost me about $38 to $45 before tips for a taxi ride from the airport to home.

As I related all this to my wife, she relented and offered to drive with me to the airport to pick up our guests even though it would involve night driving on the highway. But there was another problem with that plan too: it would be way past our kids' bed-time. Since we have never had a babysitter, our only option was to take them along to the airport with us. Then they would stay awake about 2 hours beyond their bed-time, making them cranky the next day.

As a last desperate measure, I even went on Craigslist to see if rides to the airport were a separate category. There were categories for taxi and limo companies and auto repairs, but no section for friendly ride-swaps between regular people. I debated putting in my own ad asking for a favor, but decided it just wasn't worth it.

So, I decided I would take a bus to the airport, and then take a taxi back home after picking up our guests. I stopped doing any more research on the subject, resigned to the cost of a taxi ride. I knew I would recoup the cost of the taxi ride in two fill-ups of the car's gas tank compared to two fill-ups of the van's gas tank, so I was not too concerned about the cost.

On Friday morning, the day I was supposed to do the airport pickup, one of my friends called me up. He told me his wife had told him about my needing a ride to the airport and was wondering why I hadn't called him with the details. I explained to him that my brother-in-law's flight was coming in only around 11 PM, and if he helped me out, he would get back home only around midnight. If someone had told me that, I would have brushed it off and insisted that I help him out. After all, the next day was a Saturday, I don't have to go to work or get up early for any other reason. So, I could go to sleep at any time I wanted and make up for it by getting up late the next day.

But this friend seemed quite relieved that I had provided him a nice excuse for him not to involve himself in this situation. We made some small talk after that and he wished me all the best and hung up. I called up my wife to tell her what had happened and it got her hopping mad! And I don't blame her. She also correctly assessed that if the roles had been reversed, I would have insisted on helping out, and would have been at the airport with my friend however late it turned out. She ranted about the shallowness of her friends for some time, and I have a feeling she will rant about them some more in the near future!

Another friend of mine owns a van. His wife called my wife and offered the van to me, so that I could drive over to their place, pick up the van, do the airport pick-up, then drive back, leave the van and drive home in my car. My wife thought about it, but decided not to take her up on the offer. I thought the offer was very nice, and if the husband had called me directly instead of the wife calling my wife, I probably would have jumped at the offer and taken him up on it right away. But since my wife had turned down her friend, I did not feel like calling up the friend and proposing the plan to him directly. A taxi it was going to be. . .

The actual pickup turned out to be slightly more adventurous than I had anticipated. My wife dropped me off at the bus stop around 9 PM and I made it to the airport around 9:30. I then spent the next hour and a half reading a book (The Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child). The flight landed at around 11:00 but my mother-in-law needed a wheel-chair, so they made it to the baggage carousel only around 11:45. Their bags were already out, though I did not know that since I could not identify their bags on sight.

Once we picked up the luggage, I called up a taxi company and asked them to send me a taxi. This is a taxi company with which my employer has negotiated special rates, so I always use them for all my taxi needs. Sometimes it takes a little longer for them to arrange for a taxi rather than taking a yellow cab from the stand in front of the airport terminal, but the rates are much better, so I don't mind the extra wait. In this case, we had to wait for about 10 minutes for the cab.

When the cab came, he stopped at the wrong spot and asked us to bring all the luggage to that spot. It was a bad start to my relationship with and opinion of the cab driver. But he seemed friendly and helped us load the luggage in the van. He saw that there were six of us and knew that we needed to use every seat in the van, but for some reason, he folded down the last row of seats and put luggage on top of it. We had to get him to rearrange the luggage and keep the row free for passenger use. That was strike two against the driver.

But the true fun was yet to come. As soon as we left the airport, he had to take a particular exit at an interchange to get on the highway that leads back home. He missed the exit (in spite of having a GPS screen mounted right on his dashboard in front of him), and then had to take a different exit and drive around on surface streets to get back on the right highway. I was starting to get a little concerned with the driver. He already had three strikes against him, and I could not very well dismiss him and get the next batter in! I guess a couple of those strikes had to be reclassified as foul balls!

Once on the highway, his driving continued to be somewhat erratic. He kept drifting from side to side in his lane and his corrections to get back to the middle of the lane were always abrupt and a little disconcerting. He also carried on a conversation on his cell phone from time to time, which made his driving more erratic, if such a thing was possible. We were relieved when we reached home finally.

I got out of the cab and helped unload the luggage, then he started processing my credit card for the fare. He charged me $42 for the ride and I added a tip of $4 to make it $46. But he entered it as $44 in his credit card processing machine and sent it off before I could correct him. I guess he was a little unhinged in all aspects of operating a taxi! I was relieved when he finally left.

But, about 15 minutes later, while our guests were having a late dinner, I suddenly realized I could not find the book I had taken to the airport. I searched everywhere I could think of, then even went out to the driveway to see if I had dropped it somewhere there. Being unable to locate the book anywhere, I called the cab company and explained that I might have left a book in the cab. They had the cab driver call me right away and when I explained my situation to him, he was kind enough to check the cab fully for the book. He checked all seats, the glove compartment (my book was too thick to go in there anyways) and the back. No book anywhere.

I decided I had probably lost track of it somewhere in the airport even though I had the distinct memory of getting into the cab with the book in my hand. I decided to chalk up the cost of the book as part of the cost of the taxi ride and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, my book was sitting on my bed-side table. It turns out, I had brought it home. To help with unloading luggage, I had quickly put the book on top of my wife's car which was parked in the driveway. I completely forgot about that crucial occurrence and it did not occur to me to look on top of my wife's car when I had gone out to the driveway the previous night to look for it.

As one can imagine, I was very relieved. I had survived the first occasion when I had needed a van without much of a financial hit. And even though I initially thought the hit was going to be a couple of dozen dollars more because of a lost book, that turned out to be not the case. My wife was also relieved that everything had worked out fine. Hopefully, it will also get her to stop pointing out that I should not have traded in the van for a car the next time I end up needing a van for some reason!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

History's Worst Software Bugs

This is an old, but very entertaining article. At least when my programs crash, nobody dies! Well, I haven't heard of anyone dying so far!! Maybe, I will take my time visiting the top tech roller-coasters until all the bugs have been worked out of them fully. Read and enjoy!

A while back, automaker Toyota announced a recall of 160,000 of its Prius hybrid vehicles following reports of vehicle warning lights illuminating for no reason, and cars' gasoline engines stalling unexpectedly. But unlike the large-scale auto recalls of years past, the root of the Prius issue wasn't a hardware problem -- it was a programming error in the smart car's embedded code. The Prius had a software bug.

With that recall, the Prius joined the ranks of the buggy computer -- a club that began in 1945 when engineers found a moth in Panel F, Relay #70 of the Harvard Mark II system.The computer was running a test of its multiplier and adder when the engineers noticed something was wrong. The moth was trapped, removed and taped into the computer's logbook with the words: "first actual case of a bug being found."

Sixty years later, computer bugs are still with us, and show no sign of going extinct. As the line between software and hardware blurs, coding errors are increasingly playing tricks on our daily lives. Bugs don't just inhabit our operating systems and applications -- today they lurk within our cell phones and our pacemakers, our power plants and medical equipment. And now, in our cars.

But which are the worst?

It's all too easy to come up with a list of bugs that have wreaked havoc. It's harder to rate their severity. Which is worse -- a security vulnerability that's exploited by a computer worm to shut down the internet for a few days or a typo that triggers a day-long crash of the nation's phone system? The answer depends on whether you want to make a phone call or check your e-mail.

Many people believe the worst bugs are those that cause fatalities. To be sure, there haven't been many, but cases like the Therac-25 are widely seen as warnings against the widespread deployment of software in safety critical applications. Experts who study such systems, though, warn that even though the software might kill a few people, focusing on these fatalities risks inhibiting the migration of technology into areas where smarter processing is sorely needed. In the end, they say, the lack of software might kill more people than the inevitable bugs.

What seems certain is that bugs are here to stay. Here, in chronological order, is the list of some of the worst software bugs of all time … so far.

July 28, 1962 -- Mariner I space probe. A bug in the flight software for the Mariner 1 causes the rocket to divert from its intended path on launch. Mission control destroys the rocket over the Atlantic Ocean. The investigation into the accident discovers that a formula written on paper in pencil was improperly transcribed into computer code, causing the computer to miscalculate the rocket's trajectory.

1978 -- Hartford Coliseum Collapse. Just hours after thousands of fans had left the Hartford Coliseum, the steel-latticed roof collapsed under the weight of wet snow. The programmer of the CAD software used to design the coliseum incorrectly assumed the steel roof supports would only face pure compression. But when one of the supports unexpectedly buckled from the snow, it set off a chain reaction that brought down the other roof sections like dominoes.

1982 -- Soviet gas pipeline. Operatives working for the Central Intelligence Agency allegedly plant a bug in a Canadian computer system purchased to control the trans-Siberian gas pipeline. The Soviets had obtained the system as part of a wide-ranging effort to covertly purchase or steal sensitive U.S. technology. The CIA reportedly found out about the program and decided to make it backfire with equipment that would pass Soviet inspection and then fail once in operation. The resulting event is reportedly the largest non-nuclear explosion in the planet's history.

1983 -- World War III - Almost. The Soviet early warning system falsely indicated the United States had launched five ballistic missiles. Fortunately the Soviet duty officer had a “funny feeling in my gut” and reasoned if the U.S. was really attacking they would launch more than five missiles, so he reported the apparent attack as a false alarm. A bug in the Soviet software failed to filter out false missile detections caused by sunlight reflecting off cloud-tops.

1985-1987 -- Therac-25 medical accelerator. A radiation therapy device malfunctions and delivers lethal radiation doses at several medical facilities. Based upon a previous design, the Therac-25 was an "improved" therapy system that could deliver two different kinds of radiation: either a low-power electron beam (beta particles) or X-rays. The Therac-25's X-rays were generated by smashing high-power electrons into a metal target positioned between the electron gun and the patient. A second "improvement" was the replacement of the older Therac-20's electromechanical safety interlocks with software control, a decision made because software was perceived to be more reliable.

What engineers didn't know was that both the 20 and the 25 were built upon an operating system that had been kludged together by a programmer with no formal training. Because of a subtle bug called a "race condition," a quick-fingered typist could accidentally configure the Therac-25 so the electron beam would fire in high-power mode but with the metal X-ray target out of position. At least five patients die; others are seriously injured.

1988 -- Buffer overflow in Berkeley Unix finger daemon. The first internet worm (the so-called Morris Worm) infects between 2,000 and 6,000 computers in less than a day by taking advantage of a buffer overflow. The specific code is a function in the standard input/output library routine called gets() designed to get a line of text over the network. Unfortunately, gets() has no provision to limit its input, and an overly large input allows the worm to take over any machine to which it can connect.

Programmers respond by attempting to stamp out the gets() function in working code, but they refuse to remove it from the C programming language's standard input/output library, where it remains to this day.

1988-1996 -- Kerberos Random Number Generator. The authors of the Kerberos security system neglect to properly "seed" the program's random number generator with a truly random seed. As a result, for eight years it is possible to trivially break into any computer that relies on Kerberos for authentication. It is unknown if this bug was ever actually exploited.

January 15, 1990 -- AT&T Network Outage. A bug in a new release of the software that controls AT&T's #4ESS long distance switches causes these mammoth computers to crash when they receive a specific message from one of their neighboring machines -- a message that the neighbors send out when they recover from a crash.

One day a switch in New York crashes and reboots, causing its neighboring switches to crash, then their neighbors' neighbors, and so on. Soon, 114 switches are crashing and rebooting every six seconds, leaving an estimated 60 thousand people without long distance service for nine hours. The fix: engineers load the previous software release.

1991 -- Patriot Fails Soldiers. During the first Gulf War, an American Patriot Missile system in Saudi Arabia failed to intercept an incoming Iraqi Scud missile. The missile destroyed an American Army barracks. A software rounding error incorrectly calculated the time, causing the Patriot system to ignore the incoming Scud missile.

1993 -- Intel Pentium floating point divide. A silicon error causes Intel's highly promoted Pentium chip to make mistakes when dividing floating-point numbers that occur within a specific range. For example, dividing 4195835.0/3145727.0 yields 1.33374 instead of 1.33382, an error of 0.006 percent. Although the bug affects few users, it becomes a public relations nightmare. With an estimated 3 million to 5 million defective chips in circulation, at first Intel only offers to replace Pentium chips for consumers who can prove that they need high accuracy; eventually the company relents and agrees to replace the chips for anyone who complains. The bug ultimately costs Intel $475 million.

1995/1996 -- The Ping of Death. A lack of sanity checks and error handling in the IP fragmentation reassembly code makes it possible to crash a wide variety of operating systems by sending a malformed "ping" packet from anywhere on the internet. Most obviously affected are computers running Windows, which lock up and display the so-called "blue screen of death" when they receive these packets. But the attack also affects many Macintosh and Unix systems as well.

June 4, 1996 -- Ariane 5 Flight 501. Working code for the Ariane 4 rocket is reused in the Ariane 5, but the Ariane 5's faster engines trigger a bug in an arithmetic routine inside the rocket's flight computer. The error is in the code that converts a 64-bit floating-point number to a 16-bit signed integer. The faster engines cause the 64-bit numbers to be larger in the Ariane 5 than in the Ariane 4, triggering an overflow condition that results in the flight computer crashing.

First Flight 501's backup computer crashes, followed 0.05 seconds later by a crash of the primary computer. As a result of these crashed computers, the rocket's primary processor overpowers the rocket's engines and causes the rocket to disintegrate 40 seconds after launch.

1998 -- Mars Climate Orbiter Crash. After a 286-day journey from Earth, the Mars Climate Orbiter fired its engines to push into orbit around Mars. The engines fired, but the spacecraft fell too far into the planet’s atmosphere, likely causing it to crash on Mars. The software that controlled the Orbiter thrusters used imperial units (pounds of force), rather than metric units (Newtons) as specified by NASA.

November 2000 -- National Cancer Institute, Panama City. In a series of accidents, therapy planning software created by Multidata Systems International, a U.S. firm, miscalculates the proper dosage of radiation for patients undergoing radiation therapy.

Multidata's software allows a radiation therapist to draw on a computer screen the placement of metal shields called "blocks" designed to protect healthy tissue from the radiation. But the software will only allow technicians to use four shielding blocks, and the Panamanian doctors wish to use five.

The doctors discover that they can trick the software by drawing all five blocks as a single large block with a hole in the middle. What the doctors don't realize is that the Multidata software gives different answers in this configuration depending on how the hole is drawn: draw it in one direction and the correct dose is calculated, draw in another direction and the software recommends twice the necessary exposure.

At least eight patients die, while another 20 receive overdoses likely to cause significant health problems. The physicians, who were legally required to double-check the computer's calculations by hand, are indicted for murder.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

To Go Or Not To Go: To The VeggieFest, Never Again!

This weekend, my wife wanted me to take the family to something called the VeggieFest taking place about 30 miles from where we live. It is supposed to be a showcase of vegetarian food, cooking, etc., and have samples as well as food stalls for the visitors to indulge in vegetarian food from around the world.

I haven't been vegetarian in about 15 years now, and I am not a huge fan of vegetarian food. My wife and kids are vegetarian, though. I was also a vegetarian for the first 25 years of my life, but after I moved to this country, I just found it too much of an inconvenience to be bothered. I liked the flexibility that being able to eat just about anything gave me. I also love experimenting with my freedom, so I have, for instance, tried frog's legs, escargot, and other delicacies that even many non-vegetarians shun.

The festival runs from 11 AM to 7 PM or something like that. We got there around 11:20 and already the place was starting to broil under the sun's heat. The humidity was also quite high, making the whole thing quite a bother. We spent the first hour and a half or so walking around the stalls that were allowing people to sample their wares while trying to get them to buy the stuff. There were lots of stalls that were showing off products that were sold through multi-level marketing schemes (think Amway) also, so they were trying hard to get the samplers to sign up for their mailing list so that they could "follow up". None of the foods tasted particularly good.

There were also stalls selling energy drinks, rejuvenating drinks, drinks endorsed by celebrities like Deepak Chopra, etc. Some of these drinks were not too bad (it may have had something to do with the hot sun too), but some were not tasty at all by any stretch of the imagination. There was also a children's activity tent (face-painting, identify-the-vegetable contests, etc.), a speaker's tent with hourly talks about vegetarianism, yoga, spirituality, etc., and a special meditation tent where they were teaching visitors how to meditate.

I guess it is not very surprising that vegetarianism is associated with eastern philosophy and its overt manifestations like yoga, meditation, etc. But I was surprised that there were a surprising number of booths offering teeth-whitening treatments of all sorts. Either vegetarian food discolors teeth badly or some marketing expert figured out that people who are attracted to yoga, meditation and vegetarian food also have bad teeth! There were also booths that offered chiropractic consultations, massage, etc.

There was a street theater performance and a magic show also.

The food that was on sale had to be bought with tickets. The cheapest you could get tickets for was 20 for $15, so it was about 75 cents per ticket. Most of the food was priced at 4 to eight tickets, so most of the food was 3 to 6 dollars. Contrary to our expectations, there was actually not much variety in the food. There were several Indian food stalls, a middle-eastern stall (manned by an Indian) that sold stuff like felafel, a Chinese stall, a Thai stall, a Japanese stall, a Mexican stall and a few stalls selling teas and other drinks.

We bought some Chinese and Thai food and found a place to sit and eat. It was hot as hell, and there was no shade. There were big umbrellas set up over the eating tables, but the wind was toppling some of them over, creating somewhat dangerous conditions for eaters. We decided to sit on the upwind side of one of these umbrellas, but that also meant that the umbrella did not provide us any shade at all.

The food was extremely mediocre, and even my wife was appalled and shocked at the quality of the food. It was just basic vegetarian food with no spices or flavor. It was either bland with no taste or just spiced up with red chillies. It was quite a pathetic display of bad cooking. If there were any non-vegetarians at the fest thinking about converting to vegetarianism, I am sure they would have decided that it wasn't worth it after tasting the food! At least, I won't have to take the family to next year's fest as my wife had had enough of it with just one visit!

Here are some photos I took at the fest.

Photos of the street theater performance and performers

The children's activity tent

The magic show

General views of the stalls, etc.

Visitors Country Map

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