Screwing Americans

Back when I still cared about this kind of thing, I was browsing through the job boards just to see what was going on out there in my specific field of work — you know, just to keep abreast of things — when I saw a want ad for my job.

Upon further investigation, it wasn’t for my actual job — the advertiser was a different company from mine — but it could have been:

Database management and report design / writing, competent user of XYZ software, able to make effective management presentations up to Board level, five years experience minimum, seven years industry experience.

That, in essence, was what I’d been doing for about the past ten years. All well and good. Then came the kicker:

Salary: $45,000

Considering that I was on a salary in excess of $95,000 at the time, and I knew at least half a dozen other guys earning about what I did (small industry, we all knew each other), this ad made no sense. Either they were going to get a glorified data entry clerk who couldn’t really do anything close to what the job needed, or the job had been filled already — inside job, nepotism, whatever — and the company was just going through the motions to satisfy some government hiring regulation.

The point was that I knew how much experience and know-how was necessary to do that job properly — I had it, and so did my contemporaries — so I was curious to see how the thing would shake out.

Some time later (maybe even a year, I don’t remember) I called a friend who was a corporate head-hunter, and asked him to find out what had transpired. He did, and found out two things: the company hadn’t found anyone to do the job for that compensation (as I suspected they wouldn’t), so after nine months they’d gone overseas and hired not one but two people from India or Sri Lanka to fill the position.

Now I know what some people are going to say: the position was paying far more than the job was worth, so that’s why the company ended up getting cheaper labor. But that wasn’t the case at all: for someone to have acquired the experience necessary, they would have had to have spent a minimum of two years in a junior- to midlevel management position in the industry, and then at least three years experience with complex database management, and another year or two on the report design aspect of it. (This was a very complex skill set to have to acquire, and it wasn’t taught in business schools either, so there was no shortcut.) Considering that the new hires were in their mid-twenties, there was no possible way that they could have filled the experience/expertise requirements of the job.

My head-hunter friend told me that what the company had essentially done was lie on the H-1B visa applications, or at least show that they hadn’t been able to fill the position domestically, in order to get the visas cleared. In essence, the company had hired two trainees for the job, thinking that they’d be able to get at least one of them to perform the function, eventually.

Fast forward about four years. I’d since left my job and hung up my shingle as a consultant in my field, with a reputation as a guy who could fix things and get programs to work as required. So one day my head-hunter buddy calls me up and asks me if I’d be interested in taking on a yearlong project with a company who’d run into serious trouble with their management information systems. They’d gone to the usual suspects (Andersen, PWC, McKinsey, Bain etc.) and were told that the fix would take over two years and well over two million dollars to fix. The company had neither the time nor the money to do that, but they were being crippled by the broken system. Rock, meet hard place.

Well, you can guess who the company was: the cheapskates who’d gone H-1B rather than hire someone like myself to run their program. The H-1Bs themselves had long since disappeared (either fired, or quit after no doubt seeing what was coming), leaving behind a poor guy promoted from within, and who through no fault of his own was completely out of his depth.

Of course, I went over to see the company to scope the project to see if what the Big Dogs told them was true; and it was, except for the cost and the time. You see, most consultancies don’t know shit about specific industries, and their people (freshly-minted MBAs from Harvard, Cornell and Wharton) know absolutely nothing about anything — so they need training just to get them up to speed (paid by Client, duh), and only then can they begin to address the client’s problem — and it always takes longer than the period quoted. Always.

If you knew what to do, and I did, the fix was radical but simple (I told the company): it would take about nine months to a year, a new software package (which, ahem, I’d helped the software house to design) and would require firing the people responsible for the screwup.

So I got the gig, fixed the system, trained the guy and got the whole thing working in eight months, then arranged an “oversight” consultancy — part-time hours, full-time pay for another year — to monitor the operation and ensure that the system would keep working.

I have no idea what the screwup cost the company in total (lost productivity plus my repair job), but just going on my bill, they would have saved well over half a million dollars if they’d just hired someone like me at $100k at the beginning.

My advice to you all is that if you see a company doing stupid shit like thinking they can get ten dollars’ worth of output from a one-cent investment: short the stock.

The Internet Of No Things

In Michael Mann’s excellent caper movie Heat (Pacino, De Niro), there’s a scene in which mastermind criminal Nate (Jon Voight) is talking to De Niro’s character McCauley, and shows him architect’s blueprints of a bank’s electrical system which McCauley will need to rob it. McCauley asks (and I’m paraphrasing this exchange from memory), “Where do you get all this stuff?” and Nate answers vaguely, waving his hand, “It’s all out there, in the air… you just have to reach out and take it.”

Note that Heat was released in 1995, when the Internet was still in its relative infancy.

Now we have this so-called “Internet of Things” whereby (heretofore stand-alone) technology can be controlled remotely via the Internet — and it’s not just “autonomous” cars (about which I have ranted before), but the most mundane stuff like stoves, refrigerators and similar kitchen appliances. Insty has been on a tear about this phenomenon recently, linking to articles about smart TVs being compromised, wi-fi in refrigerators and expectations of privacy in cars’ black box data-collection devices, to name just those in recent memory.

I hate all this shit. I understand that there are going to be times when controlling your oven from outside the home (like, when you forgot to turn it off) can be helpful, even life-saving. I understand why your home security system should be remotely deactivated when the maid service comes to clean your house — and no, I’m not going to deride these situations as “First World Problems” either. I don’t even like that annoying little beep that “reminds” you that you haven’t put your seatbelt on — and just try to disable the little bastard: you void you car’s warranty. (See how this works?)

What I’m really concerned about is that your remote control of things is, in Nate’s words, “in the air” — and if you can turn off your gas oven from your hotel room in Bali, who’s to say that some asshole can’t turn it on from his mom’s basement in Poughkeepsie? Having this ability to control your stuff remotely is fine, provided that you are absolutely, 100%  certain that you, and only you, can do the controlling. Me, I don’t believe that, and I do not trust this situation because for fuck’s sake, every single system in the known world, from Target’s customer file to the IRS taxpayer database to Iran’s nuclear development program has been hacked. I don’t care who did the hacking (Mossad, NSA, Russia’s FSB, or Gregory The Geek), the fact that these systems can be hacked at all makes me leery of ever adopting them and the appliances they control.

I know, these systems make your life easier. “Convenience” has sold a ton of ideas and stuff, just not always with benevolent consequences. Remote garage door openers, for example, have been a blessing to lazy drivers, and also to burglars, who now use handheld decoders which can open any garage door inside fifteen seconds — and these decoders are sold quite legally at any serious electronics store. I bet everyone here can think of others — I can’t be bothered — which only makes this a much bigger deal than we think.

And no, I’m not one of these conspiracy loons who think that all this is an international conspiracy of Bilderburgers, Battenburgers, Double-Cheese Hamburgers or the perennial favorite, the Jooooz. (I’m going to say it now: conspiracy nuts are paranoid fucking morons.)

But I am intensely suspicious of any system which takes away my control of my own life, and of the things in my life, simply by telling me that it makes it all more convenient for me.

Here’s a simple question: if the Internet of Things allowed for the remote control of, say, handguns, how would you feel about it then? Why are you against it? Don’t you want to render your gun completely safe and inert so that your child can’t hurt himself if he plays with it? Or wouldn’t you like the police to have the ability to disable guns in the hands of criminals? Or wouldn’t you like the government to be able to render all guns inert in the case of a national emergency, so people couldn’t be robbed or killed?

Do you see how reasonable and how convenient all the above questions sound? [And let us pause here while Chuck Schumer shares a post-orgasmic cigarette with Dianne Feinstein.]

Oh, and please don’t tell me that guns are different because they aren’t the same as microwave ovens or refrigerators. It’s the Internet of Things, not the Internet of Some Things. What is added to one can be added to others; as we all know, airliners have long had “black boxes” to record their movements and data — now try to buy a car which isn’t fitted with an EDR (and rulings like this are rearguard actions, which will eventually fail).

And as the title of this post suggests, I’m supporting the Internet of No Things. A pox on all of it, and on the people who are trying to foist this shit on us, even though their reasons are oh-so reasonable and altruistic. Never mind, as Megan McArdle points out in her article above, that this added technology adds considerable cost to products, to the manufacturers’ benefit. (It’s the same with cars: you could lose 50% of all the new technology from cars, and while things might be a little “inconvenient” for the driver, the car could still perform its most elemental function without skipping a beat. Just for thousands of dollars per car less.)

People who are opposed to technology are generally called Luddites (after their apocryphal English founder Ned Lud) or saboteurs (after the French textile workers who threw their wooden clogs — sabots — into mechanical looms). I am neither of the above, nor do I fear technology. What I fear is that one day soon we’re going to find out that while all this technology has freed us (from what?), we’ll be shackled into immobility like Gulliver by the Lilliputians — not by just one device, of course, but by all our possessions which are no longer under our control.

Cue George Orwell: “Freedom Is Slavery” — only in our case, it will be “Convenience Is Slavery.”

Go ahead and laugh, call me crazy or sneer at my apparent Luddism. We’ll see how all this shakes out; but I’m not wrong, and it will give me no pleasure at all to say “I told you so” (while I’m firing up a home-made flamethrower to use on my microwave, which won’t let me nuke a pork sausage because I’ve exceeded my government-mandated weekly hot dog allowance).

If this is to be the future, I want no part of it, and I will actively resist it. I won’t be standing athwart the tide of Convenience shouting “Enough!”; I’ll be behind a barricade with a loaded AK-47 which, I need hardly tell you, will not be remotely-controlled.

Screw The Moon

One of the characteristics The Mrs. and I shared was that if we liked something a lot, we kept using it: whether it was revisiting a restaurant every other month (or more frequently), or patronizing the same four grocery stores for our supplies, or (in her case) only buying Sony electronics, whatever. If we liked a service, or place, or thing, that kept our loyalty.

That habit extended itself particularly to cars. When we lived in New Jersey, I’d brought to the relationship a VW Jetta, and as The Mrs. worked out of home, we just used the one (she and I were both huge fans of VW cars, from Beetles to Rabbits to Jettas to Passats to Kombi vans). Later on, her job required that she get her own car, so there was really no decision to be made: we went off to the VW dealer and walked around the lot. When we saw one we liked, she pointed at the blue Jetta and said to the bewildered salesman:
“We want that car. How long will it take before we can drive it away?”
“D-don’t you want to test drive it first?”
“Does it drive any differently to the green one we parked out front? No? Then there’s no need to test it, is there?”

Many years passed by, and we’d strayed a little from the VW fold because we had different needs — ergo, a Ford F-150 truck for me, a Chev Suburban for her, etc. — but when the kids grew up and got their own cars, we downsized: back to VW, this time, the weirdly-named Tiguan, which is essentially a slightly-larger Golf with a taller ride height. Then, after a few years of that, of course we got a “new” Tiguan (Carmax-new; we’d never bought new cars except Jetta #2), because the Tiggy fit our needs perfectly, so why change?

Just one little problem: the new Tiguan had a “moonroof”. Now that was fine with The Mrs.: a California girl always, she loved the openness that a moonroof brings to driving — except that, of course, she’d forgotten about Texas summers, where lizards are fried to death on the sidewalks and even a Sahara camel would go, “Enough, already.” And Texas winters, while brief, can be really cold, and rainy — which leaves about three non-consecutive weeks in the year when you can use the damn thing as intended.

Moonroofs also lower the internal dimensions of the car because of the mechanism they require, they’re just one more Thing That Can Go Wrong, and of course they add to the cost. So basically, we ended up with a feature that we used, if memory serves me, about four times in the eighteen months since its purchase.

I’m stuck with the stupid thing now: I owe more than the car’s worth, but even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t get another car because I still like the Tiggy a great deal. And considering that a “career” as an Uber/Lyft driver is probably in my future anyway, the Tiguan is not the worst car to own.

Except for the useless moonroof.

Wrong Kind Of Update

When I quit blogging, I pretty much stopped going to blogs altogether, and lost touch with many old friends. So when I received a kind donation from someone with a familiar name at my GoFundMe appeal, you may imagine my shock upon reading the note attached:

Dear Kim,
When my husband (Chris, AKA Spoons of The Spoons Experience) and I visited Texas for a weekend, you and Connie insisted on our visiting you, which, as admirers of your blog, we were very excited by. You and Connie cooked us up a brunch fit for a king, then took us shooting (lending me your supercool Colt Python to try at the range!). A truly marvelous day was had by all. These are memories that now make me smile and tear up at the same time, because Chris died suddenly of a heart attack at 41 nearly four years ago. We had finally managed to accept that that we could never have children, but we had each other, and we knew we’d grow old together. But that wasn’t in the cards. What I did have, though, thank G_d, was parents who loved me and helped me, emotionally, financially, every way way they could. They still do. I can’t, *shouldn’t* forget how many blessings still remain in my life, though I’ll admit that some days it’s still hard. May G_d bless you and your family in your time of grief and hardship, and may you too come to be able to tell (or type) anecdotes from your life with your own beloved with smiles as well as a tear.
Laura

This broke my heart. I loved visiting The Spoons Experience, enjoyed his wicked sense of humor and sharp intellect, loved meeting him and his wife in person — they were such a warm and friendly couple — and to learn of his death like this was a complete smack in the face.

R.I.P.  Spoonsy; and Laura: please keep in touch, and yes,  I’ll be telling stories about Connie for the rest of my life. Smiles can come later.