Cars, Chips, Shakespeare

Shakespeare and his tablet computer

From the November 2000 ASPects. 2023 Update at the bottom.


News from the world of technology is pretty bad. Everything falls apart; the center cannot hold. No, really.

I had my car fixed. The engine was running rough. The shopping center mechanics in the big chains, all of them with more training in muffler sales than in repair work, all listened to the engine, scratched their heads, and said, “We’ll have to put it on the analyzer.” Which of course, translates to “We could go on a fishing expedition . . .”


I found a good old-fashioned mechanic. He said “EGR valve. I can fix that.” He did, mostly. Took him a week–-his suppliers sent the wrong parts twice. What he pointed out, but didn’t fix, was the crud buildup in the engine. I fixed that myself, by changing the oil the old-fashioned way–letting it drain until the drain no longer dripped, which took over two hours. The fifteen-minute oil-change places somehow manage to violate the laws of physics and get all the dirty oil out so quickly that it’s truly a miracle. Those guys could make molasses pour in the Arctic, right? Of course, after they change oil, the dipstick still comes up brown. Mine is clear. Go figure.

I chatted with a television repairman. Yup, they still exist, too. Here’s the state of the industry–any VCR over half a year old is a borderline case for repairs; if it needs any significant parts, like a load mechanism, throw it away. Minimum billing to change any part is $45. And the combo units are getting worse; they used to consist of a $45 VCR in the same plastic case with a cheap television. Now, all the electronics for both devices are on one circuit board, except for the transformers, and they’re designed so that taking them apart makes them impossible to test, so they’re not worth fixing, either. Still worse; some of the big department stores are specifically buying electronics with no warranties, so if you don’t buy the extra cost extended warranty, the only warranty you’ll get is through the store’s return policy–the manufacturers aren’t paying for repairs, not even for dead-on-delivery units.

I worked on a secretary’s NEC computer. It was forgetting the CMOS settings, and had disabled the modem as a result. Bad battery, of course. But the battery was embedded in the real-time clock chip, made as a combination part by Dallas Semiconductor. OK, I can buy that chip for about $10. No good–NEC didn’t use a chip socket; they soldered the chip onto the main board. We retired the computer, salvaged the drives and memory, and the secretary is happy and online again.

I logged into America Online. It attempted to update my configuration by adding Real Player to my system. It doesn’t ask permission, it just disables my playback settings for sound and video files, and chugs away. I always give it the task monitor salute (Ctrl-Alt-Delete) and kill it in midstream so that my settings won’t be hijacked again. Elsewhere in the same company, AOL’s Netscape is silently installing AOL Instant Messenger just about everywhere. I can walk into a client’s office, glance at their screen, see the little yellow running figure in the system tray, and tell that they upgraded Netscape. Can you say “Trojan Horse?”

I built a computer. Loaded Windows 98, Second Edition on it. That’s the special edition that updates Windows 98 to add support for the new devices that standards were established for in 1997, like the USB connection, and costs $87 at retail, but only $94 at wholesale. (Go figure.) The network card wouldn’t work, and neither would the second COMM port, and the system wouldn’t even boot one time in three. The fix was to switch the locations of the network card and the sound card. So, is that the fault of Microsoft or the standards committee that figured out how all these devices should work? Answer: Yes. Isn’t Plug & Play wonderful?

I’m trying to remember the last time I found a bug-free product built by a large company. WordPerfect 9 is awesomely powerful, but it isn’t bug-free by any account. Adobe Acrobat is stable as a rock, but it’s a postscript-based builder of portable documents that somehow can’t print to my postscript printer. QuickBooks is pretty much crash-free, but it keeps telling me on shutdown that it wants to go look for product updates on the Intuit web site, and then it follows up by telling me that it only supports Internet Explorer 3.

The only high-tech products I’ve seen lately that work properly have all been software from small independent software publishers, sometimes called microISVs. Why? For the same reason that William Shakespeare’s plays work. The authors were out there every day in the trenches, either online or on the sidelines of the Globe Theatre, either answering tech support calls or listening to the cat calls, and tweaking the product over and over again until it performed very nearly perfectly. No feature lists or casting calls were made by accountants. No engineering plans were modified by lawyers. No shipping dates were set by last month’s graduates of the Joe Expert School of Business Management and Credit Repair. But it all works anyway. Go figure.

2023 Update: Some combo devices have actually gotten better, usually around the third time they’re introduced as ‘New & Improved!” But new features in Microsoft products never work until two versions later, and get renamed whenever they fail. No-name 16Tb solid-state drives from China are still impossible hoaxes containing a flash RAM chip. And the software industry? It’s either moving to subscriptions, artificial intelligence, or free stuff that makes YOU the product. Paid software from microISVs is still good, but there are fewer such companies that can survive when the large companies work hard to flag ‘uncommon’ software as ‘rarely seen, therefore autodeleted without asking.’ It’s monopoly power at work.

Jerry Stern is the author of Graphcat, runs Science Translations, and is online at