Restless Nights

June 28, 2010

There has been a lot said and written about how to deal with a bedmate who snores, almost all of which is pure hornswaggle, hogwash, tosh, piffle and poppycock. “Sew a cotton reel into the back of his pyjamas,” say the grannies, to which everyone who isn’t a granny will reply, “What the hell are pyjamas?” Perhaps in some forgotten corner of the globe there is a sweatshop in which innocent polyesters are slaughtered and their remains converted into these useless garments, but I certainly haven’t seen any offered for sale for a long time. When I was a small boy at boarding school we had to wear these things, but as soon as the lights were out, I would remove mine and sleep naked as nature intended. “If he sleeps on his back, close off his nose and cover his mouth so he can’t breathe, then he’ll turn onto his side and stop snoring.” Or die of asphyxiation. Can you do all that and stay asleep, in any case? The whole point of a solution to this problem is that the non-snoring partner must be able to stay asleep while the solution is put into effect, thereby getting a refreshing night’s rest.

Scallywag, the light in my darkness and the balm of my soul, swam shnoz first into the side of a swimming pool when she was a little girl. A botched nose-straightening operation means that today she breathes through her mouth and the sounds she makes in the night closely resemble the sounds a C130 Hercules makes at full take-off power. I suffered many nights of tattered and torn sleep; nights spent in the spare room in a last-ditch attempt to stave off total exhaustion before I hit upon the solution.

I realised I had been looking at the problem from entirely the wrong angle. The snorer will snore regardless of what is done to her, short of murder. The solution lies in taking steps such that the non-snorer won’t care that the snorer snores, and there are two routes that may be chosen. The first is drugs—a narcotic of strength sufficient to render the taker insensible to the ambient uproar, or a mechanical barrier that will mute any sounds falling on the ear of the non-snorer. The first solution has obvious drawbacks in that it may cause permanent addiction, and may adversely effect performance on the following day. So I chose the second solution.

And here it is. Two small words that can save a marriage: ear plugs. These come in three types: mouldable wax, soft foam and flexible rubber. I tried the wax ones for a while, and although they have excellent sound-dampening properties, they aren’t very comfortable. Eventually I settled on the foam variety, which are so comfortable you don’t even know you’re wearing them until someone speaks to you and they look like a fish in an aquarium, mouth opening and closing, but no sound emerging therefrom. These can be quite expensive if you buy them in your local pharmacy or chemist or drugstore, but they can be ordered in bulk online for a very reasonable price. Two hundred pairs lasts me about three years because they can be used several times before they lose their elasticity and hence their effectiveness.

Scallywag is deaf, which is quite a major drawback because when we retire for the night she takes out her hearing aid and I put my ear plugs in, which means neither of us can hear very much. Robbers could break in and make off with all our treasured possessions without either of us hearing a thing. But that is a risk I am prepared to take if the alternative is a shattered relationship or being fired for sleeping at the office.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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English Patient

June 14, 2010

I think that what I think is worth sharing. In order to share my thoughts I must express them with as much precision and as clearly as possible, which means I must care about the language I use. I must think about things like spelling and punctuation, and how to set out the words in a way that will make the ideas they express easily accessible to the person reading them. I am not a natural stylist like Anthony Burgess or Bernard Levin, but I work hard to make things easy for my readers.

William Shakespeare


Alas, it seems I am a member of a fast-disappearing minority. Almost no one cares about how they present themselves on paper (or, and this may be part of the problem, electronically). I read emails, blogs, cell phone text messages, online forums and even professionally produced writing in newspapers and online that show that the writer has scant regard for the language which is his medium of communication. Here are some of the things that annoy me most.

Capitalization. This isn’t hard to do. Just press the shift key at the same time as an alphabetic character and it comes out as a capital letter. It is conventional to start a sentence with a capital letter, because the full stop that ends the preceding sentence is very small, and is easily missed. The capital letter provides a visual marker to the beginning of a sentence; reading text that omits capitals is harder to do. If you are too lazy to use the shift key on your keyboard, I’m too lazy to bother to read what you have written—it’s far easier for me to hit the “delete” key.

Apostrophes. Whence comes the insane compulsion to put apostrophes almost anywhere where they aren’t required? A beautifully framed sign in the ablution facilities of a former employer of mine reads: “Please remember to wash you’re hands.” A sign expensively printed and presumably displayed in all News Café franchises tells of festivities in which women will be dressed in bikini’s. The Compass group have a world cup competition in which contestants can win flat screen TV’s. Could these organizations not have had their copy proofread by someone literate before going to the expense of having them printed? Plurals seem to be where these horrible apostrophes show up most. Apart from the examples above, in the last week I’ve seen trolley’s for trolleys, Tory’s for Tories, even kitchen’s for kitchens. One candidate’s C.V. informed me that she had passed matric math’s. Needless to say, she wasn’t invited for an interview. Please, please, stop it.

Punctuation. Do not use multiple punctuation marks!!! Unless you really want your readers to think you are a moron??? This is the sort of thing perpetrated by adolescent schoolgirls and should be done by no one else. My email spam filter is set up to scan for this sort of nonsense and delete any mail that transgresses without my even seeing it. (By the way, those stupid animated bunnies, pussies and smileys you put in your mail aren’t seen by me either—I automatically convert all emails to UTF-encoded text only.)

Spelling. Deliberate misspelling is one of the most irritating abuses of language, and is becoming extremely common. I boycott such businesses as SellFone Warehouse, Cameraz, Shatterprufe, Shoprite and so on just because they annoy me and I hope that by taking my business elsewhere they will disappear. Spelling mistakes should not occur where a spell checker is available. Not checking text for spelling mistakes is laziness, and should be rewarded with the “delete” key. That said, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any piece of writing that contains a complaint about spelling mistakes will itself contain at least one spelling mistake. To forestall any triumphalist crowing occasioned by the mistake’s discovery, I must tell you that I have deliberately introduced a certain number of mistakes into this post. There are no prizes for finding it or them.

Fad words, jargon and clichés. A problem is never a problem down at my office, it is an “issue”. Anything large must be described as “massive”, even if it is a lighter-than-air hot air balloon or a massless strike action. All dimensions must be given in units of tennis courts or football fields. A long time ago is always “time immemorial” and there was always a “primordial soup”. I hate the ugly word “functionality” to describe what a computer program does. What’s wrong with “features”?

Abbreviations. Don’t use them if at all possible. Acronyms and biological generic names should be spelled out when they are used the first time—never assume that your readers already know what they mean. Mr, Mrs and Dr are not followed by full stops in English, Prof. is. The rule is that if the first and last letters of the abbreviation are the same as the first and last letters of the abbreviated word, then no full stop is used. Americans use a full stop always.

Plurals. Apart from the apostrophe problem mentioned above, I have noticed that often mistakes are made with words of Latin and Greek provenance. The plural of virus is viruses, not virii. Also octopuses, platypuses and so on. On technical forums a lot of people refer to the plural of box as boxen. I have no idea why except that it sounds vaguely German. I have made myself quite unpopular for pointing out that in English the plural is boxes.

Netisms. Space does not permit me to treat of this here; it can be the subject of a future post. A good rule of thumb if you are thinking of including a netism in general communication is to think of what the Bible has to say on the subject of having sex with your sister: don’t.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


Cyber Jiggery-Pokery

May 25, 2010

Sometimes we get ripped off in subtle ways. An example of this is the thumb drive for my computer which I recently bought. It purports to have a capacity of 8GB, but it really doesn’t, for two reasons.

Because the internal architecture of computers depends on switches which can be in one of two states, computer storage comes in exponents of 2. A bit is one such switch and a byte is an array of eight, or 2 cubed. Unfortunately, when computer science was in its infancy, it was decided to hijack terminology from the decimal world to describe binary quantities. Kilo in decimal-speak means 1000 (10 to the power of 3), but in the binary world it is taken to mean 2 to the power of 10, which is 1024.

Similarly, Giga in decimal is the prefix which means 10 to the power of 9 (1,000,000,000), but in binary it means 2 to the power of 30, or 1,073,741,824. In my view it is reasonable when purchasing a computer storage device to assume that the quantity quoted is a binary quantity, not a decimal one, but this is not what actually happens. My so-called 8 Gigabyte drive, which should store 2 to the power of 33 bytes (8,589,934,592) actually only stores the decimal quantity (8,000,000,000 bytes), so I have been short-changed by nearly 600MB, enough to store a full length feature film.

To be completely fair, this is partly the fault of the computer scientists who should have come up with their own terminology from the beginning; the other (larger) part of the fault comes from the hardware marketers who cynically exploit the ambiguity to gain a competitive edge in a cut-throat market.

We also get ripped off in blatant, unsubtle ways. This same drive contains files which are allegedly essential for the correct operation of the device, and are not removable. These files are not stored in an area in addition to the 8 GB which I am supposed to have; they are part of the 8GB, so they eat further into the amount of storage I thought I was buying and would have available for my use.

These files are Windows executable files which are of no use to me whatsoever because I don’t run Windows on my computer—the files don’t do anything at all, but take up a few hundred MB of space which I thought I was buying for my own use. Because it isn’t worth the manufacturer’s while to produce different versions of their product for different operating platforms, we all have to suffer because of poor Windows design, even if we don’t use Windows.

What can we do about it? Not a lot, unfortunately. I suppose we could approach the advertising standards authority and tell them that this thing we have bought isn’t what it says on the tin, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope from that quarter, or from other related agencies or consumer protection organizations. We just have to put up with it if we want to buy these things, and be aware that we aren’t going to get what we should be getting.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


Fuel Follies

May 13, 2010

A few times a year I receive in my email inbox idiotic chain letters sent to me by people who, I think, hit the “forward” button without bothering to read what they are sending out. Here’s one that I received yesterday:

 

RAND MERCHANT BANK:
This is about petrol prices and an invitation to join the resistance. By the end of this month petrol prices are set to soar even higher.

If we want the petrol price to come down, we all need to take some intelligent, united action.

Last year there was a “don’t buy petrol day”-but the oil companies just laughed at that because they knew that we would “hurt” ourselves by refusing to buy petrol.

It was more of an inconvenience to us than a problem to them.
But, whoever thought of the ideas, has come up with a plan that can really work.
 
READ ON AND JOIN THE ACTION!!

By now you probably thinking petrol priced at about R7.00 is cheap. It is currently at +- R8.00 for regular and unleaded.

Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations (the bullies like US and Britain) have conditioned us to think that the cost of a liter is cheap at
R 7.00 ,
we need to take aggressive action to teach them that buyers control the marketplace……… not the sellers.

With the price of petrol going up each day, we consumers need to take action.

The only way we are going to see the price of petrol come down is if we hit someone in the pocket by not purchasing their petrol.

And we can do that without hurting ourselves.

How?

Since we rely on our cars, we just cannot stop buying petrol.

But we can have an impact on petrol prices if we all act together to force a price war.
Here’s the idea:
For the rest of the year, don’t purchase any petrol from the two biggest overseas oil companies (which are now one), SHELL and BP…
(Local is Lekka – So buy Sasol / Engen / Excel)
If the overseas companies are not selling any petrol, they will be inclined to reduce their prices.

If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit.

But to have an impact we need to reach literally millions of petrol buyers.

It is really simple to do!

Now, don’t wimp out at this point…keep reading, and all will be revealed as to how simple it is to reach millions of people.

I am sending this message to 30 people. If each in turn sends it to another 10 people (30 x 10 = 300)…and those 300 send it to at least 10 people 300 x 10 = 3000)
And so on, by the time the message reaches the sixth generation of people; we will have reached over 3 million consumers!

If those 3 million people get exited and pass this on to 10 friends each then 30 million consumers will have been reached. If it goes one level further, you guessed it three hundred million people!

Again, all you have to do is to send this to 10 people. That’s all.

How long will all that take? If each of us sends this e-mail out to 10 people within one day of receipt, all 300 million people could conceivably
be contacted within the next 8 days! Acting together we can make a difference.
If you’re fed up paying too much for petrol, please pass this message on.
COMMENCING  NOW  DON’T BUY BP /SHELL, go and support SA Brand SASOL,
our currency and economy will be strengthen by 65% in 18 months the capital will stay in SA.
Africa must stop feeding the world giants it must feed itself.

I cannot do justice here to the garish, primary colours and huge, teletubbies font sported by the original document, but we can try to deconstruct the meaning of the text.

The first line (and the title of the attachment) is Rand Merchant Bank. Did the author of this crap really think any reader would be stupid enough to think that this is an official communication from that organization? Why else put it in?

Then comes an invitation to join “the resistance”. Doesn’t that bring to mind an image of courageous heroes squatting in the night with sten guns at the ready, waiting to do battle with the dark forces of evil? And who are the forces of evil? Shell and BP, apparently. Why those two? Your guess is as good as mine.

We are told that oil prices are set to soar “even higher” at the end of this month. How does the author know? The oil price depends on the international spot oil price and on the relative value of the rand to the dollar. If the author of this drivel knows either of those two things with certainty, he or she could make a fortune and be able to afford as much petrol as he or she wants. The petrol price that we pay at the pump is not set by the oil companies, but is a regulated price set by the government (that presumably this moron voted for) and is a combination of the basic crude oil price, the cost of refining petrol from the crude oil, the total cost of transportation, the cost of the distribution infrastructure, profit for each company in the chain and various government taxes. And we can consider ourselves fortunate that it isn’t higher than it is—in the UK the price for unleaded petrol is £1.21 per litre, or about R17 per litre, more that double the price we pay.

The next paragraph exhorts us to take “intelligent action”. With absolutely no respect whatsoever, I must state that the author would not recognise intelligence if it bit him.

Any communication that contains multiple punctuation marks, as in “JOIN THE ACTION!!” should be treated with the contempt it deserves; it will certainly not contain anything worth knowing.

“Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations (the bullies like US and Britain)…”. The US and Britain are not members of OPEC. This cretin’s ignorance is really starting to get to me now.

“…we need to take aggressive action to teach them that buyers control the marketplace…….not the sellers.” How is it possible to walk on your hind legs and breathe unassisted and yet be so ignorant of basic economic facts? Markets are controlled by BOTH buyers and sellers, who come to an agreement on price. That’s what a “market” is. If a buyer feels the price of a particular commodity is too high he is at liberty not to buy it; if a seller thinks the price is too low, he is at liberty not to sell it. Some oil producing nations, mindful of the fact that oil is their only source of wealth, and that once the oil runs out they will (thanks to a disfunctional education system dictated by their idiotic religion) have to revert to their previous existence as camel-herders, try to make their oil reserves last as long as possible while realising the highest possible price for their product. To this end they agree amongst themselves to cut down production thereby causing an artificial supply deficit which means they can get higher prices. This practice is of limited effect because there are oil producing countries who are not part of the cartels and who are happy to increase their output to make up for the shortfall.

We are then exhorted to hit the oil companies in the pocket by not buying their product. Here is a factoid that may shed some light on the idiocy of this point of view: South Africa accounts for less than 1% of global oil consumption. If everyone stopped buying petrol in South Africa today and went back to walking and transporting goods by donkey-cart, the oil companies would hardly notice; prices would not be affected at all.

The author of this nonsense suggests that we are to boycott Shell and BP products in favour of those from Sasol and Engen, because they are local. Well, actually, they aren’t: they are merely distributers of fuel obtained from overseas suppliers including, you guessed it, Shell and BP. Some of Sasol’s petrol comes from their oil-from-coal plants, but this is a small percentage of sales.

Then comes the usual crap about how many people can be reached if everyone is stupid enough to forward chain letters to everyone in their contact list. The truth of the matter is that the author of this bullshit is too dumb to write a computer virus, but this is the next best thing. If you receive bullshit like this in your inbox, please resist the urge to forward it—the internet is already so clogged up with crap there’s hardly any room left for honest porn.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


Flying Sheep

March 31, 2010

People do weird things. This is especially noticeable when they are doing something outside their normal routine, like traveling.

I was at Cape Town airport on Sunday to catch a flight to John’s Beg. The new terminal is well-appointed with bars, bookshops, restaurants, tea rooms and even has free Wi-Fi on offer. It also has enormous, giant, huge plate-glass windows through which it was hard not to notice the oil-stained, empty tarmac where our aeroplane was supposed to be parked. When boarding time came, however, that did not stop people from forming a long queue at the gate, like cows waiting to be milked.

Why? Surely the most dim-witted traveler knows that it is not possible to board an absent aircraft. Even if it arrives right now, the arriving passengers have to be disembarked and the cleaners go through the plane on their chicken parade before you will be allowed to board. And it may not come right now; in fact, it may never come at all. So why stand for an indeterminate length of time in a queue when you could be enjoying a glass of wine at the bar, or browsing in the bookshop, or tucking into some delicacy in a restaurant, or look! there are comfortable armchairs and sofas in which you are permitted to sit and chat or just daydream.

Once in the air the idiocy continued. As soon as the seatbelt signs were extinguished a whole bunch of passengers stood up to form another queue at the plane’s toilet. People, there are plenty of toilets at the airport, and they let you use them free of charge. So why wait until you’re on the plane where you are going to clog up the aisles with your horrible carcasses and prevent the flight attendants from doing their duty, which is serving me drinks. It’s only a two hour flight and I require prompt service if I’m not to have to rush the last of my three dinkies of wine and give myself heartburn.

I’m a bit deaf so when the entire passenger complement stood the instant the plane came to a stop at the terminal I thought perhaps the national anthem was being played. But no, it was just another manifestation of weirdness. It’s quite comical to see a hundred-odd people leaping to their feet and standing bent over beneath the overhead lockers like a mass audition for the part of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, when they could be sitting down comfortably for the few minutes until the door is opened and they can disembark.

___________________________________________________________

Whilst waiting for the delayed plane to arrive I did a quick informal survey of the laptops that came within eyeshot of my barstool. There were: 5 Macbooks, 4 PC notebooks (3 Windows and 1 Linux).

Out of 9 machines only 3 were Windows? Granted, this isn’t a very big sample, but could it be that people are starting to recognise Windows for the steaming, malodorous, maggot-heaving pile of crap it is? Or were the Windows users the ones standing in the queue waiting to board the non-existent plane?

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


Grave Doubts

March 10, 2010

How should an atheist go to his grave? Since I don’t believe in any afterlife, it really doesn’t matter to me one way or another, but I would like to make some sort of statement that would make an impression on those left behind.

Seeing as I don’t believe in any sort of immortal soul, I figured survival of the body (though dead) was my best chance of making a lasting posthumous statement. To further this end, I wrote thus to the South African Museum:-

from Mark Widdicombe Sent at 09:42 (GMT+02:00). ✆
to
date 8 March 2010 09:42
subject Specimen donation

Dear Dr Stynder,

Since I have entered my 6th decade on this planet, I have been thinking more and more about questions of mortality. One question that has been excercising me is what to do about the final disposition of my mortal remains. I am not a religious person, so there is no requirement to follow any specific ritual as regards burial; I am entirely free to have done with my remains whatever I wish.

After long thought I have decided that I would like to donate my corpse to the South African Museum. I reached this decision for two reasons: firstly, many informed persons have passed comment to the effect that I am a particularly fine specimen of humanity (I attach a photograph to prove that they were not exaggerating), and that it would be a shame were my inspiring physique to disappear upon my death; and secondly, because of my age, there is little value to be had from harvesting my organs for medical purposes.

So what better solution than to have my body stuffed and placed on display in your museum where it may inspire the constant stream of slack-jawed, tik-addled juvenile delinquents who pass daily through your doors? It would probably be best if I were placed in a macho yet tasteful pose (with a spear, perhaps?) somewhere near the main entrance where I would be most visible and thus most inspirational. But I leave such details to you.

I do need to know, however, whether you would like my body delivered fresh or packed in dry ice, and should it come to the museum or be delivered direct to your taxidermists. Please let me know as soon as possible so that I may instruct my executors accordingly and incorporate your instructions in my will.

Kind regards,
Mark Widdicombe

I honestly didn’t expect wholehearted agreement to my proposal, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the sensitive response I received:-

from Hamish Robertson
sender time Sent at 18:02 (GMT+02:00). Current time there: 20:37. ✆
to markwiddicombe
cc Lalou Meltzer ,
Deano Stynder
date 8 March 2010 18:02
subject RE: Specimen donation

Dear Mark

My colleague passed your e-mail on to me and I tried passing it on to someone else to answer but it got deflected back to me, so I guess the buck has stopped with me. It is unlikely that I am going to get this right because if I take you completely seriously my answer will sound a big joke if you were joking and if I take your letter as a joke and you were actually deadly serious, you would, quite rightly, be offended by my flippant answer.

Let’s put it this way. It is beyond dispute that you have a very impressive body and I have no doubt that it would be an immensely popular attraction if we were to mount it for display in the museum (holding the strategically placed piece of firewood would be more interesting than the spear and perhaps you could be holding a piece of boerewors in the other hand). HOWEVER,

1. I am pretty sure it is illegal for us to accept human bodies – we are not registered for this sort of thing.

2. You still strike me as being still young and strong and you could still be alive and well 40 years or so hence, by which time our circumstances could have changed substantially – we can’t take on a commitment of this importance so far in advance.

3. While the idea of getting stuffed after you have died might appeal to you, you need to be much more hairy for this type of mounting procedure to look good. Humans are generally portrayed in museums through casting of individuals from moulds that are taken while alive although this in itself is controversial and rarely done these days.

So, while I am grateful to you for considering the generous donation of your body to the museum, we cannot possibly accept and I am afraid you will probably need to consider some of the more conventional options for the disposal of your body that are not nearly so interesting.

Regards
Hamish

Hamish G. Robertson
Director Natural History Collections
Iziko Museums of Cape Town
25 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town
P O Box 61, Cape Town, 8000 South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 4813849
Facsimile: +27 (0) 21 4813993
Mobile: 083 4629561
Email:
Website: http://www.iziko.org.za
http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org

So, with hopes dashed, I could only bravely hide my disappointment:-

sender time Sent at 13:08 (GMT+02:00). Current time there: 20:58. ✆
to Hamish Robertson
cc Lalou Meltzer ,
Deano Stynder
date 9 March 2010 13:08
subject Re: Specimen donation
mailed-by gmail.com

hide details 9 Mar (1 day ago)

Dear Hamish,

Thank you for your response. I do understand your concerns regarding the legality of accepting bodies; I thought you might have special dispensation because of your research on bodies, albeit ones not recently deceased.

We shall have to fall back on plan B, which entails dropping the corpse from an aeroplane or helicopter into a region of the Kruger Park bountifully furnished with scavengers like hyenas and vultures. In this way I can make a posthumous contribution to the natural economy.

Kind regards,

Mark Widdicombe

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


Wishful Thinking

March 9, 2010

Would you cater a huge party for all your friends and acquaintances, buy a flash new car and poke your boss in the eye and tell him what to do with his crappy job all on the grounds that you may win the lottery next Saturday? No, of course not. That would be insane. But something similar was done by a company recently. Let me tell you about it.

Software is a strange commodity. The first copy of it is incredibly expensive: in order to produce it you have to pay designers, developers and testers, pay rent on offices for them to work in, pay for all the support serices they require and so on. But once they have done their work, each additional copy of the software is essentially free to produce, which is why piracy is a problem. As a software business, you can either charge a fee to licence each copy of your software which you hope will pay your development costs and leave something over for profit (a la Microsoft) or, and this is quite a recent business model, you can give the software away for free and sell services related to the software. This is the model adopted by Red Hat and Canonical, for example.

One of the advantages of this business model is that since you are giving the software away free of charge, you can also make the source code public. This has the effect of dramatically reducing development costs because a community comes into being which does a lot of development and testing for you without you having to pay any of their costs. Open source software is continually evolving as it is modified by the community, which arguably results in higher quality overall than the proprietary model. The open source software company acts as a gatekeeper, making the decisions as to what changes made by the community to include in their distribution.

This is what Canonical does. It distributes Ubuntu (and its derivatives Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Medibuntu) which is an open source, Linux based operating system for PCs and servers. It is an alternative to Microsoft Windows. Now imagine that Canonical is an eighteen-wheeler pantechnicon barrelling down a deserted country road. Imagine that the Ubuntu community has discovered a giant, gaping abyss where the road has been washed away. They know the Ubuntu pantechnicon is on its way, so they stand in the middle of the road waving their arms and shouting.

What does the driver do? The sensible thing to do would be to think, “Gosh, what’s that lunatic doing in the middle of the road? He’s jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting something. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me about a giant, gaping abyss where the road used to be. I’d better stop.”

What did the Canonical driver actually do? He thought, “Gosh, what’s that lunatic doing in the middle of the road? He’s jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting something. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me about a giant, gaping abyss where the road used to be. Ah well, I’m sure the council will have filled it in by the time I get there. Might as well keep on truckin’.”

The huge, gaping abyss was a critical regression in the new version of the software called Karmic Koala, released in October 2009 as Ubuntu 9.10, the lunatic in the middle of the road was the Ubuntu community, and the driver of the truck was Canonical’s management team. (For those interested the bug meant that a lot of 3G modems stopped working on the new version of the software, which turned a lot of people’s computers into very expensive typewriters.) The community warned Canonical that there was a critical flaw in the new software long before it was released, but Canonical management decided to go ahead with the release anyway, hoping that their developers would be able to come up with a patch for the bug sooner rather than later.

They didn’t. Four months after release the bug remains unfixed and there are thousands (millions?) of former Ubuntu users who have switched to other operating systems. Not only has this reduced Canonical’s revenue stream (fewer users equals lower demand for support services), but because Ubuntu’s reputation has been badly damaged, future revenue streams are also adversely affected.
Canonical is not a public company, so there will be no shareholder revolt at the next AGM, but I sincerely hope for Ubuntu’s sake that the incompetents that let wishful thinking guide their actions are thrown out and Canonical and the Ubuntu community can move on without any repetition of this sort of debacle.

Wishful thinking? Probably.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.