Thursday, January 19, 2012

Only Groucho Could Make Italian Cruise Ship Tragedy Seem Plausible

A captain, I was always told, is supposed to go down with his ship.

Or at least be the last man off.

But not Schettino.

Captain Francesco Schettino, of the now capsized Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, will likely go to prison for manslaughter for sharply deviating his course from the one chartered and running his ship aground. As you likely already know, the Captain was one of the first off the ship and into a lifeboat heading for shore.

So far eleven people are confirmed dead. A number at least double that are still missing.

This is no laughing matter. This is a tragedy.

But still, I can’t help but think, If only Groucho Marx were still alive to see this. There’d be a movie satire in the works for sure. But could it be as insane as what really happened?

We all heard the audio clip of a high ranking Italian Coast Guard officer and Captain Schettino.

But the audio recording sounds more like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie and Chico Marx – who always played the Italian peasant complete with an insulting accent - is playing now the Italian Captain. Groucho would be there in the background – unheard on the audio but he is giving the Captain his advice – his advice causing more harm than good.

It’s the only way any of Schettino’s story could possibly be plausible.

The scene opens as Captain Chico holding on to a walkie-talkie like handset – sitting in the row boat.

Harpo sits at the back of the boat rowing – but rowing them in circles – his arms rowing the oars in opposite directions.

Groucho clad in a rumpled tuxedo sits at the front of the boat, his feet up as he slouches back with a bottle of champagne in one hand, smoking his cigar in the other.

Just as Groucho would have written it …

Coast Guard Captain: (heard through the radio handset) “SCHETTINO! GET BACK ON THAT BOAT”,.

Groucho: (shakes his head and advises Captain Chico Schettino) – “Oh you don’t want to do that, the girls are waiting for us at the club”. He pauses thinking – eyes in the air - “Tell him it’s too dark”, takes another drag from the cigar and says “Tell him the boat already sank”.

I know, there are likely twenty eight people – perhaps more – who died in this tragedy. It is anything but funny.

But the gall of this Captain is incomprehensible.

He simply left.

When asked how he came to be in a lifeboat, he said he tripped and fell into it.

Groucho couldn’t make up a scene more insane than this.

It’s not funny. It is incredible. It is incredible in this day and age, with all the modern technologies to monitor the waters for depths and rocks and such, where the media is instantaneous – and cynical – that this imbecile thought every move he was making was the right one.

How would Groucho write the scene as the accident occurs? I think it would go something like this …

The scene opens as this flamboyant arrogant ass of a captain, Chico Schettino standing at the wheel, looking in a mirror to see that his curly hair properly flows out from under his captain’s hat, white gloves primping while depth monitor alarms ring and Harpo running around the deck honking the horn he keeps in the huge pockets of his first mate’s coat.

Groucho: (yelling) “Watch out!!”

Chico Schettino: “Relax-a, I do this all the time …”.

The whole crew on the bridge fall to the floor from the force of the impact.

Groucho: “Did you feel a bump”

Schettino: “It’s-a nothing, just a big wave-a”

Harpo: “Honk honk … Honk”

Schettino: “Let’s see what-a happened” and he leaves the bridge stepping out on the deck “Oops – I tripped-a and I fell into this life-a boat – quick help-a me out”

Groucho: “Okay – here take my hand – hey wait” and Groucho falls head over heels also into the boat “…. Ooof … oh great” and he gestures for Harpo to help them both out.

Harpo: “Honk Honk Honk” as he jumps right in the boat with them, and he pulls out a large pair of scissors that cuts the ropes holding up the life boat – the boat falls and splashed down into the waters below.

Schettino: “Oh-a great-a. “How am I gonna expain-a this?”

Groucho: “Just tell them the truth, oh wait, let’s not”.

Meanwhile, twenty people or more are fighting losing battles for their lives.

The inevitable trial to follow this fiasco will likely be just as incredible – as only Groucho could write it …

Groucho: “Your honor, my client is not responsible for his own actions, as he is suffering from the effects of imbecilicitis”.

Judge: “I beg your pardon?”

Groucho: (leaning into the judge) “Okay, you’re pardoned … now how about the same for my client ... you didn’t have to beg you know … but I like that you did … I like you too you know … those big blue just melt my heart …” as he shakes the ashes off his cigar raising his eyebrows – his eyes rolling far to the side – his painted on mustache hiding his glib smile.

Judge: (frustrated) “Excuse me?”

Groucho: (Yelling) “I said I like you too” (Normal voice as he turns to walk away from the bench) “Well if you’re gonna play hard to get … my heart already belongs to Lady Concordia – owner of this great ship and my heart” – pointing to the lady of high society.

Lady Concordia: (seated in the audience – blushing) “Oh my”

Two constables then drag Groucho out of the court room as he still puffs on the cigar and gestures his love to the Lady Concordia.

Captain Schettino: (On the Stand testifying in his own defense) “Schettino doesn’t deserve to go to a prison – it was an accident – oops”.

There is nothing funny about this tragedy. This guy needs to go to prison for a very long time.

Twenty or more people are dead. And twenty or more families now mourn the lives lost by one arrogant imbecile who somehow was deemed responsible enough to actually captain a cruise ship.

But the best punishment for this flamboyantly arrogant imbecile of an ass is to forever use his name to describe all the other flamboyantly arrogant imbecile asses.

They will forever now be known as Schettinos.

If only Groucho were still alive to see this.

I wonder how he’d write the prison scene?

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Technology Revolution Is Just Beginning

I have been involved in Information Technology long before it was called IT.

It used to be called Computer Science. Then Data Processing. Then it was called MIS, and then simply IS, and now it’s IT.

In the day … all those years ago … a student first learned COBOL on main frame computers and then BASIC for personal computers. PCs then evolved year after year to become as powerful as mainframe computers – and slowly but steadily the personal computers stepped up to become servers – filling the roles that mainframes filled in the backend of most IT departments.

Then came handheld devices – and the Internet.

I remember very clearly sitting in a meeting with my development team in the early 1990s discussing what we could do with these little handheld PDAs that were showing up. They could connect to the new Wi-Fi technology of the day – and they had very simple web browsers that could display simplified web pages laid out using a scaled down version of HTML referred to as WEP.

At that time, we – like most any IT shop in the world did – had tons of useful information on our back end mainframe – and these new PDAs combined with Wi-Fi and the ability to retrieve data from the simple web services we would have to invent on the mainframes and send it to such devices to open up a whole new world of opportunities for us.

What exactly do you want this PDA to do?” asked one young programmer on my staff.

I want this thing to be as valuable as Mr. Spock’s Tricorder”, I replied to my team of geeks who immediately understood what I meant. “I want the business person using this PDA to simply retrieve data while they are standing anywhere on the company grounds – not just at their desk. I want them to search their customer databases and their inventory and their shipping logs while talking with a customer on a showroom floor – or at a service desk in a shop – or a shipping dock at the back of the property – without having to run to their desk and print a report”.

And so we set forth creating simple web applications for this tiny PDA browsers to retrieve customer purchasing history and inventory status lookups. And they worked great to prove the concept.

Just wait until they hook a cell phone up to these things”, I prophesized. “It will change everything”.

Two decades later we have smart phones. And we have tablets.

But we haven’t quite gotten as far yet as I wanted us to twenty years ago.

After I finished my diatribe … I continued my rant to describe the rest of my wants from those primitive PDAs …

I want a guy to be able to walk into a meeting with only one of these things – no pads of paper – and record what he needs to know in that meeting and store it on the back end of the company’s data systems so that he can reuse those notes without having to type them all back in when he returns to his desk. And I want that guy to look up answers to questions while sitting in that meeting so that the meeting could move forward acting on those answers instead of being stymied by replies like “I’ll find out and get back to you with that …

I took a breath at the whiteboard where my boxes with arrows described in my own personal hieroglyphics scribed in the same black and red dry erase ink that stained my finger tips as I rethought where those arrows pointed.

I want a sales person sitting at a bar, or a table in a restaurant to not have to write on a bar napkin – writing down the specs of a customer’s needs – or writing down prices on the back of a business card – I want this person to be able to close the deal while dessert is being served ... or the third pint is being poured at the bar”.

We aren’t there yet.

These tablet and PDAs are great for looking at data that already exists – but they are not that great yet at allowing a person to enter content. It can be done – but it’s still clumsy – little keys on a phone – or little virtual keyboards that are still clumsy for typing … the input still requires a keyboard.

The question is where the limitation lies … in the smart phone or tablet? Or is the deficiency in the applications that we use on those little devices?

I contend that both are to blame. We need better input methods – and applications that more smartly interpret your intentions and needs.

These are the avenues that we have to continue to explore looking to make these tasks I describe to be even simpler to use – as easy as writing on a bar napkin.

But time will bear out the solutions to these needs, and both the applications and the devices they run on will of course continue to evolve to get simpler – more efficient – and more natural.

It’s inevitable.

But one thing is clear … given the tremendous response and acceptance of the iPad and the clones that look and work like it … the tablet will replace the common person’s personal computer or laptop in the next five years ... Not simply compliment it like it does today.

Why would the common person buy a PC or a Laptop when a tablet is cheaper and does everything the common person needs?

And still we must recognize that we are still in the primitive infancy of the information age. We are still in the steam engine days.

Even simpler devices and interfaces will come – embedded in the glasses or clothing that we wear with a projected version of a LCD screen displayed on the surfaces we interact with every day – like the desk you sit at or the wall , or even the back or front of your hand.

And the application designers will get smarter – deriving better means to allow you to enter data rather than typing – maybe by simply taking pictures or translating speech – images and sound translated to data that can be stored and reused later – like how Google returns you a list of answers to the question you type into a box.

The customer will be as empowered as the employee who is trying to service them.

Imagine standing in a car dealership and wondering what other cars are comparable to the model you are looking at on the showroom floor – and being presented immediately with pictures or video of other models by other manufacturers with the options available for each … and the prices … so you can compare quietly without the salesperson’s knowledge you are doing so.

It’s all coming. You can see positive signs in the gaming s systems like the Wii motion controllers and the xBox U-Kinnect interfaces that use body movements as input.

It’s all very exciting to this old computer geek who wished for this to happen twenty years ago.

We are getting so much closer.

But we aren’t quite there yet.

Maybe in another twenty years.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Next On The List

Two weeks of holidays have come to an end.

It’s been a while since I looked so forward to a vacation as I did this one. I commonly refer to this as “limping into the holidays”.

I feel like I just barely made it.

And of course, with all that time off – fourteen days to be precise – my honey-do list for the time off was quite extensive.

And of course, with all that time off – few if any of my honey-do list items were actually accomplished.

I was supposed to give my faithful black lab Suzie a bath. But the poor thing still stinks to high Heaven.

I was supposed to put locking door handles on my lovely wife Darlene’s sewing room – formerly the guest bedroom – as well as locks on our bedroom door.

But both doors still swing open freely.

I tried to explain to my lovely commandant that I tried – but the locking handles didn’t fit once attached to the locking rod that secures the door.

“So you just gave up?” asked Darlene?

“No, I efficiently moved this task to the bottom of the list so I could accommodate other items instead”, I replied as Darlene’s eyes rolled up into the sky.

I was also supposed to make a chalkboard to hang by the dart board downstairs – but alas I could not find the chalkboard paint. I know it’s here someplace.

So to the bottom of the list it went.

I had a flat tire on my old Jeep. About a month ago. We purchased a used tire to ride on until we needed a full set of tires. So I went out one chilly evening to take the old tire off and put the new one on. I wrestled off the first four lug nuts with little effort, but the fifth required a locking key lug nut key – with a supposedly unique pattern used only my Jeep. I dug the lug nut key out of the glove box and placed it snugly on the lug nut and put the tire wrench on to twist it off.

But as I applied the same torque as I did the other lug nuts – the key shattered with a snap – like a cheap plastic toy.

So after many phone calls, and posting pictures on facebook to draw on the wisdoms of our many motor-head friends – the lug nut – now chipped away to only the base so smooth no wrench can grab onto – still sits tight on the flat wheel – the Jeep still hoisted up on the jack in my laneway.

An eyesore.

I didn’t give up on this task so easily – at least not until it became clear I was only making matters worse and not better.

A mechanic I am not.

Of course the patio set on the back deck still sets waiting to be covered. Every time I approached that task it was either raining or snowing or it was two o’clock in the morning.

Now my deck looks like it is teasing me with summer intentions covered under several inches of snow.

Another item left unchecked on my list of honey-please-do.

I did accomplish much though. The laundry is all done, and our holiday decorating tasks achieved.

The girls and I played a lot of pool – and both girls now striking the ball very well and understand the angles needed to sink a shot.

And I did regain my status of Wii Mario Kart driver extraordinaire.

So it’s not like I was sitting around doing nothing.

The real purpose of this vacation was to get some rest and relaxation.

Mission accomplished.

But I did not check even one item off of that honey-do list. Not a single one.

Did I mention the laundry dryer vent needs to be cleaned out? I think that one was the next on the list.

If I could make a new year resolution for 2012, I think it would likely be to not be so proud of my amazing skills of procrastination.

It would be nice to get some of this stuff done.

But when you have spent a lifetime honing such a skill, it becomes a natural part of you. You can’t simply turn it off.

But it sure turns everybody else off.

Especially my lovely wife Darlene.

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