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A Century of Scams

The 20th Century may well be remembered for the perfection of the con, from “the wire store” gambling con of the early part of the century to the sudden reblossoming of homeopathic medicine and similar discredited scams as the century closes.

It is a century that saw the rise of classical music with no musicality; to art lacking all technique, aesthetics, and ideas; to soulless architecture with all the grace of an unadorned cinder block; and to “great literature,” unreadable and unread. All this dreck has been foisted upon a confused public by self-appointed experts, rewarding the repellent and loudly condemning the beautiful as “trite” and, worse, “representational.” At the center has been the artist—musician, painter, poet—lacking all talent and training, but with a really good rap. The artiste de con at work.

The Business of America is Con

Towering over the artist in sheer audacity has been the “legitimate businessman,” who, along with his attorney-henchmen, has slipped scam after scam past the unwatchful eyes of a gullible public.

Take the rebate, as just a first example. This institution was perfected by Chrysler during their meltdown in the 1970s. It allowed them to change the price of cars week-by-week without having to send new pricing through the whole dealer pipeline.

The rebate was quickly picked up by businesses dealing in far cheaper products, primarily because of an interesting side-effect: Only around 50% of people ever apply for rebates. (This is called “slippage” in the industry.) Therefore, for example, Apple can claim a $20 rebate on their new OS, secure in the knowledge that they will really only be rebating perhaps $5 on average.

The slippage odds are improved by making the customer jump through as many hoops as possible to claim the reward. In the case of System 9, I figure around a half hour’s labor, including the trip to the post office so the form can be submitted, as recommended, by registered mail. With the additional cost of gas to get to the post office, as well as the high postage price, the benefit quickly evaporates.

State government is a silent partner in this particular scam, since the customer pays sales tax on the full amount of the purchase, rather than the purchase price less rebate. and, of course, the Feds get theirs in the form of registered-mail fees. (It is always a good idea to figure a way to pay off the government when developing new scams.)

The Electrical Con

The nineteenth century first saw the addition of electricity to the con artist’s palette. Automobile spark generators and glowing purple tesla coils were freely hawked as medical devices, “sure cures” for ailments ranging from stomach upset to cancer. While the lunacy of claims of the electrical scams of the 20th Century have been, for the most part, toned down, the abysmal depth of the 20th Century offerings has been unprecedented.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the quality of a radio receiver was measured by the number of vacuum tubes it featured. It was not long before manufacturers were plugging in defective tubes that would still light up in otherwise empty sockets, just to raise the tube count. (Many watchmakers were running the same scam: fixing tiny ruby chips to the baseplate of their watches, there only so they could claim it to be a “21-jewel” wristwatch.)

I first became aware of such scams during the 1940s, when radios began sporting an AM-FM-TV selector. This caused great excitement. All you were going to have to do to receive TV on your radio was to plug in an adapter to the TV jack on the back!

The adapter, of course, would have had to consist of a complete television set, sans audio amplifier and speaker. This would be like having an adapter that would convert a bicycle into a car: The adapter would consist of everything but the horn. Of course, such “adapters” were never made. It was a scam.

The 1950s saw the rise of “high-fidelity” sound, followed shortly by stereo, The rubes lined up outside the showrooms, ripe for the picking. Dealers sold (and continue to sell) amplifiers with wattage ratings several times higher than the amount of power the amplifier was drawing from the wall: One 400 watt amplifiers I examined drew a meager 75 watts of household current. In case you are not an engineer, I will let you in on a little secret: the most power an amplifier that uses 75 watts from the wall can actually output is 75 watts, and 40 or 50 watts would be much more likely. The government finally cracked down on this scam. Today, the highest wattage an amplifier drawing 75 watts can claim would be around 200 watts. Thank heavens we have the government there to protect us.

Of course, earlier cons continued to be recycled. Many 12- and 14-transistor radios in the 1960s had only three or four working ones. The rest were defective ones soldered in place for the sake of the label. (Unlike tubes, they didn’t even have to light these up.)

This particularly shoddy era also saw the full-employment act for Cobol programmers first slide into place, culminating in a world economy threatened by programmers apparently unaware that there is such a thing as a century. (And talk about scams, the flotilla of flotsam that has been launched by con artists in response to Y2K is nothing short of breathtaking, from inedible edibles to survival color televisions.)

With the advent of these new solid-state components replacing the inherently noisy, troublesome vacuum tubes, stereo gear quickly outstripped the capabilities of vinyl records. That, of course, didn’t stop stereo shops from selling multi-thousand dollar turntables, floating in a bath of motor oil, that could reproduce every click and scratch in perfect detail.

Voltage Schmoltage

In the late 1970s, as Americans began to travel abroad in ever-greater numbers, manufacturers began turning out dual-voltage products—110 volt and 220 volt. It was not long before some smart business type figured out a way to make them cheaper: Just take a 220 volt product and mark it as dual voltage. People would probably be too stupid to notice that, in the USA, the toothbrush is running at half-speed or that it takes twice as long for the coffee to heat up. It worked out just fine and, today, most dual-voltage small appliances are scams.

Shortly after the compact disk took over, the scam artists really got busy, convincing millions of people that the discarded technology of the 19th century— records—was mysteriously superior to compact disks. A new generation of consumers with more dollars than sense was sucked into buying a new generation of overpriced phonographs just so they could play inherently defective records. The crescendo was reached when manufacturers returned to vacuum tube amplifiers, recreating for thousands of dollars an inexpensive technology found grievously wanting by the late 1940s.

The audio cons continued, with such obvious scams as wires big enough to power a small town leading from amplifier to speaker and the non-digital pseudo-surround sound we enjoyed for the last 15 years, displaying about as much separation as two teenagers parked on a Saturday night. Such is the stuff and nonsense of the ignorant, who came to buy it and love it, much in the manner of the naked emperor.

And now, coming full-circle, we have “Digital Ready” TVs that are ready to reduce an HDTV signal to 480i, the exact standard introduced in the USA in the 1940s, about the time those radio sets started featuring a TV jack on the back.

The Biggest Scam of All: The Personal Computer

And then came the personal computer. Never has such a scam been foisted on the world market, taking in everyone from happy houseperson to corporate VP. Never has a product so poorly conceived, so poorly designed, so poorly implemented, and so poorly supported ever been so universally embraced.

As-Is: The Road to Perdition

At the heart of the 20th Century’s greatest scam lies the Software Warrantee, the fine product of a legal mind (who but a lawyer could come up with the ultimate scam). The first such warranty I saw was for an early spreadsheet. Unlike the computer products I had seen precede it, this brand-new bit of software was sold “As-Is,” like a broken washing machine at a flea market.

What was this about? The explanation from the lawyers was disarming: “Oh, it is nothing to worry about. It’s just that the manufacturer couldn’t afford the liability if someone were to use this product to design a bridge and the bridge were to collapse somehow, possibly projecting back liability onto the software. That’s all it is.”

Those explanations sounded good in the beginning. Too bad none of us thought to wonder why slide rule makers had never felt the need for a similar disclaimer.

Soon, it became apparent what the “as-is” was really all about. It allowed manufacturers to routinely ship defective products. In fact, I haven’t bought a single piece of software in the last twenty years that wasn’t defective, and, I suspect, neither have you. We’ve been scammed.

It Gets Worse

Manufacturers not only cut corners by shipping products before they are ready, their engineers routinely ignore the clear, published specifications of the OS builders. For example, since 1986, Apple has been telling developers not to directly access the file control block (FCB) table. (You don’t need to understand what an FCB table is; just understand that for thirteen years Apple has been telling developers to stay away from it.)

Of course, a lot of developers, including big, big names, couldn’t be bothered to follow the rules, so their software no longer runs under the new Mac OS. Now, what is the punishment for a developer that would, for thirteen years, steadfastly tromp on the rules? They get to charge you an extra hundred dollars or so for an upgrade! If that is not a scam, I don’t know what is.

The sheeplike acquiescence of the general public has now caused these abusive practices to spread to other products that just happen to have software or firmware somewhere inside them. Manufacturers of satellite receivers, digital recorders, etc., think absolutely nothing of shipping products that don’t particularly work. After all, they can be fixed in the field sometime later by a “simple download.”

Why hasn’t it stopped?

Why have we put up with it? Well, to some extent, we haven’t. I don’t know about you, but I at least weigh the cost of upgrading system or other software, in the certain knowledge that I will be trading in the bugs I know for a whole bunch of new ones.

IT managers today rightfully cringe at the thought of upgrades and the chaos that will inevitably ensue. That is one leading reason why so many employees are still stuck using 3.0 browsers and Word 6.0.

However, the main reason these con artists continue to “take us” is that we enjoy it. Like the owners of Italian sports cars, we know going in that we are buying nothing but trouble, but fixing that trouble is what we most like to do. (Italians pretty much plan to repair their cars on Saturday and drive them on Sunday. The difference with us is that we plan to repair our computers on both Saturday and Sunday.)

What defective software is costing us

Defective software is costing the world economy billions and billions of dollars in lost productivity. A small costs is attributable to the technician-time necessary to straighten out the problems, but the larger costs are indirect, arising from employees standing around waiting for problems to be solved and the high peer-to-peer training costs associated with people learning where and where not to step in the software minefields.

It is also costing the software industry itself billions in lost sales, as people “opt out” of the upgrade process, preferring the devil they know to the devil likely to wipe out their hard disk.

What needs to be done

First, to quote Shakespeare, kill all the lawyers. Such a step, however, no matter how satisfying, will not be enough.

The press needs to stop routinely praising defective products. One major magazine recently gave a five-star rating to a color inkjet printer with an ethernet card that periodically fails two or three times a month and must be reset through an amazingly elaborate procedure, best accomplished with two people. Either the reviewer never bothered to read the owner’s manual (which, amazingly enough, clearly states the problem) or, being technical himself, assumed everyone else would equally enjoy the complex problems of troubleshooting and correcting the error each time it occurs.

Manufacturers could compete on quality, which they right now never do. They might begin by educating users about “total cost of ownership,” then start bragging, where bragging is due, about the quality of their software.

Notwithstanding the above, an external force may be required to change the rules of the game: We may need to make it illegal to sell crap. This would come as a great shock to some of America’s fastest growing corporations, but, in the end, everyone would win. It is hard right now for someone to produce quality software when the cost for doing so is to trail six months behind the defect-rich competition. Legislation requiring software be “fit for purpose” instead of “garage-sale-equivalent” would go a long way toward building a higher and more level playingfield. It is a pretty radical thought, but we could give it a try for, say, just the next millennium or two.

Then, also, if we fail to kill all the lawyers (and, like cockroaches, they can be elusive), we just might just sic them on some of these corporate scammers. Rather than going after Microsoft for selling a multi-billion dollar OS for the outrageous sum of less than $100, why not go after the entire industry for the real crime—selling bug-riddled, productivity-sapping junk? I predict that shortly after such a suit were filed, your computer would start working a whole lot better.

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