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A Few Words About Bill Gates: admire, salute, dislike

There have been many points along the way from October, 2001 to this week that made it clearer and clearer that I was now a teacher and no longer a technology journalist. Few are more stark than the fact that I put last week's column to bed without a word about Bill Gates' retirement. I was reminded of this error when I read Jim Forbes' valedictory Adios BillG--you were relevant and fun. My personal experience of Mr. Bill differed from Jim's, although we reach much the same conclusion.

I interviewed Gates' face-to-face only three times, the first in the fall of 1979 when Microsoft was, literally, indistinguishable from Timberline Systems in Portland. We talked about Basic and Cobol, and Paul Allen struck me as way more social. To top off that encounter, I flipped the caption, identifying Bill Gates (at left) as Paul and vice versa. Having attended MIT, I recognized Gates immediately as of a type: socially backward genius. By my third and final interview with him in 1992, he had honed one of his favorite lines, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," which he used three times during the interview. I was bothered by it for years, until I read in a biography that it was a catchphrase he often used with his employees. That didn't make me feel much better.

I didn't travel as much as Jim Forbes, so I didn’t often see Gates in social and semi-social situations. Also, I was covering minicomputers and mainframes until 1992, so he was important but tangential to my main beats. I never went to the Ziff-Davis Comdex parties, where Gates famously went to let it all hang out. At trade shows and conferences, I found his minders offputting.

And I remember things I heard and saw that cemented his reputation in my opinion. At a joint Apple-Microsoft news conference, Apple chief John Sculley and Bill Gates were the center of two scrums of reporters; John's was large and included virtually all the non-technical reporters. He was witty and entertaining and from Apple. Gates' scrum was small and consisted entirely of computer journalists (was Forbes there? I don't recall). I made a conscious choice, given time restraints, that I would rather be amused and enlightened by a guy who once sold Pepsi than put to sleep and/or insulted by a guy who dropped out of Harvard to write BASIC compilers for Z80 computers. Of course, we all know who ended up being more important in the history of computing. No question there; I'm just talking about who (like President Bush) passed the "I'd rather have a drink with him" test.

I don't much respect Gates for trolling Redmond-area bars on Saturday nights with the line, "Want to sit outside in my Porsche," attested to by a good friend of mine who was competing with him in the 1980s. Low taste in women is a character flaw, in my opinion, although I hugely admire the brilliant and aggressive women he has chosen to associate with publicly. My brother, a reserve police officer, said Gates had a terrible reputation for enormous speed and "do you know who I am" traffic stops. This locked in my impression of his disdain for those he feels are unimportant--including, all three times I interviewed him, me.

Now, having said all that, I need to acknowledge his genius. The man is brilliant. I've known genius; he's a genius.

I also acknowledge the utter truth of an insight from one of his biographers: Gates competed, in the early years, against dewy-eyed ex-hippies and other new agers (no, I don't just mean Gary Kildall and Intergalactic Digital Research) who thought business was fun. Gates always knew, never forgot, from day one, that business was business. He wrote the first nasty public letter from a software vendor to the software pirates of the world in the late 1970s. I concede that Forbes is right, most Microsoft competitors were killed by their own management errors. But some, in my personal experience, were killed by making an NDA presentation to Microsoft, not getting the contract, and finding a Microsoft product in their exact space weeks later. That may be business, but it is not fair, right or ethical, and Bill set the tone from the top. Balance that with the fact that Microsoft has always been a great place to work. A lousy company to compete against, but a great place to work.

In the end, however, we must judge people by what they do with their lives. And by that standard, Bill Gates is my hero. Unlike Warren Buffett, he's not waiting until the end of his life to get his philanthropy started. Unlike many rich people, he doesn't spend night and day figuring out how to leave it to his kids. And unlike the great Robber Barons of the 19th century--almost the only people in American history to whom his charity can be compared--he is supervising the dispersal of his fortune personally. And bringing to that dispersal the same near-autistic focus and bottom-line orientation he brought to his business career. Which means that, unlike most charities, the Gates Foundation is actually helping people who really need help.

The computer industry will be poorer for his departure from it. I'm not sure if Microsoft will become more aggressive, as Forbes predicts. I am not sure that is possible. In fact, I'm not sure it will survive. Perhaps Gates is displaying another of his unquestionable skills: excellent timing. Yes, he was late to the Internet, but he founded Microsoft at the perfect time in history, joined up with IBM at the perfect time and split with IBM at the perfect time. I believe he is leaving Microsoft at the perfect time. The future belongs to Google.

I dislike Bill Gates personally, but I admire and salute him.

Minimum Wage and the Gilded Age, Syndicated Idiots on Gays and Estate Taxes

Richard Dalton writes:

The Senate, once again, has rejected an increase in the minimum wage, which has been stuck at $5.15/hour for nearly a decade. Do the math folks. That's a whopping $41.20 (gross) per eight-hour day--almost $1,000 per month! I would love to see a program where every member of Congress would be paid that amount for a month and not be allowed access to any other income source or assets. The proposed change in the minimum was to $7.25/hour ($58/day; $1,276/month).

Median income for US families in 2004 was $44,389/year, almost four times annual earnings under the current minimum wage. And we have the gall to criticize other governments for human rights violations.

I couldn't agree more! Some of my conservative friends, nice enough people except for their politics, believe increases in the minimum wage amount to treason because they deny jobs to low-skill workers. The studies of actual minimum wage increases indicate that what they do is increase the wages of low-skill workers, boosting the economy and creating more jobs, not fewer. It works, just like Henry Ford paying his workers enough to afford his cars. Considered radical at the time, that move kick-started the American economy into what it is today. Capitalists hated it, and now their fondest wish has come true: the lesson of Ford's decision has been not just forgotten, but obliterated. Today, Wall Street would pillory anyone who paid a living wage. Heck, it already does. The stock market loves Wal Mart, which treats its people like chattel or cattle (take your pick; even cattle get free visits from the vet). On the other hand, the street hates Costco, a perfectly profitable company, because, in the opinion of analysts, it coddles its employees (decent wages! Health insurance!), and could make more money if it screwed them the way Wal Mart screws its employees. And here's a prediction: when the Costco founder is dead and gone, the "professional managers" who take over, or the second and third-generation family members who sell out to Wal Mart, will insure that Costco employees are screwed too as our economy races to the bottom. Gilded Age, anyone?


One of the joys of writing an online column is the opportunity it provides to argue, even before a tiny audience, with some of the lame-brained and mutton-headed commentators squeezing out stupidity in 750-word globs on the nation's op-ed pages. The San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times of June 23 provided particularly egregious examples of right-wing tin-hat thinking. Patrick Buchanan says homosexuality is a sin, and that treatment of it as normal and natural is morally wrong. I don't even know where to begin. If tolerance is wrong, I don't want to be right.

In the Times we find a columnist from a right-wing think tank who defends tax cuts, says increases in tax revenue are not unexpected, and concludes, "liberals can't find anyone who espoused trickle-down economics" by that name. Well, of course they can't. For a right-winger to call tax cuts for the super-rich "trickle-down economics" would be to admit the nature of the theory. When you're busy lying and obfuscating, you can't use terms that honestly describe what you're doing. How silly of him. The same columnist (his name isn't worth repeating) includes a snide aside about how many people would be "surprised by the definition of rich," suggesting that most Americans fit the "liberal" definition of rich.

You want a definition? Here's a definition. In our country of 300 million people, 3 million have a net worth of $1 million, not counting the value of their home (probably including the columnist). That's 1%, folks. The rest of us ain't rich, and there are no two ways about it.

Say, when you find a conservative who used the words "trickle down" to describe the GOP soak-the-poor tax policy, ask that person to offer one single example of a small business or farm forced into sale by the estate tax. Please note; the Farm bureau says it has no example of such a sale, and the Congressional Budget office says that, in this great large country of ours, "only 123 farm estates and only 135 family-owned businesses nationwide would have owed any estate tax." Chew those numbers over, then tell me there's a problem. Remember, that's the number that owe any tax, not the number of sales, which may well be zero.

Remember, we're not talking about the death tax, but the estate tax. The one which taxes the many gains not taxed during a person's life time. The existing tax supported by the Democratic (not the Democrat, but the Democratic) party because it produces enormous revenues, supports the societal good of reducing unfair inter-generational wealth redistribution, and affects a tiny, tiny number of people.


Tipped Hat

A tip of the PSACOT hat to Lerissa Patrick, who informs me that the source of the migrating liberals item here on June 5 was Joe Blundo's So To Speak column in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch on Tuesday, November 16, 2004, entitled Canada busy sending back Bush-dodgers. Why, oh why, do people attach false attributions when they redistribute writing on the net?

An Inconvenient Truth

3 stars

I know I am not the first to say it, but if you watch this film, and you're a Democrat, the first question you ask is, "Where was this guy during the 2000 campaign?" Relaxed, confident, funny, self-effacing… in a word, appealing. Al Gore appears to have made his peace with the end of his career in electoral politics. If we take him at his word--and that is surely how I choose to take him, he has decided to devote his twilight years to real public service: sounding the warning about global warming and telling people what they can do about it. This is the best illustrated slide show I've ever seen, and Gore says he's given it all over the world at least 1,000 times. I am convinced of the factual accuracy of most of what he says, and my research says he is squarely in the center of the scientific consensus. You can read a lot of right-wing wingnuts who say global warming is a hoax; all I can say is, I hope they have a house at the beach! For a great civilian review of the film, check out Majikthise.

You should see the film, but if you can't drag yourself to the theater, visit the website, It may not be great art or great science, but it is pretty good art and pretty good science.

Lake House

3.5 stars

This is a run-of-the-mill romantic film, which earned its extra half-point for a modestly innovative, if clumsily plotted, sci-fi gimmick at its core, for superb chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, and for postponing the climax until the last minute of the last scene. Don't go for an airtight plot; this baby has inconsistencies and holes you could drive a truck through. Most of us had the twist figured out in the first five minutes. But in a way, it was like a Columbo mystery (technically known as an inverted or open mystery) in which you see the murder, and the excitement and joy of the story is how you get to the solution. From the preview, you know this is a film about two people living in the same house two years apart that are somehow able to communicate with each other and are frustrated in their efforts to get together in the present. From the poster and the ads, you know they're going to hug in the end. Thus, it is not the destination, but the journey that holds the fascination here. Which is a great idea, since you know the destination in most Hollywood movies as soon as you can sort out the white hats from the black hats.

I cried, but I'm a romantic. Definitely a chick flick or date movie. Don't take your 8th grader to see it, or any male whose developmental age is 13 (roughly half the adult population). They won't like it.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Wordplay

4 stars

First-time director Patrick Creadon has created a delightful, well-made documentary on the world of crossword puzzles. Wordplay is focused around Will Shortz, The New York Times' puzzle maven. While the history of crosswords is briefly traced, the bulk of the film centers on the people devoted to this pastime - competitive players (caught during the 2005 championship in Connecticut), celebrities (including Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina, Ken Burns, and Indigo Girls), constructors, and even common folk (like me) with a daily addiction. Wordplay is funny, warm, and - despite the not surprising oddness of many of the featured characters - human. That such a solitary activity is made accessible and spiritually collaborative is a tribute to the filmmaking.

--Neal Vitale

Lasusa Links, Dan Grobstein File, Coquet on Cow Abduction

Tom Lasusa links: Build a kinetic sculpture in a serene Flash gameWiccan Army Sgt. dies in Iraq, Vet Dept Won't Allow Pentacle on his Headstone… Stephen Colbert asks Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who wants the Ten Commandments displayed in public places, to name them...Pixar's Most Valuable Voice… Stupid Judge throws out case against alleged child rapist because prosecutor is late to courtHow do homosexual animals evolve?
An interesting video on how Marlon Brando was brought back to life for Superman Returns… Woman 'accidentally' stabs husband for refusing to cook dinner… "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt "awakens' comatose Girl. But you know for every one, five go to sleep… Don't Let Screech Go Homeless… Now I want a cup of coffee AND to punch someone in the face (video)… The Gator that Came to DinnerWild parrots of the Brooklyn and Bronx

Steve Coquet thinks, and I agree, you might be amused by cow abduction.

Dan Grobstein File

  • | June 19, 2006
    Here Illegally, Working Hard and Paying Taxes
    Most illegal immigrants now work for mainstream companies and are hired and paid like any other worker.

  • Fatal Inaction By April Witt, Washington Post, Sunday, June 18, 2006; The world's most powerful military failed to provide the armor that would have saved scores of American lives. One father wouldlike to know why
  • The New Yorker Festival, one of the best reasons to come to NYC. And it's pretty cheap--in fact, a lot is free.
  • No comment required: Pentagon Press Release: Operation Mountain Thrust Continues Momentum in Afghanistan
  • Horror show reveals Iraq’s descent A single-storey morgue has become synonymous with the seemingly unstoppable violence that has turned Baghdad into the most frightening city on earth
  • So the tax credit is expiring soon on toyota & honda hybrids because it was never meant to save energy or produce less pollution. it was meant to prop up Detroit and nobody is buying their hybrids (compared to the Japanese).

    BUSINESS | June 21, 2006
    David Leonhardt: U.S. Hybrids Get More Miles Per Congress
    A tax credit that has turned some hybrid cars into a relative bargain is about to start vanishing, a step intended to help Detroit.
  • From Dan's son Spike: The digital equivalent of a drive-by shooting.
  • An interesting point [was made by Arianna Huffington: The Cocktail That Saved Karl Rove's Ass] We need some journalism ethics. All the reporters wrapped up in this continued to cover the story without telling their readers. And if a source lies to you, why should you protect them? (I was googling Arianna Huffington in google news, to see if there were any stories on the panel discussion at the NY public library last nite. I had a great view, but could only reliably understand Jacob Weisberg & Normal Pearlstine. Michael Kinsley was 75%, Malcolm Gladwell 75% and Arianna Huffington 50%. I should have sat in the back or nearer to the speakers. I think that the mic placement was bad. The program was "Slate at 10: Online Media and the Future of Journalism". They'll have a pdf transcript up eventually.)

Appendix Trouble

Father's Day this year took a sharp right turn at about 5 p.m. on Saturday, when Vicki called me from the emergency room at John Muir hospital. She had gone to one of those "open on weekends, see a doctor" offices about her abdominal pain, which had been chronic all week but was gradually getting worse. They sent her in for testing.

A mere three hours later, blood work and CAT scan in hand, the diagnosis came in. No fever, no elevated white cell count, mild nausea but no vomiting. However, the CAT scan trumped all the other tests. Her appendix was inflamed.

Vicki was scheduled for an 11pm emergency appendectomy. She had only a few of the classic symptoms, which led her physician to site the 80/20 rule: 80% of all people have classic symptoms, 20% do not, and yet they have the condition anyway.

Medicine's motto used to be "first do no harm." As you may know, it is now "Get the hell out of the hospital." Vicki was released 12 hours after her operation. One the one hand: it will seem awfully fast if she develops complications. On the other hand, the major complication from an appendectomy is infection, and there is no place on earth in which you are more likely to get an infection than in a hospital. It's great to have her home, and a wonder and a joy that the appendix didn't burst or infect her gut. She should recover quickly (as long as she avoids contact sports), as the surgery was lathroscopic (tiny slit, then use a periscope to see inside). To avoid infection during the removal, the appendix is placed in a plastic bag before it is pulled out. An M.D. friend of mine told me surgeons used condoms for this purpose before the medical supply houses started manufacturing special bags--at 10 times the cost. I am sure they are 10 times better.

Yeah, right.

Anyway, she's home now, resting comfortably, and hoping to go to Tassajara next weekend as planned.

Technology Excitement

When it comes to technology, I am the kind of guy who programmed his own Z80-based Exidy Sorcerer in assembly language (with generous help from John Taylor, I confess), including writing my own word processor, modem program and checkbook programs. Then, I took a longer than average stop off in CP/M, courtesy of a machine called Big Board (once again, Thanks John). As the world moved to DOS, I went, screaming and kicking, to the buggy and derivative operating system that the world was writing software for. I remember Microsoft sending me my first mouse, along with a copy of Windows V. 1. My wife had a Mac at that point, and I had friends who worked for Apple, but I though Macs were for wimps, and graphical interfaces were inefficient and resource-intensive (they are, but me and everyone like me lost that battle a long time ago). I loaded up a copy of GEM (an ill-fated Windows competitor) to run my Superbase database application, but the new, improved version ran on Windows 2.0, so I found a box Microsoft had sent me and ran it. I did not come fully into Windows until 3.0, and only then because I worked for Windows Magazine. Our editor, Fred Langa, gave us until the end of the year to leave DOS behind, so our daily computing experience would be identical to that of our target reader. I had to give up Higgins, the best PIM I have ever used, because they never did make a Windows version of it.

Why am I telling you all this? I am, surprisingly for a geek of my background and education, quite comfortable with being behind the curve in many technologies. My previous employer gave me a Nokia cellphone in 1999 when I became an editor and when they took it back the day I was laid off in 2001, I went right out and bought an identical unit. I was no stranger to cellphones; prior to 1999, I had bought my own cellphones, going back to the one I had in 1988, which was built into my car). So, I have been at this cellphone thing for 18 years, which is longer than most people.

The Nokia screen was green and black. It made phone calls and it had an internal phone book and data link to your PC's serial port (USB? What's USB?). With difficulty, you could read and write text messages. I didn't write one until 2003, when Marlow text messaged me as she walked towards the podium on her graduation day. I was happy with the phone; ring tones were severely limited, but I didn't want a toy, I wanted something that made and received phone calls.

Except, of course, the battery was large, and could not last more than a few hours between charges (so I carried extra batteries). And Cingular was constantly asking me to move up to GSM technology. And I read that two billion ring tones are sold each year. How is that even possible? My ancient Nokia phone could not download or use any ringtones that weren't built into it.

When Marlow, my older daughter, was here at Christmas, she said that if I still had the same cellphone when she got back, she was going to "drop" it on a concrete floor, over and over, until it ceased to work. Then, she and Rae found that my wife Vicki wouldn't mind getting a new cellphone for her birthday. They decided to bring her into the 21st century. Marlow and I spent several hours at Fry's, and came away with two Motorola Razrs (if it was good enough for Vicki it was good enough for me). Vicki made mine a Fathers' Day present. For the first time in my life, I own a cellphone capable of using musical ringtones.

After years of using awkward cradles for the carphones, the new ones have Bluetooth; if you sit down in the car, it senses the phone in your pocket and puts it on the built-in speakerphone. How cool is that? Well, to those of you who buy cellphones more often that once every seven years, probably not all that cool. But it was cool to me, as was the wireless headset I got. I used to think they were weird. Now I can see they could be indispensible.

I didn't want a camera or Internet access, but they don’t' sell any phones today that don't have both. It turns out the Internet access worked out well; as I was setting my phone up, I purchased three ring tone: "We are Family" for my family calls, "A little help from my friends" for friends. I wanted the show tune, "Friendship, Friendship, it's the perfect blendship," but, amid all the rap and hip-hop on offer, it seems show tunes don't cut the mustard as ringtones.

Now, if only we could figure out how to make the 108 names of Amma into Vicki's ring tone…