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Friday Technology Funnies

April 4, 2008

I love failed failed projects, from the FBI’s $170m computer-system scrappage, to baggage-handling systems that don’t work in Denver and London, to the International Space Station (cost $Bns & counting, while they produce soap-bubbles and boomerangs up there).  To say nothing of the Illinois State Building in Chicago.  They just make me feel better when I buy a piece of software at work that doesn’t pan out. 

MrsDoF knows about my weird fascination with failure and sent me; Fancy computers spell trouble for 2010 census.  It seems the Harris corporation was awarded a $600m contract to produce handheld computers and the operating system for the census. 

Woah! Stop right there, mister government project-manager!  Handheld computers already exist, you can buy them on Amazon.  I bet you could get the operating system for a million bucks – just make it an X-Prize for the Open-Source community – and it would be bulletproof.  Let Google review the interface for simplicity.  Or look around and see if any other countries are running successful digital census’ programs and steal their ideas.

Anyway, back to the highly entertaining article:

“What we’re facing is a statistical Katrina on the part of the administration,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York.  “Will they leave this mess for the next administration?”

Yes, Carolyn.  Yes they will.  It’s what they do. 

And may I compliment you on the introduction of a new unit of measurement: “The Katrina”.  It’s a unit of bureaucratic screw-uppage, like the “football-field” is a unit of distance and the “crashing 747” and “9-11s” are units of fatality from whatever hazard of the day.  The current administration, with it’s apparent total disinterest in competence as a criteria for contract-granting, is a rich source of ‘Katrinas’.

The computers proved too complex for some temporary workers who tried to use them in a test last year in North Carolina. Also, the computers were not initially programmed to transmit the large amounts of data necessary.
“This is a management problem. It’s an organizational problem,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in testimony this month before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

No, Carlos, it’s a “stupid” problem.  As in: “It was a stupid idea to build a special computer for this.” 

Most people have trouble programming their VCR’s to tape this week’s episode of “American Idol” and you’re going to teach more than a half-million temporary workers to operate a made-to-purpose data-gathering computer?  But here’s my favorite part, the contractor’s denial that there is really a problem:

Harris Corp. spokesman Marc Raimondi said the company is committed to working with the Census Bureau to resolve any issues involving the handheld computers or the operating system.

He also said the computers actually are easy to use, with a failure rate of less than 1 percent when tested in the field.

“After you spend about 30 minutes to an hour familiarizing yourself with it, it’s as easy to use as a modern cell phone,” Raimondi said.

ROTFL – Stop it!  You’re killing me!  Most people can’t use ten percent of the features of their cell phones!  BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!….

Congress is trying to figure out what to do now.  Suggestions include “scaling back” the use of the computers themselves, or going entirely to pencil and paper.  Op-Scan forms are very simple and extremely reliable.

  1. April 4, 2008 at 08:29 | #1

    Whoa! The massive amounts of fail this company is producing is truly astounding

    “After you spend about 30 minutes to an hour familiarizing yourself with it, it’s as easy to use as a modern cell phone,” Raimondi said.

    Have you heard of SME Bias? Do you know anything about customer service? Have you worked in a customer service position ever? Anytime I hear someone say, “But all you have to do is work X minutes … blah blah blah” I know they have never worked customer service before in their life. And if they did, they probably failed at it.

    When it comes to technology, new users don’t wanna learn, they just want to do stuff. As soon as you say, “Just play around with it for a while and you’ll pick it up quick” they shut down. As soon as you start explaining the reasons behind the problem they stop listening. Just say it works and leave them be.

  2. james old guy
    April 4, 2008 at 11:26 | #2

    I wonder what the government’s specs were for this amazing machine? I am willing to bet the specs were drawn out by a committee that could barely turn on a computer. The only bigger fiasco going on is the government / military working in the RF technology field.

  3. Ted
    April 4, 2008 at 12:54 | #3

    I love failed failed projects…

    Do they hafta be technology based failures? Since you’re sorta in academics, how about failures within the local school systems?

    David DiCarlo, an Erie-based JPMorgan Chase banker, told Barker and the school board on Sept. 4, 2003, that all they had to do was sign papers he said would benefit them if interest rates increased in the future, and the bank would give the district $750,000, a transcript of the board meeting shows.

    “You have severe building needs; you have serious academic needs,’’ Barker, 58, says. “It’s very hard to ignore the fact that the bank says it will give you cash.’’ So Barker and the board members agreed to the deal.

    What New York-based JPMorgan Chase didn’t tell them, the transcript shows, was that the bank would get more in fees than the school district would get in cash: $1 million. The complex deal, which placed taxpayer money at risk, was linked to four variables involving interest rates. Three years later, as interest rate benchmarks went the wrong way for the school district, the Erie board paid $2.9 million to JPMorgan to get out of the deal, which officials now say they didn’t understand.

    I love it when Mr. Moneybags literally takes lollipops from poor kids and kicks their dog. Good thing that Obama and Hillary are over in Pennsylvania feeling their pain for the next two weeks.

    I am willing to bet the specs were drawn out by a committee that could barely turn on a computer.

    I know a little about this process, and the fundamental issue is that the government takes an extremely adversarial approach in bids that aren’t sweethearts or no-bid. Consequently, they will assume that enough margin is in the project that they demand yet-uninvented features and capabilities so they can appear as forward thinkers in GCN. That’s a really foolish approach because for 1) most government contracts are transparent to the amount of margin, and 2) vendors will assume the contract knowing full well that it can’t be delivered, but hope to find someone more reasonable to deal with down the line that will either modify the specs or extend the project. And there’s enough motivation to do that because no one wants to have the project fail, so it’s common to keep sweeping failures under the rug for as long as possible. (even a limited success is better than outright failure.) Failures demonstrate incompetence not only at the vendor but at the acquisition end as well.

    Some of this is by committee because you have everyone from security to acquisition to management placing needless specifications that are totally superfluous to the primary requirements into the mix.

    Which is why I’d rather live under a f*cking bridge than deal with federal government contracts. They’re either flat out profiteering that border on crime, or staffed by morons incapable of recognizing crime. Between those two extremes, all the sane people have long left.

  4. April 4, 2008 at 13:08 | #4

    I love it when Mr. Moneybags literally takes lollipops from poor kids and kicks their dog.

    Capitalism at work!

  5. April 4, 2008 at 15:14 | #5

    Last year, Austalian Customs introduced a new multi-million dollar software system to streamline operations. The system crashed and there was a backlog of processing of imported goods that led to panic as items were held up at the wharves instead of being on the shelves for Christmas. Business lost money and it was admitted that the software system wasn’t quite ready for operations. A total fiasco.

  6. April 6, 2008 at 09:41 | #6

    Ever see the Dilbert cartoon where The pointy-haired boss announces a monetary incentive program for finding and fixing bugs? Wally then states that he’s going off to write himself a mini-van. Government projects seem to get treated the same way. As far as I can tell, all that’s needed here is a Palm device, some customizable CRM software, and a decent security system. This would be the way they’d do it on a planet where the bureaucracy wasn’t so dysfunctional as to bury itself in paperwork so deeply that they had to farm out every project to contractors to get anything done at all.

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