Thursday, February 28, 2019

Government is a disease.

Title seem a little extreme, I'll admit. But looked at from a social health standpoint, government is the thing that ruins everything.

Want to start a business? Want to buy a house, or get married, or even get a dog? Hell, you want to drive your car to Grandma's house? Government is there! And it is mostly in your way. And YOU pay for it too, that's the best part.

What set me off today? This is a situation I keep seeing over and over again, and it means something. Headline: America's Cities Are Running on Software From the '80s

The only place in San Francisco still pricing real estate like it's the 1980s is the city assessor's office. Its property tax system dates back to the dawn of the floppy disk. City employees appraising the market work with software that runs on a dead programming language and can't be used with a mouse. Assessors are prone to make mistakes when using the vintage software because it can't display all the basic information for a given property on one screen. The staffers have to open and exit several menus to input stuff as simple as addresses. To put it mildly, the setup "doesn't reflect business needs now," says the city's assessor, Carmen Chu.

The particulars of this clusterfuck bear repeating.

In San Francisco the assessor uses a Cobol-based system called AS-400, whose welcome screen reads, "COPYRIGHT IBM CORP., 1980, 2009." As the city tax rolls jumped 22 percent over two years, workers were struggling to keep track of the changes on their ancient systems. At one point they fell three years behind. It's a "lot of manual work" just to perform basic functions, Chu says.
Searches that should seem simple take much longer because of the system's quirks. If a resident contacts the agency saying her house should have a different assessed value, a worker has to look up the block and identification number that's technically taxed; there's no way to filter by address. Also, all street numbers need to have four digits, so 301 Grove St. becomes 0301 Grove St.

Need I emphasize, this is San Francisco. The place where all the biggest brains in computing live, work and play. If you can't get somebody to sort out your fucked up mainframe in San Francisco, then a disinterested outside observer would have to conclude you are not trying to fix it. This is not East Moose Antler Montana, where the deer and the antelopes play.

Friend of mine works in a computer junkyard. This guy knows every damn thing about the Old Iron from the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation. He can take apart and fix a worn out DEC TK50 tape drive to as-new condition. Why does he have a job fixing 1980s tape drives from a company that died in the 1990s? Because the federal and provincial governments of Canada are still running DEC-VAX mainframes, that's why. Also SUN SPARC stations, Silicon Graphics worstations, IBM AS-400 minicomputers, all kinds of obsolete hardware from the 1970s to the 1990s. Running software that may have originated in the 1960s and been upgraded in the 1980s. All this ancient shit is slower than your phone. Most of it is slower than a flip-phone.

Now, speaking of private businesses, we can safely assume that there are none still running faulty databases on antique AS-400 hardware from the 1980s. Why? Because they would be OUT OF BUSINESS by now. Who is going to hire a company to do anything when their order-entry department is three years behind?

Why is every state and federal government in North America in this position? Because they do not experience any pressure to get their work done. There is no eeeevile profit motive to work harder and do more. They just keep doing what they always do, the way they always do it, until one day they come in and the computer is a puddle of melted slag on the floor. Then they hide the evidence, and beg for more money.

We see this exact thing played out in nature. Businesses are like predators, always active, always hunting for new ways to make money, to cut costs, to stay ahead of the competition. Governments by contrast are like parasites. They latch on to a host, and they quietly suck the blood out of it nice and slowly, never making a fuss, never moving so the host doesn't notice their blood disappearing. Like gut worms.

Lately there's been evidence come forth that a few gut worms from time to time increase the health of the host by stimulating the immune system. But we all know that too large a load of parasites will kill anything, even an elephant.

That's where we are today. Sucked dry by a parasitic infection that does no work and adds nothing.

Here endeth the rant.

The Phantom

1 comment:

Pulp Herb said...

Now, speaking of private businesses, we can safely assume that there are none still running faulty databases on antique AS-400 hardware from the 1980s.

Well, some are to a degree.

I say this as someone who worked in an AS-400 shop this century (although not this decade). The AS-400 still exists as the Series i. The hardware is completely different, but the services available to a developer and a sys admin are a proper superset of those from the original from the 70s.

IBM puts a great deal of importance on upward compatibility. Today's Z series mainframe can support an identical environment to the S/360 of the 60s.

Most shops are on new hardware for one of two reasons. The obvious one is greater capability. The lesser know, but quite common for trailing shops is the end of IBM support, which is worth its cost. When your system stops being supported IBM is ready with a new low end upgrade well within your budget.

As for the software, while the SF Assessor's office can't keep pace that is often not the case. The AS-400 shop I worked, which migrated to a iSeries (and probably to a Series i by now) pretty much used the same software as they had in 1980, a inventory and sales management system (they were a distributor of products to hobby shops) written in RPG. Sure, the code needed maintenance, such as integration with new PC that handled all the shipping information for UPS, but the core system still worked just as well as in 1980.

The costs of ripping it out and replacing it were much, much higher than any gains a more modern system would create.

So, while physical old hardware, such as actual VAXen is an issue, older designs, such as the AS-400, and the software written on them are not inherently bad nor is replacing them always the best choice for a private business.