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Another Perspective


It's hard to say which effort to create a nation is more important, or which might succeed: In Afghanistan, a group of indigenous peoples, including returned exiles, supported by outsiders, is trying to set up a functioning state, an Afghan nation; in the OS/400 user base, a group of IBM marketing types, including some top executives, supported by hired outsiders, is trying to create a state of excitement called iSeries Nation.

The Afghans are basing their effort on a call to tradition, a gathering of about 1,500 local pooh-bahs, which they call a loya jirga.  In Pashto, one of the nation's languages, loya jirga means "grand assembly." Based on the results to date, which include a number of brawls, it may mean what it sounds like: "The lawyers are jerks."

Afghans have done this sort of thing in the past, and a very famous one took place in 1747.  It produced a king named Durani.  Hamid Karzai, the man in charge in Kabul, turns out to be a member of the Durani tribe.  This time around, it is a lot different from the 1747 powwow.  The current loya jirga features a giant tent in which the delegates meet.  The tent was brought in from Germany, where it was used to house a beer hall.  Presumably, the thing will be returned in time to trap locals and tourists alike in a fog of beer, pretzels, belches, and farts, come Oktoberfest.  Actually, the loya jirga crowd could be doing more or less the same thing in Kabul, for all we know, except for the pretzels, which would have to be ruled out.  They would make the meeting too dangerous, in the event George W.  Bush, whose constituents would ultimately foot the bill for this shindig, put in a surprise appearance.

Loya Jirga
Loya Jirga
The best of in tents

IBMers are basing their effort on the hope that the long, downward trend in midrange sales can be reversed, without actually doing anything of substance.  People who use the machines are behind this or any other move by IBM that would allay the fear that the iSeries will be marginalized, if it hasn't been already.  IBM has figured out that if all these worried customers can be persuaded to form a circle, they will feel much safer, even if their view, as they look ahead, is somewhat uninspiring.  IBM's method follows the pattern of all great slogan campaigns, beginning with a name that is dead opposite the obvious truth.

If there's some group out there one might hyperbolically call a nation, it's not an iSeries Nation at all but an OS/400 nation.  Most of the citizens are still using machines called AS/400, not iSeries.

The campaign so far seems to be tied to IBM's technically fascinating but puzzling effort to undermine whatever unity OS/400 has produced.

IBM has been pounding on OS/400 sites to bring in Linux, to play around with software compiled under AIX, and to move work to Intel-based computers (often running Windows) tucked under the skin of their machines.  At the same time, prominent IBMers have been warning OS/400 customers of impending tragedy.  The warning takes the form of a prediction (or possibly a trial balloon) that their operating system might become a hypervisor, a system whose role would be to house other environments.

The part of the hypervisor concept that lies in shadow may be revealed by analogy to IBM's other great hypervisor, the excellent mainframe software known as VM.  VM was once a whole operating system used for production, but today, with a few exceptions, it is used only to support multiple guest environments, such as Linux or VSE.  VM retains its potential to support production work; IBM never took that away.  But as it became a hypervisor, IBM and independent software vendors took it off their support lists.  They stopped spending money to develop VM versions of their products once it had become perfectly clear that other versions of the same products could run on the target mainframe platform within guest systems.

While OS/400 might be perfectly capable of supporting instances of itself as guests, that will mean nothing to developers who will focus on AIX and Linux versions of their software for the OS/400 base.  More accurately, they will focus on AIX and Linux versions of their products for the AIX and Linux communities, and tell OS/400 users to run guest environments if they want to stay current.

Telling users who are hungry for basic improvements in OS/400 applications to eat Linux is like telling the French peasants who were starving for lack of bread to eat cake.  This half-baked comment has been attributed to Marie Antoinette, the Austrian wife of French King Louis XVI, and the attribution is almost certainly false.  Still, it has become part of the folklore, if not the history of the French Revolution.  Accurate in attribution or not, the presumed quotation, and its ultimate consequence on the life and height of Marie Antoinette, might serve as a caution to the Afghans holding their loya jirga and to the IBMers proclaiming iSeries Nationhood.

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette
Good for pastry chefs,
bad for milleners

Marie Antoinette met her end in a machine called the guillotine, named after one Dr.  Guillotine, widely and wrongly thought to be the inventor of the device.  Guillotine played a role in the machine's technical development and emphatically did not want the thing named after him, let alone credited as his invention.

Too bad for the doctor.  Sometimes history gets its names right, sometimes not.  The sandwich was correctly named after John Montague, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who became famous for liking food served inside slices of bread, and who apparently did better at fast food than as a British admiral during the American War of Independence.  The condom was inappropriately named after the Earl of Condom, a 17th century physician who suggested the item to his most prominent patient, Charles II of England, as a way to reduce the likelihood the monarch would catch syphilis.  The condom was invented 100 years before the Earl's prescription by an Italian anatomist named Gabriele Fallopio, or Fallopious.  Fallopio was the academic heir of Andreas Vesalius, and his writings document the discovery of, among other things, the details of the human reproductive tract, including the suitably named fallopian tubes.

But it was the guillotine — not fallopian tubes, sandwiches, or condoms — that brought about the separation of Marie Antoinette's head and soul from her body.  The French Revolution may have been good for peasants, but it was very tough on milliners.  And it stole the credit, or the blame, for a beheading machine from somebody other than Dr.  Guillotine, very possibly somebody who wasn't even French.  In Britain, there are not only records but also well-preserved examples of machines for lopping off heads that precede the French guillotine by a few hundred years.  Possibly because nobody wanted one of these machines named after them, the word for one of these ultimate barbershops was gibbet, which in most other instances means a gallows of the type with a single vertical beam and a crossbar, from which the end user is suspended.  A gibbet looks like the letter "L," but top down.

The French doctor's gibbet

Notably, a town important enough to be used for public executions might have taken pride in its high-tech gibbet, as was the case in, among other burgs, Halifax in northern England.  The good people of Halifax felt their gibbet was an effective deterrent against bad people such as livestock rustlers.  Philosophers and criminologists may argue about this point until the end of time, but one thing was certain.  When the gibbet was put to work, there were no repeat offenders.

Because the punishment for theft was so harsh, the stakes could be very high in disputes over ownership.  So it's no wonder that the bulk of the law in medieval England was about ownership and its surrounding concept, who has the right to determine ownership.  Judges, according to the records, not only in medieval times, but up to this very day, sometimes mete out decisions reminiscent of those that demanded a well-oiled gibbet, but sometimes (perhaps less often) try to exercise the kind of wisdom attributed to King Solomon of the Old Testament.

Solomon, serving as a judge, decided what must be his most important case by outsmarting the disputants.  The argument was over the custody of a child, and as each purported mother had a pretty good story, the king said he had no choice but to cut the kid in half, something that, at the time, would have to be done without the benefit of a gibbet.  One of the disputants openly agreed with Solomon about bisecting the brat, while the other came to the conclusion that half a kid was not better than none.  Solomon awarded custody to the woman who was willing to give up her suit rather than have the kid divided in some dramatic fashion, on the basis that the true mother would value the life of the child more than possession.

IBM, cutting its OS/400 base into iSeries and AS/400 parts, and doing a little more slicing by lopping off some workloads for Linux and AIX environments, seems to favor the gibbet over Solomon.

One might be tempted to praise IBM for promoting what it sees as the most practical future for OS/400 customers or, alternatively, be inspired to condemn the company for not finding some way to preserve the software environment on which it founded and built its AS/400 and iSeries business.  It is very difficult to say which way is best, not merely for an outsider, but for a user and for IBM, too.

It should, however, be pointed out that in choosing the gibbet over Solomon, the party sitting in judgment is making a choice that, right or wrong, is irrevocable.

Most of the strategic decisions IBM makes can, if necessary, be reversed, or at least modified.  But the decision to bring Linux and AIX under the skin of an OS/400 platform does not seem to be that kind of choice.  IBM's tilt toward diversity makes it possible to OS/400 users to consolidate disparate servers.  Still, it is very hard to find an acceptable explanation of why OS/400 by itself cannot do all the things that are, presumably, better done by Linux or AIX.

Ahmed Karzai
Hamid "Hatman" Karzai
Our man in Afghanistan

IBM is also applying measures as drastic as the gibbet to reward the loyalty of its most committed customers.  By programming restraints into its microcode, IBM makes users pay through the nose for the privilege of running green screens.

This posture is injurious to IBM's relations with many customers and doesn't seem to do very much for IBM.  If the users buckle under the pressure and move from green screens to native PC terminals, IBM takes in less on the server and generates no more profit if it sells them the IBM PCs, on which it loses money every time, or, as often happens, it loses the desktops to Dell or another vendor.

No public relations effort, however well funded, not even the iSeries Nation extravaganza, is going to change the economic facts.  To preserve its OS/400 franchise and, if possible, to bring new customers into the base, IBM will have to demonstrate that it can command as much respect and trust from a diverse populace as the fellow who has impressively managed to obtain the endorsement of the loya jirga in Afghanistan.  Hamid Karzai has not only held the support of Afghans with similar ethnic and linguistic backgrounds but also managed to obtain some kind of mandate from delegates whose history suggested that they might prefer Mr.  Karzai to be able to don his unusual hat and striking outfits simultaneously in separate rooms, as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were ultimately able to do.

The garments Karzai wears include elements drawn from both Eastern and Western traditions.  The hat, however, is without a doubt Oriental and, some say, very Afghan indeed.  It's made from karakul sheepskin, obtained by beating a pregnant ewe until it aborts and then skinning the fetus.  A proper astrakhan hat, available in Russia, is apparently made the same way, and perhaps the Afghans learned their technique from their neighbors to the north.  Those wishing to pursue the topic and related matters like dog skin belts can order online from Russian Hunting Trade.  Those opposed might want to get in touch with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or other national organizations with similar objectives.

Before going to extremes over Karzai's hat, we urge you to consider two facts: Karzai is as bald as a doorknob.  Winters in Afghanistan are as cold as a banker's heart.

And in the meantime, you might wonder why IBM thinks it can get anywhere with its concept of an iSeries Nation without holding a loya jirga of its own.  We'd sure like to go, particularly if it's in a beer hall.

— Hesh Wiener June 2002

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