Mad Dog 21/21: Vulcan’s Fury
August 15, 2016 Hesh Wiener
When Vulcan gets riled, steer clear of volcanos. Be nice. Show him some respect. Admire his metalworking skills. Celebrate his holiday, Vulcanalia, on August 23. Don’t hurt Vulcan’s feelings as Pompeii apparently did. In 79 AD, Pompeii was buried alive in ash and lava. Vulcan is obviously implicated: Vesuvius erupted on August 24, right after Vulcanalia.
IBM, which has supported a huge study of Pompeii’s destruction, should know better than to trifle with Vulcan. But Big Blue has been vexatious, deprecating the hardware business. Vulcan is surely offended; he could strike at any moment. Watch out!
It’s not entirely surprising that IBM has underestimated the wrath of Vulcan. Of all the many Roman gods, Vulcan was the ugliest. He didn’t have a handsome face. He had a crippled leg. And his work at a forge often left him filthy. He doesn’t seem to rate a lot of coverage in literature; his wife, the beautiful Venus, has always gotten better press.
John Bartlett, whose collection of quotable phrases has been a fixture in public and private libraries since 1855, had only one item pertaining to Vulcan in his early editions, a line from Hamlet: “And my imaginations are as foul as Vulcan’s stithy.” Shakespeare’s stithy is our smithy; he is talking about Vulcan’s workshop.
This line was in the 10th edition of Bartlett’s, published in 1914, the first version issued after John Bartlett’s death in 1905. Recent versions of the reference don’t even have that one line. They have a lot of material that is recent, and the very old characterization of Bartlett’s is no longer accurate. In bygone days, Bartlett’s was one-third biblical concordance, one-third Shakespearean concordance, and the remainder all the rest of the world’s writing and speech.
Bartlett defined legacy knowledge of English verbiage and, in living memory if not today, provided an example of the sort of scholarship that arises in every field of knowledge, including information technology. Appreciation of the intellectual history of any body of knowledge, once a widely held value, may be scarce in modern times. Still, it is abundant in academia, commonplace among collectors of books and periodicals, and easily found among the clusters of technical experts who still populate the best glass houses and high tech development facilities.
IBM, more than any other information technology company, helped to create the glass house culture. The glass house may be dying now, but even its remnants show that it was a great social phenomenon that formed the foundation of commercial computing. During the 1980s the glass house computing culture became stale. The creative forces in computing had moved to the places where people were inventing the interactive world of personal computers and, eventually, the Internet. IBM may have offered the PC and other machines that propelled information technology ahead, but it lost its leadership as Xerox PARC, Apple, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Netscape, and many others dreamed up ways to build the future using chips and software IBM seemed to barely understand.
The power and the wealth in information technology now belong to Google, which figured out how to monetize interactivity; to Amazon, which figured out how to abstract the appealing aspects of retail commerce and also how to turn cloud computing into a business; and to Apple, which made mobile clients so wonderfully appealing.
These companies and others like them haven’t thrown away the computing cultures that preceded them. On the contrary, they have attained their heights by standing on the shoulders of giants that, like the last people of Pompeii, have been frozen in time and space. These leaders are not ashamed to borrow from their predecessors, to quote ideas and technologies that make it possible to invent a future.
It is hard to say just how IBM lost its way, but IBM considers itself progressive when it gets a few outside companies to port a backward-looking Linux to its legacy mainframes and Power platforms, while Google took a look at Linux and built it into Android. IBM fiddles around with possibilities of a reentry in the in-store point-of-sale market while Amazon has turned billions of PC, Macs, smartphones, and tablets into shopping terminals. IBM is still exploiting customers who are addicted to green screen unit record data processing while Apple is helping IBM’s own personnel migrate to MacBooks and iPads and iPhones. IBM seems to have lost the ability to distinguish between recalling the past and living in it.
The great admirer of fine old phrases, John Bartlett, ran the University Bookstore near Harvard and later, after he completed his reference work, joined his publisher, Little, Brown, where he became a partner in the firm. Little, Brown no longer exists as a business entity; it has long since been digested in one corporate takeover after another, living on as an imprint of giant Hachette. But Bartlett himself attained immortality along with an honorary degree from Harvard. Today, more than a century after his passing, Bartlett’s book occupies a place of honor in an aging writer’s little library near a second edition Partridge that some consider a gem.
Partridge was hardly the only person in his time and place who knew education from training. Thomas Bulfinch was also a character in the Boston area, whose life overlapped that of Bartlett, his junior by 24 years. Bulfinch distilled the great stories of Greek and Roman gods into three books that were later boiled down to a single volume, Mythology. His first wonderful work, The Age of Fable, was published the same year that Bartlett went to press with his Familiar Quotations. Even if Vulcan has only a small role in Bulfinch, the Harvard educated scholar would no longer allow the metalworker of the gods to be forgotten than would the many painters such as Tintoretto, who illustrated the moment when Vulcan caught his wife Venus in a dalliance with Mars.
His wife’s infidelities stoked Vulcan’s anger, but didn’t bring him to the point of direct vengeance. Vulcan was not a wife-beater. The thoroughly riled up Vulcan took out his ire on iron, beating metal in the smithy (or stithy) that lay under Sicily’s Mt. Etna, causing the mountain to vent gas, flame, and lava. It’s no wonder people speculate about Vulcan’s connection to the deadly eruption of Vesuvius that imprisoned Pompeii in a deadly casting of ash and pumice.
More than 1,908 years after Pompeii was captured by Vesuvius, IBM Italy and Fiat sponsored a fresh exploration of the city’s ruins. Computers helped archeologists and historians gather and assemble information, create maps and devise detailed speculative recreations of the ancient city. The results were organized into an exhibit that began enlightening the public in 1990 from a gallery at IBM’s New York City headquarters. That exhibit and its descendants are still making the rounds. This year, the Pompeii show visited Montreal, where it filled most of a floor in the Museum of Fine Arts on February 6; it will remain in residence until September 5.
The exhibit shows what a thriving little city Pompeii had been before it was snuffed out. It had an excellent municipal water system that reached into private homes and public baths. The kitchens that produced Pompeii’s Neapolitan meals were chock full of gadgets and appliances. Pompeii boasted quite a number of classical Roman statues carved in great anatomical detail and incorporating both of the great sculptural lies of Romans culture: every one of the stone males had a full head of hair and each had small genitalia designed to make male visitors feel personally well-endowed. (The exhibit also includes some sculptural pornography featuring oversized male organs; this amusing accent serves to emphasize the distortions of the more numerous ordinary statues of gods and men.)
The people of Pompeii celebrated Vulcanalia, but the city’s temples did not include one to the god whose volcano Vesuvius stood in plain sight at the edge of town. Vesuvius made its presence known quite often; its herald was a series of small earthquakes. When a very big quake struck in the year 62 AD, Pompeii rebuilt without adding an edifice for the worship of Vulcan. Seventeen years later, Vulcan had run out of patience, and smote beautiful Pompeii.
When IBM sponsored its excellent study of Pompeii it was clearly in awe of Vulcan and his gifts. Big Blue was making chips for its mainframes, Unix platforms, and midrange computer families. It was incorporating these chips in big and midrange iron, while using circuits from other companies’ foundries to make PCs, displays and peripheral devices.
During the late 1980s and through the 1990s, the company was as jealous of its inventions as Vulcan was of Venus, beating rivals who built IBM-compatible equipment with lawsuits on the anvil of the courts. Even when IBM’s directors orchestrated a corporate upheaval in 1993, bringing in Lou Gerstner to take over from generations of home-grown bosses, there was no question that IBM was going to remain a force in hardware. When challenged by critical financial analysts who imagined that IBM would be worth more in pieces than as a monolith, Gerstner stood by his vision of a unified IBM. If anything, Gerstner welded the pieces of IBM into a tighter structure, using the established framework of hardware and software to support new growth in services.
Under Gerstner’s successor, Sam Palmisano, IBM began to change. In 2004, the company decided to jettison the PC business that it had never successfully integrated with its other activities. This move was the beginning of the end of IBM’s participation in the hardware business. Since that time IBM disposed of its X86 server business and its chip fabrication facilities. It is loosening its grip on computers based on its Power technology. It is shifting its focus on computing to the cloud, where it may eventually move even its flagship mainframe processing activities, and where a transformation of the mainframe from systems based on custom hardware technology to a virtual and emulated kind of platform could take place. IBM’s Power customers, whether in the AIX, Linux or IBM i worlds, would not be very surprised to learn, someday soon, that IBM was moving their environments to hardware based on chips from Intel or AMD or ARM. They might prefer the status quo, but they know how little influence they have over IBM’s corporate strategy.
The one path of recourse remaining for users of IBM legacy hardware may take them toward Vulcan. If they can get the Roman god of hardware to take their side, and perhaps to demonstrate his concern with a moderate earthquake or two, there could be new hope. If frightened, IBM’s managers might be willing to consider changes in direction. Unlike the arrogant leaders of old Pompeii, IBM’s top executives might appreciate that their survival and the survival of their city-state, IBM, should never be taken for granted.