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Blame the workman

Feb 02, 20044 mins
Microsoft PowerPointNetworking

Gibbs on PowerPoint and its connection to the Columbia Space Shuttle crash: “The ship’s foam insulation was found to be the main cause of the disaster but another culprit was fingered: Microsoft PowerPoint.”

After my rant last week about pop-ups, -unders and -outs and the warning about the coming wave of TV-style Web advertising, you provided some interesting feedback. The reward fund I had proposed (I put up the first $100) for the first effective utility to block the new Web-based TV-style ads has risen to $425!

A couple of readers suggested that if we uninstalled Windows Media Player or disabled the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine we would solve the problem (Unicast, the TV-style ad technology supplier, notes that the lack of either of these prevents the display of ads).

This cannot work for consumers in general who would be hard-pressed to make such changes without Mr. Catastrophe paying a house call. There also are those people who need either or both of those subsystems for an application they use.

Another suggestion included adding the ad serving companies to black lists, but that would be easily defeated by them changing their domains and/or their IP addresses. Again, no cigar.

This is going to need some code. If you come up with something and want to get in the running for the reward money the software must be freeware, must not contain spyware of any kind, and at least 80% of the folks putting up the reward money must agree the software does what it is supposed to do reliably and effectively. The winner will most definitely be going for the glory rather than the riches.

Reader Mark Heider raised as a side issue something that reminded me of a topic I wanted to discuss a few months ago and got sidetracked from. He discussed the TV-style ads and then continued with, “The advertising trend that I currently dislike most is the Macromedia Flash advertisements, which are becoming more prevalent on weather and news sites in particular. These ads tend to be bandwidth hogs and hijack the underlying page until they have finished. There appears to be no easy way to disable these without causing legitimate uses of Macromedia to break as well.”

I couldn’t agree more, but what bothers me is how products and technologies become associated with and blamed for how they are used rather than who uses them.

A good example of this was the release last August of Volume 1 of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report on why the space shuttle crashed. The ship’s foam insulation was found to be the main cause of the disaster but another culprit was fingered: Microsoft PowerPoint.

The board decided that NASA had become too reliant on presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of by means of traditional ink-and-paper technical reports. The smoking gun was a confusing PowerPoint slide concerning an assessment of possible wing damage during the mission. You can see the slide and a critique of it by the legendary Edward Tufte.

The board announced that the engineers presented their findings in a slide “so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to untangle,” and went on, “It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.”

The implication was that foam insulation and PowerPoint were the guilty parties and never mind that the engineers did a shoddy job and that the NASA risk analysis process was deeply flawed. My grandmother had a saying that covers this rather nicely: “A poor workman blames his tools.”

While we persist in blaming the technology or its creators rather than the people who deploy and use it, we will never be able to fix the things we know to be broken. That is as true in the world of online advertising as it is in the world of space flight.


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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