Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thatcher and Reagan are gone, but their legacy "lives" on

There was a Season 2 episode of Star Trek (the original series) entitled “Patterns of Force,” in which Kirk and company are reconnoitering the planet Ekos in search of a missing Starfleet Academy professor named John Gill. They discovered that a formerly backward society was suddenly patterned on Nazi Germany; in one of the more amusing scenes in Star Trek lore, one of the Nazis examines Spock’s head and points out features denoting “low intelligence.” It turns out that Gill tried to encourage the planet’s population to adopt the “positive” aspects of Nazi ideology, but as Kirk points out to Spock, it cost millions of innocent lives—and millions more to eliminate it.  

Sometimes “change” occurs with results not anticipated. The Obama administration has been accused of instituting “radical” change, but this is only the opinion of the extreme right, for whom any movement “left” of their own position is “radical.” If anything, the only “change” that has occurred was the radicalization of the Right; any “change” that has occurred in the Obama administration has been cosmetic or of tone. In the past century there has been two periods of “radical” change in public policy: The New Deal and the “Reagan Revolution”—the latter which was more reactionary than revolutionary, but its effects were just as pronounced. 

Reagan, of course, didn’t as much set policy as simply allowed like-minded people do as they wished. Thus anti-environmental fanatics like James Watt and his EPA underlings were allowed to gut environmental law while taking kickbacks from businesses. HUD, the Labor Department and the Civil Rights enforcement office were equally corrupt and ineffective in their obligations. At a time when domestic manufacturing was under heavy pressure from foreign competition, the Reagan administration ignored the consequences—instead engaging in massive military construction projects that masked the damage being done to the domestic economy and the middle class. Foreign policy seemed to be conducted by a rogue fringe who operated mostly outside the law. Yet many on the Right have sanctified Reagan, and upon his departure from this earth, most in the media did so as well. Voices which decried his “legacy” were mainly drowned out.

As much can be said about the “legacy” of the recently departed Margaret Thatcher, former extreme-right prime minister of the United Kingdom.  The UK broadcast and right-wing media predictably put a positive spin on the past, no doubt in large part because of the “novelty" of a female prime minister. Meryl Streep played Thatcher in a recent film, and was nothing if not bubbly about her “greatness.” Those who chose to be less “tactful” in their opinions of her reign were criticized by some as being “sexist.” Carole Malone of The Mirror harrumphed that “I didn’t much like my country last week because I saw a side to it that was ugly and coarse and cruel…Maggie Thatcher wasn’t even cold before the tsunami of hatred crashed through the plaudits like a poison riptide. 'The Witch is dead', 'Rot in Hell', 'Rejoice, Thatcher is dead' said the vile banners, even though many of those brandishing them weren’t even alive when Thatcher was in power….And how ironic that the people screaming she’d wrecked the country and wrecked their lives still had enough money to buy champagne to drink to her death, to shout that they hoped it was a painful and degrading one.” 

Malone doth protest too much, as one reader had to remind her; this represented barely a drop in the ocean compare to the tsunami of media coverage, which was crassly submissive to Thatcher’s “memory.” Much of the backlash can be explained by this. The problem was that Thatcher didn’t care about people—at least those who were not on the wealthy side of the fence. Thatcher was swept into power because a significant percentage of workers—both skilled and low-skilled—were seeking “change” in an economy that was on the skids. But by the time these same people understood the long-term consequences of this “change” Thatcher was long gone. 

Malone’s colleague—Paul Routledge—was rather less defensive about the memory of the “Iron Lady.” 

If anyone is inclined to remind me one should not speak ill of the dead, let me remind them she had nothing good to say about us while she was alive. She changed everything, and for millions it was change for the worse. There was nothing like her before, and there has been nothing like her since. Thank God…A Great Maggie Myth has grown up in the two decades since she was forced – in tears – out of Downing Street by her own Cabinet colleagues. Those pygmies were not worthy of her, goes the script. She bestrode politics like a Boadicean colossus. What a woman! What a ruler! What a Brit! What a warrior! And it has become fashionable to offer unthinking praise at the altar of this myth.

Behind the myth was that fact that

She decimated our basic industries of coal and steel. Shipbuilding virtually disappeared, along with much of heavy engineering. She tried to destroy our free trade unions through repressive legislation, and damn well near succeeded. She branded miners fighting for their jobs and communities as “the enemy within”, a foul slur on decent working people and their families for which she will never be forgiven. She made mass unemployment respectable, and used it as a tool of government. The dole queues were “a price worth paying” under her regime – once described as “an elected dictatorship” by one of her own ministers. She created a new underclass of jobless men, took away their status as breadwinner in the home and forced millions of women back into the workplace so that families could make ends meet. If she was a women’s champion, I am Meryl Streep...

She enthroned the profit motive, and unleashed the spivs and speculators in the City of London. She surrendered economic policy to the mysterious dark forces of “the market”, which led UK plc into one recession after another that led to the mess where we are today…She took us into war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands , when her popularity ratings were rock bottom, to save an isolated British colony - and her own political face. On the back of that operation, she won a cynical landslide in the “khaki election” of 1983. Her enthusiasm for war initiated a new era of British militarism that has yet to run its course...

She tied the nation’s international policy like a tin can to the tail of the attack dog in the White House, President Ronald Reagan, backing his outlandish “Star Wars” system, which came to nothing. She flirted obscenely with the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, opposing UN sanctions and dismissing Nelson Mandela as a commie terrorist. She opposed the reunification of Germany. In Northern Ireland, she sanctioned a dirty war against Republicans, faced down hunger strikers so that 10 of them died, and delayed the onset of the Peace Process that could have come earlier but had to await the arrival of her successor, John Major, who initiated secret talks with the IRA...

Now that she’s gone, it’s fashionable to say that “whatever you think of Maggie, at least you have to admire her for sticking to her guns” I repudiate this modish claptrap. Look where she pointed those guns – at those who couldn’t defend themselves, their jobs and their way of life.

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was even less enthusiastic in his “praise”: 

I despised everything she stood for - she may have been a woman, but in her policies she showed no compassion to the sick, needy and the desperate…Thanks to her failed economic policies, Britain went through two recessions and unemployment was deliberately allowed to skyrocket above three million. Under her, crime went up 79 per cent. Her reign started with riots in Brixton and Toxteth and ended with civil disobedience and more riots against the Poll Tax, a regressive taxation that hit the poor the hardest…Thatcher never had faith in society. She claimed it didn’t exist. Her belief in the individual led to selling off council homes and refusing to build new ones, leading to record waiting lists for social housing and homelessness...

Under Thatcher, inequality increased and the number of people in poverty rose by nearly five million to 12.2million... nearly a quarter of the UK population. When she was elected, one in seven children lived in poverty. By the time she was sacked, by her own Cabinet, it was one in three…Thatcher’s “shareholder democracy” vision didn’t stop the privatised British Gas in 2012 making £606million profits and its five bosses sharing £16.4million in pay and bonuses…She left this country in a terrible state... bitter, selfish and­ ­divided. Her legacy is the out-of-touch Tory ­ministers hell-bent on replicating her nasty and twisted politics today. 

Prescott derided suggestions by some that Thatcher was the greatest post-war prime minister—much as some conservatives in this country claim that Reagan was the “greatest” post-war president this country has had. 

The antithesis of Thatcher was a prime minister who helped lead this country, with Churchill, against the scourge of fascism and then rebuilt this country. Clement Attlee, who served as Churchill’s deputy prime minister in the wartime cabinet, led Labour to victory in 1945, with policies to defeat the five evils of the pre-war Tory government:  “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.” He introduced a national system of benefits to protect people “from the cradle to the grave”. He brought in free secondary education, employed 25,000 extra teachers and achieved near full employment with only 500,000 people out of work. He built more than one million new homes fit for heroes. And his crowning achievement, a National Health Service with free medical treatment for all, based on need, not your ability to pay.

Thatcher’s “crowning achievement,” on the other hand, was to “split this country, North and South, the haves and have nots, ‘one of us’ or ‘the enemy within.’” Prescott also noted that many people are outraged by the fact that even now Thatcher is costing the country dear; in regard to the $16 million tab the current Conservative government is forcing the country to pay for her funeral, “This country paid enough thanks to that woman. So why the hell should we continue to pay now she’s dead? So I’ve an idea. Get the 13,000 millionaires who’ve just received £100,000 each from this Government to each stump up £770. Privatise her funeral. It would be a fitting tribute…On Wednesday I’ll remember the wasted lives, the blighted childhoods and the lost industries that were the result of Margaret Thatcher’s policies.”

After almost 12 years in power, even Thatcher’s own party had enough of her, eventually forcing her out in 1990 after opinion polls showed her to be the second most unpopular post-war prime minister. Of course, time “heals” old memories, but not for all.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lessons to be learned from the Russian experience with terrorism?

Recently I was standing outside the Kent Public Library waiting for it to open, when I happened to overhear a conversation between a young man and a much older one. The younger man was saying that he preferred to speak to older folks because they had more “sense” than other people. By this he meant that he couldn’t carry on a “conversation” with someone his own age because they were “ignorant”—and by this he meant that “they” didn’t know how to speak “respectfully” to him. He was always just on the edge of meting out “respect” from the point of a fist or worse. And you wonder why so many people get themselves killed, he said. 

I found this a plainly disturbing and sad commentary on how certain elements in our society have decided to conduct “conflict resolution.” It is also seems to suggest that violence in this country often has no obvious rational explanation, that it is often highly “personal” in nature. Instead of discussing differences and trying to find mutually agreeable solutions, some people simply wish to send a “message” that seldom has the “educational” aspect intended either heeded or understood as anything save mindless barbarism. In the Boston Marathon bombing, the perpetrators were two immigrant brothers—the older of the two who was apparently unable to integrate into American society and chose to explore radical Islam and its “message” of revenge and hatred, and the other, someone whose mind seemed a sponging vessel which his older brother could shape at will. 

The president of  the Russian Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has said in a statement that despite the fact that the perpetrators—Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar—are of Chechen extraction, the “evil” in their actions must be found in the United States. This is a disingenuous statement to say the least. No one was “persecuting” the Tsarnaevs in this country, and they had greater opportunity to advance themselves than some of the “natives” in this country do. 

So who better to “explain” the meaning of all of this but that source of anti-American propaganda, RT News—formerly “Russia Today”?  The price of being “sanctimonious” towards the Kremlin in its approach toward terrorism within its own borders, it declares, and “sympathy” towards the aspirations of Chechens only closed this country’s mind to the reality of “acts of calculated violence”—until it actually happened right here.  RT can be accused, of course, of being sanctimonious themselves in its deliberate “forgetfulness” of the U.S.’ own experiences with terrorism, which includes what is likely the single bloodiest act of terrorism in history on 9-11.  RT was also quick to point out that Russian authorities apparently contacted American intelligence in regard to Chechens who immigrated to the U.S. and who they regarded as potential Islamic extremists. However, this was not out of altruistic motivation; the Russians were afraid that potential terrorists would receive “training” in the U.S. far from the reach of Russian security, and would eventually return to conduct terrorist acts. One of these identified “threats” was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but FBI interrogators determined that he was not  “dangerous”—at least not for Russia, as it turned out. 

There was more finger-pointing, of course. The bombers’ dear mother claims that they were “set-up” by the FBI, and a relative claims that he kicked Tamerlan Tsarnaev out of his house during his recent six month visit, allegedly for expressing uncomfortable Islamic radicalism.  The relative insists that this stay in a relative hotbed of poverty and Islamic-inspired violence like Dagestan was not what “radicalized” him. 

Left unanswered is why Chechen “revolutionaries” would conduct their “business” in the U.S. when it was with Russia they had their “issues” with. Since the breakup of the old Soviet Union, Russia has “allowed” some ethnic populations in the Caucasus to form their own independent states (Georgia, Armenia—both with large Christian majorities), but has chosen to hold on to some troublesome regions for reasons not exactly clear, since they no longer have  economic or strategic value.  There is of course some speculation that Russia doesn’t want hotbeds of Islamic radicalism on its borders that it can’t control, and allowing them to gain independence would inspire other Islamic regions that are technically part of “old Russia.” But Russia might have made things worse for itself when its tough action in two conflicts turned a minority of Chechen nationalists into Islamic extremists. 

After two bloody wars between Russian forces and guerilla forces, Chechnya is in fact more “stable” than its two Islamic neighbors, Dagestan and Ingushetia—which are now experiencing much worse violence.  While most Chechens remain supportive of eventual independence, few care for the brand of Islamic government proposed by the extremists still hiding in the mountains and occasionally emerging to cause Russians to remember that they still exist. The two brothers, although ethnic Chechen, were born far from their “home” land, in Central Asia; this is explained by the fact that there was a mass deportation of Chechens during World War II, when Stalin saw them as potential allies of the Germans who would undermine Soviet forces defending the Caucasus during the Germans’ 1942 summer offensive (which ended with the surrender of the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad).  This explains why census data shows that ethnic Russians were in the majority in Chechnya at least until 1960, before native Chechens were allowed to return if they wished; nearly all ethnic Russians have since left Chechnya.  

Russian has indeed paid a price in its not always successful effort to keep its Islamic “republics” under strict control; also in evidence is Russia’s relative inexperience in handling terrorism.  In 1995, a hospital in the town of Budyonnovsk was the scene of a hostage crisis, in which 120 captives were killed after three attempts by Russian security forces to seize the building. The failure of these attacks led to a ceasefire agreement; many of the former hostages criticized the Yeltsin government for ordering the assaults in the first place.

In 1996, 200 Chechens guerillas attacked an airbase near the town of Kizlyar in Dagestan. After destroying several helicopters, the Chechens were chased into town, where they took up to 3,000 hostages and held them in another hospital.  Most were soon released on the promise of free passage for the rebels back to Chechnya, but negotiators were not informed that a force of Russian paratroopers were ready to intercept the  convoy before it reentered Chechen territory.  After this attack, the Chechens holed-up in another village; but following several failed assaults by Russian forces, the government claimed that the Chechens had killed their remaining hostages, using this as an excuse to fire indiscriminately into the village. Some of the Russian forces were killed by “friendly fire,” and in any event the Chechens held on long enough for most of them to escape into the Chechen mountain country, ending  in another embarrassment for the Russians.  Not surprisingly, one of the reasons why Vladimir Putin was elected president was his tough talk on Chechnya and end this “shame.”

In September 1999, the cities of Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk were rocked by explosions in apartment complexes, killing nearly 300 people and injuring over 600. However, there was at least some suspicion that all was not as it seemed. A few days later it was reported that a resident of an apartment building in the city of Ryazan had seen two men carrying suspicious sacks into the basement of the building. Police were notified, and they found sacks of white powder, with a timing device and detonator armed and ready. After the device was disarmed, it was discovered that bomb-making material was Russian military in origin. It was also revealed that a telephone operator had overheard two men telling each other they had to “get out of town” fast; the incoming call was traced to an office of the FSB—the successor to the KGB. Thus rumor had it that Russian intelligence was at work to concoct an “event” which would garner public support for another war in Chechnya. The anger from these suspicions was so strong that FSB director Nikolai Patrushev was forced to issue a statement, admitting that indeed the bombs in Ryazan were planted by FSB agents—but only to “test” the responses of security forces.

In 2002 a Moscow theater was engaged in a performance when armed Chechens took the audience hostage. In the course of this infamous event, 130 hostages were killed when Russian security forces fired canisters of an "unknown" gas into the building. Both the terrorists and hostages succumbed to its effects.  Several of the female guerillas were seen running for the balcony to escape the gas, but lost consciousness at the foot of the stairs; left unexplained was why they were found with extensive bullet wounds.  Many of the security personnel also succumbed to the gas, but more telling was the fact that in the aftermath of the attack, it was revealed that even the Chechens who passed out from the gas attack were shot where they lay. 

In 2004 almost 400 people were killed in the Beslan school hostage taking, including children. Again this was an example of either incompetence or overzealousness on the part of Russian security. It was charged that 80 percent or more of the hostages were killed by random fire by security forces.  One observer noted that this "presents a chilling portrait of the Russian leadership and its total disregard for human life." 

More recently was the 2010 Moscow Metro attack perpetrated by two female suicide bombers, killing nearly 40 people, and the 2011 attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport, which killed 36 people.

It is to be expected that many American commentators—including those who have found Russia to be more foe than friend—are suddenly sympathizing with Russia. However, it should be noted, contrary to current reporting in the U.S., that terrorist acts in Chechnya has decreased dramatically while its Islamic neighbors have seen vastly increased levels of violence, and some of these attackers were militants from Dagestan, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent many months in—and there is little doubt that he prepared for “war” while there.  Last year, a suicide bomber—an ethnic Russian woman who converted to Islam—assassinated Sheikh Said Afandi, who publicly denounced the Islamic insurgency and fundamentalism. Afandi’s killing was only one of a string of sectarian murders in Dagestan against Sufi Muslims regarded as not sufficiently fundamentalist in their beliefs.  

Nevertheless, we can learn something from the Russian experience.  Dmitry Babich, political analyst for the “Voice of Russia,” told RT that in regard to Chechen and other Islamic “refugees” from Russia immigrating to the West, “A lot of them didn’t change their convictions. A lot of them are die-hard Islamists. They didn’t change after leaving Russia and I can easily imagine that a lot of them consider both Russia and the US parts of the same western decadent civilization. In this situation they can wage their jihad not necessarily in a place like Syria or Iraq, but also in the US… If you expect any kind of gratitude and thankful thinking from these people you’re dead wrong. Most of the jihadists are egotists in their convictions. They think that they have the right to ascertain their convictions, they have the right to commit violence acts if they feed their cause. And their cause is the creation of this Islamic State. Maybe it could be an Islamic State in the North Caucasus. It could be a universal Islamic Caliphate. But that’s their thinking and I’m afraid in Boston they are dealing with exactly that kind of thinking.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Is it merely "coincidence" that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred on Patriots Day?

The Boston Marathon bombing not unpredictably excited a great many theories as to the identity of the perpetrators. The usual Middle Eastern suspects have been silent on the topic, but that did not stop Fox News from “speculating.” News that law enforcement had initially detained and questioned a Saudi citizen and the “similarity” of the explosive device to IEDs used in the Afghanistan was an excuse to wax grim about our overseas foes. But by Tuesday morning, anchor Megyn Kelly was telling viewers to ignore what they had been reporting for the last 24 hours; after all, everyone makes mistakes. Kelly—wearing a low-cut blouse and short skirt—was doing her phony emoting bit, equally stiff trying to be “sympathetic” to the parents of a victim who were initially misled by hospital staff, and then trying to appear “grave” talking in generalities about the event.

As of this writing, there has been no arrests in the Boston tragedy, but I certainly wouldn’t count out the perpetrators being domestic terrorists with a “message” to put forth. Is it just coincidence that the marathon took place on the same day as “Patriots Day,” a commemoration observed in Massachusetts to mark the first battles of the Revolutionary War in 1775? This wouldn’t be the first time that terrorists chose a specific date on the calendar  to “rationalize” their actions. On July 4, 1940 the British Pavilion of the World Fair in New York City was bombed, and two police officers were killed. The Nazis and the Irish were variously blamed, but the perpetrators were never identified. The World Fair had been in progress since the year previous, so it was not likely that this was a “random” date chosen by the bombers, and the July 4 obviously has a particular meaning in Anglo-American history; the U.S. had not yet entered the war, and this may have been meant to be a message that some Americans were not happy about the pressure from Britain on U.S.’ “neutrality.”

And of course there was Timothy McVeigh choosing April 19 to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City; it was the day of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound that ended in a conflagration and the deaths of many Davidians. For anti-government fanatics, they didn’t need any more proof to justify their beliefs.

These days, people who call themselves “patriots” are usually anti-government types of varying levels of fanaticism. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified over 800 of these groups throughout the country. Some states have a surprising number of them within its borders; the state of Washington has always been a hotbed of right-wing extremist and white supremacist types (like militia star Shawna Forde, currently on death row in Arizona for the racially-inspired murder of a Latino man and his young daughter), but its tally of 27 of these “patriot” groups seems to give it more of these outfits per capita than any other state. 

Some of these groups are dangerous; the recent attempt to mail order ricin to President Obama and others is hardly new. In 1992, the so-called Minnesota Patriots Council had the same idea, except that law enforcement was its target; however, these "patriots"  seemed particularly disturbed about the "mud people" and other "godless" elements inhabiting the state and how to make them disappear.   Four members of the group purchased castor beans through the mail, offered by a ""company" called "Avenging Angel Supply" in Ashland, Oregon. An advertisement--offering customers an opportunity to play amateur assassin on the cheap--was printed in the CBA Bulletin, an Oregon-based right-wing religious extremist and rabidly anti-Semitic screed. Instructions were provided to transform the beans into a “silent tool of justice” causing “silent death.” This “patriot” group was the first to be prosecuted under a new biological terrorism law passed in the late 1989. 

At the present moment, two “suspects” are being sought, although photographs that may or may not be the bombers show little detail but the clothing they are wearing. I’m betting that this is the work of an anti-government fanatic or group, although I could be wrong; the arrests of a disgruntled former justice of the peace and his wife who are alleged to have tag-teamed in the shooting deaths of a Texas district attorney, his wife and a prosecutor seems to rule-out the work of a white supremacist prison gang or a Mexican drug cartel, as had been previously speculated.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Windows 8 fiasco not enough to kill-off the PC

I’ve always been an early adopter of the latest electronic media gadgetry. I was fascinated by the first Compact Discs that appeared in record stores (most which are out of business) and I was hooked. Besides offering superior sound, they seemed indestructible; I have CDs I purchased 30 years ago that still play perfectly. Soon afterwards came the Laser Disc video format; although it never reached mainstream mass, not because you couldn’t record with it—that was the rationalization of people with huge video tape collections they didn't want to replace—but because the discs were oversized and the hardware bulky and sometimes unreliable in operation. Nevertheless, I was taken in by (relatively) superior video quality “indestructability” and the fact that the early releases tended to back catalogue classic titles. There was no pussyfooting around releasing popular titles; the Star Wars trilogy was an early release, while music rights issues under the VHS release contracts were continued (without original rights’ holders approval) with LD, which explains why Looking For Goodbar was an early LD release, while still awaiting an official DVD release.

When the DVD format arrived, this was a godsend opportunity to build an extensive library of classic films on a format that was compact and with proper care, virtually indestructible; I still have disks I purchased in 1999 that have avoided the “rot” that was supposed to develop in air pockets between the recorded surface and the resin protective cover, and play as if new. The next “wow” item was mp3 players, no doubt aided by the proliferation of (not yet illegal) download sites like Napster. The first Nomad Juke Box was gigantic compared to today’s mp3 players, and the initial asking price was an astonishing $600. The reason for its bulky size was that it was essentially a 6-gigabyte hard drive which contained mp3 playback software; 6-gigabytes was a lot of space even for computers of the day, and you could potentially fit 2,000 songs at a 128-kb rate on it. Of course the problem with it was that if you dropped it, the hard drive could be damaged and useless.  

As for computers, I have mentioned that I was an Apple fanatic early on starting with the all-in-one Classic II. But by 1997, keeping up with Apple had become too expensive with less to show for the expenditure; it was easier to predict what you would be getting with a Wintel PC and its subsequent shelf life, plus there was much more software available for it. That wasn’t the only problem with Apple computers; for me, my computer has to be a multimedia entertainment center, not for “streaming” media off the Internet but what I can play independently from the machine itself. This means having sufficient hard drive space and an optical drive—preferably a Blu-ray drive, which Apple has sworn-off and making it even more unpalatable an option in my mind. It should be obvious from a comparison that you get more “bang” for your buck with a Wintel machine, at least insofar as hardware is concerned.

I have not jumped into the latest fad of “smart” phones or tablets,  however. I have a modest cellphone that has mobile wi-fi for news and sports, but otherwise its only use to me is as a time keeper and alarm clock; frankly, when I am forced to listen to someone sitting behind me on a bus shouting into their phone in an incomprehensible tongue, I think the cellphone to  be most annoying invention ever conceived by man. Tablets and “electronic books” seem to me to be less functional than gimmicks—more of an “accessory” to one’s wardrobe. I need something that is productive and I can be productive with. Writing this blog would be impossibly cumbersome and time-consuming using anything other than a full-size keyboard.

And that brings to me to rumors of the death of the personal computer, which has received greater “credence” upon news that PC sales have dropped 14 percent in the first three months of the year. Much of the blame for this has fallen on the lap of Microsoft’s latest Windows 8 operating system—a charge which frankly has some merit. According to a technology website called Channel Eye,

“While Microsoft’s (MSFT) launch of Windows 8 was supposed to be the big change that the company needed to help personal computers keep pace with touch-based devices such as tablets and smartphones, new research from Information Data Corporation (IDC) suggests it has so far had the opposite effect. According to IDC’s latest numbers, PC shipments posted their “steepest decline ever in a single quarter” in Q1 2013, as the 76.3 million PCs shipped represented a 13.9% decline from Q1 2012. To make matters worse, IDC analyst Bob O’Donnell says that Windows 8 bears at least some of the blame for the accelerated decline in PC shipments.”

The “radical” changes to the user interface are largely to blame for Windows 8’s problems. If the changes were merely significantly different from an appearance perspective, that would not be an issue that could not be overcome; the problem with the new operating system—in particular with computers that do not have touch screen capability—is that the “apps” design makes it harder, not easier, to access data and applications. People who buy PCs want them for specific purposes. Sure, there are “gamers” who want as much horsepower they can get, but for the most part people want them as productivity aids—as in word and data processing, graphics, CGI—and if you are like me, full screen capable DVD and Blu-ray-quality playback. If I wanted to, I could plug in a television tuner as well, and I could have an all-in-one entertainment system without having to worry about download speeds, or having wi-fi access at all. 

What I don’t want is a cluttered interface papered over with useless icons that do nothing when I press them except pop-up in an empty full screen with no menu options, with only the same icon staring at me (except bigger and even more pointless). If I wanted this, I’d have bought a “dumb” phone. But I didn’t, and millions of other PC and laptop users didn’t want this either; they expected Windows 8 to be an improvement, but except for a few tweaks it seems more a chore to use.  We use a handful of programs for work and play, and stunned by the fact that Windows 8 no longer has a Start Menu, and that means that it is a pain in the ass to access the programs, do searches and even shut off the damn thing, all this requires waving the mouse in the right corner of the screen, hoping that a sidebar will eventually appear, and not disappear until you’ve had time to move the mouse down to, say, the power button. If you want to access programs or search—well, I’ll get to that later. 

Further disconcertingly, Microsoft did away with a dedicated word processing program built-in. Microsoft Works was removed years ago, vendors stopped paying for Microsoft Word, and now even Word Starter is gone, leaving something called Word Pad, which does not have any spelling or grammar tools, nor does it save text as a Word document. Just as bad is the removal of DVD playback codecs for Windows Media Player. 

That is not to say that there is nothing good about Windows 8; some of its new features are an improvement. When you plug in a USB drive, its contents automatically appear on the screen. The Task Manager also seems to provide more useful information; but frankly most of the “improvement” is cosmetic at best, such as  a copy-file screen that gives you a graphic of the speed a file is being copied at—but what good is that, really? And you can get out of the new interface by hitting the “desktop” icon, although there is still no Start Menu; you have to clutter your desktop with shortcuts to get easy access to the programs you want to use.  Of course, you always did this with previous versions of Windows, but now you have to do it because you have no choice. The “search” option is certainly strange; before, you could type in a word from the Start Menu or from an open window. Now, you have to coax open that sidebar, and then you have to choose between three different search modules, because each one is designed to “search” for specific items. While I presume the operating system is more stable, any performance improvement is probably due to my Sony laptop having a new third-generation i7 processor and 2 Gb of dedicated video memory. 

I still say that I prefer Wintel computers over Apple, because the latter skimps on hardware while charging you out the nose for the privilege of using its operating system, while the former does the opposite; unfortunately, you can’t have the best of both worlds, especially since Apple not only refuses to offer Blu-ray drives in its computers, but now has sworn-off any optical drives completely. Apple claims that this is because users prefer downloaded media; I think it is because a Blu-ray compatible PC or laptop requires more robust hardware, and that would hurt the company’s profit margin. PC users know this; they use Wintel machines for serious business, and Apple computers are for showing off. If Steve Ballmer listened to me, I would say to him that he should get his operating system people to work on a free software patch that defaults to the desktop screen—or do away with current “apps” screen altogether—and provide more intuitive access to needed programs and functions. It’s a job to even to shut down a computer safely, and you even have to use the search function to find the Control Panel. 

As it is now, people out buying a new PC or laptop are confronted with a surface interface that is confusing, irritating and has no obvious application. People who use computers and those who spend their time touching tiny screens are two different animals with different needs; a computer that functions like a tablet or “smart” phone fails in its reason for being.  For those who have “figured” out Windows 8—meaning how to get out of its useless IU, and work around its unintuitive features—Microsoft has not created a “final” version of its operating system merely in need of occasional updates, but one in need of an overhaul to its interface almost as drastic as moving from DOS  to the original Windows.           
Nevertheless, it’s a bit premature to count the personal computer out. Pompous seers may claim that paperbound books will soon be extinct; let’s hope not, because when the power is gone or the software crashes, all your Kindle becomes is a useless piece of silicone and plastic. Yes, you can’t carry a laptop computer in your pocket, it’s cumbersome to use as a phone and it doesn’t have instant access to a wi-fi network everywhere you go; while some people do use their computers for web surfing, even in that the PC is vastly more useful than a tablet or “smart” phone. There will always be a market for personal computers and laptops—albeit a smaller one—because there are some people who just want more than a toy that is still much more limited than the real thing.