Beachhead - Sinking of the USS Proprietary

by Jon “maddog” Hall

I hang out at the small bar and restaurant called Alideia dos Piratas (Village of the Pirates) on my favorite beach. The owners are the Fafa Brothers, Jose and Chuy, and I regularly meet there to have dinner and discuss things with my friends, collectively known as The Dudes.

One day while I was having one of my favorite drinks, one of the Dudes came in very excited and told us that the latest victim of the sea, the USS Proprietary, was floundering offshore. Most of the people in the bar were not surprised. We had been expecting something like this for a while.

“Stupid people”, said Dennis, one of the head Dudes. “We told them that the ship was too big and clumsy for the shallow waters. It was not able to turn in time and got caught on the shoals. They should have had a smaller, more nimble ship sail into the harbor.”

I patiently explained to Dennis the economics of building ever-larger ships that could more efficiently carry ever-larger cargoes of goods, but he was unconvinced.

“Yes”, he said, “I understand the issues, but think about the fact that larger ships can go only to the larger ports. Then you have to pay more to ship the goods to the areas where you really want them. Smaller ships can go closer to the other towns and reduce the overland transportation time and costs. You give up flexibility when you use the 'bigger is better' strategy.”

Some of the other Dudes started chiming in. “Yes”, said Jimmy, “and I wanted to ship just a small desk the other day. If I wanted to send it via one of the big vessels, they wanted me to 'consolidate' it with other items, and would not talk to me unless I needed to ship tons of cargo at one time. It would have taken me months of time to find enough furniture to make the large shippers even notice me. The smaller ship captains were eager to get my business, and I got my desk shipped in the time frame needed for my customer. So who gave me better service, the large ship or the smaller boat? I could not even get the proper telephone number for the larger shipper—I just kept being put on hold.”

“What about risk?”, I asked. “Don't you feel better about relying on the larger firms with the bigger boats?” Thiago snorted, “And what ship is lying offshore floundering? When I go to try to get restitution for my lost goods, whose throat can I get my hands around? Have you ever really read their warranties and liability limitations? I know where to find the small ship captains—they usually go to my church, my club and are on my Chamber of Commerce. They are local to me and value my business. The money I give them to ship my goods stays in the local economy, and often they come to my shop to buy food. When I give money to the owners of Proprietary, they take the money out of the local economy and I never see it again. It may even go out of the country, affecting our balance of payments.” Thiago always was the deep thinker of the group.

It was now Chico's turn to add his thoughts, “What about the 'shipping drain'?” We all turned to him with a quizzical look. “Sure”, he said, “we train lots of people in how to sail ships, but then they leave the area and go off to find jobs on these big ships. We lose the best people because they do not feel they can get a good job locally. If we could make it easier for them to get a decent living here, they would stay here and build up the shipping industry again. Remember, 'Think globally, ship locally.'”

“But guys”, I said, “surely there are jobs that are just too big for a bunch of small- to medium-sized ships to tackle. Jobs that require something the size of the USS Proprietary.” “Maybe”, Dennis agreed, “but you really should think about it and balance the issues. Most of the time the smaller vessels would be just fine, and other times you might be able to break up your shipment to take advantage of the greater flexibility of having smaller boats, rather than having to put all of your shipment on one carrier. This is just one of the advantages of having control over your shipment, instead of relying on a consolidator who puts everything into one black box and refuses to let you exercise control.”

With that we all stared out to sea, looking at the other hulks of boats lying on the shoals, whose cargoes went down never to be recovered:

  • USS WANG

  • USS Apollo

  • USS Prime

  • USS DG

  • USS DEC

  • USS Compact

And we wondered when the Proprietary would have its final death knell.

Jon “maddog” Hall is the Executive Director of Linux International (www.li.org), a nonprofit association of end users who wish to support and promote the Linux operating system. During his career in commercial computing, which started in 1969, Mr Hall has been a programmer, systems designer, systems administrator, product manager, technical marketing manager and educator. He has worked for such companies as Western Electric Corporation, Aetna Life and Casualty, Bell Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, VA Linux Systems and SGI. He is now an independent consultant in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Business and Technical issues.

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