These posts are either "jump pages" for my weblog or posts-in-process that will eventually appear there. For what it's worth, here's an archive of these random bits. The picture to the left is by a famous comic book artist.
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The Review of Reviews
New York Times Editorial
August 3, 2004
The beginning of the end came last February, when anonymous book reviews on Amazon.com's Canadian site were posted with reviewers' real names. For some, it was an embarrassing unmasking. Several authors had raved about their own books. A number of reviewers had tried to skew the Amazon system, supporting friends or attacking enemies with anonymous or pseudonymous reviews. What kept this from being merely laughable is the scale of Amazon's business and the role customers' reviews play in its social and financial economy. Like eBay, Amazon.com is a community, and trust is one of its most important commodities. Just visit Amazon's discussion boards if you don't believe it.
That's why Amazon recently stopped accepting anonymous customer reviews, replacing them with a program called Real Names. Reviewers who use their own names will have a Real Name badge posted next to their reviews. (Pen Names are permitted, but they're less acceptable.) According to its Web site, Amazon believes that "a community in which people use their Real Names will ultimately have higher-quality content."
That is certainly possible. The problem is proving your identity. To get a Real Name, you must have a credit card on file or "a reasonable purchase history." What "reasonable" means is up to the company. If you use a credit card, your identity becomes synonymous with its number, which is not made public, of course. That may be a mordant comment on the state of modern identity, but, as some Amazon reviewers have noted, it's hardly an ironclad guarantee against reviewer fraud.
Real Names is as much about adding subtlety to Amazon's internal ranking system as it is about outing cheaters. In fact, there's something eerily recursive about the entire situation. Customers review Amazon's products. Customers also review other customers' reviews. Your "reputation" depends upon the reviews of your reviews, and your reviews get more weight with a "Real Name" badge, which prevents you from reviewing yourself. But in the discussion boards - which only true zealots see - reviewers often discuss reviews of their reviews. In the end, it's probably easier just to go to the library and browse.
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Frank Rich: Beautiful minds and ugly truths
Frank Rich NYT
Friday, May 21, 2004
NEW YORK "But why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and how many, what day it's gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it's, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that? And watch him suffer." - Barbara Bush on "Good Morning America," March 18, 2003.
She needn't have worried. Her son wasn't suffering. In one of the several pieces of startling video exhibited for the first time in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," we catch a candid glimpse of President George Bush about 36 hours after his mother's breakfast TV interview - minutes before he makes his own prime-time TV address to take the nation to war in Iraq. He is sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. A makeup woman is doing his face. And Bush is having a high old time. He darts his eyes about and grins, as if he were playing a peek-a-boo game with someone just off-camera. He could be a teenager goofing with his buds to relieve the passing tedium of a haircut.
"In your wildest dreams you couldn't imagine Franklin Roosevelt behaving this way 30 seconds before declaring war, with grave decisions and their consequences at stake," said Moore in an interview before his new documentary's premiere at Cannes last Monday. "But that may be giving him credit for thinking that the decisions were grave." As we spoke, the consequences of those decisions kept coming. The premiere of "Fahrenheit 9/11" took place as news spread of the assassination of a widely admired post-Saddam Iraqi leader, Ezzedine Salim, blown up by a suicide bomber just a hundred yards from the entrance to America's "safe" headquarters in Baghdad, the Green Zone.
Whatever you think of Moore, there's no question he's detonating dynamite here. From a variety of sources - foreign journalists and broadcasters (like Britain's Channel Four), freelancers and sympathetic American TV workers who slipped him illicit video - he supplies war-time pictures that have been largely shielded from our view. Instead of recycling images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, once again, Moore can revel in extended new close-ups of the president continuing to read "My Pet Goat" to elementary school students in Florida for seven long minutes after learning of the attack. Just when Abu Ghraib and the savage beheading of Nicholas Berg make us think we've seen it all, here is yet another major escalation in the nation-jolting images that have become the battleground for the war about the war.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" is not the movie Moore watchers, fans or foes, were expecting. (If it were, the foes would find it easier to ignore.) When he first announced this project last year after his boorish Oscar-night diatribe against Bush, he described it as an exposť of the connections between the Bush and bin Laden dynasties. But that story has been so strenuously told elsewhere that it's no longer news.
Moore settles for a brisk recap in the first of his film's two hours. And, predictably, he stirs it into an over-the-top, at times tendentious replay of a Bush hater's greatest hits: Katherine Harris, the Supreme Court, Harken Energy, AWOL in Alabama, the Carlyle Group, Halliburton, the lazy Crawford vacation of August 2001, the Patriot Act. But then the movie veers off in another direction entirely. Moore takes the same hairpin turn the country has over the past 14 months and crash-lands into the gripping story that is unfolding in real time right now.
Wasn't it just weeks ago that we were debating whether we should see the coffins of the American dead and whether Ted Koppel should read their names on "Nightline"? In "Fahrenheit 9/11," we see the actual dying, of American troops and Iraqi civilians alike, with all the ripped flesh and spilled guts that the violence of war entails. We also see some of the 4,000-plus American casualties: those troops hidden away in clinics at Walter Reed and at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where they try to cope with nerve damage and multiple severed limbs. They are not silent. They talk about their pain and their morphine, and they talk about betrayal. "I was a Republican for quite a few years," one soldier says with an almost innocent air of bafflement, "and for some reason they conduct business in a very dishonest way."
Perhaps the most damning sequence in "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the one showing American troops as they ridicule hooded Iraqis in a holding pen near Samara in December 2003. A male soldier touches the erection of a prisoner lying on a stretcher underneath a blanket, an intimation of the sexual humiliations that were happening at Abu Ghraib at that same time. Besides adding further corroboration to Seymour Hersh's report that the top command has sanctioned a culture of abuse not confined to a single prison or a single company or seven guards, this video raises another question: Why didn't we see any of this on American TV before "60 Minutes II"?
The New York Times reported in March 2003 that Americans were using hooding and other inhumane techniques at CIA interrogation centers in Afghanistan and elsewhere. CNN reported on Jan. 20, after the U.S. Army quietly announced its criminal investigation into prison abuses, that "U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners." And there the matter stood for months, even though, as we know now, soldiers' relatives with knowledge of these incidents were repeatedly trying to alert Congress and news organizations to the full panorama of the story.
Moore says he obtained his video from an independent foreign journalist embedded with the Americans. "We've had this footage in our possession for two months," he says. "I saw it before any of the Abu Ghraib news broke. I think it's pretty embarrassing that a guy like me with a high-school education and with no training in journalism can do this. What the hell is going on here? It's pathetic."
The movie's second hour is carried by the wrenching story of Lila Lipscomb, a flag-waving, self-described "conservative Democrat" from Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, whose son, Sergeant Michael Pedersen, was killed in Iraq. We watch Lipscomb, who "always hated" antiwar protesters, come undone with grief and rage. She clutches her son's last letter home and reads it aloud, her shaking voice and hand contrasting with his precise handwriting on lined notebook paper.
Sergeant Pedersen thanks his mother for sending "the bible and books and candy," but not before writing of the president: "He got us out here for nothing whatsoever. I am so furious right now, Mama." By this point, Moore's jokes have vanished from "Fahrenheit 9/11." So, pretty much, has Moore himself. He can't resist underlining one moral at the end, but by then the audience, crushed by the needlessness of Lipscomb's loss, is ready to listen. Speaking of America's volunteer army, Moore concludes: "They serve so that we don't have to. They offer to give up their lives so that we can be free. It is, remarkably, their gift to us. And all they ask for in return is that we never send them into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary. Will they ever trust us again?"
A particularly unappetizing spectacle in "Fahrenheit 9/11" is provided by Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of both the administration's Iraqi fixation and its doctrine of "preventive" war. We watch him stick his comb in his mouth until it is wet with spit, after which he runs it through his hair. This is not the image we usually see of the deputy defense secretary, who has been ritualistically presented in the U.S. press as the most refined of intellectuals - a guy with, as Barbara Bush would have it, a beautiful mind.
No one would ever accuse Moore of having a beautiful mind. Subtleties and fine distinctions are not his thing. That matters very little, it turns out, when you have a story this ugly and this powerful to tell.
Making the world safe for free software
A litigious blitzkrieg by the anti-Linux crusader the SCO Group has been enraging open-source developers for months. But SCO's attack has ignited its own counterreaction.
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By Farhad Manjoo
April 15, 2004 | In the summer of 2002, engineers at the Chrysler Corp.'s research and development facility in Auburn Hills, Mich., jumped on the Linux bandwagon. For several years, the company had been running computerized simulations of high-speed vehicle crashes on a network of expensive -- and, eventually, comparatively slow -- Unix mainframes; each crash test would take days to compute, eating into Chrysler's production cycle.
The company's IT department, with consultation from IBM, saw that a "cluster" of Linux machines could do the job faster, for less money. By replacing its Unix system with about 100 off-the-shelf IBM PCs running Red Hat Linux, Chrysler boosted the speed of each crash test by about 20 percent, while reducing maintenance costs by about 40 percent.
Chrysler's experience with Linux makes for a classic open-source software success story. By choosing the free, flexible operating system over a proprietary system, the company saved money and time; the story would make a good ad for Red Hat and IBM. And that's probably why the SCO Group -- the small software company in Linden, Utah, that has been Linux's biggest detractor during the last year -- decided to punish Chrysler.
SCO claims that Linux is actually an illegal derivative of the Unix operating system, which SCO says it owns. In a lawsuit filed on March 3, SCO accused DaimlerChrysler, Chrysler's corporate parent, of violating the terms of a Unix license Chrysler signed in the 1980s -- the violation, SCO suggested, stemmed from Chrysler's adoption of Linux in place of Unix. At the same time, SCO sued AutoZone, the giant car parts retailer, which uses Linux in each of its 3,000 stores; SCO claims that by using Linux, AutoZone is "willfully" infringing upon SCO's intellectual property.
To fans of Linux, SCO's latest moves are both silly and a little bit scary. The company's case is widely thought to be extremely weak. Of course, people say, SCO is never going to stop AutoZone and DaimlerChrysler from using Linux! But the scary part is that it might not matter much whether SCO's case is weak, because even frivolous lawsuits demand an (often expensive) defense. Consequently, some in the open-source community wonder whether SCO's case indicates a real cause for concern with free software.
"They sued AutoZone and DaimlerChrysler even though those companies didn't do anything wrong and acted in good faith," says Daniel Egger, a partner at the venture capital firm Eno River Capital. AutoZone and DaimlerChrysler simply purchased open-source software; they didn't write the code. But "because of a quirk in our legal system," Egger says, "you can be sued for using software when you did nothing wrong, just because some third party claims that they own part of that software or that the software infringes on their rights."
This is a problem, Egger says. Corporations take risks all the time, but they're not fans of unquantifiable risks. Companies don't want the free software they install today to become a hundred-million-dollar legal boondoggle five years from now. And that's why what the open-source world could really use, Egger says, is a financial mechanism to measure and eliminate the "risk" associated with using software like Linux. There's a word for such a complex-sounding system: "insurance." And if you're the IT manager at a big company and you're thinking of installing Linux, Daniel Egger would like to sell you some coverage.
Egger is the founder of Open Source Risk Management, or OSRM, an innovative new firm that will soon begin offering insurance protection for Linux. At the cost of $30 per $1,000 of coverage, OSRM promises to defend Linux against all infringement claims, exactly the kind of suits that Chrysler and AutoZone are now facing. If SCO represents the biggest threat to Linux in its existence so far, then OSRM is a classic example of how the flexible open-source world reacts to every new threat -- by innovating a new, widely distributed, from-the-bottom-up solution.
Insurance is crucial for Linux, Egger says. Unlike proprietary software, the free operating system is vulnerable to third-party infringement claims. When large corporations buy applications from proprietary software firms such as Microsoft, they are usually sold rock-solid "indemnification" packages -- clauses that let the customer off the hook in the case of any legal question surrounding the software. But it's not the same for Linux, which was written by many developers all over the world and can't be guaranteed by a single firm. It wouldn't be fair to ask Red Hat, say, to indemnify you of any claims against Linux, Egger points out. "You would be asking them to guarantee something which they have no more knowledge of than you do," he says. "You're asking them to do something where they might be in the position of having to guarantee what their competitors wrote."
Egger believes that only a neutral firm can guarantee the legality of Linux, and only one that has strong ties to the developer community. In order to guarantee that Linux isn't infringing on anyone else's property, OSRM is inspecting the OS's code with the help of many developers. The firm is being advised by such open-source gurus as Bruce Perens, and it has hired Pamela Jones, a paralegal who runs the popular Groklaw discussion site, to help with legal strategies. Jones is the pioneer of what she terms "open legal research" -- complex legal research done in the open, on the Web, by groups of people with varied expertise in law and code. During the past year, Groklaw has been the center of such research aimed at thwarting the SCO case; Jones and others on Groklaw plan to do similar work for OSRM.
It's these ties to the open-source community that make OSRM most interesting. The firm, says Bruce Perens, gives open-source developers a chance to stand by their work. "What we are saying is, for a very small amount per year we will put our money where our mouth is," Perens says. IT managers "will not have to defend this use to their bosses again."
There's no evidence, yet, that SCO's efforts against Linux have been effective. For several months, SCO has been asking corporate users of Linux to pay it for the right to use the free operating system -- but in the first quarter of the fiscal year, the company only managed to sell $20,000 worth of licenses for Linux, which suggests that most firms don't believe SCO's claim that it owns Linux. (In order to sell these $20,000 worth of licenses, SCO spent about $3.4 million on litigation during the quarter.) Meanwhile, the Linux market seems as strong as ever. Don Marti, the editor of Linux Journal, points out, for example, that the Linux server business experienced double-digit growth during the past year.
But Marti also says that he knows of some companies that are at least delaying plans to migrate from Unix to Linux, which is understandable considering SCO's attacks. Both AutoZone and DaimlerChrysler were once celebrated for their adoption of Linux; now they're being sued for it. If you were a large corporation thinking about Linux, wouldn't you wait until the dust settled?
Well, if you were a lawyer at one of those Linux-leaning corporations, one thing you might consider doing first is reading Groklaw. Groklaw was founded about a year ago by Pamela Jones, a paralegal and a techie who became intrigued by SCO's $5 billion case against IBM. SCO claimed that IBM engineers had secretly stolen code from SCO's Unix software and stuffed the code into Linux, making Linux an illegal copy of SCO's property. Jones, who was skeptical of this claim, began blogging about it. "I thought maybe, in my wildest scenario, a hundred people would ever read what I was doing, and I was thinking exclusively of a blog, not a Web site," Jones told Salon in an e-mail interview. "Blogs are more casual and have more leeway editorially. So I was just breezing along with panache, without a care in the world. It felt like I was writing 'Dear Diary, today SCO did thus and so.'" But as the SCO case heated up, Jones saw her site catapulted into the spotlight -- i.e., it was getting frequent links from Slashdot -- and the content morphed into something more than breezy blogging. Soon, she says, groups of people with expertise in various areas of the law and software development began offering her tips, and in a short time these readers began working together on Groklaw projects aimed at undoing SCO's case.
For example, in January, a group of Groklaw regulars published an exhaustive examination of a set of files in Unix System V called the Application Binary Interface; the team looked at the legal and technical history of these files, as well as SCO's role in their development, in order to determine whether SCO could reasonably sue others for using the ABI files. Their conclusion: "I think you will see from this article alone that if SCO is planning to sue anyone over the ABI files, unless there are facts we haven't unearthed, they seem to be leaning on a rickety bamboo reed."
"I couldn't do that definitive research without the community," says Pamela Jones. "I don't think IBM could either, for that matter. I believe we have established that there is no point in SCO pursuing the ABI files."
Jones has been praised by just about everyone in the open-source world for her efforts to undermine SCO. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, has said that Groklaw shows "how the open-source ideals end up working in the legal arena, too, and I think that has been very useful and made a few people sit up and notice." Bruce Perens calls Jones "paralegal to the world." Clay Shirky, the influential tech pundit, points out that "Groklaw may also be affecting the case in the courts, by helping IBM with a distributed discovery effort that they, IBM, could never accomplish on their own, no matter how many lawyers they throw at it."
About the only party not happy with Groklaw is SCO. The firm's CEO, Darl McBride, has publicly accused IBM of secretly funding Groklaw (Pamela Jones denies this.) In an interview with Salon, Blake Stowell, a spokesman for the firm, dismissed the idea that Groklaw can be a source for well-researched insight into the SCO case; in his view, much of what goes on at Groklaw is unabashed SCO-bashing. "One of Groklaw's biggest roles is to provide an opinion," Stowell said. "I think they have been successful in having an awful lot of people come to their site to gain an opinion on things. But it's a very one-sided opinion, and if that's the only thing that people read to gain an opinion on things they're getting a very one-sided view." Stowell doesn't think that Groklaw has uncovered anything of lasting import legally. "I don't think they've influenced at all what we've done in our lawsuit," he said.
Reading through Groklaw, it's certainly easy to see Stowell's point. You'd be hard-pressed to find a pro-SCO word on the site, and, as on Slashdot or any other discussion board, "there's a lot of chatter and noise in the comments," notes Don Marti, of Linux Journal. But it's also true that readers of Groklaw often point to valuable primary sources of new information concerning complex legal controversies, Marti says, and for a lawyer looking into Linux, these resources are probably very helpful.
It's this aspect of Groklaw that attracted Egger, of OSRM. One part of establishing Linux's legality in order to offer insurance for it, Egger says, is sorting out the complicated legacy of Unix; Egger considered Groklaw the perfect forum to conduct this research. "The history of Unix is very tangled and confused," Egger says. Anybody who owns a bit of Unix can say, "There's something in Linux that is similar, so I'm going to sue!"
That's what SCO did, Egger says, "and if SCO can do this, there are about 30 other Unix product lines besides the ones that are in dispute in the SCO case, and we better find out what happened to those, who owns them and what happened to them." Through OSRM, Egger will fund part of Jones' work on building this "Unix timeline," but all of the information the project digs up will be given to the public domain, Egger says. The timeline project will also include the work of hundreds of volunteers who asked to help after Jones announced it on Groklaw. In an article to be published in a forthcoming issue of Linux Journal, Jones says that the volunteers include "most of the published historians of Unix and many of the people who actually contributed to Unix in the first place." She adds that one Groklaw reader has called her "the maintainer of the Linux anti-lawsuit kernel," which Jones says is a "good description of what our project is all about."
The core of the Linux operating system -- the "kernel" -- is made up of millions of lines of code written by programmers of varying ethical and professional obligations; it is not a piece of software designed to satisfy lawyers, as is probably the case with much of the code written at proprietary firms, but instead to satisfy developers. So how can OSRM ever be sure enough of what's inside Linux -- and of where it came from -- to offer insurance for the system? Egger says that the company has launched an extensive "certification process" of the operating system. The process is labor intensive, but, he says, not all that difficult.
"We look at the origin of the code and make sure it was written by reputable people," he says. "We make sure we know they weren't involved in litigation, and that the companies they worked for agree that they were authorized to contribute this code to Linux. So we look at who wrote the code and what documentation there is around that." OSRM also maintains a "huge database" of both proprietary and open code from other software, Egger says, and the company is comparing that code with the Linux code "to look for possible copying." The company has not yet completed its certification of Linux, but so far, Egger says, "I have not found anything that would cause me to be concerned -- it looks very, very clean." But Egger adds that if he did find something, "we wouldn't tell you -- we would just quietly work with the developers to fix it."
Egger considers this part of the process key to the success of OSRM. There are probably some in the open-source community who look askance at Egger's project; part of the business of selling insurance for a product, after all, is convincing customers that there's a risk associated with using that product, and many open-source developers don't think there's anything risky about using Linux. But Egger insists that he's not looking to profit from weaknesses in Linux -- and, indeed, he says he'll do everything he can to work with Linux developers to make the system safe from legal attacks. "We'll quietly identify places where better documentation, a better record will reduce the risk of future litigation," he says. "We call it 'papering the kernel.' We're engaged in these activities at a very high level. That's the value of insurance companies -- we're involved with the community in risk mitigation activities, in developing best practices for reducing exposure, and in proactive research." All of this, he says, makes Linux safer.
And slowly, fans of open-source software -- even the ones who think SCO's claims are bogus -- are coming around to the idea that Linux has got to be made safer from third-party infringement suits. Last year, Pamela Jones was somewhat skeptical of the idea that open-source software needed legal protection; now, she's changed her mind. "I haven't changed my mind about the strength of the GPL, [GNU General Public License] which is what really protects you," she notes. "But I became convinced, when I saw the stock price shooting up, that there will be copycat SCOs. I know my business enough to know that it is pretty much inevitable. Nuisance lawsuits are a fact of life. How do you protect against that threat?" OSRM, she says, offered "a way for the community to fight and win against future nuisance lawsuits ... Nuisance lawsuits will come. So we must be realistic."
Then Jones added this analogy: "When you buy insurance for your car, is it because you don't trust the workmanship or have doubts if Ford had the rights to the machinery that built it? Or is it because you realistically know there are bad people in the world who might steal your car or your radio or scratch your windshield by throwing a rock at your car?
"It's the same with software. There's nothing dangerous about GNU/Linux software. What you need protection from is people, bad people."