Brier Dudley Doesn’t Pretext

Brier Dudley is a journalist for the Seattle Times.  He blogged a reply to my “Defending Dunn” piece.

He says, “I’ve never heard of any reporter using pretexting. It’s a slimy tactic and the information gained wouldn’t be worth the effort and ethical taint. A list of phone calls may be useful to a corporate leak investigation or a prosecutor, but reporters want to know what was said and why.”


I posted a reply to his blog’s moderation queue a few days ago, but it hasn’t been approved.  So I’m posting it here for posterity:

Thanks Brier; I hope readers to my blog can detect a bit of dry sarcasm in my writing (e.g. the “bigger resumes” part), since that’s what I’m trying for.

Regarding the Dunn thing, I think the “prove” comment came across wrong.  It sounds like I’m accusing journalists of pretexting, and that’s as ridiculous as accusing Dunn of pretexting.


When Dunn or a journalist talk to an information source who have access to phone records, they can never be sure if the phone records were obtained through pretexting, or through other means (such as dumpster diving).  Note that Larry Ellison didn’t lose his job when he hired people to go through Microsoft garbage cans looking for records.  As it is, even though pretexting is quickly becoming illegal, people’s phone records are still often obtainable in other ways, and journalists will continue to rely on sources who have information about phone calls.


The journalists jump on Dunn when she says “I didn’t know how the PI was getting the info”; but I think it’s a kind of misdirection.  Pretexting was going on for several years; and nobody cared.  The sheer immensity and scope of the phone-records stealing (and not just by pretexting) was staggering.  It’s hard for me to imagine an investigative journalist who never profited from tainted information, simply because it was too widespread.  Every single PI on the planet had accounts with these people.  I give kudos to the journalists who first started breaking the stories earlier this year.  But I wonder why nobody cared before?  And I wonder why nobody is honest about the fact that much of the information is still available?


It honestly reminds me of the Newt Gingrich cellphone eavesdropping controversy.  Everyone knew for 5 years that eavesdropping was going on.  It’s only when the plebes found out about it, and a senator got hurt, that it suddenly became a big ethical problem.  IMO, it was rather hypocritical.


As I’ve blogged several times, I think journalisms role is to shine the light on people who don’t want the light shining.  And transparency is absolutely necessary for a free and civil society.  So I feel investigative journalists have an important role and responsibility to “violate privacy for purposes of good.”  I’ve been very consistent in that view. 


So when journalists act like violating expectations of privacy is a “bad” thing across the board; I think it’s hypocritical.  Illuminating stuff that powerful people would rather keep hidden is the JOB of an investigative journalist.  I guess it’s things like this that make me doubt the press though.  Like I said, the press didn’t get so excited when Ellison dumpster-dove for Microsoft records.  The press didn’t get so excited every time a spouse hired a PI to get their ex’s phone records.  We run very calm and civil articles on “industrial espionage” twice per year.  It’s only when someone gets a reporter’s phone records that it’s a CRISIS!!  Now the press circles the wagons, convinces a few people to take board positions elsewhere, everyone hems and haws about how privacy violation is bad — and tomorrow the press will be back to ignoring the elephant in the room.


NYT today reporting that Hurd was a victim, he’s only a detail guy, how was he supposed to know what that crafty Dunn was doing?


Correcting the Record on Hailstorm

For some reason I never saw this MarkL post on Hailstorm when he posted a year and a half ago.

Wow.  It’s amazing to me that 5 years later, there is still such a huge disconnect between the way the Hailstorm/Win32 people write history, and the way the rest of us saw it.  Thank God (and Eric Bina) that we have a web where anyone can correct the record and preclude skewed accounts of history from becoming de-facto.

Mark goes to great lengths to challenge the notion that Hailstorm was a failure.  To do this, he explains that “others are successfuly shipping the essence of hailstorm”.  The first commenter to his post says, “RSS+Script+OWA seems a lot like Hailstorm”, and Mark replies “Interesting that you noticed the same similarities as I did”.

I am picking my jaw up off the floor.  All of these technologies predate Hailstorm by a long shot.  There is a reason they succeeded where Hailstorm failed.  It’s because Hailstorm failed to adopt their essence; not because they adopted Hailstorm’s essence.

Many of the people who started up the Hailstorm team were former Win32 and OS people with very little knowledge of the web and prior art.  So it’s understandable if they had that opinion.  In fact, I remember one interview with a pre-Hailstorm team (I got the job) where I was told “RSS is a load of crap, it will never amount to anything.”  ASP 1.0 classic was the first application server to popularize REST programming, but we were already happily abandoning that by the time Hailstorm came about.  We were moving toward VB-style callbacks in the web app server, and Hailstorm was more about porting Tibco to the web than about REST.  (And the idea that the web was based on REST is another piece of revisionist history).

I’m not criticizing the Hailstorm team for being ignorant of web architecture and prior art.  After all, anyone with expertise in web architecture was working for dot-coms at that point, and there weren’t many web people at the company.  When BillG did his “Universal Canvas” thing, a lot of people with “other” skills were jazzed up and wanted to contribute.  The Hailstorm team was formed; and eventually it bacame a magnet for the web people who hadn’t jumped ship.  Most of the IE team moved over, most of the OWA team, and the MCIS people.  Eventually, there were a lot of people with web architecture expertise on the team, but it was still led by people trained in OS platform thinking.

So, considering that the “principles” Mark’s blog post cites are actually principles of the technologies Hailstorm aimed to replace; what exactly was unique about Hailstorm?

  1. Hailstorm intended to be a complete, comprehensive set of APIs and services ala Win32.  Everything — state management, identity, payments, provisioning, transactions — was to be handled by Hailstorm.
  2. Hailstorm was to be based on proprietary, patented schemas developed by a single entity (Microsoft).  Sure, other service providers could plug into the ecosystem, if they wanted to take a subordinate role, and give up control of their own destiny.  It was the same as being a TAPI or MAPI provider, only harder.  Pretty gutsy, considering we didn’t even have a developer base to entice platform providers.
  3. All your data belonged to Microsoft.  ISVs could build on top of the platform (after jumping through all sorts of licensing hoops), but we controlled all the access.  If we want to charge for alerts, we charge for alerts.  If we want to charge a fee for payment clearing, we charge a fee.  Once an ISV wrote on top of Hailstorm, they were locked in to our platform.  Unless we licensed a third party to implement the platform as well, kind of like if we licensed Apple to implement Win32.

Let’s contrast that with the web that outlasted Hailstorm.  Today I can spin up a site using PHP or ASP.NET as I prefer.  I can use some simple JavaScript to syndicate RSS content to the site.  I can sell things via Amazon affiliates through the magic of JavaScript and iframes.  I can add Paypal payments effortlessly, using JavaScript (yes, this was possible when Hailsorm was conceived).  I can stick adsense on my content pages.  I can mashup gadgets from various sources.  No vendor lock-in.  Almost no API lock-in.  No crazy schemas.  No SOAP clients to install.  No need to fire up Visual Studio.  It’s the opposite of Win32.

Of course, MarkL points out that some demos worked without installing SOAP stacks, and could use a “crude XML parser”.  I’m having visions of Mark Pilgrim and his RegExp parser for XML (and ignore the DTD attacks and VML hacks).  There is a reason JSON is getting popular again (Whee!  IronPython on .NET!!)  Again, not to criticize, but we were kind of naive back then, and a couple of demos don’t prove anything.  Sorry.

As Tren Griffin says, moats like the Win32 platform tend to work only once or twice.  Then people have “seen that movie” and they steer clear the second time around.  Even if you explain to them that Win32 was “for your own good”, they seem to have an irrational aversion to platform lock-in.  The web has shown a remarkable recalcitrance to being locked in anyone’s trunk.  The new war is about all the things Ray Ozzie talks about; it’s not Win32 OS Platform wars v2.

In fact, I am sure MarkL has already learned those lessons, and is unlikely making the same mistakes at Google.  And it’s understandable if the Win32 soldiers see RSS+Scripting+OWA as “implementing the essence of Hailstorm”.  But those of us who saw a different side of the history have an obligation to weigh in and provide a more complete picture “for the children”.



Hammering Thumbs

Blake Ross talks about how the old Netscape Browser was one big WTF.  His post led me to one of the old Netscape devs (everyone knows jwz) claiming that, “to a database person, every nail looks like a thumb.

It’s lovely, because it’s in the same post claiming that you would be crazy to use anything other than BSD ‘mbox’ files to store e-mail.  In hindsight, that seems like crazy thing to call crazy.

Anyway, it’s a common theme on this blog.  Data is the only thing that matters.  Modern machines don’t even run Basic anymore, paradoxically the code jocks like jwz enabled the revolution where it’s all about hypermedia now.  Sorry, code guys.

So my friend Mark just pointed me to the Wikipedia entry for “Pick Operating System“.  (Interesting, helicopter parts were being tracked in m200 by the time I became a Pick god).  Pick was like the WWW before the WWW was invented.  Well, it was like a bunch of walled-off WWW’s with a cool data access model and a cool identifier model.  So maybe it wasn’t a WWW at all.  But jwz should have put Pick in his pipe and smoked it, then maybe he wouldn’t have opened his cakehole with all that nasty personal defamation of McCusker.  McCusker “gets” Pick, I am sure.


Update: My brother adds his memories of Pick, along with source code for a Pick to C++ gateway.  I wonder if WGB.MET is reading?

Random All-Hands Notes

Random braindump as today’s DPE (Developer and Platform Evangelism) team meeting kicks off:

  • I found 3 different routes to get from the conference center to B34 Cafe with minimal rain; all involve various underground passages.  (We have a life-size cutout of Hitman in our cafeteria now; think stealth)
  • There are tons of people in DPE from Michigan; probably more than the already high ratio at MSFT as a whole.
  • Opening music (recorded) by Ronnie James Dio.
  • We are still one of the only buildings on campus with the starbucks “i-cup” machines (and Dixie’s in our cafeteria, as opposed to “Garlic Jim’s” at 34).  Envy has been growing, so one of the disposessed started a vicious rumor that our beloved machines would be taken away from us.  Facilities put that rumor to bed today — the machines stay, and everyone else will see machines in their cafeterias “real soon now”.  Building 34 has convenience items and greeting cards, though.  I hear those will be removed due to envy soon.
  • OMFG, everyone on the team is a nth-degree blackbelt, mountain climber, famous artist and poker champ.  One nice thing about having a median age about 10 years older than the median GOOG employee age is that our overachievers have had 10 years extra to add lines on the resume.
  • When will the Sanjay disco video leak to YouTube?
  • A bunch of people on the team I didn’t even realize were in DPE now.
  • Ratio of new people vs. old on the team is higher in the meeting than in the team as a whole.  Does this mean old people skip more?
  • Wow, lots of very interesting info I can’t blog about.  Maybe I shouldn’t have skipped the last couple team meetings.
  • Go to TripleDoor on Oct 20 if you want to but artwork from Sanjay; proceeds to charity


Defending Dunn

Now Scoble is demanding that the entire HP board resign.  I love how people are backtracking now that it looks like Perkins and the others stink a lot worse than Dunn. 

Scoble is lamenting the death of the “HP way”.  Was the “HP way” the completely irrational (and overtly offensive) way that the old boys tore into Fiorina, ignored her contributions, and ousted her at the expense of the company?  Then, when the entire industry is finally realizing that Fiorina was good for HP, perpetrate some nonsense like this and try to pin it on the only woman left?

From what we can deduce so far, Perkins was up to his elbows in this.  Valleywag reporting that Sonsini told Perkins pretexting was legal (it was; I challenge any of these oh-so-sanctimonious journalists to prove that they never used pretexting for any of their investigative journalism).  The other things Perkins and others on the board were doing is just cheesy bad spy-novel stuff.  Don’t think that every other Fortune 500 compant doesn’t have wanna-be spies doing the same stupid crap.

The way I see it, Perkins knew who the leaker was, and didn’t want his friend to fold.  And he saw an opportunity to get rid of Dunn by advising her to force lie-detector tests down her peers’ throats.  She was not stupid enough to shoot herself in the foot like that, and surprised him by revealing the traitor in an open meeting of the board.  This made Perkins look really bad, but WTF was he doing trying to shield a friend and screw Dunn over anyway?  (Note, this is pure speculation based on the record so far and the statements of Perkins and Dunn).

The only remarkable thing about all of this, IMO, is the way that Perkins chose to react.  He was clearly beat at the point Dunn made her revelation to the board.  He could have sat back down, decided to be a team player, and worked it out with the rest of the board.  He could have insisted, as he had given his word as a man to do, that his friend resign.  Instead, he said “no fair; I only agreed to follow the rules if I win!”.  He pulled the trigger on his self-destruct vest and did the one thing that would almost certainly mean disaster for the whole board.

The crap about “it was unethical, it was my duty to be a whistleblower” is just putrid.  The more you find out about what he DID know and was just fine with, the less you can understand how he would be freaked out about the perfectly legal hiring of a PI to do what these guys do hundreds of times every day.  No, the truth is that Perkins was a poor sport and decided to destroy the entire HP board instead of admit defeat to a woman.

Of course, “kill the company rather than let a woman be boss” is exactly what we saw with Fiorina, so I shouldn’t be surprised.  But I wouldn’t expect Scoble to be a fan of that “HP way”.  And I would expect Scoble to be honest about his past errors in making broad brushstrokes regarding Dunn.

Buy Yahoo

Yahoo down 13%, “surprised investors, already hurt by a 26% stock slide this year”.  Unless Google also loses at least 50% (indicating industry-wide problems), this is completely irrational.  Yahoo is kicking Google’s butt in every single category except organic search.  Their competence across the board is beyond question.  Microsoft should buy them.

Don’t Erase

So, I recently finished Dunbar’s “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language”.  Although I am not convinced about Nostratic, Dunbar gave more than enough material to convince me I was right about past/future tenses in Chinese and English.  I think it is pretty obvious, and was probably common sense to people with access to Alexandria library.

I think it was Meister Eckert who once said “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing”.  And Saint-Exupery said “Perfection is achieved, not when enough has been added, but when there is nothing more to remove”.

These philosophies of willful filing of gear teeth lead to a “snaggle-toothed thought machine” that “clicks and whirs with the imprecision of a cuckoo clock in hell.” (Vonnegut).

The proponents of “document deletion^H^H^H retention policies” argue that e-mail takes up too much space.  Let’s examine that claim.

Suppose that the average human can spew forth language at 200 words per minute, rarely listens, and spews language for 8 hours a day (speech, typing, or otherwise).

200 wpm
* 2 bytes
* 60 min
* 10 hours
* 365 days
* 80 years
/ 1024 bytes/kb
/ 1024 bytes/mb
/ 1024 bytes/gb

Every bit of language you emit over your entire lifetime would fit on less than 7GB of space.  This is basically uncompressed.  Add modest compression, some timestamping and geocoding, and your whole life still fits in less than 10GB.  There is no excuse for EVER deleting anything that any human being ever says.

Imagine if linguists 1,000 years from today have access to a corpus containing every word spoken/written by every human for the previous millennium.  Imagine how much easier it would be to track dialect migrations (ala Brothers Grimm), repetition of memes, and so on.  Imagine if a person asking questions on Yahoo answers can have instant access to every answer given for the same question in the past 1,000 years, and the personal histories and outcomes of every one.

It would be a lot harder for Chomskyans to bluff and bluster and shout “IT IS ALL AN ACCIDENT; LANGUAGE MEANS NOTHING!”

Is Your Car Spying on You? Is Your Car Spying on Me?

Another nail in the coffin of Doctorow’s “metacrap” arguments.  I never want to see anyone citing that inanity again.  Doctorow said that metadata would fail because “people are lazy”, and “people lie”.  The fact is, privacy is dead, because people are too lazy to STOP their metadata from leaking, and too lazy to lie/cover their tracks.  And powerless to stop other people from collecting metadata about them anyway.

For the past 5 years, I’ve been writing things like, “I want my car to gossip with your car”.

Now Nissan is testing a system where cars can gossip with one another, so you know (for example) when you are in the vicinity of a dangerous driver.  I pinged my friend Craig, who works on systems like this, and he assures me that all of the manufacturers are exploring different variations of the theme.  It’s just a matter of time.

One example scenario I’ve often used is the “Amber Alert” in the U.S.  The authorities send out an alert with an automobile description, and it gets displayed on freeways in the area of search.  The alert is something like “Blue jeep cherokee with plates 555XY”.  Good citizens on the road are expected to peer about and call 911 immediately if they see the wanted vehicle.

Now, imagine if your car had sensors to read the license plate of any car that it passes.  That’s cheap technology.  Now imagine receiving the amber alert automatically.  Perhaps from the current freeway sign, using talking signs technology.  Or over cellular network.  Your car could beep and alert you “you passed the wanted car 20 minutes ago”.

The privacy implications are profound.  If it’s completely legal for a neighbor to watch you going into a strip club and tell everyone at your church, and it’s legal for citizens to spy on one another for purposes of law enforcement, why would it be illegal to automate that process?  If my car remembers every car that I’ve passed, that seems like a feature; especially if I have to opt-in to share that data with others.  Do we tolerate citizen spying only because citizens have limited memories?  Should we outlaw people with photgraphic memories?

In fact, your license plate number is a public identifier.  We now have case law saying that anyone can key off of that identifier without “probable cause” or permission.  I could outfit my car to automatically take the GPS position, timestamp, and license plate of every car I pass; and upload it to Google base.  When enough people do that, it’s going to be pretty difficult to claim that we were somewhere we weren’t.


Tantek asks how we can kill bad ideas before we end up killing people.

While it’s useful to look at ideas through the lens of biology (“memes”), epidemiology, or systems theory; this is also the biggest error. 

Human “ideas” are unique in all of nature.  Humans (like apes or dogs) are capable of making a choice between equally powerful animal instincts at any moment.  But humans are also aware that other humans have this same power, and are aware that other humans are aware that they have that power — and so on.  Apes cannot think or communicate in four orders of intensionality, yet humans regularly go beyond four orders of intensionality in our calculations.  The ability to communicate in four orders is the bare minimum for science, religion, and “ideologies” to form.

What this means, is that any system of ideas that humans create, can eventually be gamed and exploited.  Some dictatorships lead to harmony, others lead to enslavement of the people.  Free markets can lead to equal opportunity, or to massive wealth disparity and indentured servitude.  When a critical mass of people learn how to exploit a system to gain advantage at the disadvantage of another group, things start to break down.

All of the mathematical and biological approaches ignore this simple fact.  They erase free will from the equation, and hide that fact behind several layers of abstraction.  Then someone can say, “Selfishness is human nature, and life is an iterated prisoner’s dilemma game, so it is human nature that I am rich”.  And he can say, “Game theory, statistics, and evolutionary theory predicted that Katrina victims did not plan far enough ahead, so it is their fault.  We just need MORE free markets and MORE wealth, and the problem will fix itself!”

That is, a system of ideaology which is intended to bring maximum harmony can (doesn’t have to) simply become an elaborate excuse for turning a blind eye to someone else’s problems.


In addition, humans are relatively unique in that a human baby is not born fully developed.  A human child needs a lot of intensive training, especially in the first year, to ever hope to become a happy member of society.  Our first training in ideology is embedded from our relationships with our caregivers, then from our relationships with siblings, extended family, and classmates (“village”).  Children do not learn via logic; they learn by modeling close human relationships.  The wetware to process logic evolved relatively late, and is still completely impotent to handle typical human relationship issues.  Parables and stories work much better for training/persuading people of things that have to do with ideology.

Raising a child, teaching a homeless person how to support himself, teaching a gambler to quit — these are not technology problems.  These are not systems problems.  The more we look for systems solutions to these problems, the more of a mess we make.  Until we realize, “that’s my kid”, “that’s my cousin”, “that’s my neighbor”, systems are just an excuse.  The child needs a parent, not a system.


The simplest parable of all is that of the two lovers (our spouses, or brothers) bound by mutual suspicion.  If the husband sees his job as being to correct the errors and flaws in his wife’s thinking and behavior, and the wife sees her job as being to do the same for her husband, we all know how the story ends.  At some point, one person in the relationship needs to forgive, and look for the flaws in her own behavior/thinking (’cause it’s never in his :-)) and move on.  Without this step taking place at least once, no harmony can ever exist.  No idea is perfect, and no person is perfect.

When two ideologies look for the slivers in one another’s eyes, it gives them an excuse to ignore the beams in their own.  And when the citizens of each bloc see the other bloc living in denial, it just makes both sides more entrenched.  Clearly, the main points of denial which hurt America’s credibility in the world today are the interest in oil money and the fact that our own internal systems have corroded in the last 100 years.

I wonder what would happen if America were to take the first step and acknowledge those things.  Suppose we were to say:

  1. We still believe in democracy and capitalism, but we recognize that things here at home have become a bit skewed in the past 100 years.  We’re going to do some soul-searching and figure out why Katrina happened, why 2% of our population is in prison, why social mobility is decreasing rapidly, why washington is becoming more inbred every year.
  2. We have huge amounts of money compared to the rest of the world; we don’t need foreign oil.  We’re going to reduce our consumption of foreign oil 10% per year.  The medium-term economic pain will be worth it, because it will spur new innovation in the long run.
  3. Bombing other people into “love” is not a good strategy for security.  We will withdraw our military on the same schedule that our economic interests in the region reduce (10% per year).  We believe that peaceful democracy and liberty will flourish in the region if we set a good example by fixing our own problems first.  If it doesn’t, India and China will have far more incentive to deal with the problem than they do today.

Maybe I’m crazy; but I think it’s the only way the republicans can hope to hold power.  If they don’t, and the dems do, they will sweep the entire evangelical bloc.

The Disillusionment of Pete Wright

Pete Wright says “Goodbye Microsoft!”  Several people assumed that he was quitting a job at Microsoft; or that he was quitting his job because of Microsoft products.

But that’s not true.

In fact, you can paraphrase his letter as “I can’t stand the companies, and particularly the people, who use Microsoft software; so I am going into a career where I will see as few of those people as possible.”

Even DHH doesn’t claim that Ruby can change the corporate soul, so if Ruby on Rails gets popular in enterprises, Pete would have to drop Ruby and move to whatever is elite/trendy at that time.  The new new thing becomes the new old thing; that’s the way of life.  So, in essence, he is saying “I would rather work with people like me than with typical people.” 

It’s actually understandable.  Most of have done this at some point in our careers — mainframe to midrange to pc to web.  And just like young employees at Microsoft used to get sick of old-timers saying “IBM already solved this problem 20 years ago”, perhaps the younger Ruby programmers will roll their eyes when Pete relates lessons learned from his experience with Microsoft products.  And we’ll see how long the total embargo lasts.