I’m a liar too

Joel Spolsky demonstrates his exegetic prowess by analyzing a Gillmor missive.

Gillmor himself is (mildly) criticizing Dave Winer, who was teeing off on Mark Lucovsky.  Both are riffing on points I made in my earlier commentary on Lucovsky, so I understand where they are coming from.

Joel’s commentary is rather bizarre.  Paraphrased, he says “It took me three hours to understand Gillmor, and I am smarter than you, so I will explain Gillmor to you.  Gillmor said nothing at all.”

In actuality, he is saying “I believe that Gilmor was trying to get on Techmeme by insulting a luminary, but he did it the wrong way.  Let me impress you by showing you the right way insult a luminary and get on Techmeme.”

Joel is the undisputed expert on this topic.  His bait-and-prank of DHH was incredible.  If you are looking for a slightly mean-spirited but deliciously devious way to deflate an ego, you can find nothing better.  The perfect balance with which others were also duped is almost unbelievable (some still are confused, I’m afraid).  When the only thing for reasonable people to do is laugh, it’s a good roast.

But in this case, I’m not quite as impressed.  Since Joel phrased his roast this time as an insider joke directed to pre-mitzvahed kids with just enough scholarship to be cocky, I’ll respond within the framework.  Midrashim, like journalistic editorials, serve an important purpose.  But they bring with them some smelly problems.

  • Arrogance: CNN talking heads like to say things like “The world is confusing.  We break down the news for you real simple.”  This is patronizing and laughable.  Any time you look to a Rabbi to ‘splain to you something that was clearly etched in stone, that’s a failure on your part and a temptation on his.  Typically, the Rabbis are commenting when the original scribe is dead, so arrogance is masked or muted.  But when you are “interpreting” a breathing person who penned their text less than a week ago, without asking a single question, the arrogance is plain.  Journalists exist to speak truth to power; not to “interpret” for the rabble.
  • Context: Joel admits that it took him three hours to understand something that took me three minutes to understand.  Joel is certainly at comparable IQ level.  So this suggests that he didn’t enter the conversation with adequate context or preparation, and thus perhaps was not the intended audience to whom Gillmor was speaking.  Gillmor doesn’t link a lot, and he cites within a small circle.  So it’s safe to assume he’s writing primarily for a certain type of person.  This, too, is a well-established Midrashic concept.  Certain writings are inaccessible to people who aren’t prepared to understand them.  Some take this to mean that the best midrashist is a super genius who layers insider jokes within insider jokes and makes his momma proud with dazzling sophistry.  But as Kierkegaard explains, it’s simpler than that.  Two people faced with the same distinct life experience can draw two different lessons, and both are not necessarily equally valid.  Context and experience matter, as does the heart of the listener.  No amount of exegetical talent can erase those two factors of listener context.
  • Selfish Deceit: Joel’s case is innocuous and plain.  He admits that he doesn’t understand what Gillmor is saying, and Gillmor is alive if you want to ask him yourself.  And it’s clear that Joel has a selfish motive despite professing otherwise.  But in the broader pattern of CNN ‘splainers and Midrashim, corrosion is inevitable.  For starters, if you set up a system where rabble need priests to ‘splain, the priests stay in power due to ignorance in the rabble.  The incentive system is all wrong.  Aaron represented Moses’s failure, not a divine endorsement of the priest class.  If you must have Levites, ask yourself why, and only trust them so long as they admit “I’m a liar, too”.


In my initial commentary, I stated that many in Lucovsky’s org had been rather hostile to RSS and JavaScript, and sought to quash them and replace with legacy win32 concepts.  If he had infected Google with those same concepts, it would have been very fortuitous for Microsoft.  I cited the example of RSS only because Lucovsky had nearly attempted to claim “we knew it all along”, when that is not true.  RSS is certainly not the only example I could cite — the truth is that it’s sometimes more difficult for old orgs to learn new tricks, exactly as Gillmor says.  It’s also inspiring when you see someone like Lucovsky learning from the past rather than claiming “I was right all along, you just didn’t understand”.

Furthermore, Dave has long had suspicions about the Atom crew’s intentions for RSS; and it is absolutely true that SOAP is feeling pressure from JSON.  While Joel would have you believe that there is nothing of interest going on, John Battelle explains it clearly.  It actually has nothing to do with APIs in the final analysis — you might as well just stick Google search results in an IFRAME for all that the “API” gives you after this neutering.  It’s a perfectly good business decision for Google, trying to frame it as a “developer” feature is wishful thinking.

And really, Gillmor’s missive is just a bit of posturing among prophets.  Gillmor is saying, “Dave was probably right, but it’s not relevant anymore”.  Then he responds to McNealy’s claim that “you rabble have sold your soul to the central server!” with “it’s true, but you need to rise up and demand your attention data!”.

These are all very significant industry patterns which were predicted by people like Gillmor, Winer, and McNealy; and which were scorned by the rabble and first ignored, then attacked and finally co-opted.  Gillmor perhaps is suggesting that he’s a better prophet than Winer, since Winer hasn’t moved on to sounding the claxon about centralization.  Or perhaps he’s pointing out that McNealy is utterly surreal; to finally be proven right in defeat, and then change his story to something that is obviously wrong.  That’s the opposite pattern to what you normally see — you normally see leaders who push the lie on others, then change their story once the lie is obvious to virtually everyone and claim “I was right all along, you just misunderstood me.”

Since I’ve gone this far to “interpret”, I’ll add my own blatant opinions.  First, Dave’s warnings about XML’s complexity were right.  Most of his other warnings were right.  He has a good track record.  More people believe him (by now) than believe Gillmor.  But Gillmor is right, too.  So if you measure a prophet in how unique, non-obvious to the rabble, or scorned his vision is, Gillmor is currently winning.

On the other hand, you have to rate a prophet not only on how perceptive the prophecy, but how timely and pragmatic the warning.  Prophets are typically warning people of something.  When McNealy said “privacy is dead” and then dedicated his life to making it true, he wasn’t a prophet — he was just a businessman tracking what he felt to be inevitable.  But Gillmor is warning of something important, something people will almost certainly look back on with regret, and suggesting a way to avert disaster.  But he’s also suggesting a solution that has a high probability of being ignored, which requires a LOT of people to listen to work, and which attempts to go against nearly every industry trend in force today.  In other words, he’s setting himself up to be able to say “I was right, and you should have listened to me”.  I hope that future history will prove my doubts unfounded.



Momma Nature

Someone in Microsoft’s back yard must have really made her mad, and we’re still feeling her wrath.  I thought the snowstorm two weeks ago was bad, but this is worse.  Thursday night, hurricane-strength winds and rain ripped through Oregon and Washington, toppling trees, causing floods, and leaving millions without power.  Power at the Microsoft campus came back on throughout the day today, but the majority of employees here are still without power at their homes.

More that half a million people in the primary residential areas of Issaquah, Bellevue, and Sammamish are still without power, and it will be freezing again tonight.  Now that I’ve got survival (and even Internet access) handled, here are some raw notes.

We got the first warning early Thursday afternoon, when the following e-mail from an employee was sent round:

“My father is the Director of Emergency Management of Pierce County. He called to tell me that for the first time in his career the National Weather Service called all county Emergency Directors in Western Washington to warn them of the winds coming this Thursday night into Friday afternoon. By all indications; this system seems to be one of the worst that Western Washington has seen.  Much like the Inaugural day storm.  It currently looks to hit the entire Puget Sound region, especially bad for the folks in the North West. He said to be prepared for power outages for several days”

The snowstorm two weeks ago was a good thing.  People took this one seriously.  All of the new hires from California had a new respect for Seattle’s “Momma Nature”.  It’s a good thing.

By the time I headed home, trees were already falling, and the commute took a couple of hours due to traffic lights being out and serious flooding.  The flooding was surreal; we are at fairly high elevation.  In fact, while discussing the “meteor tsunami” reports with a friend recently, we both decided that a 60-foot tsunami wouldn’t be enough to flood our area.  It turns out all that’s needed is 1 inch of rainfall in a 45-minute period; something that would have been quite common in the wake of a meteor tsunami.

Shortly after I got home at 8PM, power at my house went out.  We recently chopped down two dying trees from the greenbelt near my house; which certainly would have come down in the wind.  So we were fortunate — only one large branch from a healthy tree came down and damaged my deck and siding.  At least one person died when a tree fell on their car Thursday night, and a couple of people died in their homes from flooding and tree falls.

Morning is when things got interesting.  Nobody had power (1.5 million out of power in the greater Seattle area), so nobody was getting news.  No home phone service, no cable TV, poor or nonexistent cellular coverage in many places, no Internet.  The news crews didn’t have any news anyway, since they couldn’t get anywhere to talk to people.  All of the traffic signals were out, and all of the cameras and sensors were down, so the radio stations were just guessing wildly about traffic conditions.

Since nobody knew the true extent of the situation, everyone assumed that they could drive somewhere nearby to get power, gas, and supplies.  From 8AM to 5PM it was total gridlock.  The gridlock was *way* worse than during the snowstorm.  There were many reports of people looting, and police had to be called out to calm tempers at gas stations where people got into fights.  Downtown Seattle escaped most of the power outages, so when I escaped to the W Hotel downtown for an hour meeting with partners at midday Friday, the news reports from the east side seemed surreal.  But by the end of the day, I-5 was as bad as I-405, and it became clear that the damage extended a lot further than people thought.  I saw huge lines and tempers flare at the gas station at Chinatown, which is about as far from the eastside blackout as you can get.

By the end of the day, it was clear that nobody was getting their power back, and the temperatures were going to drop below freezing.  All of the hotels for miles around were sold out, and people were hoarding firewood (long gone) in the hopes that they could keep the temperatures inside their houses from dipping below freezing.  By this time, most radio stations had switched to “neighbor to neighbor” format — people would just call in with reports, rumors, offers of assistance, and so on.  All of the local emergency services were overloaded, so the county was originally telling people to go to homeless shelters.  The emergency assistance line was overloaded and has been telling people to call back on Monday.  People have been sharing their homes and facilities, and late into the night the red cross was finally able to open up some shelters.

This morning, the street outside my house was a smooth sheet of ice; the draining water made a nice sheet that froze overnight.  But the roads were much better.  Everyone has figured out how to function in the new situation, and the news crews are getting better information out.  The picture they paint isn’t pretty:

  • They interviewed some guy who is sclaping on gas in Sammamish (near Microsoft).  Around 4PM today, he was selling gas for $15/gallon, and sold out quickly.  He explains that he just stands by the road with a $25/gallon sign while people wait in line at the gas station.  As soon as the gas station runs out (as it quickly does), he lowers the price and sells to the mob.  Apparently these people don’t know that there is plenty of gas elsewhere by now.
  • Many people had generators stolen.  The thieves listen for the generator sound, and then come take it whether you’re there or not.  They can sell them back very quickly.  If you had a generator, you had only two strategies.  First is to use it very sparingly, during midday, and hope nobody knows.  The other is to turn your house into a 24-hour diner for all of the neighbors, and make sure there are lots of people in your house all the time.  A few people took the latter approach and have become very popular in their neighborhoods.
  • Hundreds of people were hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning.  One hospital had a waiting list 100 people long at one period.  Some are people who take their generator indoors; but the bulk are Somali and Vietnamese immigrants who took the charcoal grill inside.  I haven’t heard all the details, but I can’t believe you would randomly have that number at that concentration just “by accident”.  I wonder if there was a guy selling them grills claiming, “this’ll keep you warm”.

Tonight will be colder than last night, and many people have come to accept that it could be a couple more nights before they have heat.  But people are actually being a lot more civil than they were before.  Hotel rooms are still scarce/nonexistant, but the shelters are up and running and reported to have lots of room.  And people have figured out how to function in the new reality.


The technology situation was interesting.  Neither my wife nor I had cellular coverage from home.  And my Moto Q firmware died Friday evening so I had to switch back to my Palm Treo 700w.  SMS tended to work well to stay in touch and find places (SMS to shortcode wlive or googl).  Trying to find t-mobile hotspots at Starbucks was a loser — most places with power still don’t have Internet access, so you can charge your phone or laptop but the laptop is useless for browsing the net.  Once I got e-mail sync to the treo working again, it was great.  But the most useful technology by far was Windows Live Search for Mobile.  It took less than 5 minutes to install while sitting at Third Place Books this morning, and was invaluable throughout the day.  When you’re stuck in traffic, and need to find nearby businesses, find alternate routes, it’s amazing.  I actually prefer the UI to using a laptop now, and laptop was a non-option at most places anyway.  It would be fairly trivial to add ability for people to take cameraphone photos of traffic conditions and send to the service to allow for a “crowd-sourced” way of implementing the new Honda “wing-mirror” cameras ideas.

Welcome Home Jon!

[via Jeff] Jon Udell is joining our team at Microsoft.  I’m surprised that none of the people I told about this leaked it before now 😛

It’s a shame that he felt the need to defend against appearances of “selling out”.  Let’s hope that’s the last time he feels that way.  Anyone who’s followed him over the years knows that he’s not going to compromise his integrity.  Jon is thoughtful, deep, and non-partisan.  Why pick sides when you’re in a position to think things through and decide for yourself?

He’s a uniter, not a divider.  His role will be fairly different in details that Scoble’s was, but the general pattern for Jeff’s team is that they are bridge builders.


Hyper Happy Hair Flip

The very first of the Vista ads are arriving.  Download squad says it’s boring.  You can’t buy Vista yet, so don’t expect too much hype right now.

But I don’t know how anyone can say that is boring.  It doesn’t have a storyline or theme, but it’s meant to embed emotional responses in your subconscious — and what can be boring about feeling hyper happy?

You notice *everyone* in the ad is smiling, and it’s not just normal smiles.  These are Lil’ Rob in the background singing “feel good expressions” smiles.  Then we have bubbles “popping” expansively and bright primary colors to anchor the emotion.  Then at the end, you even get to see a woman doing the “happy giggle” cha-cha, and another woman doing the asian hair flip.  The asian hair flip is tried and true in Asia, and increasingly a feature of American commercials.  Of course, I have no idea why someone would do a hair flip when pressing a remote control for their TV (with Media Center Extender).  People only do hairflips when someone is watching, or when they are thinking/dreaming about someone watching.

I think it could have been tied together much better, though.  The Pepsi “starry eyed surprise” ad is a standard.  The bubbles are lighter; not overwhelming, but you still get the NLP “pop”.  And the scanning from happy conversation to happy conversation uses a bit of blur/smooth effects, so it’s more like real-world shifting of attention.  The scene shifting in the Vista ad is too abrupt and artificial.  And the Pepsi ad is a subtler with colors, using environmental brightness instead of just sheer tint and studio lighting.

I want the next Vista ad to replay the Starsky and Hutch Disco fight scene, or the Zoolander model pose-off.

Brier Still Doesn’t

When everyone beat me up for speaking the truth about pretexting, I argued that “it wasn’t clearly illegal when Dunn did it”.  I was, like many others, assuming that the hasty California law passage would take hold.

Who would have thought?  The law flopped.  It’s still not clearly illegal.

OK, we know that Brier doesn’t pretext, and neither does Scoble.  I’m still trying to find out who I really am, but I don’t knowingly pretext.  But the three of us being great people doesn’t change the fact that it happens — a LOT.

What really intrigues me, though, is how the press again turns this into a boogey dance.  “Bad MPAA!!”.  “Everyone hates pretexting; only Dunn (and now MPAA) do it!!”

Are we to really believe that only MPAA, and Dunn were doing it?  Who was paying all of those P.I.s?  This whole fiasco has changed absolutely nothing.  If there is a lesson to be learned, it is “don’t investigate reporters the same way you would investigate a cheating spouse, or they’ll ruin you”.  Everyone else can apparently pretext away indiscriminately.  Some custodians we have.


Can Microsoft Innovate?

WSJ is running a debate between two of my favorite people, Dave Winer and Robert Scoble.  We gave Davefirewood as a function of distance and price” before he even asked for it, but I actually don’t disagree with much of what he or Scoble say.

On the other hand, I agree with Dave’s assertion that the entire premise is a bit skewed.  He mentions that, “by the time there is a class on it, it’s not innovation”.  By the same token, by the time the press is writing about it, it’s not innovation.  The WSJ article mentions Google ad platforms and search as the “new” against which Microsoft’s “old” on one hand and “playing catch up” on the other is contrasted.  Same with iPod and Zune.  These are simply big company implementations of things that have been around for a long time — Google sure as heck didn’t invent ad targeting or search. 

It makes good press to say, “which BigCo did it first”, but that’s not reality.  If you want innovation at a big company, look for improvements to existing products.  If you want to see innovation in overall features, and things that can potentially change the game, look to the customers/developers as Dave says.  In my opinion, the best strategy for a BigCo is to enable a climate where tons of external innovation can happen, and can be harvested/rewarded by the BigCo in a way that benefits everyone.