Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bluesophiles, Flame Warts And Other Irritants

I note that several bloggers are taking notice of the death threats to a female blogger. Is the Mean Machine finally getting some attention because it's a girl on the receiving end? Would it make any difference if it weren't a pretty girl? One wonders.


Nasty stuff. No one deserves that. It is a risk of popularity and notoriety but that doesn't excuse it. I think we might want ask if the web has been rewarding the bullies because bully pulpits make for bully behavior. A kind word and a big stick have become the politics most favored by many an emergent power.

We've been reading conversations like that for years. Some have made themselves famous doing it. I remember Berners-Lee trying to mollify Jorn Barger on the old SGML list years ago when TimBL was the only one Jorn would listen to after Jorn had been banned from lists as whitebread as the Kate Bush fan list. Barger went on to be famous in Beltway circles for RobotWisdom despite the fact that just a little searching revealed he had lifted ideas from his university sponsors before being asked to leave his position there. After doing some checking, I concluded he was yet another web psychopath but he was being lauded for it. That was when I realized the web was and is Clockwork Orange. On the other hand, as irritating and nasty as he was and probably still is, Jorn signed them with his real name.

I don't think this behavior will ever stop because frankly, the web has been making heroes out of people for this for too long now. We've all flamed on from time to time and we always will, but I sign everything I write anywhere I write it and always have. Unless one is Swiftly taking on the King, it is bad practice to write using a pseudonym much less endorse it as the best way to contribute to a conversation. Game persona are crossing over into the blogosphere and that is bad juju for the blogosphere. It is one thing for commedians to write political satire; it is another for politicians to write comedy and expect us to laugh. There really are standards for that.

I usually send comments made by anonymous contributors to the garbage files. I think that is the one practice all serious or even hobbyist bloggers can use to spread baking soda on the flame warts. An oven catches fire when overheated food spills onto the burners and dries there, but it happens and the fire extinguisher is at hand because we are all a little sloppy in the kitchen. But on the web, it isn't enough to refer to polemics or past practices in other media. Few media have the amplifying effect and the pervasive cross-sectional demographics of the web. We ought to recognize the change in scale IS a change in type and be smart about adopting different rules.

Make a general rule to refuse anonymity. That is without doubt a wiser practice than to refuse a contributor because of their choice of web browser. Disallowing anonynmous posts isn't a cure, but it keeps us from burning down the kitchen.

Then we have the mob rule made popular by the whole 'wisdom of crowds' meme. There is a truth to the idea that with enough observations made, measured and compared against predictions, you get a sort of averaging toward the truth. What the meme in its populist form doesn't account for is sample size over time. Serious scholars were once taught to beware the zeitgeist because it is too easy for the spirit of a crowd at a time to be overwhelmed by the intensity of local events writ large. The right wing swing of American politics post 9/11 that enabled our catastrophic foreign policy of the last eight years to go almost uncontested is an example.

Then we have the Standards Game as it is being played in the dust up over Microsoft technologies and ISO. Some who will fight MS for any reason or none have easily been recruited into the more subtle cause of killing off the credibility of ISO which is one more front in the investor war on standards of any kind. It was realized fairly early in the Warren Buffet Fan Club that royalty-free unencumbered standards remove the complexity barrier sought by venture capitalists and the hedge firm investors. One would think they would laud ISO given ISO doesn't require those kinds of participation agreements, yet ISO has been aligning itself with the consortia that do and ISO is the gold standard of standards because of its reliance on processes and national body voting. It isn't that an ISO standard can't fixed, but it is obvious when it is done. Transparency of process is the real gold standard. Everything else is professional editing.

Where the W3C was finally reduced to being a wall trophy for its large members, others have followed their lead and ISO having recovered some of its lustre from the trampling it took in the early web years is being seen as a threat in the POTS (Proprietary Off The Shelf) initiative. Champions of POTS are the new voices of the small companies set to launch Web 3.0 by laundering their proprietary products as de facto standards before they even have products or de jure standards without understanding the meaning of that and hoping no one else does either.

So when a standard is launched, the open sourcers ask the three questions they should ask?

Is it open? Is it royalty free? Is it unencumbered?

But they don't usually understand the conditions for the conditions.

1) Those are not requirements for standards.
2) Those are conditions of participation in a given organization.
3) Those conditions are not common across all organizations.
4) Where those conditions are a requirement for participation by signatories to participation agreements, the signatory balances investor rights (ownership) against participation benefits. To not do so is to abrogate fiduciary responsibility to the owners. This is law. The IP owner has to choose and no amount of force will make that happen. The standard isn't law but the fiduciary obligation is.

To demand those conditions in all cases is unrealistic. To demand them by force of buying power is the market at work. To demand them by threat or increasing zeal demonstrated by making false claims or claims unsupported by evidence crosses a line being noted elsewhere these days in the blogosphere, but has been noted as a side-effect of anonymous contribution on the Internet in technical lists for many years before the web.

It is to use the web as a raw amplifier where seizing a microphone and pushing it into the speakers creates a disturbance irritating enough to clear most rooms. Note that this is harnessing the same effects that the Jorn Barger's of the early web days used. Note that it is no more effective in standards than in Barger's iconoclastic pursuits. It simply stinkies up the room, the list, the conversation, and actually empties them. Sometimes that is exactly the intension, but let's be clear, those are the tactics of bullies. The best thing to do with a bully is ignore them until they make a threat that crosses the legal line, then use the law to remove them from the room just as a bouncer would toss out a member of an audience who seized a microphone and stuffed it in the speakers.

If there are to be open, royalty-free, unencumbered standards, they will come not from irritation but by the signatories understanding of their power to increase marketshare by increasing the size of the market itself. They are created voluntarily. The products that conform to them must be sustained if not by profit based on sales, then by loss leader status or by other sources of revenue.

There can be values we all share for common good or majority good. We have to judge each opportunity on its merits. While the open source community is quick to claim a moral majesty for its values for its products, it is slow to recognize the greater good that other standards can create for even larger groups of customers and too often, members of that community will use any form of irritation or obsfuscation to deprive a larger community of such benefits when not offered in accordance with the open source conditions for participation.

Doing so plays into the hands of lesser angels. Some will not believe it because the use of irritation has become an enjoyable habit just as critique of music by those who cannot perform it becomes a way to assume a superior pose, but it is seen by those who do play as exactly that: a pose.

When we play to customers in clubs, we often see the Bluesophile. This is the guy that sits at the front of the audience, backwards in the chair, hands folded across his chest as if he were a music professor sitting on a jury at the end of the semester. He makes statements like "I want to hear something REAL!". When we ask what that might be he says in all seriousness as if his opinion had the weight of a passing grade, "Sweet Home Alabama." I don't make this stuff up. He really believes that. Why? He is from Michigan. He KNOWS that a "REAL" Southern musician plays that song as a matter of "AUTHENTICITY". He is to a Southern musician what a tourist asking a black farmer where his watermelons are grown is: a poser, a bigot, and a pain in the ass. His goal is to impress his friends that he can control the band with opinions he got from his massive record collection liner notes. Otherwise, he is a software engineer or a marketing executive or worse, the human resources manager at a local high tech firm without a clue about the blues, or any musical talent for that matter. He has a fat wallet and a big mouth and he knows we won't come after him as long as he has a big bar tab yet to be paid.

We hate those guys. They spend money on drinks to get the attention of the bar manager who will then listen to them. It isn't that the band won't play SHA, it is that they won't do it five times a night so this guy can get laid.

All ecosystems are systems of relatable niches, some large, some small, some brief, some sustainable, some symbiotic, some parasitic, but all niches. Convenient facts can make a case in a given context, but in no context establishes a truth for all. No niche defines an ecosystem. The working relationships do.

Watching the looming scandals in the Beltway, as the country endures another navel-gazing paroxysm not unlike 1973-74, my son asks the whys of this. I tell him that no matter how many times one is told, ‘accept this, that is life’ or ‘give a little to get a little’ or the other epithets that trade personal values for money, keep in mind that it is always a bad trade. What we give up in dignity for a job or an advance, we never get back and after awhile, the money is gone and the job is just another job. I’m an old Southerner and I never found any trade for honor worth making. I left my last job when a man looked at me and said, “It may be immoral and unethical, but strictly speaking, it isn’t illegal.” A trained lawyer knows that convenient facts can make a case, but they can’t make a truth, and it seems judgment is a matter of the authority to which one subscribes. One hopes justice never is, but if it seems to be, it is time to find another judge, and if that is not possible, another court, and if that is not possible, another lawyer.

And some nights, it is better to tell the bluesophile to shut the f**k up. And in almost all cases, if you don't want the Mean Machine to prosper, disallow anonymous comments on your blogs. You really can't rely on popular consensus when designing nuclear reactors, and you really don't get to vote on the law of gravity. In life, the wisdom of crowds and the pronouncement of the self-selected blogger is too often just the latest whimsy from the media or a guy who can't get laid without spending a lot of money first.

Lay back and enjoy the set, or move on to the next bar politely and quickly. Bar fights get out of control fast. So do oven fires in messy kitchens. So do flame warts. The best extinguisher smothers the flame at the source by denying it oxygen. The oxygen of the web is not a link. It is a link target.

Dance to the music, or hum along with your friends. Don't get wrapped up in the song too far or the notes too seriously. It is just stuff. If you go home with the right stuff, it is better stuff and when you go to work the next day, you can talk about that, or just hum and tap your feet mysteriously. Enjoy. That's when life among the mammals is real. And really life.

Comment Policy

If you don't sign it, I won't post it. To quote an ancient source: "All your private property is target for your enemy. And your enemy is me."