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Ken Brown's forthcoming book, published by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, is embarrassingly mistitled Samizdat: And Other Issues Regarding the 'Source' Of Open Source Code. No doubt you've heard of it by now, although more than likely you've only heard Andy Tanenbaum and others respond to it more than anything else. It's basically the world's largest troll, seasoned with more than a hint of flamebait. In the history of publishing there has never been a less scrupulous work than this book. It's a stinging insult to real books and genuine authors everywhere, harming the credibility of all of us who write for a living.
this foul drain pure gold flows forth. Here it is that humanity achieves for itself both perfection and brutalisation, that civilisation produces its wonders, and that civilized man becomes again almost a savage."
That was said in the 1830s about Manchester, England, but we could also say that it applies to the World Wide Web today, with its treasure trove of information and its piles of horrible drivel. I'll give Ken Brown a dollar if he can guess who originally said the above quote (without looking it up).
The quote brings to light the fact that opposite extremes are a reality and a consequence of freedom; if you give people the freedom to say anything, eventually they will. While good ideas are passed around and improved upon in the tradition of the scientific community, there is also a dark side to free publishing: that of the corporate agenda. I think the main difficulty that some corporations are experiencing is the rough transition from the Industrial Age of big powerful businesses and smoke-filled board room meetings to the Information Age of work-from-home CEOs and the general sharing of ideas and technologies. They're scared and they're fighting to keep their way of life.
It wasn't all that long ago that corporate buffoons realized that they could use the Internet to do some guerrilla marketing for their company or product, but the unethical and immoral tactics now used by the corporate world seem to be aimed primarily at influencing political policy. Never before has freedom of speech ever threatened itself so ferociously; here we have people speaking out in order to attempt to limit what others can say through software.
It's not that political pieces haven't been written in the past, some -- like Thomas Paine's Common Sense -- are superbly written, well-researched, astoundingly observant, and recommend sensible and effective action. It's works like these that advance society by stirring the emotions of the complacent and energizing political change, sometimes on the scale of a revolution.
To really pull off this kind of coup d'etat you have to first be an extraordinary writer. You have to have an insight into what you're talking about -- you need to present compelling and convincing evidence to suggest that change is necessary. There needs to be some great problem that has not been properly addressed and you have to have the best solution for it. And then you write, publish, distribute, and wait. That's how it's done; that's how a genuine political piece comes into being.
The aim of a political piece is generally to spark a phenomenon known as the "grass-roots" effort. This is when an issue or ideal is so important or influential that a large group of people collectively decides to promote and support it. It's been the magic behind the sudden success of underdog political campaigns and starving artists and musicians for hundreds of years.
What we have in Ken Brown's book is a poorly crafted attempt to author a political piece whose sole interest is the corporate agenda of proprietary software companies and fanatical right-wing organizations. Its goal is to destroy the grass-roots efforts of the GNU/Linux community. If it were well-written, expertly researched, and shockingly observant, it might accomplish at least part of its goal; however, it is none of those things. Free Software is not in any danger from this book, but the institution of printed books has been irreparably harmed.
Show me the evidence
"A new world demands a new political science."
The concept of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) is not new, but it has become such a popular battle tactic on the Internet that you can hardly read tech news anymore without seeing it somewhere. Ordinarily, most people recognize it for what it is -- corporate propaganda meant to stop a genuine grass-roots effort -- and ignore it. But with Samizdat we have a whole new kind of attack. Instead of aiming at the end-users and potential customers of the world -- which has proven ineffective thus far -- the target is now the United Stated government and those in charge of determining public policy. Having lost the battle for public opinion, the war has now gotten more desperate and moved on to attempting to influence the laws that we live by. This goes beyond the usual lobbying that corporations do because it's disguised as an independent study by an impartial third party and published as a book instead of a bound report, white paper, or traditionally published study (in a peer-review publication).
Proper FUD requires knowing the facts and then distorting them for your purposes. In other words a FUD-spreader is a liar, although frequent liars generally lie to themselves about their lying, so I don't think they consider FUD to be dishonest. Any distortion of the known truth is a lie, no matter how little it has been changed or altered. In the absence of facts to support beliefs or agenda, FUD goes from lying to implying. There is, for instance, no evidence to suggest that Linus Torvalds improperly used code from Minix or Unix in order to build the Linux kernel, but by talking around the subject you can create uncertainty and doubt about the situation. You can say it's highly unlikely that someone with Linus's experience at the time could write their own operating system, that it's impossible to make Linux work like Unix without breaking the law, that Linus had access to the Minix code at the time of his Linux-writing. Of course the truth of the matter is that Linux is not a whole operating system, it's just a kernel, and the author of Minix has said that it's impossible to have copied the Minix code because it's of a totally different design philosophy. FUD-throwers take every piece of information they can find and put a negative spin on it, and although they never manage to come up with any facts, proof, or evidence to support their claims, they do paint a grim portrait of their subject. I believe that any FUDder should be labeled and treated as they truly are: an outright liar.
The term "FUD" has been overused lately. It has come to mean any information that is contrary to the reader's opinion. As a tech journalist I see it all the time -- people accuse me of FUD when I say things that they disagree with. The key to look for is whether facts or logical conclusions are being drawn based on experience, or whether the author is talking around a subject trying to get you to create doubt about something without any decent evidence to back it up. In this article I discuss verifiable facts that you yourself can obtain by contacting or reading the listed sources, so even if you think I'm wrong in my reasoning or conclusions you must concede that this is not FUD by the proper definition. Kenneth Brown cannot make the same claim -- not remotely.
The only shocking aspect of Ken Brown's book is that it contains not one shred or iota of evidence to back any of his implications. While he doesn't directly accuse, he also doesn't present any good reasons to believe that we should listen to him. The bibliography, for instance, has 81 items of reference, less than five of which are traditionally recognized reference sources. The greater part of Brown's sources are personal Web pages of people who are not considered experts in the field of Unix, Linux, GNU, or other related subjects, home pages of people who are considered experts but were speaking generally about the subject of the history of Unix, and quotes taken grossly out of context from interviews that Brown did not conduct or take part in.
You don't have to be an author or professional writer to know that when presenting an argument professionally, the strength of your sources is the strength of your position. With no reliable sources, a position paper, thesis, or essay carries no more weight than the Anonymous Coward comments on weblogs and message forums -- in other words, it's bunk. For entertainment purposes only. Read at your own risk. Worse than bunk, it's FUD because it pushes an agenda without presenting any proof.
To better illustrate my point about FUD, I'd like to specifically show an example of the kind of things the Brown does in this book. At one point he quotes Linus Torvalds in an interview with Eric Raymond, an Open Source community leader and the founder of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), as saying, "I'm basically a very lazy person who likes to get credit for things other people actually do."
Ken Brown never comes out and accuses Linus of stealing copyrighted code or reverse-engineering or trade secret theft or anything else that would get him sued. But he does talk around those subjects, and in this quote Brown has taken Linus's words out of context in an attempt to make it look like Linus smugly admitted wrongdoing. Taken on its face, it's rather damning. But let's look at the context as quoted from Eric Raymond directly, from his essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar:
In fact, I think Linus's cleverest and most consequential hack was not the construction of the Linux kernel itself, but rather his invention of the Linux development model. When I expressed this opinion in his presence once, he smiled and quietly repeated something he has often said: "I'm basically a very lazy person who likes to get credit for things other people actually do." Lazy like a fox. Or, as Robert Heinlein famously wrote of one of his characters, too lazy to fail.
So first of all, it was not an interview with Raymond -- it was a casual encounter and it was relayed via anecdote, and it was used to illustrate the importance of having users as co-developers. When we see the context of this quote it is clear that what Linus meant when he said that (and what Raymond was talking about here) was that Linus' great invention was not the Linux kernel but the development model by which it is enhanced. Linus wrote the kernel but other people are improving it; since he's the boss and since it was his idea to begin with, he gets the credit for the final product even though the contributors own the rights to their own code and are properly credited for it within the kernel code. Is that such a revelation -- or more appropriately, is that a crime or immoral deed? This is the way the kernel is developed, this is the way Open Source development works. Authors of code get credit for what they contribute, Linus does not -- you don't have to do much research to discover that. This is part of what Tim Witham of the OSDL calls the quid pro quo of the Open Source development model. By inventing the kernel, Linus's return on that investment of time and skill is that other people get to improve it for him for free.
When I asked Linus about this quote he replied:
Heh. I _like_ that quote.
Of course, the context there is that I've been getting a lot too much
credit for Linux, considering that there literally have been thousands of
No "stealing of code" anywhere, but the simple fact that it's much too
easy to forget that Linux has been a collaborative project, and that
especially for the last five years I've been acting as a _manager_, not so
much as a code writer.
The fact that Brown seems to take it out of context and try to make it be
something it isn't is his problem, quite frankly. I don't know when (or
even if) I said the above, but honestly, it sounds like me, and it's
But yes, facts can be used out of context, and twisted. Too bad. I don't
actually want to have anything to do with that Brown person, he seems to
be a slimeball.
When good sources go bad
Brown repeatedly refers to Linus' work with Andrew Tanenbaum's Minix operating system as an example of some kind of wrongdoing. I'm not sure if Ken Brown wants us to think that Linus stole some of Tanenbaum's Minix code or whether he wants us to think that it's wrong to create a workalike program. The latter is definitely a theme throughout the book; time and again Brown implies that workalikes are somehow morally and legally wrong.
Andy Tanenbaum provided no useful ammunition for Brown despite the fact that he flew to Europe just to interview him, a rather puzzling fact. Why would Ken Brown fly to Amsterdam to interview someone peripheral to his book and then totally ignore Linus Torvalds, who is practically the main character in this corporate fantasy novel? When he does interview Tanenbaum he digs for dirt on Linus, probably figuring that Tanenbaum held some grudge against him because of a silly debate the two had some years ago about kernel architecture. Tanenbaum instead tells him that it was impossible for Linus to have copied Minix code or design because Minix used a totally different architecture -- if Brown had read the initial debate that I mentioned previously, he would have known that. Stealing any significantly useful portion of Minix code to put into Linux is as fruitless as stealing diesel fuel to put into a gasoline engine.
Tanenbaum then noted that there were "some extremely serious errors" in Brown's book and published a note relating his strange and unusual experiences with Brown, followed by a somewhat lengthy addendum, none of which reflected well on Kenneth Brown and his odd and unprofessional methods.
The Minix source code was published as part of a book that Tanenbaum wrote on operating system design, published by Prentice Hall. Ken Brown's ridiculousness moves on to the publisher, stating that PH has probably lost its ability to sue Linus for imaginary copyright infringement. He says that "it is unclear if ATT or Prentice are paying attention to Linux development," but really all he had to do was ask if he really wanted to know the answer to that. It's not like AT&T and Prentice Hall are unapproachable to the media.
Maybe he realized that it doesn't matter what AT&T thinks because they don't control the rights to Unix anymore and haven't for some time. The Open Group owns the trademark for Unix, the SCO Group claims to own the copyright to the last edition of "true" Unix (System V Release 4) and Novell claims to own both the copyrights and the patents involved with it (this is in dispute as of this writing; it is unclear whether SCO or Novell own the copyright to the code). SCO would have provided Brown with some rather juicy quotes -- I'm surprised that he didn't make an effort to contact them, difficult as it is these days. In fact neither SCO nor The Open Group is mentioned even once in the copy of the book that I had access to. This is yet more evidence to suggest that Kenneth Brown is a poor researcher.
That he mentioned Prentice Hall is a joke. PH is one of the world's largest GNU/Linux distributors (by including CDs with books) and makes more money off of GNU/Linux than it ever did off of Minix. I contacted Prentice Hall and asked for a comment on Brown's book but did not receive a response before this article went to press.
Next: The man behind the mask
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