I feel like I owe it to my readers to disclose a few things, due to the events of recent weeks raising a few questions in some people’s minds.
First, I want to point out that the issue of payola is an ethical issue most journalism schools deal with in class. We dealt with it in several classes. At the time I was working as a journalist. And there would be times when I would conduct an interview with a band, and they’d be playing in town soon, and they’d ask for the proper spelling of my name so they could put me on the guest list, which meant I could get into the concert for free. Some people thought it was OK. Others said I shouldn’t take bands up on such offers. I know on at least one occasion I did go. It didn’t color the way I wrote the story at all, mostly because I was already so enamored with the band anyway. Maybe if he’d taken me out to dinner with the band and written a song with me, I’d have changed what I’d written. But that didn’t happen.
I had one instructor stand in front of the classroom and speak very frankly. “Look. You’re college students. You don’t have much money. And in a couple of years, you’re going to be working for tiny newspapers that pay you $15,000 a year, and you’re going to be struggling to pay your rent and pay for your car. If someone offers you food, take it. If they offer you tickets, go. You can’t really afford not to,” she said.
I skirted the issue by changing careers, but that’s another story.
In 1999, I resurrected my writing career. I wrote a book. I received an advance from my publisher for writing that book, as is standard practice. I could have contacted the various software vendors and asked for copies of their software. I opted not to do that. In most cases, the software I recommended in the book was software I used and had purchased myself, in some cases, for years. In other cases, I downloaded evaluation versions of the software, and if it was possible to determine the best way to use it from the eval, I used that to finish the job. My recommendations were not tainted by anybody.
The computer I used to write the bulk of that book was one I built myself, using parts I bought new. I wrote parts of a couple of chapters on a Pentium-75 I built from used parts. Late in the book’s development I purchased a pair of Celeron-400 PCs so that I could run different versions of Windows side by side and find the differences. Again, I might have been able to beg or borrow PCs or components from hardware vendors. I did not. I don’t like kissing up to people, which is usually necessary to get those kinds of favors. I don’t play that game, so I don’t get much free stuff. I also don’t like being influenced unnecessarily. And when I need something, I don’t like waiting longer than necessary. And, keep in mind, money was coming in for this project. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. I was willing to spend some of my own money to do a better job on that project. We have the ability to write off business expenses; you’d better believe I did so.
In one of my articles for Computer Shopper UK, I recommended Partition Magic. I still recommend Partition Magic. I bought version 2.0 of the product, back when it was known only to OS/2 enthusiasts. I’ve been a happy user of it ever since.
In early 2000, I wrote a very favorable review of Mandrake Linux 7.0. I was very excited about this distribution, because it installed quickly and easily and it had enough stuff to be immensely useful. A Mandrake executive contacted me after the review appeared on Linux Today. He asked me for my address so he could send me a retail copy when it was released. I took him up on his offer. He asked me to remove a snide remark about French cars that appeared in the review; since French cars have nothing to do with Linux, I removed the comment. He sent me the package. I felt my integrity was intact. I was very excited about Mandrake 7, and excited that when I later e-mailed that exec with feature requests, he listened and passed them on and some of those ideas were incorporated in subsequent versions. Whether it was my request that prompted them or not, I don’t know. They were features that just made sense to have and were easy to incorporate. For all I know I was the 100th person to suggest them. But I was never wedded to Mandrake; I still have 7.0 installed on one of my PCs, dual-booting with Win98, but my workaday Linux machines run Debian.
I have never been offered cash or product to change a statement I made in print or on the Web.
There is one other thing I need to disclose. Most technology journalists abstain from investing in technology companies. This is a good thing. It avoids the appearance of conflict of interest.
I have some investments. I’ve invested in mutual funds in the past, some of which have undoubtedly owned technology stocks. I’m reasonably sure that one of those funds was a technology index fund of some sort. I have a money manager who makes those decisions for me. Occasionally he mails me paperwork that tells me what I’m invested in. I don’t pay attention to them. I trust the man with my life, so I don’t have to double check him, which frees me to not think about the financial implications of anything I write.
I have at times owned a few shares of stock in individual companies. At one time or another, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, and AOL have been among them. I do not know exactly when those periods of time were, nor do I know the numbers involved. My accountant knows and my money manager can look it up. It doesn’t matter to me.
I don’t talk about Dell much because I don’t own any Dell PCs and the company I work for buys Microns. I’ve worked on a few Dell PCs here and there and I know there are far worse PCs out there. I know a whole lot more about Micron and IBM and Compaq and Apple, so I’m more likely to talk about them.
Owning stock in AOL hasn’t changed my attitude about AOL. I don’t use it and I don’t recommend you use it either. My money manager might not like me saying that, but I don’t care. We also both know I don’t have enough influence to affect their stock price one iota.
Have I ever appeared to be a Microsoft lackey? I certainly hope not. Microsoft’s an investment that’s made a lot of people a lot of money. I don’t know what it’s done for me. The company is despicable regardless. I’ve been pushing Linux here and I’ve been pushing Linux at work. I’m much more interested in seeing that company get its due than I am in the small amount of money I may have tied up in it.
As for Intel, again, I have no fondness for the company. They’ve made some respectable chips at various times. But the Pentium 4 is crap, and the Itanium is worse, the company’s recent upgrade switcheroos are despicable enough to be worthy of Microsoft, and I don’t recommend anyone buy either pf those two products. AMD chips perform better, cost a lot less, and provide better upgrade paths. And before anyone questions AMD’s reliability, keep in mind that AMD was making microchips before Intel. And I’ve got a true blue IBM PC/XT motherboard kicking around. There are more AMD chips on that board than there are Intel chips. AMD has a long tradition of making reliable products. They’ve flubbed a few, but so has Intel. I’ve been buying AMD chips since the early 1990s and I’ve always been happy with them, and I recommend them. Regardless of whose stock I own. (I don’t own any AMD stock, to the best of my knowledge, and would be very surprised if I ever did. My manager considers them too risky of an investment. Not as risky as Red Hat. But too risky for his tastes.)
So, that’s my story. I hope no one has questioned my motives in writing anything I’ve written over the past three years. If they have, I hope this clears things up a little.