Change a headline, go to prison

A former journalist whose track record includes being fired from the Tribune Co. and from Reuters is facing two decades in prison for giving the hacking group Anonymous credentials to log into a Tribune web site and change stuff.

Anonymous changed one headline, and it took about 40 minutes for someone at Tribune Co. to notice and change it back.

It reminds me of something that happened at the newspaper where I used to work.

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Gary Kildall and what might have been

Gary Kildall and what might have been

I didn’t have time to write everything I wanted to write yesterday, so I’m going to revisit Bill Gates and Gary Kildall today. Bill Gates’ side of the DOS story is relatively well documented in his biographies: Gates referred IBM to Gary Kildall, who for whatever reason was less comfortable working with IBM than Gates was. And there was an airplane involved, though what Kildall was doing in the airplane and why varies. By some accounts he was meeting another client, and by other accounts it was a joyride. IBM in turn came back to Gates, who had a friend of a friend who was cloning CP/M for the 8086, so Microsoft bought the clone for $50,000, cleaned it up a little, and delivered it to IBM while turning a huge profit. Bill Gates became Bill Gates, and Kildall and his company, Digital Research, slowly faded away.

The victors usually get to write the history. I’ve tried several times over the years to find Kildall’s side of the story. I first went looking sometime in 1996 or so, for a feature story about Internet misinformation I wrote for the Columbia Missourian‘s Sunday magazine. For some reason, every five years or so I end up chasing the story down again.
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More on the Megan Meier "Myspace Suicide"

I can’t stay away from this story, partly because I can relate to it, and partly because a good friend’s daughter goes to the same school Megan Meier did.

The story is getting a lot more attention now. And a good number of people believe they have the name and address of the unidentified hoaxers, based on clues in the article.

So now what?Not everyone knows this, but in 1996 I was a criminal justice reporter for the Columbia Missourian. If this had happened in Columbia in 1996, it’s entirely possible I would have been writing this story. A lot of people are upset that the article didn’t name any names.

In 1996 in Columbia, I probably would have printed the name. The argument the reporter uses, which is that the hoaxers haven’t been convicted or even charged with a crime, is valid. But in 1996, I would have felt reasonably comfortable printing the name. Our mantra was that if you ever do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, don’t do it.

The problem today is that if you print a name, any idiot can type the name and the city into Google and get an address. And then chaos can ensue. I don’t want to plant any ideas, but I would imagine unpleasant visits and mail would be among the possibilities.

I will admit that I spent a lot of time Monday and Tuesday searching to try to determine the identity of the hoaxers. Theoretically these people live within walking distance of my friend, and I don’t want them anywhere near his daughters.

I used to have to track people down knowing next to nothing about them, sometimes not even a full name. He knew this. He didn’t come out and ask me to track them down, but he dropped a big hint. I think he would have tracked them down without my help, but I did what I could to help him.

If you want a name, you won’t find it here. People have wanted to vandalize the hoaxers’ house, long before this story broke, and the Meiers asked them not to–they would be blamed for it. The Meiers don’t need any legal trouble right now.

Also keep in mind the news story says the family has at least one security camera set up. To me, this is yet one more indication that they knew long ago they’d done something wrong. But it also means that anyone who tries any funny business now will probably make trouble for themselves.

I’ve seen a number of people questioning the authenticity of the story, and I want to address that.

One, the local papers that broke this story are owned by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. While I’m often critical of the Post-Dispatch, it is a reputable paper that hires qualified, talented journalists. The St. Charles Journal isn’t the local gossip rag. While I’m not familiar with Steve Pokin, the author of this story, it’s obvious to me that he didn’t start at the paper yesterday, and in this story he followed all of the rules of good journalism, including having multiple sources. Three is considered the minimum, and he talked to more than three people. including people who didn’t want to talk.

Two, the local Fox affiliate has started covering the story and hasn’t contradicted anything that was in the original newspaper story.

Third, the story states that the anonymous hoaxers filed a police report after the Meiers dumped their destroyed foosball table on their yard. In the police report, they admit to creating a fake Myspace profile and using it to harass Megan. Filing a false police report is a crime.

While I wasn’t able to find a copy of the report online, I found Ron Meier’s court case. He’s actually due in court on Nov. 15. There weren’t a lot of details there, but the charge is property damage, the amount of money is $1,000, and the dates and the other sketchy details I found online fit the story.

And it sounds cliche, but my friend lives within walking distance. His daughter goes to Immaculate Conception, the same school Megan attended. Soon after Megan died, his daughter brought a note home stating what happened. He and I have known each other since 1989, he knew details that aren’t in the story, and he has no reason to lie about any of this.

Some people, for whatever reason, want to disbelieve it, but they don’t have a strong case.

They can point to a few holes in the story, and admittedly, there’s no way the Meiers could tell everything in the story that was printed, or in 2 minutes on TV. Did they do everything they could have or should have? By their own admission they didn’t. Did they leave out some embarrassing details? Certainly. But it’s also telling that the hoaxers didn’t want to be interviewed for the story, that they tried to discredit the police report they filed themselves, and that the police report pretty much went along with the Meiers’ story.

Finally, some people have criticized Pokin’s writing in the original story as hard to follow. I didn’t find it all that hard to follow. The story would have been a little easier to follow if he hadn’t used suspense, but fewer people would have been willing to read it if he’s written it in the traditional (and often mind-numbing) inverted pyramid format.

The problem is, it’s a complex story, and even in the traditional style, I suspect some of the people complaining would have complained.

I think some people need to learn how to read properly.

But all in all, even though some of the comments I’m seeing about this on Digg and on various blogs infuriate me, I’m glad this story is getting attention.

Laptop or desktop?

All this talk today about cheap notebooks like the Sotec 3120x begs another question: Who should buy one?
Nearly six years ago, I published a column in the Columbia Missourian newspaper. My working title was 101 Reasons NOT to Buy a Laptop but a cooler-headed editor toned it down. I pointed out that you can buy twice the computer for the same amount of money, and laptops are hard to upgrade and they break a lot and you shouldn’t buy one without an extended warranty. (I was shocked to read that I’d said that way back then.)

All of that’s still true today. Except for the twice as much computer for the same amount of money bit. Thank goodness that’s changed.

Now you can buy twice as much computer for half the money.

Back then my job was to set up and fix laptops. I didn’t actually use one very much. I’ve been using one nearly every day for the past year and I’ve found some things to like about laptops now.

Portability. Duh. But this means not only can you take it with you, but you can stash it easily when company’s coming over.

Small size. A desktop computer’s going to take up most of the desk. My current computer desk has more usable space on it than my kitchen counter, which is nice because that gives me some room to work. Or put more computers on it. Guess which I do? But anyway, I can set up a laptop on a small desk and still have space to work.

Quiet. A lot of desktop PCs have three, even four fans in them. They make a lot of noise. Laptops have one fan and it doesn’t always even go all the time. Go back to a desktop and you’ll discover you’ve forgotten how much you like quiet. (Apologies to Charlie for stealing one of his lines.)

Gorgeous display. Another coworker came in today to work on my laptop (more on that in a bit) and to complain about another coworker. He was griping about how his laptop display looked when he hooked it up to an external monitor. I asked why anyone would hook up a laptop to a CRT. I guess it makes you look important.

Flat-panel LCD displays are gorgeous. No flicker, great color saturation, perfect focus, really easy on the eyes. They don’t update fast enough to be good for 120-fps 3D gaming, but for everything else, they’re fabulous. Staring at a CRT for 8 hours wears me out. Staring at an LCD for 8 hours has no effect on me. I’ve got a nice 19-inch CRT–an NEC, and it’s one of the professional line, not the consumer line–and it’s great. But I’ll take my laptop’s 13″ LCD.

You can get a similar effect by connecting an LCD to a desktop, but you’ll get digital converted to analog and back on an inexpensive one, which will affect display quality ever so slightly. A laptop is all digital, from video chip to screen.

The downside. After living with one, I’ve changed my tune a little. It used to be when someone said they were getting a laptop, I’d cringe the same way I would if they told me they were getting a sex change. I don’t do that anymore.

But there are still issues. I’ve broken my laptop twice in the past four months. And I treat mine well. The first was a hard drive. The second was the power connector–a piece of plastic snapped off. You’re looking at a motherboard swap to fix that one, in this age of people not knowing how to solder.

Laptop keyboards and mice take getting used to. Every time my girlfriend comes over and needs to use a computer, she sits down at the laptop and asks me for a “real mouse.”

And I miss my IBM clackety keyboards when I’m using a laptop. (I suspect Charlie would get really annoyed if I used one of those at work though, since he’s in the cube next to me, and the way I type, those keyboards can overpower fan noise. Or phone conversations. Or earthquakes.)

Upgrades remain a problem. I’ve got an IBM Thinkpad 600. Great display, great keyboard, and it’s small and light. But it’s slow. The memory tops out at some weird amount–I don’t think I can put 256 megs in it. CPU upgrades are all but out of the question. I can put a faster hard drive in it, but desktops give a lot more options. Even in my old original IBM AT case I can shoehorn a newer motherboard with an 800 MHz VIA C3 processor, and I can put in a 15K SCSI hard drive if I really want to. And that’s a 17-year-old case. I’ve got better upgrade options with a 17-year-old IBM PC/AT than I do with a four-year-old IBM Thinkpad!

So should anyone buy this new generation of cheap laptops? Well, remember, “cheap” is relative. Even when you can finagle into buying one for $800 through creative use of coupons, that’s still a pretty serious chunk of change.

And because they break as much as ever, I have trouble recommending a laptop as an only computer. If you’ve already got a desktop and plan to keep it and can afford a cheap snazzy laptop, then by all means go for it. You’ll love the freedom to move around. If you can’t afford $800 plus the extended warranty, wait a month or six. They’ll come down. I believe you’ll be able to buy a budget laptop for $599 by this time next year. Possibly even $499.

But if you’re buying your first computer, I think you’re better off with a low-end desktop and a nice flat-panel LCD display. The LCD will outlive the desktop PC, and the desktop PC will give you a lot more upgrade options. And as someone who’s been playing with these things for 20 years, trust me: You’ll want upgrade options.

Conspiracies, conspiracies everywhere

The topic of the day yesterday was Timothy McVeigh. I’d forgotten that yesterday was his day–I saw the lead story on The Kansas City Star announcing McVeigh was dead yesterday morning when I went to read up on the day’s events.
McVeigh raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. So let’s go back to a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, because that was when I got my wakeup call.

I was a crime reporter for the Columbia Missourian, a flaming liberal little daily newspaper in, frankly, what would be a worthless little town if it weren’t for the University of Missouri being there. But Columbia is situated in the middle of nowhere; aside from Columbia and Jefferson City, Central Missouri has no good-sized towns, and those two “cities” are cities only by Missouri standards. St. Louis has suburbs bigger than either of them. Central Missouri is backward, or rural, or backward and rural, depending on where you go.

Well, a guy by the name of Don Albright drove to Columbia one night and got drunk. He was pulled over, ticketed, and charged with driving while intoxicated. Albright maintained it was his constitutional right to drive drunk. Actually, he said his constitutional right to travel was being violated. “A driver is for hire,” Albright told me. “A traveler is a private citizen.”

I had a very long conversation with Albright. Albright was one of the biggest conspiracy theorists I’d ever talked to. He believed the United States was still technically a collection of British colonies; that there are actually two United States of Americas; that the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and the Kennedy Assassination were all directly linked and part of the same conspiracy, and other bizarre beliefs. Another belief he shared with me was the New World Order, a belief Timothy McVeigh shared.

He was also militant. He took out liens on judges and prosecuting attorneys. And, on the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Albright, along with others, threatened to attack government buildings as well as press organizations that didn’t “tell what was really going on.”

By this time, I was on Albright’s black list. One of his friends anonymously called me one day and told me to watch my back, so I took the threats seriously. I consciously avoided the newsroom, courthouse, post office, and police station that day. Fortunately, nothing eventful happened.

I suspect Albright’s motivation was primarily racial. During that single conversation, he brought up plenty of racial overtones. When we investigated him further, what we discovered was a person who didn’t want to accept any responsibility for his own past.

Albright had numerous supporters in and around Columbia. I spoke with a number of them outside the Boone County courthouse on the day of one of Albright’s scheduled court appearances. The only one who would give me his name was a guy by the name of Hobbes (I think his first name was Ken). An older woman, who would only go by “Mrs. Hobbes,” (I assume she was his mother), talked to me a little bit less. They were certainly fundamentalist Christians. They gave me pamphlets, a Constitutional Driver’s License (whereby I could grant myself the right to travel the nation’s roads freely), a copy of the Constitution, information on how I could secede from the United States and become a sovereign citizen, and other materials. But they sang exactly the same song Albright did, though Albright appeared to be racially motivated.

In 1992, while a senior in high school, I met a conspiracy theorist of another feather. He was a fervent believer in the writings of George Adamski, a UFO author who claimed he had been visited by beings from a yet-undiscovered planet in the solar system. Adamski, as I recall, had been widely discredited in the 1960s. But this guy’s beliefs (I don’t recall his name anymore, unfortunately) fit these others like a hand in a glove. He, too, spoke of the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, and other oddities.

So… There are plenty of kooks like McVeigh out there. Some of them, like the last one I mentioned, are quirky but harmless. Albright, I believe, could be extremely dangerous. And, interestingly enough, although each type begins with a different premise at heart, they all come to nearly identical conclusions.

The common thread is that none of them trust the government and none of them fully understand the world around them. That’s fine. I don’t trust the government and I certainly don’t understand everything about the world around me. You can do one of two things when that happens. You can just accept that you don’t know everything and you never will know everything, and just try to understand the things that interest you or the things that affect you as best as you possibly can.

Or you can explain it all away as a giant conspiracy. Of course you can’t be the one that’s messed up. The rest of the world around you is messed up. And they’re doing it on purpose!

Time for a reality check.

Hard Fact Number One: Members of the hard left are every bit as disillusioned as members of the hard right. Most of my college professors despised Bill Clinton every bit as much as I did. They were liberal. We’ve got people on the hard left who can’t get what they want. We’ve got people on the hard right who can’t get what they want. [observation]Isn’t that called compromise?[/observation]

Hard Fact Number Two: It’s difficult to get people to cooperate with one another. It’s even more difficult to get organizations to cooperate with one another. If you spend any length of time within an organization of any considerable size, you begin to wonder how it keeps from unraveling just because of internal politics. And these are people who share the same interests! Want an example of how conspiracies are so difficult? Fine. Here’s one: Oracle and Sun and the United States Government against Microsoft. Remember how they bungled that one? And why? None of the parties could figure out what exactly they wanted on their own, let alone what they wanted collectively.

Conspiracies can happen. But they’re rare and generally short-lived.

McVeigh killed 168 people. Or, at the very least, McVeigh participated in the killing of 168 people. We don’t know if he and Terry Nichols acted alone. Probably not–there was a John Doe No. 2 who was never found. But McVeigh did kill innocent people, and he did it willfully and he expressed no remorse.

Yes, the United States Government is partially responsible for that. The Clinton administration did a lot of detestable things. Part of that was because Bill Clinton is and was a hopeless idealist, and he surrounded himself with the same types of people. They didn’t know how to handle people who didn’t share their worldview. And most of them probably didn’t forsee the possibility of a McVeigh-like backlash to Waco and Ruby Ridge. Holding the government accountable for those actions is necessary. Not handing the presidency to Al Gore is a good start, but that’s only a start. And the country was bitterly divided over that.

If you want to take that argument to its logical conclusion, who was it that put that administration in office? Hint: If you live in the United States, scroll up to the top of this page, get a good look at my picture, then go look in the mirror. You and I did that. But you didn’t vote for him, you say? Neither did I. Fifty-seven percent of us didn’t. The problem was, the 57% of us who wanted someone else couldn’t agree on the someone else to put in office, and we paid the price. But the fact is, most of us don’t care. So, since we put this government in place, aren’t we also responsible for its actions, especially when we refuse to fundamentally change it?

But blaming the United States Government for Timothy McVeigh’s actions is childish. When I was in fifth grade, another kid named Benji used to act up and then blame his poor behavior on the outcome of the 1985 World Series. There is no difference. Benji wasn’t mature enough to deal with his disappointment about the baseball season in a socially responsible manner. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t mature enough to deal with his disappointment with the government’s behavior in a socially responsible manner. The St. Louis Cardinals didn’t make Benji misbehave, and the U.S. Government didn’t make McVeigh blow up that building. The victims of McVeigh’s atrocity deserve better than that kind of logic.

Yes, the government is partially responsible because McVeigh’s actions are the consequence of some of its own actions. And the government’s job is to clean up its own mess. I’m not convinced it’s totally done that. But McVeigh was guilty, and he even admitted his guilt. The U.S. Government did what its laws call for it to do. So it actually owned up for once.

Don’t get used to it. Except for it only partially cleaning up, that is.

And, like it or not, McVeigh is now a martyr in some circles. Actually he’s been a martyr since the day of his arrest. But there’s a grain of truth in McVeigh’s beliefs. Our government is out of control, it’s irresponsible, and it’s not accountable to anyone.

But that’s our fault. Our government is supposed to be accountable to us, and as long as our Congressmen send plenty of pork back home, we keep them in office. And we vote for our presidents whimsically. The government knows that as long as they give us bread and circuses, we don’t care about much else.

And if we want to keep this kind of crap from ever happening again, we’re going to have to start giving a crap about more than just food and entertainment.

I’m not holding my breath.

02/09/2001

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Fatal Exception Error

Ahem. Dan Bowman decided to rile me up yesterday by sending me this link.  What is it? An allegation that the press kisses up to the likes of Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, and my all-time favorites, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They put them on the front page at least once a year and don’t call them on their lies because then they wouldn’t pose for photographers.

There’s a big difference between journalism and PR. Journalism reports the facts. PR casts personalities in the best possible light. What Dave Winer was describing yesterday isn’t journalism, it’s PR. And that’s why I read a lot fewer newspapers and magazines than some people might think a professional writer would.

I interviewed a few people in my days as a newspaper writer. (That photo up in the left corner is the photograph of a 21-year-old crime reporter for the Columbia Missourian newspaper. I scanned it off my press pass.) You’d better believe I hacked some people off. Did I give a rip what the county prosecutor thought of me, or the things I wrote? No. He had to talk to me. Sure, there was a competing newspaper in town (that’s a long story why a town the size of Columbia, Mo., has two papers), but he felt like he had to talk to me anyway. If I cast him in an unfair light, well, that was what the editor was for. Or he’d go tell my rival at the other paper how unfair I was. He’d listen.

I didn’t kiss up to RPs either. (That’s jargon. It means “real people.”) Once I covered the story of a separatist who was living about 15 miles north of Columbia. Now, this guy was one of the biggest looney tunes I ever talked to, but he did have a couple of good points. Everyone does. Even Steve Jobs. (He’s right when he says Microsoft doesn’t innovate, for instance.) But this guy was a criminal, convicted of a DWI. His solution rather than to pay the fine was to withdraw from the union, declare himself sovereign, and declare war on the United States. Really. He also placed liens on the property of everyone he didn’t like–city officials, judges… I believe he demanded payment in gold. He made a lot of people really nervous. He didn’t like me or the story I printed all that much, so he never talked to me again after that. He did get one of his cronies to call me up at the newsroom and threaten me with bodily injury though. (I guess he decided it wasn’t worth it to place a lien on my 1992 Dodge Spirit, or maybe he couldn’t track down that piece of personal property.) So I told my editor, carried around a can of mace for the next few months, and reminded myself that the guy could barely move, whereas I was 21 and still in decent enough shape to play softball well, and the cops all knew me and they knew him.

Oh, and when we did need to get a quote from him after that, I just grabbed the best-looking girl in the newsroom at the given time, asked her to turn the charm on, call him, and talk to him in as soothing and polite a voice as possible. They’d usually be good for about a one-minute conversation, which was enough to say we had talked to the man. By that time, I’d talked to him enough and talked to enough of his separatist allies to know how he thought and put what little we could get out of him in context. Plus I still had my notes from our original interview. It’s amazing how you can milk multiple stories out of a single interview when you have to.

We couldn’t get that separatist to pose for pictures either, needless to say. So we’d find out when he was scheduled to be in court, and one of our photographers would camp out on the courthouse steps and shoot half a roll of film as he walked past. Plus we maintained file photos for just those occasions when someone wouldn’t talk to us, or we couldn’t arrange to have a fresh shot taken due to the lack of a photographer’s availability.

I handled elected officials the same way. I wrote an extremely unflattering story about then-Gov. Mel Carnahan in early 1994. Carnahan wouldn’t talk to me; one of his aides denied the entire story, but I had half a dozen sources from both political parties who gladly talked to me. And a story that I wrote about former Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.) in 1996 undoubtedly hacked off more than a few Republicans.

So you hack off Bill Gates or another Silicon Valley personality. Big fat hairy deal. There’s a solution to that problem. Show up at the next speech he gives. Snap three rolls’ worth of pictures during his speech, each in the middle of saying a word. In half or even two thirds of the shots you get, he’ll look like the world’s biggest idiot. Find the least flattering picture, then run it really big. That’ll make him even madder. But remember, he can’t win. The press never loses. Freedom of the press is for those who own one, and, well, most of those guys don’t. Those who do don’t have as big an audience.

Or, if you’re not quite that mad (or your editor isn’t), run a file photo. Run a nice-looking one if you’re somewhat interested in making peace. Run one from the 1970s if you’re less so.

If the press quits kissing Bill Gates’ butt (and those of his sworn mortal enemies), they’ll lose a few interviews and photo ops. But what else will happen is the papers who quit will gain some credibility. Not all will fall into line, at least not at first. But those papers’ reputations as just a cog in the Microsoft PR machine will grow, and it will cost them. So slowly they will fall into line. And Gates will eventually realize that he has to talk to the press, even those he doesn’t like, because that’s the only way you have any control at all over what goes into the press. If you don’t talk, the press has total control.

In journalism school, one of the things they taught me was your integrity is far too high a price to pay for an interview. Your ultimate loyalty isn’t to your sources, but rather, your readers. But not everyone went where I went, and not everyone paid attention in class. But if the computer press would take that advice to heart, eventually we might start seeing less gum-flapping and more action. And that can only mean better products.

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