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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.

Craig Mundie’s infamous speech

I haven’t said anything about Microsoft Executive Craig Mundie’s speech yet. Everyone’s heard of it, of course, and the typical response has been something along the lines of “Now we know Microsoft’s stance on Open Source.”

No, we’ve always known Microsoft’s stance on that. They’re scared of it. Remember the stereotype of open-source programmers: college students and college dropouts writing software in their basements that a lot of people are using, with the goal of toppling an industry giant. Seem far-fetched? Friends, that’s the story of Microsoft itself. Microsoft became an underground sensation in the late 1970s with Microsoft Basic, a programming language for the Altair and other kit computers and later for CP/M. And while we’ll probably never know the entire story of how and why this happened, when IBM decided to outsource the operating system for the IBM PC, they went to Microsoft and got both an OS and the must-have Microsoft Basic. Ten years later, IBM was just another hardware maker–really big, but getting squeezed. Today, 20 years later, IBM’s still a huge force in the computing industry, but in the PC industry, aside from selling ThinkPads, IBM’s a nobody. There may be hardware enthusiasts out there who’d be surprised to hear IBM makes and sells more than just hard drives.

Ironically, Microsoft’s response to this new threat is to act more and more like the giant it toppled. Shared Source isn’t a new idea. IBM was doing that in the 1960s. If you were big enough, you could see the source code. DEC did it too. At work, we have the source code to most of the big VMS applications we depend on day-to-day. Most big operations insist on having that kind of access, so their programmers can add features and fix bugs quickly. If Windows 2000 is ever going to get beyond the small server space, they really have no choice. But they do it with strings attached and without going far enough. An operation the size of the one I work for can’t get the source and fix bugs or optimize the code for a particular application. You’re only permitted to use the source code to help you develop drivers or applications. Meet the new Microsoft: same as the old Microsoft.

Some people have read this speech and concluded that Microsoft believes open-source software killed the dot-com boom. That’s ludicrous, and I don’t see that in the text. OSS was very good for the dot-com boom. OSS lowered the cost of entry: Operating systems such as FreeBSD and Linux ran on cheap PCs, rather than proprietary hardware. The OSs themselves were free, and there was lots of great free software available, such as the Apache Web server, and scripting languages like Python and Perl. You could do all this cool stuff, the same cool stuff you could do with a Sun or SGI server, for the price of a PC. And not only was it cheaper than everybody else, it was also really reliable.

The way I read it, Microsoft didn’t blame OSS for the dot-com bust. Microsoft blamed the advertising model, valuing market share over revenue, and giving stuff away now and then trying to get people to pay later.

I agree. The dot-com boom died because companies couldn’t find ways to make money. But I’m not convinced the dot-com boom was a big mistake. It put the Internet on the map. Before 1995, when the first banner ad ran, there wasn’t much to the Internet. I remember those early days. As a college student in 1993, the Internet was a bonanza to me, even though I wasn’t using it to the extent a lot of my peers were. For me, the Internet was FTP and Gopher and e-mail. I mostly ignored Usenet and IRC. That was pretty much the extent of the Internet. You had to be really determined or really bored or really geeky to get much of anything out of it. The World Wide Web existed, but that was a great mystery to most of us. The SGI workstations on campus had Web browsers. We knew that Mosaic had been ported to Windows, but no one in the crowd I ran in knew how to get it working. When we finally got it running on some of our PCs in 1994, what we found was mostly personal homepages. “Hi, my name is Darren and this is my homepage. Here are some pictures of my cat. Here’s a listing of all the CDs I own. Here are links to all my friends who have homepages.” The running joke then was that there were only 12 pages on the Web, and the main attraction of the 12 was links to the other 11.

By 1995, we had the first signs of business. Banner ads appeared, and graduating students (or dropouts) started trying to build companies around their ideas. The big attraction of the Web was that there was all this information out there, and it was mostly free. Online newspapers and magazines sprung up. Then vendors sprung up, offering huge selections and low prices. You could go to Amazon.com and find any book in print, and you’d pay less for it than you would at Barnes & Noble. CDNow.com did the same thing for music. And their ads supported places that were giving information away. So people started buying computers so they could be part of the show. People flocked from closed services like CompuServe and Prodigy to plain-old Internet, which offered so much more and was cheaper.

Now the party’s ending as dot-coms close up shop, often with their content gone forever. To me, that’s a loss only slightly greater than the loss of the Great Library. There’s some comfort for me: Five years from now, most of that information would be obsolete anyway. But its historical value would remain. But setting sentiment aside, that bonanza of freebies was absolutely necessary. When I was selling computers in 1994, people frequently asked me what a computer was good for. In 1995, it was an easier sell. Some still asked that question, but a lot of people came in wanting “whatever I need to get to be able to get on the Internet.” Our best-selling software package, besides Myst, was Internet In A Box, which bundled dialup software, a Web browser, and access to some nationwide provider. I imagine sales were easier still in 1996 and beyond, but I was out of retail by then. Suddenly, you could buy this $2,000 computer and get all this stuff for free. A lot of companies made a lot of money off that business model. Microsoft made a killing. Dell and Gateway became behemoths. Compaq made enough to buy DEC. AOL made enough to buy Time Warner. Companies like Oracle and Cisco, who sold infrastructure, had licenses to print money. Now the party’s mostly over and these companies have massive hangovers, but what’s the answer to the Ronald Reagan question? Hangover or no hangover, yes, they’re a whole heck of a lot better off than they were four years ago.

I’m shocked that Microsoft thinks the dot-com phenomenon was a bad thing.

If, in 1995, the Web came into its own but every site had been subscription-based, this stuff wouldn’t have happened. It was hard enough to swallow $2,000 for a new PC, plus 20 bucks a month for Internet. Now I have to pay $9.95 a month to read a magazine? I could just subscribe to the paper edition and save $2,500!

The new Internet would have been the same as the old Internet, only you’d have to be more than just bored, determined, and geeky to make it happen. You’d also have to have a pretty big pile of cash.

The dot-com boom put the Internet on the map, made it the hot ticket. The dot-com bust hurt. Now that sites are dropping out of the sky or at least scaling operations way back, more than half of the Web sites I read regularly are Weblogs–today’s new and improved personal home page. People just like me. The biggest difference between 1994 and 2001? The personal home pages are better. Yeah, the pictures of the cat are still there sometimes, but at least there’s wit and wisdom and insight added. When I click on those links to the left, I usually learn something.

But there is another difference. Now we know why it would make sense to pay for a magazine on the Internet instead of paper. Information that takes a month to make it into print goes online in minutes. It’s much easier and faster to type a word into a search engine than to leaf through a magazine. We can hear any baseball game we want, whether a local radio station carries our favorite team or not. The world’s a lot smaller and faster now, and we’ve found we like it.

The pump is primed. Now we have to figure out how to make this profitable. The free ride is pretty much over. But now that we’ve seen what’s possible, we’re willing to start thinking about whipping out the credit cards again and signing up, provided the cost isn’t outrageous.

The only thing in Mundie’s speech that I can see that Linus Torvalds and Alan Cox and Dan Gillmor should take offense to is Microsoft’s suspicion of anyone giving something away for free. Sure, Microsoft gives lots of stuff away, but always with ulterior motives. Internet Explorer is free because Microsoft was afraid of Netscape. Outlook 98 was free for a while to hurt Lotus Notes. Microsoft Money was free for a while so Microsoft could get some share from Quicken. It stopped being free when Microsoft signed a deal with Intuit to bundle Internet Explorer with Quicken instead of Netscape. And there are other examples.

Microsoft knows that you can give stuff away with strings attached and make money off the residuals. What Microsoft hasn’t learned is that you can give stuff away without the strings attached and still make money off the residuals. The dot-com bust only proves that you can’t necessarily make as much as you may have thought, and that you’d better spend what you do make very wisely.

The Internet needs to be remade, yes, and it needs to find some sustainable business models (one size doesn’t fit all). But if Mundie thinks the world is chomping at the bit to have Microsoft remake the Internet their way, he’s in for a rude awakening.

More Like This: Microsoft Linux Weblogs Internet Commentary

Plextor bargains, and Year 2000 in review

A bargain Plextor CD-RW. I just spotted this great tip in a link to a link to a link in the StorageReview forums. The Iomega ZipCD 12x10x32 appears to be a relabeled Plextor drive, and it sometimes sells for around $100. So if you’re looking for the best CD-R on the market at a great price, go get it.
Details are at www.roundsparrow.com/comp/iomega1 if you want to have a look-see.

The $99 price seems to be a CompUSA special sale. Check local availability at www.compusa.com/products/product_info.asp?product_code=280095 if you’re interested.

Incidentally, the IDE 12x10x32 drives from TDK and Creative are also reported to be re-branded Plextors. Regular retail price on these four “twin” drives is similar, around $300. The TDK and Creative drives come with Nero Burning ROM, however, making them more desirable than the Plextor model. Iomega bundles Adaptec’s CD suite.

Happy New Year. An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, 2000 certainly was interesting. So, my toast to you this year is this: May 2001 be less interesting than 2000. Boring isn’t always bad. Just usually.

Linux 2.4 almost made it. Yesterday, Linus Torvalds released linux2.4-prerelease and vowed there won’t be a prerelease1, prerelease2, etc.–this is it. Bugs get fixed in this one, then the final 2.4 comes out (to be immediately followed by linux2.4ac1, no doubt–Alan Cox always releases a patched kernel swatting a couple of bugs within hours of Linus releasing the new kernel. It happened with 2.0 and with 2.2, and history repeats itself).

Anyway, the 2.2 prerelease turned into a series in spite of Linus’ vows, so Linus isn’t always right, but I expect 2.4 will be out this month, if not this week.

Linux 2.4 will increase performance, especially on high-memory and SMP machines, but I ran a 2.3 series kernel (basically the Linux equivalent of an alpha release of 2.4) on my P120 for a long time and found it to be faster than 2.2, even on a machine that humble. I also found it to be more stable than Microsoft’s final releases, but hey.

I ought to download 2.4prerelease and put it on my dual Celeron box to see how far it’s come, but I doubt I get around to it today.

Other lowlights of 2000. Windows 2000 flopped. It’s not a total disaster, but sales aren’t meeting Microsoft’s expectations. PC sales flopped, and that was a disaster. The Pentium 4 was released to awful reviews. Nvidia bought the mortal remains of 3dfx for a song. Similarly, Aureal departed from this mortal coil, purchased by longtime archrival Creative Labs after bankruptcy. (In a former incarnation, before bankruptcy and being run into the ground, Aureal was known as MediaVision. PC veterans probably remember them.) A federal judge ordered the breakup of Microsoft, but the appeals process promises to at least delay it, if not prevent it. We’ll hear a lot about that in 2001, but 2001 probably won’t bring any closure.

Hmm, other highlights. Apple failed to release OS X this year, and saw its new product line flop. Dotcom after dotcom shuttered its doors, much to Wall Street’s dismay. Linux companies didn’t topple MS, much to Wall Street’s dismay. And speaking of Wall Street, Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) flip-flopped in the rankings of richest man in the world several times.

And two of my favorite pundits, Bob Metcalfe and G. Burgess Alison, called it quits last year. They are sorely missed.

And once again, 2000 wasn’t the year of the NC.

I know I missed a few. But those were the highlights, as I see them.

01/01/2001

Mailbag:

Partition; IDE/SCSI; Lost CD ROM; Optimizing ME; Win 98/ME

A bargain Plextor CD-RW. I just spotted this great tip in a link to a link to a link in the StorageReview forums. The Iomega ZipCD 12x10x32 appears to be a relabeled Plextor drive, and it sometimes sells for around $100. So if you’re looking for the best CD-R on the market at a great price, go get it.

Details are at www.roundsparrow.com/comp/iomega1 if you want to have a look-see.

The $99 price seems to be a CompUSA special sale. Check local availability at www.compusa.com/products/product_info.asp?product_code=280095 if you’re interested.

Incidentally, the IDE 12x10x32 drives from TDK and Creative are also reported to be re-branded Plextors. Regular retail price on these four “twin” drives is similar, around $300. The TDK and Creative drives come with Nero Burning ROM, however, making them more desirable than the Plextor model. Iomega bundles Adaptec’s CD suite.

Happy New Year. An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, 2000 certainly was interesting. So, my toast to you this year is this: May 2001 be less interesting than 2000. Boring isn’t always bad. Just usually.

Linux 2.4 almost made it. Yesterday, Linus Torvalds released linux2.4-prerelease and vowed there won’t be a prerelease1, prerelease2, etc.–this is it. Bugs get fixed in this one, then the final 2.4 comes out (to be immediately followed by linux2.4ac1, no doubt–Alan Cox always releases a patched kernel swatting a couple of bugs within hours of Linus releasing the new kernel. It happened with 2.0 and with 2.2, and history repeats itself).

Anyway, the 2.2 prerelease turned into a series in spite of Linus’ vows, so Linus isn’t always right, but I expect 2.4 will be out this month, if not this week.

Linux 2.4 will increase performance, especially on high-memory and SMP machines, but I ran a 2.3 series kernel (basically the Linux equivalent of an alpha release of 2.4) on my P120 for a long time and found it to be faster than 2.2, even on a machine that humble. I also found it to be more stable than Microsoft’s final releases, but hey.

I ought to download 2.4prerelease and put it on my dual Celeron box to see how far it’s come, but I doubt I get around to it today.

Other lowlights of 2000. Windows 2000 flopped. It’s not a total disaster, but sales aren’t meeting Microsoft’s expectations. PC sales flopped, and that was a disaster. The Pentium 4 was released to awful reviews. Nvidia bought the mortal remains of 3dfx for a song. Similarly, Aureal departed from this mortal coil, purchased by longtime archrival Creative Labs after bankruptcy. (In a former incarnation, before bankruptcy and being run into the ground, Aureal was known as MediaVision. PC veterans probably remember them.) A federal judge ordered the breakup of Microsoft, but the appeals process promises to at least delay it, if not prevent it. We’ll hear a lot about that in 2001, but 2001 probably won’t bring any closure.

Hmm, other highlights. Apple failed to release OS X this year, and saw its new product line flop. Dotcom after dotcom shuttered its doors, much to Wall Street’s dismay. Linux companies didn’t topple MS, much to Wall Street’s dismay. And speaking of Wall Street, Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) flip-flopped in the rankings of richest man in the world several times.

And two of my favorite pundits, Bob Metcalfe and G. Burgess Alison, called it quits last year. They are sorely missed.

And once again, 2000 wasn’t the year of the NC.

I know I missed a few. But those were the highlights, as I see them.

Mailbag:

Partition; IDE/SCSI; Lost CD ROM; Optimizing ME; Win 98/ME