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More Wikipedia adventures

I’ve been writing for the Wikipedia a fair bit lately. I was adapting some out-of-copyright articles about Civil War generals when the Columbia disaster happened, and I was shocked to see the Wikipedia’s information was as up to date as anyone else’s.
I’ve noticed that trend. Wikipedia authors keep up on their current events. People and events that will be forgotten in a couple of years have extensive entries. But the current events knowledge recorded there doesn’t run very deep yet; I found on the “requested articles” page a request for a biography of Newt Gingrich. I know he’s been laying low for the past five years or so, but is Newt Gingrich really a figure in history yet?

I took the Gingrich biography off a Congressional Web page (U.S. Government works are public domain) and spent half an hour fleshing it out.

Then I noticed another name I recognized on the requests page: G. Gordon Liddy. I’d seen his mug in conservative rags and I knew he did prison time in connection with Watergate and had a controversial radio program. But I didn’t know anything else about him. After an hour or so of digging, the most enlightening thing I learned about him was that he was a b-grade actor in the 1980s and early 1990s. I wrote up a sorry excuse for an entry, but a detail of his Watergate exploits, mention of his status as a radio talk show host and a list of movies and TV shows he appeared in is more useful than nothing. Even if I couldn’t hunt down minor details like his date or place of birth.

Then I closed out my Controversial Conservatives series with Whittaker Chambers, who was also on the requests page. Chambers was the accuser in the Alger Hiss trial that made Richard Nixon (in)famous. (Before Watergate made him even more (in)famous.) I remember hearing rude and nasty things about Chambers in history classes in college, but I didn’t know any specifics about the man. It’s a shame because he’s really pretty interesting. (I can tell the story a lot better here than I did at the Wikipedia. Writing really is better when it can have a little opinion in it.)

Chambers had dysfunctional parents before having dysfunctional parents was cool. He was a loser who struggled to finish high school and couldn’t hold down a job. So he went to college, where he got kicked out because he wouldn’t go to class. He became a communist. He was a good writer–possibly even a great writer–so he started writing for a couple of commie rags and eventually rose to the level of editor at both of them. Somewhere along the way someone asked him if he’d do some espionage work. He did. But Josef Stalin made him really nervous and eventually Stalin’s Hitleresque acts drove Chambers to not want to be a communist anymore. He left the party and his politics turned hard right.

FDR’s assistant Secretary of State was a friend of a friend. In the summer of 1939, Chambers crashed a party one night and spent three hours with him out on the front lawn telling him everyone he knew who’d ever had connections with the American Communist Party. The friend of a friend told FDR. FDR laughed, said it was impossible, and besides, he needed to concentrate on Hitler.

Chambers took a job at Time, captivating readers with his writing and pissing off writers with his editing. Chambers didn’t want anything he printed to be mistaken for being pro-Communist. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Chambers was Red Scare before Red Scare was cool too. Eventually Chambers became senior editor of Time Magazine and made a cushy $30,000 a year.

Then, in 1948, Dick Nixon came knocking. History tends to treat Chambers as an opportunist trying to gain fame by taking down the goliath Alger Hiss (Hiss, after all, was at the time a candidate to become Secretary-General of the United Nations). And while one could made a reasonably strong claim for opportunism in 1939 when he was a college dropout who couldn’t hold down a job, in 1948 that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Chambers was making 30 grand a year working for one of the biggest magazines in the free world, in an era before television had gotten a chance to take off, so writing for one of the biggest magazines in the free world was a bigger deal than it would be today. And 30 grand was a lot of money at the time. Some accounts say he was a reluctant witness. I know I would have been if I were him. Remember, the commie had by then had nine years to go capitalist.

But Chambers testified. And Hiss was just one of many names he dropped a dime on. But the House Un-American Activities Committee zeroed in on Hiss.

Hiss initially said he didn’t know the guy and had never even heard of him. Then Nixon arranged a meeting in person. Hiss said he knew a guy named George who used to run errands for him who kind of looked like him. After spending a little time with him, he acknowledged that maybe this Whittaker Chambers guy was the George he used to know.

Whittaker Chambers said Hiss used to be a commie and a spy and might still be. Hiss dared him to say it outside of a courtroom, where he wouldn’t be protected by immunity. Chambers went on Meet the Press and said it again. Hiss sued him for $75,000. Now back when Whittaker Chambers was finding himself, Hiss was doing things like getting a law degree from a prestigious school and working for famous people. And now he was getting pretty famous himself. Chambers was a schmuck who wrote for Time and it was the only steady job he’d ever been able to hold down. People wanted to believe Alger Hiss. Chambers made Kato Kaelin look legit. And Time was getting impatient with its loose-cannon editor.

Then Chambers produced the goods. Back when he decided not to be a communist anymore, Chambers got into mutually assured destruction before mutually assured destruction was cool. He stashed some spy stuff. Now was the time to use it. He whipped out some typewritten papers. They were copies of classified documents he said Hiss had given him to deliver. I heard Chambers couldn’t keep his story straight about whether Hiss typed them or his wife. Some Hiss apologists say Hiss didn’t know how to type. And maybe Chambers was too dumb to know that just because he knew how to type didn’t mean most men did at the time. But the documents were traced to a typewriter that had once been owned by the Hiss family. Hiss said they gave the typewriter away in the late 1930s. But he couldn’t say when.

Then Chambers took two HUAC goons out to a pumpkin patch in Maryland. Chambers located a hollowed-out pumpkin, opened it up, and produced four rolls of microfilm. If you’ve seen a picture of Richard Nixon holding a magnifying glass up to a piece of microfilm, the microfilm came from that pumpkin.

The Hiss trial ended in a hung jury. The retrial ended with Hiss being sentenced to five years in the slammer. He served 3 years and 8 months.

Richard Nixon rode high. He was a senator by 1950 and vice president by 1952, and a presidential candidate in 1960.

Chambers lost his job at Time. At one point he tried unsuccessfully to gas himself to death. He wandered around. Became a Quaker. Wrote an autobiography. Hooked up with a young William F. Buckley Jr. and worked as an editor for National Review for a while. His health left him. He wrote a couple more books. And he died in 1961 without much money, still convinced of the communist threat but also predicting what would ultimately bring it down.

Hiss was ruined. He was disbarred and maintained his innocence for the rest of his life. In 1975, he was reinstated into the Massachusetts bar. He died Nov. 15, 1996, still asserting his innocence.

Although U.S. conservatives and liberals will probably argue until the end of time whether it was Hiss or Chambers who was lying, the inescapable truth is that the trial ruined both men. Chambers had everything to lose and little to gain. While his stories sometimes changed and didn’t always mesh completely with other peoples’ recollections, when you piece a story together from multiple sources you find that’s usually the case. Perspectives differ and memories fade.

There’s a Web site at NYU that asserts Hiss’ innocence. It’s the only compelling case for Hiss’ innocence I was able to find. Most pro-Hiss writing I found read like ultra-right-wing conspiracy theory. The site at NYU does a good job, but I was severely disappointed in the lack of mention of the 1978 book Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein. Weinstein had intended to write a pro-Hiss book but the evidence he found, a decade and a half prior to the declassification of documents in communist countries, suggested Hiss was guilty.

Like I said, it’s a compelling case, and it definitely proves that the Alger Hiss trial wasn’t a black and white issue. Was Richard Nixon out to get someone? Absolutely. Was the U.S. Government eager to make someone take a fall? No doubt. Gotta teach those commies a lesson. Was Alger Hiss a man of great accomplishments? Certainly. Was Whittaker Chambers a screw-up? Absolutely. Was Whittaker Chambers wrong about some details? Certainly. But if I was called to give details about someone I knew 10 years ago today, I’d get some stuff wrong too. We all would. Was Whittaker Chambers guilty of embellishing some of his details? Possibly. A lot of people do that.

But does it prove his innocence? No. I can make a compelling case that the sky is pink if I ignore every photograph that shows a blue sky.

These guys have a clue

I read on Slashdot this morning that Phish is selling soundboard recordings of its live concerts online, in unrestricted format.
For $10, fans can download concerts in MP3 format, or for $13, they can download in lossless format.

Record industry and bands take note: People are far more likely to have heard of whatever artist you happen to be listening to right now than they have Phish. But chances are Phish makes more money than whoever it is you’re listening to right now. The Rolling Stones had problems selling out venues on their last tour. Phish never has problems filling the house.

I’m not a Phish fan. To my knowledge, I’ve only ever heard one Phish song, back in 1996 when they had a song in heavy rotation on the AOR-oriented station I listened to in college. They’re a quirky alternative band. I like quirky alternative music, but my favorite quirky alternative bands are quirky in different ways than Phish.

Phish’s absence from most radio stations tells you that a lot of people aren’t into their quirks. Yet a lot of other people are. Phish proves that narrowcasting, as opposed to broadcasting, can be profitable. You don’t have to be a manufactured sellout to make it in the industry. Phish was around long before the current crop of manufactured boy bands, and after all of this crop is just a memory like the Bay City Rollers and the New Kids on the Block, Phish will still be making records and touring.

So what’s the secret? The willingness to sell unprotected copies of its concerts online gives a good clue. Phish allows things like tape recorders and cameras in their concerts. And if you want to trade live tapes with friends or give them away, that’s fine too. So people can get introduced to the band very cheaply.

How often have you heard a new band, liked their stuff, and then run out and bought more of it? I know I’ve done it a lot. But if I only kind of like a band, I don’t become obsessed, because I don’t run out to buy a $15 disc that I kind of liked. But when a friend is free to give me a copy of something I kind of like, I get more chances to acquire a taste for it. Obviously, not everybody who copies a Phish concert becomes a fan. But the economics show that some people who copy Phish concerts must end up running out and buying records and concert tickets.

Still not convinced? The Dave Matthews Band has a similar liberal policy towards taping shows, and you can download all the DMB concerts you want, for free, at You probably have heard of them. I know you’ve heard them on the radio.

People are going to copy the Phish MP3s they download. Friends will split the cost of downloading one concert and then make copies for each other. I know that, and I’m sure that Phish knows that. They ask people not to do that. Some will anyway.

But the companies that sell dirty JPEGs online don’t protect their wares. They’re smoking crack if they think their stuff isn’t getting passed around. A cursory glance at the headers tells you the whole tree is one massive copyright violation. But the players you read about in the mainstream press in the mid-’90s are the same players you read about in the mainstream press today. Piracy isn’t putting those guys out of business. They get people hooked on their product and they come pay for it when they can’t get enough of it for free.

Doesn’t music pretty much work the same way?

I’m not saying this makes piracy right or ethical, but if someone pirates something and then ends up buying more stuff than they pirated in the first place, then the copyright holder isn’t exactly hurt by the action.

About six years ago, there was a Web site called The Cure MP3 Audio Archive. You could go there and download everything imaginable–basically everything that had ever been recorded by the band that didn’t appear on the albums you could buy in record stores–from demos Robert Smith, Porl Thompson and Lol Tolhurst recorded when they were in high school and called themselves Easy Cure to recordings from their most recent concerts. Eventually a band representative asked them to remove all of the studio recordings. They complied. Then a couple of months later, Elektra Records stepped in and shut the site down completely.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Elektra, or Robert Smith himself, for that matter, had simply bought out the archive and turned it into a pay site.

I think we’re about to get an idea.

A total blast from the past

I don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but tries to collect documents from the classic days of BBSing, which the curator defines as having ended in 1995. I wouldn’t have thought it that recent. I was still BBSing in the summer of ’94, but by the fall of ’94 I’d discovered the Web, and I thought I was the last one to wake up to it.
I’d learned FTP and Gopher when I went to college in 1993, and I’d been using Usenet via local BBSs for even longer, but as everyone knows now, it was the Web that put the Internet on the map. I think a lot of people think the Web is the Internet.

Anyway, before the Internet, hobbyists would take computers, get a phone line, hook up a modem, and see who called. There were usually discussion boards, file transfers, and at least one online multiplayer game. The really big BBSs ran on 386s with hard drives, but an awful lot of the BBSs I called ran on 8-bit computers and stored their data on floppy drives. I remember one board I called used seven or eight floppy drives to give itself a whopping 6 or 7 megs of online storage. It was called The Future BBS, and the sysops’ real names were Rick and Jim (I don’t remember their handles), and it ran on a Commodore 64 or 128 with, ironically, a bunch of drives that dated back to the days of the PET–Commodore had produced some 1-meg drives in the early 80s that would connect to a 64 or 128 if you put an IEEE-488 interface in it. Theirs was a pretty hot setup and probably filled a spare bedroom all by itself for the most part.

It was a very different time.

Well, most of the boards I called were clearinghouses for pirated software. It was casual copying; I didn’t mess with any of that 0-1 day warez stuff. We were curmudgeons; someone would wax nostalgic about how great Zork was and how they didn’t know what happened to their copy, then someone would upload it. I remember on a couple of occasions sysops would move to St. Louis and complain about how St. Louis was the most rampant center of software piracy they’d ever seen, but I see from the files on that probably wasn’t true.

Besides illegal software, a lot of text files floated around. A lot of it was recipes. Some of them were “anarchy” files–how-to guides to creating mayhem. Having lots of them was a status symbol. Most of the files were 20K in length or so (most 8-bit computers didn’t have enough address space for documents much longer than that once you loaded a word processor into memory), and I knew people who had megabytes of them in an era of 170K floppies.

A lot of the stuff on the site is seedy. Seedier than I remember the boards I called being.

But a lot of the content is just random stuff, and some of it dates itself. (Hey, where else was I going to find out that the 1982 song “Pac-Man Fever” was recorded by Buckner & Garcia? forgot about that song. If I recall correctly, that’s probably proof that God is merciful, but hey.)

Mostly I find it interesting to see what people were talking about 10 and 20 years ago. Some of the issues of yesterday are pretty much unchanged. Some of them just seem bizarre now. Like rumors of weird objects in Diet Pepsi cans.

Actually that doesn’t sound so bizarre. I’m sure there’s an e-mail forward about those in my inbox right now.

This is so ridiculous I can’t parody it

OK, Steve provoked me into coming back. He sent me something enraging. Irresponsible. Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid.
I know three specimens of South St. Louis White Trash who’ll be waiting in line to buy their copies at some midnight sale. They live in a large, fenced estate, locked and posted. There are signs saying they have alarms, although that’s not true. They do have guns though. Lots of no-trespassing signs too. And if you value your life, you’ll take them seriously.

They hoard guns and cars. They only venture out to buy groceries, and for the occasional trip through a restaurant drive-thru. They trust nobody. The outside world is a conspiracy. Everybody’s against them. They don’t trust each other either, for that matter, but they mistrust each other less than the rest of the world, so they mostly put up with each other.

Their idea of balanced news reporting is Rush Limbaugh. They un-balance him with harder-right-leaning people like G. Gordon Liddy. The government is a vast conspiracy. I think they might have tried to tell me once that the X-Files is actually a documentary. They did tell me the national park system is now owned and operated by the United Nations, in order to promote and fund one world government.

Yeah, I think Steve found a book these guys will like. It’s leftist, so it’ll balance out some of the right-wing stuff, but it’s wrought with conspiracy. And conspiracy theories can get so far out there that rightist conspiracy can flip around and touch leftist conspiracy. And vice-versa.

You see, according to this thing, Sept. 11 never happened. Nope. You’ve been duped by the government and the media both. Those supposed hijackers aboard those four planes? They’ve been spotted in the months since. (I wonder if they were hanging out with Elvis? Or maybe Kurt Cobain. Cobain’s alive, you know. Wait. No, wait. Cobain was murdered. I’m having trouble keeping my conspiracies straight.) The Pentagon was struck by a U.S. missiles, not an airliner. The planes that hit the WTC towers were operated by remote control. It was all a plot by a right-leaning government to find an excuse to increase military spending.

Now, never mind the mising airplane and the people inside. The author of this–umm, do I really have to call it a book? After all, I wrote a book, and I’d really rather not have anything in common with this guy. I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re both carbon-based and breathe oxygen. And if I find out we have the same blood type or something, I’ll really be mad. OK, OK, the author of this garbage which happens to be sold in stores that sell books says he can’t account for the missing plane. He hasn’t had the recources to investigate his theory.

I’ll bet he didn’t even bother to ask Billy Joel his opinion, which seems to be the defining attribute of a journalist these days. OK, just a CNN journalist. Not that I care what Billy Joel thinks about current events. Now, Aimee Mann, on the other hand…

Where was I?

Oh yeah. And they say America is the land of opportunity. Here’s this flunky with a wild theory. He can’t prove a word of it. Hasn’t even started to research it. But somehow, he gets a book advance so he can write out all of these wild allegations. And then the publisher actually goes through with wasting all that ink and paper and glue? Then it sells 200,000 copies? And then, adding insult to injury, someone thinks enough to take the garbage, translates it into English from its original French, and releases it in the States?

I’m thinkin’ France is the land of opportunity, baby! Time for me to go get one of those $995 lessons-on-tape sets, change my last name to Croissant, go find a publisher and spew onto some paper! Ooh la-la! Just wait until they hear Dwight Eisenhower met with space aliens in 1954!

Only problem is, when you do this kind of thing, as Ms. Mann would say, I know there’s a word for it. So now I know what I can call this, since I’m loathe to call it a book.


And I’m no fan of litigation, but I hope the parties wronged band together and sue French author Thierry Meyssan for every dime he’s made off his piece of libel.

This year, Selig outshines even Steinbrenner

Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent. –Proverbs 17:28
Bud Selig has once again opened his mouth and is calling the Minnesota Twins, despite their raging success this year–and not-so-shabby last year–a candidate for contraction.

Translation: Twins owner Carl Pohlad loaned me money a few years ago, even though it was against baseball’s rules, but that’s OK because I enforce the rules, and now he can sell the team to the rest of the owners and I can make them pay more money than he could get by selling the team outright, so I’m going to do him that favor, no matter how bad it makes baseball look.

They talked during the All-Star Game about how Bud Selig once sold Joe Torre a car. That’s appropriate, because Selig is still spewing as much crap as a used-car salesman and he doesn’t know where to stop.

I really don’t understand is why Selig, in this era of corporate scandal that destroyed Enron and WorldCom and Martha Stewart and now threatens the AOL Time Warner empire, is willing to do anything that has even the most remote appearance of corruption. But maybe Selig’s like a 16-year-old with a red Lamborghini, an attractive girl riding shotgun, and a fifth of whiskey. The worst possible outcome always happens to the other guy, right?

And the ironic thing is that in 1995, Carl Pohlad’s company loaned Bud Selig money, because Bud Selig’s Milwaukee Brewers needed money.

Hmm. The Brewers ran out of money. The Brewers’ owner went to the Twins’ owner for money. Interesting.

The Brewers last went to the World Series in 1982. They lost in seven games. The Twins went to the big show in 1987 and won. They went again in 1991. They won. In 2001, the Twins went 85-77 and finished second in their division and even finished second in the wild-card race. The Brewers finished 68-94 and did what they almost always seem to do best: prop the Cubs up in the standings.

I know of a team in the northern midwest that seems like an excellent candidate for contraction. And that team would be:

The Milwaukee Brewers.

Leave the Twins alone.

But don’t get me wrong. Selig isn’t a complete waste. Selig is doing an outstanding job of frustrating George Steinbrenner. You see, before Selig became the most hated man in baseball, Steinbrenner had been the undisputed champion, for about 30 years. But don’t get me wrong. Steinbrenner’s having a great year. Why, last week he accused Major League Baseball of conspiring against him. He wanted superstar outfielder Cliff Floyd. Floyd went from Florida to Montreal to Steinbrenner’s archrival, the Boston Red Sox. Now it’s conspiracy.

That’s the way Steinbrenner thinks. A few years ago, George Brett had dinner with George Steinbrenner. Back in Brett’s heyday, the Yankees and Brett’s Kansas City Royals were big rivals. They met in the playoffs in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1980. The Yankees won three of four years. At some point in their conversation, Brett noticed his view of Steinbrenner’s face was blocked by a menu, so Brett moved it. Steinbrenner put it back. “I can’t stand looking at you,” Steinbrenner said.

“Why?” Brett asked.

“You beat us too many times in the playoffs,” Steinbrenner said.

Brett asked if beating the Yankees once counted as “too many times.” Steinbrenner said yes.

Now you know why I rooted for the buy-a-championship Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series last year. Yeah, I wanted the Cardinals to go. But I wanted Steinbrenner to not get what he wanted.

But Steinbrenner’s not just an immature little kid who’s not willing to share his toys. Two weeks ago, Roger Clemens was making a rehab start at Class A Tampa. The home-plate umpire was–horror of horrors–a woman! Well, Steinbrenner was horrified. They were mishandling his pitcher.

Earth to Steinbrenner: A rehab start is about throwing pitches to real-live batters to see a few things. First and foremost, does it hurt? Second, can you throw seven innings? Third, does it hurt?

Earth to Steinbrenner, again: Gender has nothing to do with the ability to see, to know the rules, and call balls and strikes.

Earth to Steinbrenner: The male umpires who call balls and strikes in the major leagues seem to have never read the rulebook, because they never call a strike above the belt. So if your theory that women don’t call balls and strikes the way men do happens to be true, having a woman behind the plate was probably a very good thing, and I eagerly await the day when we see women umps in the Big Leauges.

Then Steinbrenner said Ms. Cortesia should go back to umpiring Little League. “She wasn’t bad, but she wasn’t that good,” he said.

Clemens’ assesment: She did great.

So tell me who’s a better judge of an umpire’s ability: a loud, rude, obnoxious baseball owner, or a 40-year-old pitcher with 18 years’ experience in the major leagues?

Yep, Steinbrenner’s been in rare form these past couple of months. But he’s been eclipsed by Bud Selig. Pete Rose and Don Fehr are back and spewing as much garbage as ever, as well, and Ted Williams’ kids are doing their best to make everyone forget their dad’s Hall of Fame career. And Reds GM Jim Bowden made the mistake of invoking the memory of Sept. 11 when talking about a possible player’s strike. (He was wrong, of course. Sept. 11 destroyed two towers, but it didn’t destroy New York and it didn’t destroy America. A strike could destroy baseball.)

Yes, they’re all valiant attempts to look stupid. They’ve even managed to drown out baseball’s one-man wrecking crew, player agent Scott Boras. But none of them can hold a candle to Bud Selig.

It’s kind of like 1941. Joe DiMaggio had a great year in 1941. So great, he even won the MVP that year. But nobody remembers that anymore, because 1941 was the year Ted Williams batted .406. DiMaggio was the better overall player, and DiMaggio was the far bigger celebrity, and DiMaggio handled the limelight a lot better. But 1941 was Ted Williams’ year. Nothing could eclipse him. Not Luke Appling. Not Jimmie Foxx. Not even The Great DiMaggio.

2002 is Bud Selig’s year. Steinbrenner and Rose and Fehr and the rest of baseball’s repulsive bunch will be remembered for a lot of things, but saying the most stupid things in 2002 won’t be one of them.

The giant homo sapien conspiracy against me

I’m confused, I’ve finished my book (reading one, not writing one–that’ll be the day), and I’ve found I’m in no mood for P.J. O’Rourke. Meanwhile, my readers are egging me on.
It’s part of a plot. I can tell. It’s part of that huge homo sapien plot to take over the world. You gotta watch them homo sapiens.

I learned yesterday than I’m no good at plotting. I’m no good at conspiring. This surprised me. You see, at the age of 23, my next-door neighbors decided the whole world was a huge conspiracy–though they weren’t quite smart enough to figure out that it was the homo sapiens behind it, but you’ll find that out soon enough–and somehow, even at my very young age, I’d managed to rise to the very top of that conspiracy.

They didn’t get out very much. They also happened to believe that the X-Files was really a documentary. You see, constitutionally, the government is required to disseminate that information. So they dress it up like fiction. That way, they’ve fulfilled their constitutional duty in an underhanded way. But really smart people (like them) could see through the whole thing.

Well, I’m not sure if they actually ever said that, but I sure did get sick of listening to UFO conspiracy stories. I can’t remember if they ever went so far as to try to tell me the X-Files was real.

I came out of that experience feeling like I had connections and conniving ability, like I could conspire if I really wanted to.

So as a friend and I started to weave this vast conspiracy, this person asked me a question that let all the air out of my balloon: What if [the person we were conspiring against] already has plans?

Dang it. I didn’t bother finding that out. I just assumed this person had nothing better to do than to fall into my carefully laid trap, which I’d been carefully laying out… because… I… No, not because I didn’t have anything better to do. I had lots of better things to do. I just didn’t want to do them.

Why doesn’t anyone believe me?

You’re in on that homo sapien plot too, aren’t you? You gotta watch them homo sapiens. They’ll take over the world if we’re not careful.

But I just went off on one of my really long digressions. Or maybe it was two of them. So, Steve DeLassus takes offense at me using the word “litter” and implying the trademark “White Castle” in the same sentence. Obviously, Steve’s forgotten one important thing. I’m a transplant to St. Louis. I’m not a native. I’m native to Kansas City. And let me tell you something about Kansas City. White Castle went to Kansas City… and flopped. No grace about it. We’re talking a big, messy belly-flop right onto dry, hot pavement.

Evidently, in Kansas City people wondered the same thing I did the couple of times I’ve had occasion to eat a White Castle. I wondered whether the little cardboard box the thing came in would taste better than the smelly, greasy thing they tried to pass off to me as a hamburger. I know it would be easier on your digestive tract and on your arteries.

White Castles are obviously a creation of the homo sapiens. But not even their most carefully laid plot could save them from the discriminating palates of Kansas City. Good on them. The Kansas Citians, that is.

The St. Louisans aren’t doing such a good job of staving off the plot. White Castle isn’t even a St. Louis creation.

Which leads me, somehow, to Bruce Edwards’ question. Evidently, where he used to live there was a chain of White Castle clones. We had one of those, in Columbia, where I went to college. It opened up the first semester of my freshman year. They bought a tiny drive-thru, painted it pink, and hung out a big pink-and-green sign that read in neon-style letters: Grill ‘n Chill. Their specialties: cheap belly bombers and thick milkshakes. The student newspaper I was writing for at the time reviewed it. “Completely unoriginal,” the reviewer said. I never bothered to check it out. To me, it seemed like cloning a Yugo. Why bother? Not that I had much of a chance to check it out. Within a couple of months, the venture went belly-up, and the atrociously colored pink building stood there vacant for years, a painful reminder of the failed venture. Well, I guess it wasn’t so painful if you remembered your sunglasses. I used to have a neat pair of black wraparounds. I think one of my ex-girlfriends took them. She never did like them. I think she was a closet homo sapien. That would explain a lot about her. Like how she walked upright, breathed oxygen, communicated using spoken words… I never did try to sneak out with any of her genetic material–you know, a bit of hair, or some nail clippings–to test, but I’ll bet she was carbon-based too.

And there I’ve gone, and taken the question and made it all about me. What, do I look like the guy on a date?

I blame the homo sapiens. They keep distracting me. They’re all around me. They’re everywhere, you know.

Anyway, back to the question, which I hadn’t even finished writing out when I got so rudely sidetracked: Some of his coworkers offered him $100 plus the price of the (ahem) food if he could eat 100 belly bombers in a 24-hour period. Bruce asked how I’d respond to an offer like that.

Well, I’m thinking that in exchange for three meals at Smokestack BBQ in Kansas City and $100, I might be willing to think about the sight and smell and taste of 100 belly bombers. But one would have to seriously raise the stakes for me to eat 100 of the wretched things over the course of a day. I get sick to my stomach if I take my vitamins too early in the day.

And that has absolutely nothing to do with homo sapiens. Which surprises you, I’m sure. I know it surprises me.

So, no, I’d tell my friends they could spend all weekend getting acquainted with their toilets if they wanted, but I sure wouldn’t be joining them.

Steve then made the smooth (as a gravel road) transition to the subject of Pepsi and toilets. About a year ago, Steve got one of those annoying forwards that clog up everyone’s inbox (if that’s not a homo sapien plot, I don’t know what is) that was something like 25 things you didn’t want to know about cola. It talked about how you could dissolve a nail in a can of Coca-Cola inside of a week, and other weird stuff. Well, I had a two-liter of Pepsi in my fridge. I’d had company over, and whoever it was only drank one or two glasses, leaving me with most of a two-liter that I had no intention of drinking, because when I want caffeine, I generally want coffee. One of the claims of the message was that a can of cola would do a very nice job of cleaning your toilet.

Now, knowing that if I read it on the Internet it must be true, I took the advice to heart. My toilet was badly discolored because I’m a bachelor and out to impress no one–or I figure if I’m going to impress someone, it won’t be with my toilet. Now, it’s never been as bad as that “worst toilet in Scotland” scene in Trainspotting, but I thought I had a pretty formidible test for that quantity of Pepsi. So I poured it in one morning before I left for work.

I came home about nine hours later. I stirred the contents of the bowl around with my toilet brush, but couldn’t get a good look at the interior. I guess it was a little cleaner. But I decided to let it sit a while longer.

Finally, around 8 p.m., I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had two choices: abandon the experiment, or use the sink. I’m not that much of a bachelor. (I’ve managed to fight off some of that homo sapien influence that so pervades our society these days.) So I flushed the toilet. And you know how they talk sometimes about “ring around the toilet?” I definitely had one of those. But the dirty part was the top of the bowl.

So forget about those fancy-dancy, high-fallutin’ blue things you hang in your toilet. Once every couple of months, buy yourself one of those 59-cent two-liter bottles of generic cola. Take it home, dump it in the bowl before you go to work, and let it sit. It’s cheaper than those blue things and it’s a whole lot easier than scrubbing. Does a better job too. And it’s better for the environment too, since there’s no poisonous bleach involved. Moby would be so proud of me.

I’m sure those homo sapiens don’t want you to know that.

Another ordinary Monday…

Seen on a sign. God calls us to play the game, not to keep the score.
I like that.

Seen at a book sale. The Coming War with Japan. The book was written in 1992 and asserted that the conditions that pre-dated World War II exist today and that war is inevitable. Then I spotted another book: The Japanese Conspiracy. I didn’t bother picking that one up. I could have bought them for entertainment value, but I picked up a couple of books by Dave Barry and P.J. O’Rourke for that.

The idea seems ridiculous to me.

I was glad I went over to the section on war though. In addition to those, I also found A Practical Guide to the Unix System, Third Edition, by Mark G. Sobell. Had it been in the computer section where it belonged, it would have been snapped up long before I got there. It comes from a BSD perspective, but I have to work with a BSD derivative at work sometimes, so it’s good to have. At the very least, it can serve as a status book (books you keep on your shelf in your office to make it look like you know something, even if you never read them).

Speaking of humor value… I picked up a book on typography, written in 1980. Some of my classmates had a knack for making type look really good–they could literally turn a headline into art. I never got that knack. This book tries to teach it. It also talks about computerized typography. Needless to say, the couple of pages that illustrate that are just a wee bit out of date.

But I’m not worried about the key points of the book being out of date. The basic elements of good design were old news when Gutenberg built his first printing press.

Retro computing. I was inventorying my old stuff and I ended up building a computer. I have an original IBM PC/AT case, but the last of the AT motherboards don’t fit in it well. The screws line up, I’m in trouble if I need any memory, because the drive cage blocks the memory slots on a lot of boards, including my supercheap closeout Soyo Socket 370 boards I picked up a year or so ago. I used the motherboard that had been in that case for something else long ago, and it’s been sitting ever since.

In my stash, I found a Socket 7 board that fits and lets me put the memory in it. It even has 2 DIMM and 4 SIMM sockets in it. Unfortunately it has the Intel 430VX chipset in it, which didn’t cache any memory above 64 MB, limited the density of SDRAM it would recognize, and its SDRAM performance was so lousy you didn’t really see much difference between SDRAM and EDO. But if I run across a 32-meg DIMM or two it’ll fit, and a relatively slow CPU with adequate memory still makes a good Linux server, especially if you give it a decent SCSI card.

I did some investigation using the tools at, and found out the board was a Spacewalker Shuttle. So I went to, where I found out there were only three Shuttle boards ever made with the 430VX chipset. There were pictures of each board, so I quickly figured out which one I had–a HOT-557/2 v1.32. It tops out at a Pentium 200 or a Pentium MMX 166, so I’ve got some options if I decide the AMD K5-100 in there isn’t enough horsepower. And, most importantly to me at least, it looks like a computer. A machine from a time when computers were computers, not boomboxes and fax machines and toaster ovens and television sets. A machine that looks rugged enough to survive a tumble down a flight of stairs. A hot-rodded classic. A man’s machine, ar ar ar!

Back to the grind. The weekend’s over, and it’s time to think about work. Have a wonderful week, check the news sources I cited Saturday if you want, and check back in here a few times while you’re at it, won’t you?

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.

Napster and the decline of copyright–part 3

All of this talk of Napster brings up some questions: What is legitimate use?

Making MP3s from CDs you already own is legal, just like making tapes from CDs you own is legal. It’s difficult to say that downloading MP3s made from CDs you already own would be illegal, as you can just make the MP3s yourself. For some people, this is preferable, as encoding MP3s takes a good deal of time on slower systems. However, one can never be certain of the quality of the MP3s online–the condition of the CD, the quality of the source drive, and the quality of the encoder come into play. Those who aren’t audiophiles probably prefer to just download the MP3s, but the existence of the files understandably makes record companies and artists nervous.

So Napster isn’t just out-and-out theft. (Just almost.)

But some tracks on Napster are legal as well. The right to make and distribute live bootleg recordings has been upheld by courts. And some artists, notably The Grateful Dead and, more recently, Phish and The Dave Matthews Band, have given bootleggers their blessing. Other artists aren’t so keen on being bootlegged, but aside from trying to keep recording devices out of their concerts, there isn’t much they can do about it. Such recordings on Napster are legal, but determining whether such a track is what it claims to be can be difficult. I once downloaded a supposed live version of ‘Til Tuesday’s “Believed You Were Lucky,” only to find it was the studio recording with reverb added–clearly a violation of copyright unless you happen to own the original. Many of the live recordings I’ve downloaded from likes of Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, and Social Distortion turned out to be from commercially available live albums, some of which I owned, and some of which I didn’t.

And occasionally an artist will release a recording on Napster for promotional purposes–or to hack off their record label. Veteran alternative supergroup Smashing Pumpkins released an album’s worth of unreleased material on Napster last year and said it was their last album.

But policing content on Napster and other peer-to-peer sharing plans is difficult. It’s not a total impossibility, but file renaming can make it much easier for illegal content to get through. Digital fingerprinting would be harder to circumvent, but that, too, could be done, and implementation is extremely difficult. The difficulty of such measures makes me wonder why Napster came into being–it’s not a good business model. Part of me wonders if Napster’s creators just didn’t care whether they were breaking the law or aiding others in breaking the law. While there are legal uses for Napster, I suspect few people are confining themselves to the legal uses.

There are plenty of people calling for copyright reform, and that’s not unreasonable. Under current law, copyrights can be extended beyond the material’s original audience’s lifetime. Under the original law, copyrights lasted for 26 years, renewable for another 26, for a total of 52 years. So that time frame won’t prevent Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney from making a living. But under that law, the pop songs from 1949 would now be freely distributable, and could be performed without royalties. The beloved early rock’n’roll tunes from the 1950s would come available this decade. For those songs, Napster wouldn’t be an issue.

Content publishers seem to be more worried about current copyright provisions than content creators are. Sci-Fi author Jerry Pournelle has stated numerous times he had no problem with the original law, when he was writing his early works under it.

Reverting back to the old law is probably the best compromise. People wanting to freeload will be able to do so, but they’ll have to wait 52 (or if they’re lucky, 26) years. Those who produce and distribute content will still be able to make a living doing so–the majority of people won’t be willing to wait all those years. Abandoned property won’t be an issue either–once it reaches 26 years of age, if it’s not renewed, it’s fair game.

Unfortunately, the copyright law debate is lost in all the Napster rhetoric. And that, I fear, is possibly the greatest casualty of the battle. But it’s no silver bullet either. It increases the pool of material that’s fair game for free distribution, but it doesn’t solve the problem of outright piracy of recent material.

MP3 has plenty of legitimate uses, for the consumer as a matter of convenience and for copyright holders as a matter of promotion, and the courts have upheld those legitimate uses. MP3 usage tends to be a fall guy for all the record industry’s problems, but the record industry had problems before the MP3 phenomenon became rampant. As Andy Breslau said, there are so many avenues of entertainment available today, it’s perfectly natural that the recording industry’s share of the entertainment pie would shrink, just like TV networks’ share is in decline. If and when Napster is forced to close its doors, the industry’s problems won’t just disappear, and the illegal copying of MP3s will almost certainly continue, though possibly not on such a large scale. There’s very little, if anything, the industry can do to stop MP3 swapping through Usenet newsgroups and IRC chatrooms, which was where the MP3 phenomenon began in the first place.

I expect the use of MP3 for promotional purposes to continue, and services such as will take advantage of it legally for years to come. But services like Napster, which provide virtually anything you want with no proof of ownership, are probably running on borrowed time, even though the industry is lying to itself about the true impact these services have.

Napster will be forced to shut down, the record industry will continue to make billions and artists won’t get their fair share, and the record industry will continue to complain their billions aren’t enough and blame MP3s or something else.

Part 1 in a series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


A red-hatted worm. Wow. You sure don’t hear about this often.  There’s a worm that exploits a weakness in Red Hat Linux 6.2 and 7.0. Coined the Ramen worm, it defaces Web pages with a tribute to Ramen noodles. This is the first of these that I’ve heard of, and I’ll say it’s an example of why multiple distributions are a good thing. Other distributions aren’t vulnerable to this, so the spread slows. Hardening Red Hat against this isn’t hard–head to, which anyone who administers Linux boxes for a living needs to be reading anyway. Exploits and fixes are generally documented and fixed long before anything can take advantage of them.

The number of the day is… 114. That’s my IQ, at least according to the 10-minute test I took yesterday in between phone calls while two of my coworkers were arguing about the validity of IQ tests. I popped up, announced my score, fueled the debate and then left. I was feeling vindictive I guess.

Generally, as I understand it, 100 is average. If you’re in the 130s, you’re gifted. I’ve been around some 170s and I keep up with them with no problems. I knew a 190 once. She gave me some problems, partly because I couldn’t understand her when she started spouting off in Latin. Solo hablo ingles y un poco espanol–un muy poco espanol. And I think another part of the problem was I found her boring, too refined.

What’d my coworkers have to say about my score? One of them used me to dismiss all validity of IQ tests–no way that guy’s a 114! His problem-solving ability is too good, and that memory, and and and… Well, slightly above-average people generally don’t write their first book and publish it before their 25th birthday. The coworker arguing in favor of IQ tests blamed my score on environment and poor preparation. I admit, my preparation was awful–I took it on spur of the moment, didn’t check any answers, took a 20-minute test in 10, took a couple of phone calls while I was doing it… So I was hardly scientific.

But what do we mean when we call someone “smart,” anyway?

Good memory? My dad sure had a great memory. I have a pretty good one too. I can probably tell you the starting lineup of every Kansas City Royals team from 1980 to last season. (I’ll spare you). And obscure computer information… don’t get me started. But nobody has a memory as good as a computer. Some would say the only thing dumber than a computer is a toaster, but I wonder, because my toaster sure works a whole lot better than my computer does most of the time.

Intelligence? Intelligence is the ability to reason and analyze. Some people do this really well. Others don’t. Most people who’ve watched me work say I have good troubleshooting and analysis skills, though I often score poorly on tests that measure that. Yet when I took the ACT, I did everything wrong. I went out with my girlfriend the night before. I stayed up late. I decided to come home and study afterward. Then I went in and scored a 30 or 31 on my first try. For those unfamiliar with the ACT, a score of 30 gives you an automatic scholarship from the state of Missouri at any state university. I think 36 is the highest possible score. A score of 26 gets you automatic admission at most state universities. As I recall, I scored in the 98th percentile in social studies, 99th in English, low 80-something in math and high 80-something in science. (Just call me Mr. Humanities.)

Common sense? I guess this is ability to deal with the real world. I’ve run into people who are seriously deficient here. That girl I knew with a 190… She had virtually none. She was always finding herself in situations she couldn’t think her way out of. Some people call this “street smart,” and I think that’s a good description of it. Common sense isn’t as common as it should be.

Wisdom? I think wisdom’s the most important of the bunch. It’s the ability to use what you’ve got. I scored very poorly on one proficiency test that measured my ability to analyze. My biggest beef was that it was heavily slanted towards the mathematically minded, and I don’t have that inclination–my math numbers were what dragged down my ACT score the most–and the last time I had to juggle numbers a lot was in 1994. One time when someone used that score against me, I retorted, “Yeah, so I don’t have as much as some of those guys. At least I know how to use what little I’ve got, and they certainly don’t!” Is it possible that my intelligence and common sense are only slightly above average, and that I use memory and wisdom to compensate? Maybe.

I know someone who doesn’t think she’s smart. And maybe she lacks in one of those areas. I don’t know. What I do know is she knows how to get things done. And I’ve never felt any need to talk down to her. When we’ve talked, I’ve always had the sense she’s understood what I’m talking about–and we’ve talked some pretty heavy subjects at times. Remember my line of work.

When I think smart, I think of those guys I know who had 170-plus IQs and pontificated a lot. She doesn’t do that. But when I think dumb, she doesn’t come to mind either. My former neighbor who believed every conspiracy theory out there and who believed The X-Files is a documentary does. He also tended to overuse profanity and thought very highly of his own intelligence.

I think it was a Supreme Court justice who once said he couldn’t define the word obscene, but he knew it when he saw it. I think the same goes for intelligence. It’s hard to define and even harder to measure, but we know it when we see it.