Scripting News for 12/23/2006

Anatomy of a hack 

CNET says I’m the “self-described co-inventor of RSS.”

It’s hard to say they did something wrong because what they said is true, I do self-describe that way, in addition to a bunch of other ways. I’m a self-described male, native of New York, resident of Berkeley. 51 years old. 6 foot 2 inches tall. Etc. Having participated in the development of RSS is one of the things I self-describe as.

George W. Bush is the self-described President of the United States.

How arrogant of him! Who does he think he is. When will he get over himself. Glad we debunked him.

On the other hand, he did win a plurality of the electoral votes in the last election. So in addition to being the self-described President, he is also the “legally elected” President.

It’s not unusual for reporters to leave out the self-described bit, unless they’re trying to leave an impression that the person is silly, or grandiose, or deluded.

Paul Andrews: “It’s hard to believe that any self-respecting journalist who values objectivity or fairness would engage in this kind of backhanded defamation.”

Another pub that does this is Wired. And they go on to quote Nick Bradbury, saying that he’s the developer of a “popular” RSS aggregator. They could have said that I’m the developer of a popular aggregator too, but they left that out. I also wrote one of the first, if not the first aggregator, a precedent for Bradbury’s work and Microsoft’s. They could have said any or all of that and it would have been true. But they had a point to make and an argument to discredit. And to do so, they had to discredit the proponent. It’s an old trick, not logically valid, because whether Microsoft’s patent is good or not has nothing to do with my qualifications, its decidable all on its own. If I were running for office, or on trial for fraud, then they might do well to examine my personality, but I’m not. And plenty of other people thought what Microsoft did was pretty nasty. How about talking to a lawyer to find out if it’s a good idea to give them a pass on this? They didn’t do any of that.

What to do? 

9:21AM Pacific: A 3.5 earthquake, centered in the same place as the previous 2 quakes, just above the Claremont Hotel in the Berkeley hills. I hate earthquakes.

BTW, we’re really feeling these quakes in Berkeley. The first one felt like a truck hitting the house. It was quick but loud. The second two were longer and shakier, and didn’t make much sound, just the sound of household stuff rattling and the house rolling. Nothing fell down or broke, but my nerves are fraying. You never know whether you should just park your kiester in a doorway or try to make it out to the street. And then after the shaking is over, should you go back to what you were doing, or get out of the house? Oy.

Who to believe? 

One of my projects for the New Year, if I get my shit together, is to do a right-sidebar thing that accumulates “open” blog posts, items that have yet to be resolved that we should keep on the radar.

For example, there’s been no response to my acid test posted at the top of SN yesterday. Until they give us rights to use what they think of as their technology, sorry I don’t believe the people who say that it’s probably just a defensive patent.

I think it’s really weird when big publications who take ads from Microsoft attack me personally, in a way that makes it sound like I’m some kind of credit-stealing idiot. Please see this as a reflection on them, not me. So far three pubs have indulged this way: CNET, Wired and the Guardian. Perhaps others, but I haven’t seen them. Each of these pubs deserves a black eye for not bending over backwards to cover a conflict. They take ads from Microsoft. The appearance of impropriety is every bit as bad as the impropriety itself.

No doubt they don’t take cheap shots at Microsoft because to do so would cost them money, and if there’s one thing they don’t take chances with is money. So every time they say something nasty, think of the cash register ringing. Ca-ching. If you work at Microsoft, thinking you’re making a difference by making cool software, shame on you. You work for a company that promotes this kind of garbage. It’ll catch up with you sooner or later.

This is how the business press lost its credibility, and it’s why the tech blogosphere was founded in the first place, to route around their conflicts. It’s not just advertising that makes them attack, it’s also that they need to get a certain number of phone calls returned by Microsoft people to do their jobs, and if they don’t smack me for saying Microsoft did bad, they may return the other pubs calls, not theirs.

This is why if you can trust anyone you can trust a blogger who doesn’t take ads and doesn’t do interviews. Not saying you shouldn’t take what I say with a grain of salt, I have my own conflicts and perspective that color what I say. And all this mess hides the real question they should be asking. Do they think it’s good that Microsoft comes into a market that was doing pretty well without them, and before they ship a single product, are already putting up barriers to keep others out? That’s good?? Really. Why?

Jon Udell, you haven’t started at Microsoft yet. Are you sure you want to?

Antony Mayfield: “Microsoft may be giving high fives round the boardroom table for this move, but how much will it cost them in goodwill and reputation lost?”

25 responses to this post.

  1. Haven’t felt anything here in Pacifica – other side of the bay. I hate ‘em too.

    Reply

  2. The open list you mention should include the ability for people to partition on the side of a particular issue. If you are able to show a skew in public opinion beyond just outstanding personal issues the chances of resolution increase.

    You mentioned an indemnity swap with Microsoft, but only a small fraction of the 72,000+ employees of Microsoft can make that happen. Just as in politics, perhaps a groundswell of public interest will influence corporate policy.

    Reply

  3. The sidebar is a great idea, Dave, and something every “news” site should have. Of course by now the Bush administration’s “open tickets” would scroll way off any screen! It would be a huge step just for Microsoft to explain its application to the public.

    I always rue when good people like Jon go to big companies (not just Microsoft) but view it as a financial decision, and that can be understandable. I guess I’d feel better if they admitted to it though, like the old Groucho joke about the brother being crazy but needing the eggs.

    Reply

  4. I went ahead and hacked in a simple list to the side-bar. It’ll get automatic and fancier later. I don’t want this issue to go away. I think it’s a very good way to debunk any idea that Microsoft is just being defensive, and who knows, there’s a slim chance maybe they’ll go for it. I’m so sick of people kissing up to them, giving them air cover. You can almost understand an employee doing it, but what about other people. Are they really so naive as to think Microsoft is the Kumbaya Company.

    Reply

  5. P.S. Journalistically, “self-described” actually has a positive utility in that it’s supposed to communicate to the reader a label that might otherwise be derogatory or belittling, e.g. “self-described aging hippie” or “self-described pushy broad.” In that sense it correctly and fairly takes the writer off the hook while still capturing the flavor of the subject. The use of it in the way you characterize is exactly as you note, and actually injects the writer’s POV into the piece. It’s hard to believe that any self-respecting journalist who values objectivity or fairness would engage in this kind of backhanded defamation. This is the point I always make to editors and others who deride (usually online) journalism they regard as unobjective. I ask them to give me any story in their own media they consider objective, and I’ll show them how it decidedly is not.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Peter Cranstone on December 23, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    Dave,

    How about improving RSS. Come up with some innovation that improves on what’s already out there. Then patent it. From that point on there should be no more disputes. All this noise is just that – noise. Stop buying into it and improve the standard. Too much energy is being wasted on things that are really of little interest. Don’t rest on your laurels – come up with something new.

    Cheers,

    Peter

    Reply

  7. Dave,

    I see Who da’Punk (Mini), the anonymous Microsoft insider behind the highly popular Mini-Microsoft blog, seems to support your position, at least in part. He doesn’t like patents but takes the position that, “as long as it is here, I recognize that it is a necessary evil to pursue every patent you possible can.”

    Mini concluded with:”Mr. Winer can at least take comfort that Microsoft can be shamed into doing whatever right thing he thinks is appropriate (e.g., freely licensing the technology or such). As long as software designs can be patented and until the Open Source world becomes as enthusiastic about getting patents, things aren’t going to change.”

    By the way, there is more to his post at http://minimsft.blogspot.com/.

    Reply

  8. Thanks Paul, given your experience as a reporter at the Seattle Times and other pubs, that means a lot.

    Reply

  9. I agree with Paul… The “self-described…” might be a non-malicious reporter or copy editor’s shorthand for “I don’t have time (or am too timid, or just plain confused) to Google my way through 10 years of online history, make up my mind, and say more than this with confidence…” That’s no defense.

    Whether the quotes were intended to express skepticism or admit ignorance, an editor should have deleted them or inserted a non-derogatory, accurate description of you.

    Bob
    … a self-described 5’9″ “teacher” of journalism and “banjo player” in Tennessee

    Reply

  10. Bob, I don’t think it was laziness or confusion, because in the next paragraph they do it again, implying that my position is “Microsoft is evil” and they put it in quotes as if they were quoting someone, but they actually are just quoting themselves (Bradbury didn’t say it either).

    The whole article is full of choices, in ordering, how people are described (the Microsoft people are inventors and they get to speak first), and I’m sandwiched in between rebuttals, people who are either more accomplished than me, or more moderate.

    The effect of the piece is to dismiss any concern about a big company taking control of what was an open technology.

    It also might have been reasonable to include a bit about Microsoft’s antitrust conviction re the web, but no mention of that either. How confusing could that be, esp for a publicaiton like news.com that covered it, extensively, for years.

    Reply

  11. Posted by Nick on December 23, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    “During the Web boom of the 1990s, Frontier became the technology behind Manila, a content management system that allowed the hosting of web sites and their editing through a browser. UserLand ran a free Manila hosting service, EditThisPage.com, which quickly began being used mostly to run weblogs, which Winer helped popularize. UserLand also ran one of the first Web aggregators, My.UserLand.Com, which allowed users to follow numerous weblogs from a single web page using a Netscape-created format called RSS. After Netscape abandoned its My.Netscape RSS project, Winer continued to promote a version of RSS, which he later called “Really Simple Syndication” (distinguishing it from other syndication formats based on RDF). Winer convinced The New York Times, among other media organizations, to adopt RSS.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Winer#Contributions_to_podcasting

    Im sorry guys. Dave is a good guy, but it dosent seem like he invented anything. Even if he would have invented RSS their were programs that did basicly the same thing before and after RSS was created.

    Dave if you want Microsoft to prove what they say please do the same.

    Reply

  12. Nick, if CNET wants to dispute my role in developing RSS, they are free to do so, but they shouldn’t do it in such an sneaky way.

    Had they aksed me how I would like to be characterized, I would have said “Editor, Scripting News.” They chose to make my role in RSS the issue, not me.

    The Wikipedia story is incomplete. I can’t do anything about that because I’m not ethically able to edit that story.

    I have documented how RSS came to be what it is, quite a few times. I’m not going to do it again, on demand. Sorry.

    Reply

  13. Dave, the point is that the invention of RSS is disputed – I think even you can accept that. What the truth of the matter is still to be decided. You, understandably, claim you are – and hence “self-described” is the correct term. Any other description would be to make a judgement when the situation isn’t clear-cut.

    Reply

  14. I disagree with Paul Andrews. The phrase “self-described” is not used primarily by journalists for descriptive phrases that are insulting, it is used primarily for descriptive phrases which are not 100% rock solid facts. In short, it’s an ass-covering shorthand technique: designed specifically to take the writer’s POV out of the piece by hedging one’s bets.

    Now, you could argue with my support that it was petty not to spend the pixels to explain the whole situation, and I agree that not enough historical data was put into the story (i.e. Microsoft’s antitrust record), but I think attacking the journalist as being in the pocket of Microsoft is out of line. The journo quoted you first and Microsoft last, which IMO could arguably have been out of order, since no one else had a quote from Microsoft and it was more newsworthy. I know it was a mealy-mouthed quote, but a headline saying “Microsoft to RSS community: challenge our patent” would have been far more racy. Perhaps if it was the Register reporting it, that’s what they would have done. :D

    Reply

  15. Paul, it’s not too nice to anticipate someone’s response, as you have in your comment here. Now should I waste pixels saying that I wouldn’t argue that? Nahhh. But I would point out that you didn’t dispense with the “Microsoft is evil” bit. In any case, so what. The patent is a bad idea, agree or disagree? They got a lot of patent-free IP, and their response is to patent the teeny little bit of IP they claim as original? Geez, is this a great company or one riding on the coattails of others generosity? A cheap company with billions in the bank, that can’t even create its own technology. Better hope the stock market doesn’t figure out where from they get the “innovation” they boast of. A bunch of people might be out of jobs.

    Reply

  16. Ian, feh. Invention isn’t even the important thing. In any case, Microsoft didn’t “invent” anything here. The whole idea of invention is pretty dumb. RSS became popular because of a network of events over *years* — invention wasn’t and isn’t the point. Read the archives of htis blog and the syndication mail list for some idea of how these things come to be. Also look at Radio 8. I bet you can find a download somewhere.

    Reply

  17. Posted by Nick on December 23, 2006 at 3:33 pm

    Dave,
    even if you did create RSS please explain to me why it should be called an invention.

    “Before RSS, several similar formats already existed for syndication, but none achieved widespread popularity or are still in common use today, as most were envisioned to work only with a single service. These originated from push and pull technologies. Two of the earliest examples are Backweb and Pointcast.[citation needed”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSS#History

    RSS was just a way for your own company to capitalize on someone else’s invention so why do you get mad when someone (MS) does the same thing to you?

    Reply

  18. Of course Dave, the patent looks like a bad idea. Microsoft is stupid for having a policy on not commenting on pending patents, because they look like opportunistic thieves. All they would need to do is have some spokesperson say “we don’t intend to own RSS, just [whatever it is they are actually doing, assuming that's it's not evil],” and most of this kerfuffle would never have happened. Without that, they deserve the criticism they’re getting because any knowledgeable observer has to be suspicious that they’re up to something.

    But that’s my opinion. The CNET journalist, Anne Broache, was tasked with presenting an objective view, according to her training. Her job was not to judge, but to present all of the facts so that the reader can judge. Anne probably didn’t include enough facts to give full context to the issue, but she did enough and I don’t think she wrote anything that was plainly wrong.

    The blogosphere was not created to route around the conflicts of the business press. It has evolved into an extension of watercooler/coffeehouse/pub/kitchen talk, and both were predicated on shared information that friends and acquaintances could jaw over, which in tech circles is almost all taken from the business press. MSM pieces like this one don’t have to be the beginning and end of the conversation, with the Doubleplus Good Opinion neatly packaged so that the reader doesn’t have to think of one on their own. That’s the Fox News way. MSM news stories have to present the facts and let readers, either offline or online, discuss and think and explore and learn based on those facts.

    By all means, criticise journalists for getting facts wrong, or communicating them with insufficient clarity. But don’t criticise them for not taking sides. That’s our job.

    Reply

  19. Re: “Anatomy of a hack”.. Good on you, Dave, for calling people out on this nonsense. The way hacks twist things in the tech media nowadays is repulsive. I guess this is why I spend my time reading blogs, like yours, rather than CNet (let’s face it, all the cool tech news hits the blogs first).

    On the Microsoft patenting feed processors/normalizers side of things.. if it gets to the point where more prior art is needed, I think I can provide some. That said, I’m not in the US, so I don’t know if it’s under the correct jurisdiction for prior art for US patents.

    Reply

  20. What’s going to last is not some article written in haste by someone trying to get home for Christmas, but the gratitude and inspiration of those watching the whole thing emerge from the start.

    Microsoft didn’t embrace RSS till it was like a semi going the wrong way in their lane. Even then it was probably promoted from within by people who knew what was what.

    Reply

  21. Dave, if you think that journalists on organisations like CNet, Wired and the Guardian are in the slightest bit influenced by which organisation advertises with them, then you simply don’t understand journalists, and your deconstruction of why one phrase or another would appear here or there just isn’t worth the pixels (to use a phrase).

    Journalists, generally, hate advertisers; at best are uninterested in them, and certainly won’t kow-tow to their needs or perceived needs.

    As for your complaint about what appeared on the Guardian blog – are you upset because it wasn’t formal? I thought blogs were meant to be less formal (that’s how we use them).

    Reply

  22. Charles, sorry, I’m not a believer. Sometimes people don’t know what influences them, or understand how pressure is being applied to them, or where organizational attitudes come from. The Guardian is a commercial newspaper, you do take ads from Microsoft, you should bend over backwards to avoid the appearance that you’re in their pocket.

    Maybe we should ask the Ethicist at the NY Times what he thinks? :-)

    BTW, you’re doing the same thing here, presuming you know my emotional state, and making that an issue. It’s unprofessional, imho, and unbecoming of a representative of a fine publication such as the Guardian.

    In fact, I am not upset — I am excited. Today is Christmas Eve, and I’m flying cross-country, and got a great deal on an upgrade to First Class, and while they don’t have wifi, they do have a power outlet at the seat, so I won’t have to swap batteries, and will be able to watch as many movies or old episodes of The Simpsons as I wish. Then on the other side of the country is my family and hometown, both of which I look forward to visiting.

    Happy holidays.

    Reply

  23. “Ian, feh. Invention isn’t even the important thing. In any case, Microsoft didn’t “invent” anything here.”

    I’m not claiming that Microsoft has or has not invented anything, and it’s irrelevant to the point at hand, which is whether describing you as the “self-described co-inventor of RSS” is correct, or snarky.

    Let’s look at your own “RSS History” at http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/tech/rssVersionHistory. You claim “Here’s the scoop, the sequence of events in the life of RSS, as told by the designer of most of the formats.” That sure looks like a claim to be the “co-inventor” of RSS, particularly when the first thing in your chronology is “ScriptingNews format, designed by DW at UserLand. 12/27/97.”

    Personally, I would have used the phrase “co-designer”, because I think that’s more accurate. But I don’t think “co-inventor” is wrong, nor is it some kind of slur to say “self-described”, because with RSS’ origin disputed it’s the only way to put it that doesn’t show bias one way or another. And it certainly doesn’t in any way dispute your role in developing RSS, which no one – not even your worst enemies – would try to do.

    Either way, have a good Christmas :)

    Reply

  24. “The Guardian is a commercial newspaper, you do take ads from Microsoft, you should bend over backwards to avoid the appearance that you’re in their pocket.”

    Syllogism. *I* don’t take ads from Microsoft. The people over on the advertising side, who I never see and couldn’t pick out of a lineup, take them.

    As for bending over backwards – in what way? That’s absurd. Are you somehow suggesting that because someone takes an advert we should somehow ignore or disparage or distrust what occurs around them editorially? That’s being influenced by advertising just as much as the way you seem to think, wrongly, it happens anyway. (In which case I’m amazed you haven’t tried buying some advertising with “offending” publications to see what difference that makes. You’ll discover: none.)

    So you were “excited” when you put a big red ring around Jack Schofield’s words, rather than in an emotional state we could describe as “upset” (n, “not equable”,)? Uh-huh. I can’t *imagine* why I missed that. Perhaps a modest proposal – could you also write your self-described emotional state when you post stuff like that? It would really simplify things for everyone.

    Oh, and George W isn’t the self-described Pres of the US. Lots of other people describe him that way too.

    Reply

  25. You got me there, thanks for setting the record straight on how I felt when I wrote my various pieces on Scripting News. Hope you had a good holiday, and best wishes for the new year.

    Reply

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