In Defense of Willful Blindness

Background: Michelle Malkin has written a book about the forced removal and internment of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast during the Second World War. In the book, she questions the conventional wisdom, saying that the internment was at least partly justified. Several people are not amused with this, the most notable being Eric Muller, who posted a series of critiques while guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy (start here and scroll up for all ten parts). Malkin has responded, and Muller has continuted the discussion on his own blog. I’m sure the debate isn’t over as of this writing, so there may be more.

First of all, if you’re a history buff, or if you think about how to deal with radical Islamists in this country, you really should read the whole thing, including Malkin’s posted motivations for writing the book. I knew very little about the incident before this debate started, and I am getting a first-class education into the details by following the points being debated. I have to say that I’m not convinced that Malkin is right, or that the standard view of the Japanese internment is wrong, at least not yet. But before today, I certainly wasn’t letting this incident affect my views on current events, such as the question of tolerance for Muslim minorities here.

What was really disappointing, though, was this reaction from Larry Lessig. While I disagree with Professor Lessig on many things, I also agree on many others, and have come to respect his scholarship especially on issues of copyright law and freedom online. I had come to expect better from him.

Now, this isn’t because of his conclusions. Indeed, Eric Muller (and Greg Robinson, who has been assisting Muller behind the scenes) come to the same conclusions as Lessig does. But while Lessig simply scolds, Muller and Robinson rebut. The latter pair is not opposed in principle to the concept of challenging the received wisdom; they just disagree that Malkin has done an effective job. They provide plenty of meat for Malkin and others to sink their teeth into:

Malkin does not respond to my criticism of her case for the military necessity of mass evacuation, which relies on the shelling of Goleta by a Japanese submarine on February 23, 1942. Since this was 12 days after mass evacuation was approved by President Roosevelt and four days after Executive Order 9066, it cannot have impacted the decision. Instead, Malkin repeats her claims on pp. 90-92 of her book, namely that “the Goleta shelling and the famous “Battle of Los Angeles” air raid scare a few days later precipitated the forced evacuation of Terminal Island in Los Angeles harbor, which, by the way, had been singled out in MAGIC messages as a hotbed of Japanese espionage activity.”

(Robinson, quoted here by Muller)

Contrast the richness of this rebuttal with Lessig’s feeble conformism:

But there is more than historical accuracy or the career of a silly journalist at stake. The role of the Constitution in wartime is defined by a consensus that Korematsu was wrongly decided. Thankfully, that consensus is unlikely endangered by this soon-to-be-forgotten leaflet. If you want to be radical, you have to actually be good.

This in a post with no links to Malkin and no discussion as to why this consensus is so vitally important that it must not be questioned. Instead, such questioning is merely evil; better to live in unexamined error than to jeapordize our beloved dogma.

Of course, received wisdom isn’t always good. Consider this hypothetical quote from Jack Valenti:

But there is more than studio profits or the career of a silly professor at stake. The role of copyright in modern society is defined by a consensus that Eldred was rightly decided. Thankfully, that consensus is unlikely endangered by this soon-to-be-forgotten leaflet. If you want to be radical, you have to actually be good.

(Lessig fans will recognize Eldred as the case he argued before the Supreme Court against allowing the indefinite extension of copyright.)

This is why we should not be afraid to question received wisdom, and why Lessig’s arrogance beats Malkin’s irreverence as the far greater sin. My fond hope: that this is an aberration in an intellectual life I have otherwise found compelling, and even world-shaking.

UPDATE: It appears that Tim Wu, not Larry Lessig, posted the story on Lessig’s blog. My apologies to the good Professor.

Online Media Registration

Slashdot highlights the ongoing problems with online registration for “old media” sites, such as the New York Times. They mention a Wired article on the subject (see also this article by the same author), which led me to this blog entry.

The basic idea is that people are avoiding registration sites, or using tools like BugMeNot to fake out the registration systems, both for privacy concerns and because people find it impossible to keep track of all the accounts. It’s certainly true for me, what with the three or four browsers I switch between, the three-plus systems I find myself on, and my annoying habit of busting my browser configuration on a regular basis. Why go through all this effort to read an occasional story linked from an interesting blog, especially when the blog will usually give me a helpful summary and thought-provoking commentary on its own?

In this article, Clay Shirky talks about classified ads, among other things. Classified ads are very local, but they can also benefit from efficiencies that come from centralization. On the Net, it’s easy to do both. The result: classified ads are starting to centralize, and local classified sections are likely to suffer.

News is the same way. All news is local, at least in the sense that it happens in one place. Yet it also benefits from centralization, for its own reasons. We want to pay attention to news in our own locality, and we also want someone to look at all the other localities and highlight the stuff most important to us.

In times past, you had to be a big company to do that, because you needed a broadcast license, or you had to pay for paper. Big Media still acts that way. In a sense, they have to, because it’s very difficult to scale down a big organization. So, they feel they have to extract value from their readers through things like registration and intrusive ads and so on, and they feel that the news is still somehow their domain, as if they create the news in some way that your neighbor whose aunt was in New York on September 11 doesn’t.

But if all news is local, why can’t we rely on local people to cover the stories? And if we don’t need big expensive broadcast licenses or bales of paper to act as aggregators and filters anymore, why do we need news organization cruft?

And it’s now, when people like me are thinking that we don’t need news organizations as much anymore, that these same news organizations are looking for new ways to exclude us. Why, I can’t gather. Will they be happiest when no one reads them anymore, because they can get the same thing better from people like InstaPundit? Somehow, I doubt it.

Zero Install and Snake Oil

Based on a casual reference from Edd Dumbill, I thought I’d check out the Zero Install system he mentions.

It starts out as an intriguing concept. There are obvious security implications, though, and they seemed to have addressed them here. Unfortunately, that page makes the following mistake:

Only the Zero Install software itself is a potential risk to system security. With traditional (non-zero-install) systems, every application, library and documentation package is a potential root compromise.

Of course, this system is all about downloading software off the Internet and running it on your local machine, every piece of which is a potential risk to system security. Thus, this particular “fact” is snake oil, and these people now have a very high burden of proof to overcome before I consider their system trustworthy.

It’s tempting for people to think they’ve solved a particular security problem just because they handle it better than other people. There may be benefits to the Zero Install approach, and they may even be a theoretical improvement over other systems. But “almost right” doesn’t cut it in security, and if they’re amateur enough to make claims like the above, why should I believe that their execution will be any more competent?

Internet Explorer Considered Harmful

The number one piece of advice I give everyone who asks me to fix their computer, or whom I care about (family, close friends) is this: Switch from Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firefox, even if you haven’t noticed any problems yet. Following my own advice, I don’t allow the use of IE within my own home except when absolutely necessary.

Some people who hear this think I’m going a little too far. Sure, non-techies should switch, but those people who know how to lock down their system should be OK, right? Surely I have the technical know-how to make Internet Explorer safe, right?


Security researchers warned Web surfers on Thursday to be on guard after uncovering evidence that widespread Web server compromises have turned corporate home pages into points of digital infection.

The researchers believe that online organized crime groups are breaking into Web servers and surreptitiously inserting code that takes advantage of two flaws in Internet Explorer that Microsoft has not yet fixed. Those flaws allow the Web server to install a program that takes control of the user’s computer.


Meanwhile, the average Internet surfer is left with few options. Windows users could download an alternate browser, such as Mozilla or Opera, and Mac users are not in danger.

By the way, number two is: don’t use Microsoft E-mail clients for mail. Why? Well, they rely on Internet Explorer for too much of their functionality, and at least one client (Outlook) is famous for its own porous security protections on top of IE’s. You’re a lot better off using Mozilla Thunderbird, Eudora, Pegasus Mail, or some other mail client not made by Microsoft.


Check out 30 days to a more accessible weblog, by Mark Pilgrim.

So how do I (or, more accurately, WordPress) do? Here’s where I fail:

Not bad. I was impressed that certain things seem to be done right. Nevertheless, there’s still room for improvement.

If anyone notices anything I missed, post a comment.

First Private Space Launch Successful

MSNBC – Private rocket ship breaks space barrier

This is one of the teams pursuing the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million bounty to the first private organization that can launch a vehicle into orbit with passengers twice in two weeks. This trip had no passengers, and thus did not qualify as a first run for the X Prize; it is a significant milestone nonetheless.

UPDATE: Oops! The X Prize doesn’t require orbital flight, but suborbital space flight (62 miles or higher). I knew that, but must have committed a thinko when writing it up.

“Microsoft Cares” (IE Team Reorganizes)

Robert Scoble gets defensive in response to an offhand comment by a member of the Mozilla team in an Ars Technica interview. In the process, he lets leak the revelation that the Microsoft Internet Explorer team is getting back together. This is later confirmed by a once-and-future team member, and a Wiki feedback page for IE feature requests is also getting a bit of attention.

So far, though, I haven’t seen anything to suggest that any of this will be available for current Windows versions, something they’ve said in the past. If this remains true, anyone wanting the new, better IE will have to upgrade to the next version of Windows to get it.

Apparently, the “doesn’t care” comment in Ars Technica has stung several people at Microsoft. While quite a few employees may care about the quality of IE, they need to recognize that the official position at Microsoft until now has been indifference, as evidenced by the IE release history in recent years. If they really cared, we’d have IE7 by now, and possibly IE8.

What’s more, the IE team has an uphill battle to convince us that they’re for real. It was an article of faith during the old browser wars that MS would let IE stagnate once Netscape was killed off. That’s no longer an article of faith; it’s a fact of history. Now Mozilla is ascending again, and surprise! Microsoft gets the IE team back together. Will they try to kill off Mozilla and then submerge again?

I doubt it, but only because they’ll have to succeed at killing Mozilla first, and I can’t see a DFSG-free Internet Explorer for Linux coming anytime soon. Thus, Mozilla will always have a safe haven, something Microsoft cannot provide as long as it allows independent development on Windows.

(Seen via Slashdot.)

UPDATE (June 21): For an idea of what Microsoft has to overcome, read this.

Being Dave Winer

Dave Winer, the founder of UserLand, got in over his head when trying to deal with, the weblog hosting service he’s offered for free for several years now. So, he administered the coup de grace, without warning. As can be expected, this generated a lot of responses, not all of them nice.

In my opinion, James Grimmelmann gets it right:

But this isn’t entirely personal. Dave isn’t just a guy doing a favor for the world. He’s a self-proclaimed weblog authority. And he’s a guy with a plan: to build out the Semantic Web with SOAP, RPC, XML, and above all, with RSS. He wants RSS to be universal; he’s out there stumping for his design, and trying to convince us all that he should be calling the shots, that his baby should be the standard. He sounds off on RSS all the time; he tells us how RSS ought to be; he blusters about public use of his words; he suggests the elimination of rival formats. At stake in all of these is his professional credibility.

In all the debates I’ve seen Dave get involved in, I haven’t come away with a good impression. I watched the RSS 2.0 standardization effort devolve into a flamefest, with everyone trying to figure out what the hell was going through Dave’s mind, and being chastised when they guessed wrong. Atom was the final, frustrated response; in fine open-source tradition, the community forked when it became clear that the current maintainer for an important technology was screwing up. Since then, Dave has mostly alternated between slamming Atom and arguing for a merger with RSS, not getting that his own inept communication was the main barrier between the Atom and RSS groups.

His current problems with illustrate his attitude perfectly. Having provided free hosting for all this time, he could easily have traded some goodwill for a little technical help. Even now, he has received a ton of unsolicited free advice, pleas to reconsider, and offers of help. Barring that, he claims that the very act of trying to keep the service up just enough for people to retrieve their data was too much for him. Warnings would have been ineffective, he claims. Worse, his first announcement was made by hijacking all the hosted blog pages, and his second was made by posting an audio clip on an unrelated site; Doc Searls was forced to do the real explaining. Finally, the comment page where people were to ask for their data back, a threat: any negative posts will be deleted. You can guess the tone on that thread: very respectful, very considerate, and very fearful. Does Dave enjoy being feared?

All in all, this vindicates my general distaste of technology that’s too strongly controlled by one person or group, especially when that person or group is not trustworthy. I don’t wish Dave Winer ill; neither do I consider him a bad person for having shut down I simply see this as another example of his prime failings: pride in his achievments, disdain for anyone who challenges him, and an uncooperative nature. Let us hope that he learns from his mistakes, or at least fades into an obscure retirement.

Camping and Sickness

Well, this was going to be my notice of a several-day hiatus while Jon and I went camping with the Cub Scouts. Unfortunately, Jon caught something, and is now running a pretty good fever. The doctor says it’s viral, and that there’s nothing really to do except wait it out. The Scouts are being cool; if he gets better, we can check in late and enjoy what’s left of the trip.

UPDATE (June 20): Well, we’re in Champaign, Illinois, visiting grandparents. Jon eventually was diagnosed with strep, and after starting antibiotics, is doing fine.

Owning Slaves?

Steven Den Beste has a fascinating article on the ethics of owning slaves programmed/brainwashed to desire slavery, motivated in part by musings on the ethics of owning sentient computers in the future.

(Personally, I’m not sure that day will ever come, and I’ll be more inclined to worry about it when it actually happens or looks close to happening. Let’s talk after someone produces a computer with the sentience of a chimpanzee.)

He is slightly off, though, when he says:

And it is hard to see how the eventual owner of such a voluntary slave could avoid carrying any of the ethical stain. I think it would also be immoral to own such a slave.

On the contrary, in a society with a permanent slave class, it is entirely possible to own a slave honorably. As an ethical slaveowner, you will treat your slaves better than the slaveowner down the block will, and since the poor slaves can’t escape their condition in any meaningful way, the best the slaves can hope for is for you to keep them. Such rationales were used by many antebellum Southerners who kept slaves, on the theory that free blacks were very likely to be kidnapped and re-sold into slavery (something that did happen far too often).

Of course, such an ethical slaveholder would also work like mad to abolish such a horrid institution as a permanent slave underclass.

Similarly, here’s how you could keep a sentient slave programmed to want subservience in an ethical manner:

Write a contract freeing the slave, but make the contract conditional on the slave’s acceptance of the deal. Sign the contract, and give the paper to the slave, complete with space for him/her/it to sign. From that point on, treat the slave as a full-time, live-in employee. This improves the slave’s conditions to nearly perfectly mirror those of voluntary employment, and give the slave the power to confront his/her/its tendencies towards subservience at his/her/its own pace.

We don’t need any such gyrations in current society because slavery of any kind is currently illegal and/or impossible, which is clearly the optimal ethical case. For suboptimal cases, though, there are often hard problems and trade-offs; failing to respect those can create new injustices.

Joining Planet Debian

Planet is a nifty little aggregator; it takes the posts to various Web sites and puts them all on a single site, with links to the original stories.

One of the Planet developers also runs an aggregator for Debian stuff. So, the other day, I inquired about joining. As they say, the rest is history, and I am now feeding to Planet Debian.

I have been kind enough to only feed Debian-relevant stuff. From the political posts I’ve seen so far, I’m not convinced that the rest of my stuff wouldn’t generate more heat than light, though everyone is invited to prove me wrong. I will highlight one of my more recent posts that may be of interest to Debian folk: Why Discover, a defense of discover’s relevance.

My Position on Global Warming

An old post by Jane Galt (linked by her more recent post here) basically sums up my position on global warming.

Executive summary: The shrillness of the debate and distortion on both sides make it impossible for non-experts (which make up nearly all of us) to know either if there’s a problem or if there’s a viable solution.

UPDATE: This is also a thought-provoking page, though I don’t necessarily claim it’s correct.

Teacher Fired For Teaching

Hit & Run: No Facts in the Classroom, Please

Matt Welch’s comment is actually scarier. Firing a teacher for teaching the source of a Shakespearean allegory is stupid, and chills teachers who want their subject matter to be interesting. Firing a teacher for explaining the causes of the Holocaust is dangerous as well as stupid, since ignorance is the best weapon of demagogues against a decent people.

Why Discover?

(This post was originally an E-mail, sent to explain the reason why discover deserved to be supported in some software. By popular demand [Ian], it is now posted here, slightly edited.)

Discover has three basic design criteria:

  • Arbitrary data. Strictly speaking, discover has no concept of a “Linux kernel module” or “XFree86 driver”. It simply associates data with hardware, and can return that data when the hardware is found. It’s up to add-on utilities to make sense of the data.
  • Versioned data. Version specifications can be attached to data, and can be used to choose between alternatives.
  • Cascading data. That is, newer data can be loaded and override old data.

Thus, it’s easy for us to do things like the following:

  • Pull down data updates from a central source at runtime.
  • Support userspace hardware configuration for utilities such as SANE, CUPS, UPS daemons, CD burn utilities, etc. Adding support for a new utility does not require code changes to discover; often, this can be done with a new data file and a shell script.
  • Support multiple versions and multiple software types. For example, right now we have XFree86 3.x and 4.x driver information in our database, and could easily add and X server driver info when needed without losing the earlier data. (Or someone else could provide that information and hook it in themselves.)
  • Cross-platform compatibility. We are developing sysdeps that make discover work with FreeBSD, for example. While Linux kernel information wouldn’t likely be useful, userspace configuration would likely be the same everywhere.
  • Driver alternatives. We already do ALSA sound drivers with 2.6 and OSS with 2.4, but we have had several requests to allow ALSA drivers with 2.4 as well. We will support this in our next data release by providing override data that can easily be added to discover’s configuration. You could handle, say, David Hind’s PCMCIA drivers vs. kernel PCMCIA drivers or open-source vs. proprietary NVidia XFree86 drivers the same way.
  • Alternative purpose drivers. We could, for example, specify framebuffer kernel modules and DRI kernel modules for video hardware separately, and load either or both as we see fit.
  • Fine-grained versioning. If a new driver is introduced in Linux 2.6.6, our data can reflect that, so 2.6.5 users aren’t confronted with module load failures.
  • Data annotation. We mark data with dates and IDs currently to show when data was last reviewed (or not, in their absence). We will be adding a “important to debian-installer” tag so that d-i can strip out unnecessary data to save space. We’re also thinking about a rating system that would allow users to vote on, say, whether e100 or eepro100 works better for their particular Intel network card.
  • Packaging. We have already written a spec for associating package data with hardware. So, for example, a utility could offer to install SANE for you if you plug in a scanner, or the installer could notice that you’re installing on a Toshiba laptop and add toshutils. Long-term, we’d like to write a utility that will be able to download kernel module source and build it for the running kernel automatically; this, along with a data update, could allow for field updates of hardware support without requiring new kernels.

Other hardware utilities, such as kudzu or hotplug, suffer from the same deficiency: they are inflexible and difficult to update. As an example, I was recently made aware that the version of kudzu in Debian is too old to support Linux 2.6 kernels; the maintainer is concerned about updating it because of other potential problems he had observed. By contrast, we have made code enhancements to discover recently, some of which make it work better with 2.6, but none of them were required for us to provide good 2.6 support.

None of this is intended to be harsh or confrontational. I don’t think other hardware utilities suck. It may be that discover has fatal defects in its design, and kudzu or hotplug becomes “the way forward” in Linux hardware detection. But we certainly think our ideas about hardware configuration deserve attention, and we’d really like to make them available for others to use.