Explaining "Crazy Ivan"

Everybody at Sun is blogging about the “Crazy Ivan” announcement. As JohnnL put it, “This morning we announced our entire server-side software portfolio will be free of charge and open source. Not pieces, all of it.”

This shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone. Look at OpenOffice, NetBeans, GlassFish, and OpenSolaris: the trend is inescapable. Even so, a lot of people (including Sun employees) have been skeptical; during my travels in the US, UK and India over the last few months, the “open source question” has been raised more than any other. Here’s how I’ve usually responded to it:

In an ideal world, we’d like to sell our software to two different audiences for two different prices. We’d like to sell it to developers for zero dollars, because we want their adoption of our technology to be totally frictionless. And we’d like to sell it to enterprise deployers for as much as possible, because we think it’s worth that much. However we can’t sell the same thing for two different prices – it’s impractical, and in some jurisdictions it would be illegal. (Only the airlines get to do that.) The only way we know how to solve this puzzle is to give away the bits for free and charge for support.

[And if someone decides to deploy without buying a support contract, they probably weren’t a genuine prospect anyway – for us or for our competitors. But they’re still generating demand for Sun-compatible products and services.]


Blatant propaganda, part 2

First we had the Bush administration paying US media outlets and journalists to carry propaganda as “news”, and giving press credentials to political operatives. Now they’re playing the same kind of game in Iraq. From the LA Times: U.S. Military Covertly Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Press. Money quote: “Many of the articles are presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country. Though the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as ‘Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism,’ since the effort began this year. The operation is designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military.”

And this is how we spread “democratic principles” and “political transparency”?

(Via Stephen Elliott in HuffPo.)


Telling it like it is

The opening of Simon Whitaker’s piece “Nowhere to run” in today’s Guardian commands attention:

There is a remarkable article in the latest issue of the American Jewish weekly, Forward. It calls for President Bush to be impeached and put on trial ‘for misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 BC sent his legions into Germany and lost them’. To describe Iraq as the most foolish war of the last 2,014 years is a sweeping statement, but the writer is well qualified to know.


Drucker and my health insurance

A couple of apparently unrelated things happened earlier this month. First, I went through the annual ritual called Open Enrollment, during which I reviewed all of the optional elements of my Sun benefits (health insurance, dental coverage, health spending accounts, life insurance, and so forth) and selected the coverage that I wanted for the next year. Secondly, Peter Drucker, the man that the Wall Street Journal called “the first philosopher of management”, died at the age of 95.

So what’s the connection? First, Drucker:

From “Is Executive Pay Excessive?” May 23, 1977: Economically, [the] few very large executive salaries are quite unimportant. Socially, they do enormous damage. They are highly visible and highly publicized. And they are therefore taken as typical, rather than as the extreme exceptions they are.

These few very large salaries are being explained by the “need” to pay the “market price” for executives. But this is nonsense. Every executive knows perfectly well that it is the internal logic of a hierarchical structure that explains them…. Money is a status symbol which defines an executive’s place in the corporate hierarchy. And the more levels there are the more pay does the man at the top have to get. This rewards people for creating additional levels of management…. Yet levels of management should be kept to the minimum….

If and when the attack on the “excessive compensation of executives” is launched–and I very much fear that it will come soon–business will complain about the public’s “economic illiteracy” and will bemoan the public’s “hostility to business.” But business will have only itself to blame. It is a business responsibility, but also a business self-interest, to develop a sensible executive compensation structure that portrays economic reality and asserts and codifies the achievement of U.S. business in this century: the steady narrowing of the income gap between the “boss man” and the “working man.”

Second, health insurance. One of the providers from which I get to choose is United Health. (It’s probably a violation of some company policy for me to say this; on the other hand, the concentration of this industry is such that almost every large company offers something from everybody. And I imagine the information is publicly available.) On November 28th, Forbes reported that the salary of William McGuire, CEO of United Health Group last year was $124.8 million. (He cashed in stock options worth $115 million; he currently owns stock options worth $1 billion.) Just to take an area that I know well, a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist makes around $75 dollars per hour; William McGuire makes $115,384 dollars an hour. What on earth can justify this discrepancy? It certainly isn’t “market forces”; I’m pretty sure that the board of UBH could find a perfectly competent CEO that would do the job for a mere $1 million.

As Robert Kuttner put it in today’s Boston Globe:

Health insurance is the most vivid case of what political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls a ”politics of excluded alternatives.” Polls consistently show that over two-thirds of Americans want universal tax-supported health insurance. Gallup found that 79 percent of Americans want coverage for all, and 67 percent don’t mind if taxes are raised to pay for it. Fully 78 percent are dissatisfied with the present system. Medicare, the one part of the system that is true national health insurance (for seniors) is overwhelmingly popular.

There is no hotter political issue, nor one that strikes closer to home. So, if Americans overwhelmingly want national health insurance, why don’t we get it? Three huge reasons: political, fiscal, and jurisdictional.

Politically, the immensely powerful private insurance industry would be displaced by national health insurance. Nearly all corporations would rather suffer with the devil that they know (escalating premiums) than the devil they hate (an expanded role for government)….

Fiscally, a shift to national health insurance would require about $700 billion that currently goes through the private sector in charges to workers and consumers and shifted to the public sector in the form of taxes. The result would be a far more efficient and reliable system, but many voters would see the increased taxes but not appreciate the savings in premium costs, payroll deductions, or out-of-pocket charges.

Jurisdictionally, states like Massachusetts can perhaps make some piecemeal progress, but it’s hard to do this right in one state without pushing the system toward further fragmentation. Medicare works because it’s a national program.

But let’s get back to McGuire’s $124 million. Obviously the public wouldn’t stand for a government official pulling in that kind of money. Instead, that sum would comfortably cover the premiums for all of the uninsured workers here in Massachusetts. As I blogged recently, it’s amazing that so many in American business are opposed to single-payer government-administered health insurance, even though it is demonstrably in their best interests (and the interests of their shareholders and employees) that such a program be adopted. And it’s a sad commentary on American politics that no political party is willing to stand up for a policy demanded by two-thirds of the people of the USA.


Another day, another quiz

you are Tom Waits!
Tom Waits… charismatic story-teller with a
penchant for freaky people and unusual
settings. You thrive on the concept of the
underdog coming out on top.

Which fscked-up genius composer are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

[Shucks – I wanted to be Nick Cave.]

(Via Slacktivist, which you should all read if only for the brilliant deconstruction of the Christian-Fascist Left Behind books….)


A rant deferred: Bangalore airport

My colleague Mani Chandrasekaran just posted a piece about the new Bangalore airport which is due to be completed in 2008. He began by saying “Most airports, in India, dont really compare to the modern airports around the world”, which reminded me that I had promised you a little rant about my experiences at Bangalore airport. So here it is.

If you remember, I was flying from Bangalore to Mumbai to connect with a flight to London. My Jet Airways flight from Bangalore was repeatedly delayed, and I wound up missing my connection. In these circumstances, when you’re stuck in the departure lounge waiting for a flight, most people need two things: refreshment and information.

  1. Refreshments: none. Correction: one water fountain of dubious quality, and nothing else: no food, no beverages. No bottled water, no vending machines, no kiosk, no cafe. Zip.

  2. Information: Here’s where it really gets absurd. Scattered around the lounge were half a dozen televisions. These were used for three purposes: to show advertisements, to display flight information, and to carry a live TV feed. There was no other source of flight information. It quickly became apparent that there was no particular sequence or tempo as to what was shown when. Unless you watched intently you were likely to miss the occasional brief flight status displays.

    But it gets worse. It just so happened that India was playing Sri Lanka at cricket that evening, and the match was very exciting. India was winning: many of the ~250 waiting travellers jostled for the best seats to watch the TV, and when their heroes like Tendulkar and Sehwag were facing the bowling you could forget about anything else. Whoever was controlling the system wasn’t going to bother with trivia like flight information (or even advertising). At one point there were 20 uninterrupted minutes of cricket….

I would have taken a few pictures of this place for you, but of course photography is absolutely forbidden at all Indian airports. In any case, the lesson is clear: if you’re going to fly out of Bangalore, make sure you have bottled water and snacks with you, and be prepared to grab a seat in front of the TV. And if anyone from the airport reads this, I’m sure you can afford a few extra monitors to dedicate to flight information. Because we’re not there to watch cricket, we’re bloody well there to fly!

(Thanks. I feel much better now.)

P.S. The December’05 issue of Airliner World (excellent magazine, lousy website) includes a piece on p.68 about the critical state of the commercial aviation infrastructure in India. Airport parking places, terminal facilities, ground services, air traffic control – in every area, demand is outstripping supply, exposing a serious lack of investment. And this also applies to aircrew: a conservative estimate is that India needs an extra 1,200 pilots.


My PC emulates the Norwegian Blue…..

Although I’m primarily a Mac user, I’ve always had a WinTel PC at home, mostly for playing games. (I prefer turn-based games like Civilization and Alpha Centauri, as well as city-building simulations like Rome. However I occasionally fire up something in the Doom/Quake genre.) My current PC is an eMachines tower with an aftermarket video card and an extra hard disk so I can dual-boot WinXP and Solaris.

This morning I checked my Gmail on the PC and then hurriedly shut it down before going to work. I think that rather than choosing “Shutdown” I might have clicked on “Suspend”. In any case, when I arrive home I turn on the monitor and hit the power button. Nothing. The monitor status light is yellow, meaning no signal. Hold in power button for 5 seconds, then try powering up again. Nothing. Power supply and chip fans come on, maybe a flicker on the disk light, but no video. Repeat, holding down DEL to try to get into the BIOS. Replace USB keyboard with PS/2, repeat. Try booting off a Knoppix LiveCD, then off a floppy. Lug into the next room to plug into another monitor. Open case, remove graphics card, plug monitor into on-board video. Re-install graphics card. Re-seat everything. All totally, completely ineffectual. My PC is pining for the fjords. She’s dead, Jim. (Unless some blog reader can suggest something else to try.)

Now what? I’m tempted to declare victory, to forswear the works of Redmond and simply junk the PC. Of course there’s stuff on the disks that I want, which means I should probably get a FireWire enclosure to read them on my PowerBook. On the other hand, am I really ready to give up on PC games? I was just getting into Civ4. And there are one or two apps that I use that only run under Windows, like Family Tree Maker. How about Virtual PC? Well, if I were prepared to spend $240 on VPC, plus $60 each for a couple of disk enclosures, I’m starting to approach the price of a new PC. (Presumably I can re-use the graphics card, disks, and RAM.) And VPC may be OK for simple apps, but it’s hardly appropriate for a graphics-intensive game….



Bringing up ZFS on my Ferrari

As I mentioned, I wanted to check out ZFS now that it’s finally available in the latest Solaris build. My plan was simple: to upgrade my Ferrari to Nevada B27 and then “blow away the Ubuntu partition and create a couple of 10GB partitions” to test ZFS. Well, it wasn’t quite that simple.

On Monday I borrowed a B27 DVD from a colleague and upgraded my Solaris partition. This went just fine, although I did run into a fiddly little xscreensaver bug that meant I had to snarf the B28a version of the Xorg bits. Never mind: I was now ready to repurpose that 20GB Ubuntu partition. But how? Solaris format/fdisk wouldn’t touch it. I booted up a Ubuntu LiveCD and used Linux fdisk: this let me change the type code to 0xbf, which is Solaris2, but Solaris still wouldn’t see it.

It turns out that Solaris only recognizes one primary Solaris partition on a drive; you can’t have more. So on Tuesday I rebooted the Ubuntu LiveCD and used fdisk to delete both the Solaris and Linux partitions (leaving WinXP untouched). I then created a new partition, and reinstalled Solaris from scratch; I sliced up the partition as 20GB root, 1GB swap, two 10GB slices for ZFS, and the rest in /export/home. Of course I now had to customize the system the way I like it, so I downloaded a ton of stuff, went home, and got things working during the commercial breaks while watching House.

Finally this morning I was ready to test ZFS:

zpool create -f test c1d0s5 [the -f flag because the Solaris installation had put a UFS filesystem on the slice]
zfs create test/tfs
cd /test/tfs

and start playing….

Verdict: if you want to experiment with ZFS, it’s a lot easier on a desktop machine where you can simply plug in another disk. You can use a laptop, but the chances that your disk layout will be appropriate are pretty slim; you should be prepared to repartition your disk and reinstall. Once you do, it all just works – kudos to Jeff and the team.

OK, next step is to try mirroring:

zpool create mtest mirror c1d0s5 c1d0s6
zfs create mtest/tfs
cd /mtest/tfs


Penn Jillette: this i believe

Here’s Penn Jillette’s contribution to the NPR series this i believe. Forget about the subtle distinctions between positve atheism, negative atheism, agnosticism, and so forth: Penn just cuts to the chase. “I believe there is no God.” He expresses my belief exactly, but more wittily and with a bigger audience 😉 Key quote:

Believing there’s no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I’m wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate. I don’t travel in circles where people say, ‘I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith.’ That’s just a long-winded religious way to say, ‘shut up,’ or another two words that the FCC likes less. But all obscenity is less insulting than, ‘How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means more to me than anything you can ever say or do.’ So, believing there is no God lets me be proven wrong and that’s always fun. It means I’m learning something.

(Via Susan.)


Sassoon's "Statement Against The Continuation Of The War – July 1917"

My colleague Richard just posted a piece reminding us of Siegfried Sassoon’s powerful protest against the exploitation of the honour and duty of soldiers by the ignorant and cynical. He also links to a fascinating CD by David Behrman based on correspondence between his father and Sassoon. I’ve just ordered the CD; I’ll review it when it arrives.