Friday, April 15, 2011

Florian Müller and Groklaw

As a kind of valedictory salute to Groklaw, I want to examine the authoritarian aspects of its life. And I'm no stranger to Groklaw: I have fond memories of sifting Unix and BSD headers and making a summary of system calls for Pamela to show how baseless were the claims of SCO. At the time I wondered how many thousands of similar contributions were deluging her inbox, and I enormously respect anyone who takes on that kind of workload. This is not a defense of Groklaw or PJ because she doesn't need my defense. I am interested however by the larger implications her blog and others have had on the ways authoritarians attempt to refute them or at least drown them out. There is a great book to be written here someday.

In the wake of the announcement of the end of the active phase of Groklaw's existence, a classic internet drama was played out on in the comments to the announcement. A well-known commentator and developer, Florian Müller, had a lot to say about Groklaw's founder Pamela Jones: specifically her anonymity and the role he says that played in Groklaw's evolution and execution. Now, disregarding the flamewar that erupted and various accusations of his being a paid shill, Microsoft-admirer and, in a fascinating aside, sockpuppet, I'd like to address some of his charges because they bear on the way authoritarians are waging an information war using the biggest media on the planet, the internet.

Let's set the scene: Pamela Jones is a relatively anonymous person with legal training who decides to blog about the SCO trials. In the process she discovers how the FOSS style of crowdsourcing (the current buzzword) can be leveraged to amass incredibly detailed and wide-ranging information about the issues, the participants and the legal system in which the battle is being waged. Along the way she also learns how to manage an online community, which she does in her own style, preferring to lay out her expectations and holding community members to it. She also learns how to deal with the price of visibility and success. Finally, the battle all but won, she realizes that Groklaw has fulfilled its purpose and should be merely maintained, not looking for new battles.

Those who disagree with the facts of that outline tend to either belittle Groklaw's achievements or, when that doesn't work, directly attack PJ. The keyword here is competition. Authoritarians see other authorities as competitive threats, real or imagined. Groklaw is being paid the compliment of such envy. Although authoritarians tend to be slightly oblique in their envy as you will see.

Florian Müller part 1:

The word “her” needs citation. There was an avatar named 'PJ', who claimed that 'PJ' meant “Pamela Jones”, but there was never any verifiable track record, such as past and current employers, and “PJ” never presented “herself” in public. I just explained in another comment here that this lack of transparency wasn't reasonable.

But assuming that “PJ” is a person, I don't know what you mean by “talent”. “PJ” claimed to be a paralegal, admitted not to have programming knowlege, and very apparently failed to understand the world of business. In other words, we talk about a person who apparently would have liked to become a lawyers but failed to get there, and who missed some other important perspectives that “she” would have needed to provide holistic analysis of the issues “she” covered.

Müller begins by doubting the reality of a Pamela Jones, a Pamela Jones who, should she exist, isn't a lawyer, doesn't understand programming, and has no idea of business or “holistic” perspective. He excludes PJ from realms he later claims authority in, and infers her anonymity as a character fault, particularly the lack of an employment record to which he returns repeatedly.

Florian Müller part 2:

How can PJ be a “reputable person” without ever having disclosed one past or present employer?

It's not about a “disdain for all things PJ”. The problem is that Groklaw has constantly tried to capitalize on many people's desire for simple fairy-tale-like black-and-white views. Groklaw has, partly in its articles and partly in discussions, engaged in character assassination. The net effect of that big brainwashing effort is that some of the more credulous and less informed people now distrust a very smart analyst like Rob Enderle, very smart journalists like Maureen O'Gara and Dan Lyons, or a very smart author like Ed Bott, only because they comment on certain issues with greater sanity than Groklaw.

Müller repeats the employment record charge, and obliquely insults Groklaw's audience. Then he characterizes Groklaw as a disinformation source, brainwashing readers and assassinating the character of some fine journalists Müller knows, who incidentally are better than Groklaw at the very things Groklaw does. Coincidentally, all those fine journalists are pro-SCO, and O'Gara explicitly attempted to “out” PJ with less than stellar results. Müller evidently feels he is on a similar public level to these journalists whose claim to authority appears to be that they get paid for it.

Florian Müller part 3:

I'm still not 100% sure that Groklaw will really shut down soon. Groklaw's announcement could be a last-gasp effort to provoke an outpouring of support (in various ways, shapes and forms) from companies and community members.

But if it actually does, which is of course very likely, the primary reason will have been that Groklaw clearly lost relevance. It was largely a “one-hit wonder” in connection with SCO, but over the last several years I think it has just become a small echo chamber – almost like a sectarian group that unconditionally follows a mystery-shrouded leader. Seriously, who else in the whole open source context did never reveal his or her identity to the slightest extent? There was something that the person or team hiding behind the 'PJ' avatar had to hide.

With an objective rational approach it was easy to understand that 'PJ' did not strike an acceptable balance between privacy and publicity. Someone who participates in highly public debates, claims to provide more transparency about suspected connections and comes up with conspiracy theories concerning people like me (although my background is well-documented and verifiable) must also present themself at some point at a public event and explain their professional background. But a lot of people thought that their “savior” should not be called into question and not be subject to the same scrutiny “she” wanted to subject others to. I always found that absurd.

When the avatar named 'PJ' received an EFF award (which “she” never personally accepted in order to continue to shroud “herself” in mystery), the number of people congratulating “her” in the related discussion thread was fairly limited. When I read discussions on other topics, I also had the impression that the number of distinct participants was small.

On the occasion of the announcement of Groklaw's shutdown (which for now is just an announcement), many people appear to think only about the good that Groklaw presumably did and tend to forget its dark side: its devious censorship (“sandboxing”) of user comments designed to suppress dissent and fabricate consensus in its community in the eyes of third parties (my italics)

I have quoted at length but discontinued at points where he makes allegations about a specific article concerning IBM, and comments where he disparages Groklaw's relevance in favour of his own, specifically his visibility and own blog. These issues are not unimportant, but they're irrelevant to the topic and repeats the points he already made.

Straightaway we are exhorted to ignore the very purpose of Groklaw and focus on what Müller thinks can be charged: censorship, control, disinformation, and by inference the character of the censor, the controller, the disinformer. “PJ” is not a person, or at least a person who can be trusted, or even a person with a “holistic” grasp of the “issues”. Groklaw must be reduced to the status of a cult with a shadowy leader. He quotes himself in reference to censorship (via a third-party link), but more importantly, is concerned with the authority Groklaw might appear to have to others. Generally this kind of thing is ad hominem reducto absurdum. It's nothing new to attack bloggers: ask Greg Jericho, who rather upset mainstream Australian journalism by doing a better job of reporting an election campaign than they. The retaliatory “outing” was a clearcut competitive authoritarian attack. Similarly Müller's comments are an attempt to redirect attention from Groklaw to himself, apparently as an opportunity to bury a rival.

Many responses, including PJ herself, focussed on various weaknesses in his arguments, but what is striking is the attempt to re-characterize the competing authority, coupled with a frustration that the authority's success cannot be overturned. As with Jericho, attackers believe that intimidating PJ by shouting “we know who you are” will magically diminish authority; all-important to someone like Müller who has worked hard to maintain visibility. That someone should succeed doing almost precisely the opposite is anathema. Indeed, the bitterness of the claim that Groklaw is an irrelevant echo chamber reflects the realization that when a competing authority stops at the limits of relevancy, its hard to attack that authority for being irrelevant. One might even detect some desperation that the whole SCO era has been disposed of, bar the shouting.

Without recapping that era, it's critical to recall that the only authority Groklaw had versus SCO was the authority of accurate, contradictory evidence with legal implications. A blog versus a corporation. SCO did not expect anyone to, for example, examine their website and ftp site for evidence contradicting their own press releases, nor for a searching examination of Unix versions back to the 1970's which discredited their claims of stolen sourcecode, which they were still distributing on said ftp site. The results were such that the lawyers on both sides of the case were reading Groklaw, one side using the evidence, the other side removing it. PJ may have been the focus, it was her blog after all and her rules, but it was abundantly clear early on that this would be a group effort. Müller's efforts to separate PJ from Groklaw itself is revealing in this context, characterizing it as a sad little cult of nobodies chanting praises to an anonymous control freak. Such an organization couldn't possibly have had the effect it had, could it? This also ties into his odd defense of discredited pro-SCO, anti-Groklaw (and often pro-Microsoft) journalists, explained only by his preference for their authority as public figures (or as public as you get on the internet). There is a sense of projection about the whole thing which is typical of appeals to authority where participants attempt to reduce issues to flag-waving or “my army is better than yours”.

There have been charges that Groklaw is an authoritarian forum almost as long as it has existed. There have even been anti-Groklaw forums filled with the rejected and ejected that couldn't get along with PJ's comments policy. One reason I hope a definitive story gets written is to be able to get the full picture of what it was like on the other side of that. Aside from simply having the right to decide what goes on or off her own blog, PJ was also aware of more serious attempts to derail the forum. I've written before that astroturfing and sockpuppetry are stock tools for the authoritarian internet army, and Groklaw was no exception. Angry defensive corporations with millions at stake do not just let bloggers show them up without retaliation. Did she get it wrong on occasion? Undoubtedly, noone is perfect. Does that essentially change the nature of a collaborative effort on this scale? Not a bit. Similar claims are made from time to time of Linus Torvalds or any number of other leaders/moderators/Benign Dictators For Life of other collaborative efforts, and they are equally ludicrous. But such claims will continue to be made because the open source model of collaborative research and contribution is a competing authority to corporations, think-tanks, and even governments merely because those are themselves competing authorities.

Just because Florian Müller is well-known is no justification for his tawdry and belated accusations. But it does show he's ready to defend an authority. I wonder who that authority is, and who it will point him at next? Thank you PJ and Groklaw, it's been a terrific learning experience and a service to many who do not yet realize what that service is.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

AST and the Climate Change Denier

In a recent post on Greg Jericho's blog, a commenter posed this question: Why are right wing loons so hostile and narrow minded towards the concept of anthropogenic warming? I mean Alan Jones is a very intelligent guy, I don't get it.

There are various answers to this, some of which were canvassed in comments. Eg its just a stick to beat the ALP with. Another good insight was the general difficulty conservatives seem to have with the concept of being part of an environment, not lords over it. Someone then pointed to an article on the ABC's Unleashed website which gets closer to the truth: everything is a moral issue to a conservative which in this case short-circuits any further thought, in essence its a worldview in conflict with reality. It's an almost Buddhist point of view, recognizing that your invented self affects your immediate reaction to reality before your conscious control of your thoughts and emotions.

But let's posit the AST angle here. AST isn't specifically concerned with Judeo-Christian morality (it wouldn't be a balanced theory if it was. Authoritarianism is a cross-cultural disease as well as cross-political philosophy), but we have to recognize that the bulk of deniers are older, white, conservative and generally self-identifying Christians. The prime directive of every authoritarian is "it is (or is not) written." It is not written in the Authoritarian bible to give authority outside the tribe, and the Authoritarian tribe is often anti-scientific. In general it doesn't matter what the scientific theory is, the bigger the potential pain, the less likely the authoritarian is going to accept it. And they're going to refuse to accept it even if the worst predictions are coming true around their ears, that's an authoritarian hallmark. You only have see the example of the Catholic Church, which takes centuries to wake up and smell the coffee; by the time they turn around even non-Catholics find it difficult to believe they've changed their minds.

Borrowing freely from the abovementioned posts, I posit the following Authoritarian anti-AGW schools of thought:

  • Refusal to accept the methodology. This is more or less an attack on scientific method itself, because it is a competing authority: not a terribly original idea since it's been the last-ditch defense of flat-earthers and creationists for over a century. This I see as the core intellectual authoritarian argument vs AGW. Its cleverness is chiefly in exploiting the percieved weaknesses of authority in the scientific community: peer review, data integrity, and always, always language. It matters very much to authoritarians not just what is written but how. It's also a rigorously hypocritical stance: authoritarians care nothing for integrity or the respect of peers or any language that conflicts with their need to control and be controlled.
  • Refusal to accept the concept of man affecting his environment. This is a classic illogical authoritarian position. On the one hand, they'll trumpet man's ascendancy over the earth as given from God, on the other they'll claim how impossibly small and weedy we humans are and how big and practically infinite the earth's resources are instead. Obviously it can't be both. The whole "man is smaller than the earth" argument ironically borrows all sorts of Lifeboat Earth flimflam from popular cosmology, so take a lesson from that, the authoritarian will use
    argument if it fills in the gaps. At the same time, the earth is there chiefly for whatever the hell we want, get out of the way. The most cogent argument in favour of AGW is simple long-term self-interest, but its not an argument to the taste of the economic authoritarians, who rather someone else's money be used to pay for it all. This is the basis of the typically pragmatic authoritarian argument against AGW. It's the most cynical use of conservative culture to feather one's nest in effect. The Protestant work ethic which began as a benign attempt to wed individual morality with the Industrial Revolution is thoroughly debased. These are the people who pay the sock puppets and astroturfers and all those dire Denier blogs.
  • Survival of the fittest/law of the jungle/dark forces vs light. Where would we be without authoritarian paranoia? This is a related issue, the use of fear to control the flock by positing that its a bad place out there. Which God gave man to control. Which apparently he doesn't because Bad Stuff Happens. Given the self-sealing logic of this, authoritarian arguments against AGW ranges from personal politics to full-blown conspiracy theories about cabals of Satan-worshipping Greenies about to destroy civilization. Authoritarians would like you also to believe that this is a contest of ethics: it's nothing of the sort, that's a chimera of the authoritarian worldview. As evidenced from the conspiracy theories, their greatest fear is of being supplanted by a competing authority, not fake communism. But any fear will do if you need to marshall your non-thinking minions. I would typify this as the emotional authoritarian argument against AGW. These are the people who comment on those Denier blogs and try to infest the rest of the media.

The modus operandi is clear. The hallmark authoritarian business of organized astroturfing is in full swing: here in Australia we've had the pathetic spectacle of shock-jock organized marches with embarrassing support from political figures. The pictures from the Canberra march on Grog's blog say it all: the beautiful one next to Tony Abbott encapsulates point 2 & 3 better than anything else you'll read. Getting an authoritarian to see that its just as much in the interests of energy companies to further this rubbish can never work because they've already bought the moral arguments, as paltry as they seem. Add the anti-scientific mindset to the often faulty commonsensical approach to reality and you get stupid angry people who fail to see the irony of using science-based technology to rant at scientists. I appreciate Tim Dean's sentiments but we're dealing with people with an institutionalized mindset who've been told that the science is all wrong. By people who benefit from the very same science.

For me, that is the core weakness in the non-conjoint set of authoritarian and AGW. The Protestant work ethic bolted on to the new world of industrial processes has given way to a cynical exploitation of people's self-image. It's hard to believe that its only been a century and a half and somehow we live in a world where you are your work and labour economics ensure that you'll behave to keep that work. Most of us don't think about the use of power over large groups of people, but its been the central concern of authoritarians since the industrial revolution woke them up to potential mobs in large numbers. When you ponder the mass violence of the 20th century it feels as if for a while the amateurs were in control, but that's a sideshow compared to the economic story.

Our economics is dominated by the cheap and easy and that's understandable human nature. Another facet of human nature is an unwillingness to stretch our time horizon beyond the comfort zone of a lifetime or so. This is a problem of scale, often brilliantly exploited in subtle ways. It's cheap, easy, and noone is going to worry about the long-term problems because we'll be dead with all the money by then. This has been exploited to the extent that people have died in great numbers due to entirely preventable diseases caused by industrial processes known to be harmful. This kind of systematic exploitation is now threatened by a tsunami greater than that which washed over Japan recently. A tsunami that demonstrates the short-term thinking of cheap and easy industrialism. It's a very difficult proposition to accept, and very unlikely to be accepted until both these facets of human nature collide, with catastrophic results for some. And that results for some part is the most cynical part of the authoritarian calculation.

When we talk about unsustainable economics, we're really talking unsustainable for most. The authoritarian appeals to the common delusion that it never happens to you, but you've already accepted that by accepting the authoritarian ideology, so you never see the trick. If you're wondering how people can fall for this kind of thing, remember you're looking with 20/20 hindsight, and more importantly, from outside the flock. We have corporations we can blame instead of the people running them, we have costs of business to point to instead of finding processes that give us useful byproducts too.

Believe it or not, there are industrial processes that are more sustainable, they're just not popular with vested interests. These interests bought into those processes on the promise that they'd be printing money not spending it. They're understandably making vague threats to governments even thinking about regulation, which again is the point of the so-called carbon tax legislation. It's not there to tax the common person (another authoritarian canard. Easier to make you feel guilty about that lightbulb than improve energy sources), its to get the industries off the hook for unsustainable practices and back to printing money. The same industries that need you to pay more for the same thing you paid for yesterday. I'm not just pointing the finger at energy companies, the entire edifice of Western industrialism is infected with the same short-termism spiral. There are no perfect solutions, but the argument that we needn't look is what is unsustainable.

The authoritarian mindset coupled with an anti-AGW agenda is proving most lemming-like.