Bonum Certa Men Certa

Joe Barr, Linux.com Editor - My Obituary

Guest post by Mark Kent

I find the lack of morals displayed by the trolls and by so many "business" people to be deeply disturbing. The willingness to lie in order to make money is appalling. Who doesn't despise disingenuous people?

One interesting thing I've found in my career when coming across such people is that they assume that everyone else is as crooked as they are, so that anyone taking any position on anything must, by definition, be pushing an convenient viewpoint rather than a well-researched and understood assessment of the facts as they are presently understood.

A particular upshot of this is that ignorance of facts begins to become an advantage, at least to the spinners and liars, since they have yet less reason to apply any value system against their dishonest spiel.

“We rely very much on journalists to help us sift through the muddier waters of the river of truth, and Joe Barr was one of the best.”The "mad scientist" as an amoral and dangerous character has often been the focus of daemonisation in literature and the popular press, yet it is the genuine scientist who is typically best-placed to assess facts in a rational and dispassionate way. Why don't politicians like this? Well, because it means that the scientists will not necessarily uphold the position the politicians are taking. Why is this bad? Well, probably, because lots of companies have spent large sums of money securing the support of politicians for their wares in some way or other, and politicians fear scientists more than almost anyone, because they are clearly learned and are considered to be fiercely independent of political influence. Should a scientist stand up in public and say, for example, that global warming is a problem, and it's likely that burning oil is contributing to that problem, then politicians and companies need to think fast indeed in order to address the distinct possibility that the scientist will be listened to.

Much the same applies in this technology and computing world. If an apparently learned person speaks out to say that, for example, Windows is not very secure, and Linux is more secure, then it's highly likely that the learned person might just be listened to. Particularly if there be a lot of evidence to support that position, for example, counts of the number of viable viruses and exploits in the wild for each system, or the number of each system currently compromised in some way.

One way of reducing the impact of that learned person is to invent other knowledgeable folk (Bartko et al) and use them to pollute the river of information with suitable disinformation. If enough people contribute enough pollution to the river of truth, then the impact of the learned people will surely be diluted in the minds of the interested by not so knowledgeable observers. We rely very much on journalists to help us sift through the muddier waters of the river of truth, and Joe Barr was one of the best.

In the linux advocacy HOWTO, it suggests that good advocates will avoid hyperbolae in discussions, and ideally avoid any kind of unsupported opinion, and stick only to facts. Whilst this is an admirable goal, it suffers a singular drawback, which is that there is no real definition of a "fact". There is, however, scientific method, which aims to establish provable models by trying to disprove them. Any model which withstands such testing gains credence amongst the scientific community, and will be adopted, at least until a better model is found. The whole approach is dependent on some key pre-conditions, however. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, in order to attempt to disprove a "current" theory, it's usually necessary to have a good grasp on all of its antecendants, and how they were disproven. The upshot here is that it can take many years of learning before an averagely competent scientist can begin to criticise the models of others, let alone propose one of their own. Thus, there is an ever widening gap between these day to day practitioners of scientific thinking, and the normal, non-scientifically trained public.

“Joe did an excellent job of this, both through his "dweebspeak" primer, and by exercising his very broad knowledge of computing languages and machines.”That gap, the one between the scientific thinkers and the non-scientific general public, is the one which is occupied by marketing and sales activities, by propaganda machines, by trolls and by liars. Is the propagation of arguments by scientific method ever going to be able to clean the polluted river of truth? Without educating the public in general, it seems unlikely. The tactic of out and out lying is hard to deal with. Unless you've sworn some kind of oath, like in a court of law, say, then being dishonest is not generally considered to be illegal, even when it's being done deliberately in order to relieve people of money. By ensuring that the dishonesty is hard to track back to the originators, by, say, employing "advocates" in different geographies, or using Usenet in order to plant anonymous insults, then the usual laws against dishonest trading can be avoided. The gap, however, can also be filled by good journalism. For every press release and marketing or sales pitch, we can have a good journalist or commentator, explaining the issues in a form which is valid and yet more accessible to those without the detailed training. Joe did an excellent job of this, both through his "dweebspeak" primer, and by exercising his very broad knowledge of computing languages and machines. His CLI for Noobies book is another excellent example of how he was able to bridge the gap.

It's rather sad to reflect that the laws being enacted as a part of the current round of globalisation seem to be almost 100% aimed at furthering the financial gain of existing global players, with almost no consideration for the rights of small businesses, consumers, citizens, education, charity, poverty and so on. Patent laws are being reviewed, but only in order to extend the number of things which can be patented, and the scope of those patents in terms of objects, time periods and so on. The push by "media" companies to force ISPs to police the activities of internet users is an interesting first step towards making the ISPs some kind of semi-independent state, but without any kind of independent or quasi-independent legal system, political system, police force, advocates and so on. To date, I think such states only exist within aircraft and ships which sail or fly through international waters or air-space, where the captain of the vessel in question is the undisputed authority in all respects.

We don't expect expert witnesses to be necessarily available on ships or aircraft, however, we do very much expect them to be available in our normal judicial process. There is no room at all for expert witnesses, however, in the proposals from the ISPs. The judge, jury and executioner is the media company. If that company decides that they suspect a user of doing something illegal, then that, in their view, is enough to start a process which in fairly short order can result in an ISP disconnecting a paying customer who may have done nothing wrong at all.

Why does this relate to trolling on usenet? Quite simply because both are based around assertions being made for pure financial gain, with no expectation of or requirement for supporting evidence. Whilst I do not condone copyright violation, I equally do not condone media companies being given control by proxy of ISP accounts of the general public, nor do I condone the establishment of ISP's networks as jurisdictionally independent entities, like ships or aircraft. There is a clear and strong moral requirement for time and effort to be expended in the search of the truth, in terms of the scientific establishment of a series of statements which best fit the available evidence, through the debate by independent parties and assessed by an independent audience.

When all that has failed, then our final recourse is for an independent press. For journalists to seek out the failings in the system and to expose those failings to the public at large, combining their knowledge of technology, scientific method, legal debate and the practicalities of marketing. This is precisely what Joe Barr did, many many times over, in between his perhaps more mundane but more idealistic work of editing the learned debates and articles about the linux community and its works. His best known was the Barkto affair, and he will always be remembered for that work.

He will be missed by all of us.

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