Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My day in the FISA court

When I received the call for jury duty at the FISA court I was mad at first. Then the FISA limo picked me up at my door and provided the most pampered ride I could imagine. There was fresh coffee in that limo, bottomless mimosas, my own private foot masseuse and a DJ, videos and video games, and marshmallows, so many marshmallows, no end of marshmallows. How could I stay angry?

I’m not sure exactly where we went, because the limo windows were tinted black on the inside, so I couldn’t see out of the car. That was just part of the pampering, I’m sure, to make sure my ride to FISA court was as pleasant as possible.

They explained to us that we were the first FISA jury pool ever, brought to make the FISA process more open and accountable, and to provide “the appearance of oversight and democratic legitimacy.” It was an honor, really.

I’ve been called to jury duty before, and this was nothing like those other jury duties. First of all there was hardly any waiting; we were brought right into the court room with no dilly dallying whatsoever. Second, we were given free wifi access and allowed, even encouraged, to use our smartphones to browse, play, facebook, whatever we wanted. And the internet was fast! I mean really, really, really fast!  For some reason my smartphone had forgot all my password and I had to re-enter them, but other than that, no problems. (Oh yeah, there was another problem in that none of the Instagram pictures I took showed up in Instagram later—that’s weird—I probably did it wrong.)

I don’t remember a whole lot about the trials themselves, sorry to say, because there was so much going on on Facebook, and I had five simultaneous Words with Friends games to contend with, and my boss kept bugging me with emails about this and that, but when I did look up there was always something interesting going on in the courtroom.

Not everything was what I’d expected. For instance, in this courtroom instead of a gavel the judge had a rubber stamp, and he would slam down his rubber stamp any time someone put a piece of paper in front of him.

Also it was kind of weird that they were saying “redacted” all the time. “redacted this” and “redacted that”.  For instance, one time the prosecuting attorney said “I call Redacted to the stand.” A person wearing a paper bag over their head sat at the stand, and the attorney said “Mr. or Mrs. Redacted, is it true that if we were to get legal authority to retrieve Redacted’s phone call with Redacted from May redacted’th this year, that we’d clearly hear Redacted say, at minute readacted and redacted seconds, ‘I’d like to redacted that fucking redacted with a goddamn redacted and shove his I-Redacted-S up his fucking ass’, as transcribed in this document?”

The court-appointed defense attorney jumped right up: “I object to the use of ‘fucking’ and ‘goddamn’ in a courtroom, even if quoting such a despicable and obviously guilty terrorist as the accused.”

“Objection sustained,” said the judge. “The prosecution will redact that vulgarity.”

“Expletive redacted.  Now, Your Honor, if it may please the FISA court, I submit as exhibit A the transcription of the May redacted’th conversation we will have recorded if we receive court authority to have recorded that phone call between terrorists Redacted and Redacted.”

“Let the court records show,” said the judge, as he dropped the transcription into a shredder beside the bench, “that exhibit A has been accepted by the court and examined by the jury.”

We did have one troublemaker in the jury. This one woman said “excuse me, judge, but why is everything redacted?”

“Because” answered the judge, patiently “some people in this court room do not have the security clearance to see that sensitive information.”

“Who can’t see it?”

“The Jury can’t see any of it, of course. Heck, I can’t look at most of it myself without risking our national security.”

I thought that was a fine answer. I don't want to risk national security any more than the next guy and, besides, I was certainly in no mood to give them any trouble since they continued to fill me with marshmallows of all kinds. Peeps. Chocolate covered marshmallows. Roasted marshmallows. Microwaved. Tiny, floating on hot chocolate. Tiny, picked out of Lucky Charms. All kinds of marshmallows. I don’t know how the heck they knew I loved marshmallows so much, just a lucky guess, I guess (I usually don’t tell anyone about my intimate marshmallow passion except when we’re being, you know, intimate) but as long as the mallows were flowing I was in no mood to argue with anyone about anything.

But that one annoying jury member, she just wouldn’t stop asking questions, like: “Excuse me, your honor, but I thought you said the NSA couldn’t spy on Americans, so how did they get this information on an American?”

A guy in a black suit and sunglasses said to her “it’s true we can’t legally spy on Americans, only on foreigners, but the English can legally spy on Americans, because to the English every American is a foreigner, and because we can legally spy on England (which is easy because our intelligence agencies share splitters on all the undersea cables) we get their information on anyone (who is not English), without breaking any laws. For instance, just to prove our capabilities,” said the man in black, as he received some pages a deputy of the court had just run into the room to deliver, “here’s some information intelligence has legally received from the English spies about what you were doing online last Tuesday between 1:24 and 1:37pm.” He showed the papers to the jurist, who seemed positively impressed with the quality of the information. “Would you like us to play to the court and your fellow jurors the telephone call you had this morning while your husband was out walking the dog?”

That seemed to satisfy the juror, who only said “I redact my question” and stopped being so annoying after that.

After a few hours of legal proceedings (and the completion of 3 games of Words with Friends, 2 wins, 1 loss), one of the court clerks, who until this time had been sitting quietly with headphone on staring at a computer, shouted “whoa, everybody, I just got a hot tip that the big pharmaceutical merger is going to fall through… you should hear the nasty things the CEOs are saying to each other.” Court was instantly dismissed and everyone was suddenly let go with a few final instructions from the judge to call our stockbrokers and make the best of this hot tip.

And you know, despite my initial skepticism, that final event is what really sold me on the strength and quality of the FISA court. If it is run by people so smart that even the lowliest FISA court clerk can figure out the intricacies of the pharmaceutical industry, and is clever enough to turn that hunch into a profitable stock-market maneuver,  then they must be dealing with some really, really smart people.

All in all a very rewarding day.

So if you’re called for FISA jury duty, don’t make up excuses, don’t shirk your civic responsibility. Go. Just go. You never know, you might even earn something. oh, yeah, I almost forgot: and you'll be stopping terrorism.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Embrace, Extend, Extinguish, Exmpp

I fancy myself a very clever fellow and am constantly amazed and amused by the simultaneous depth and subtlety of my own wit. When I recently thought up the phrase “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish, Exmpp” I thought I’d outdone myself.  “Good show, old man” I said to myself, “extremely clever use of allusion, alliteration, illumination, and all-around brevity. You must share this with the world. I wager you could fit it all in a tweet three or four times over.”

I took my own advice and put the phrase on Twitter, and on a few other computer-nerdy social forums for good measure. Then I waited for the accolades, the likes, the retweets, the up-votes, the anonymous bitcoin deposits. I watched for bloggers to carefully parse, deconstruct, and reconstitute every syllable.


Not even a trollish complaint about my spelling error.

Dagnabbit. If no one else is going to plumb the depths of my clever phrase, I’ll just have to do it myself!

Ancient history: Once upon a time there was a company called Microsoft that ruled the software landscape. If you had a personal computer, it was almost unfathomable to think that you would run any program without going through Microsoft software first (from booting, to the DOS console, to Windows). Owning the cash-cow operating system business wasn’t enough for Microsoft, especially when they could see other companies creating lucrative software on top of their OS—Microsoft wanted to have IT ALL. Whenever another company created software with any potential financial success, Microsoft would make their own version of that software and use their position to ensure that Microsoft’s version gained most of the market share until their competitors were dead (at which point Microsoft often lost interest in the category). It reached the point that Microsoft could simply leak the news that it was going to make a product (whether or not the news was true it created fear, uncertainty, and doubt) and the competitors were dead in the water.

Microsoft’s products were seldom better than the products they quashed, so why did Microsoft’ products win?
  • Dumping. Microsoft could undercut the price of everyone. Microsoft had so much money from their cash cows that they could afford to lose money on any product, for however long it took, until their competitors were gone. (I remember for a while, when Microsoft wanted to take over the encyclopedia market, their rebates where $25 more than the price of the product, so you could literally make money the more encyclopedias you bought).
  • Microsoft controlled the world’s primary operating system, so they could do whatever OS tweaks they needed, or withhold whatever secret APIs were most useful, or prepare upcoming OS changes that only their own teams knew about, to give their own products the edge.
  • Through bundling, Microsoft’s advertising and distributions costs where lower. Because just about every computer user already received Microsoft’s OS, and probably Office Suite (by the time Lotus, Harvard Graphics, Borland, Word-Perfect etc.. where out of business), there was virtually no additional overhead to make the customers aware of other MS software, and to include it in the OS or Office for (essentially) free.
  • Microsoft could make a very plausible case that their own products worked better together.
  • I think it fundamentally comes down to the only clever thing I ever heard my oldest brother say: “he who owns the boot sector owns the world”. Because Microsoft had you from the time you booted your computer, they had an extreme advantage in guiding you “where they wanted you to go that day”.
An illuminating time in Microsoft’s history occurred when they realized that the web was taking over. They could see that with the web and browsers it could someday be possible that it didn’t matter who’s operating system you were running. Everything would be run through a dumb browser, and it didn’t matter what OS the web servers ran. This was cause for panic. They fought this web trend briefly, and then came up with a new strategy.

Publicly the strategy was that Microsoft was going to embrace the web. But privately, as later revealed in court documents, the strategy was “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish”. As part of this strategy Microsoft first began releasing a really good browser, even better than their competitors’ (seriously, IE Haters, the toddler version of IE were great for their day), and they released it for free and as part of the operating system.  Bye bye Netscape (the threat of the day).

With IE and other software, Microsoft clearly embraced the web standards. But then Microsoft started to extend those standards, improving on them faster than the W3C could keep up. Many of those extensions eventually became the standards we know and love today (table improvements, css+, xmlhttprequest/ajax) but some extensions would only work on Microsoft operating systems (e.g., activex to give native performance to components). These extensions resulted in a better browser and workplace experience than the (soon to be extinguished) competitors.

That’s the ancient history. The more recent story involves Google.  Google of today has amazing parallels to Microsoft of back then.  (In fact, I thought about writing the previous Microsoft history as a sort of Mad Lib game, where the blanks could be filled randomly by either “Microsoft” or “Google”, but I don’t know how to do something programmatic like that on blogspot).  Google has it’s own cash cow (but only one, so far), and like the old Microsoft they have cash to dump products on the market to undercut competitors until there is no competition (Android being the biggest price-dump, but just about every free Google property is an example of this). Also, like old Microsoft, you almost can’t get anywhere without going through the Google boot sector first (the search engine, gmail, android, working toward the browser). And again, repeating an old story, if Google sees a market category getting too much traction they duplicate that product, tie it into their existing product line, and make it cheaper (usually free), as long as that competitor exists (after which Google may lose interest in the category, such as with their recent abandonment of the RSS industry).

I find it really interesting to watch the Chrome browser part of this story, and compare it to old IE. Chrome was released as a really great browser embracing all of the web standards. From early on, Google used Chrome to push out a lot of what they called “web standards” (although if only chrome has them, and W3C is just being told about them, how are they “standards” and not “extensions”?) and chrome-only add-ons that actually are called “extensions”. Finally, to give native performance in Chrome they created a new “standard” called NaCl (because the term “ActiveX” was already taken?).

I’m getting really really close to explaining “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish, Exmpp” now, really I am.

Recently, it has become increasingly clear that Google’s years of talk about “open standards” is a bunch of hogwash (for example: Is Google Dumping Open Standards For Open Wallets?), and on the day I came up with my oh-so-clever phrase Google announced that their messaging products were dropping the XMPP standard on which many other messaging products rely for standard compatibility.  A few years ago they embraced XMPP (allowing other messaging products to collaborate equally), even extending XMPP (for voice & video), and now they’re dropping it, extinguishing the category of compatible messaging.

So, here it comes:
Embrace, Extend, Extinguish, Exmpp
In those four words I express an amazing amount of tech history. I demonstrate the new role Google plays, and what’s behind their hi-falutin do-no-evil talk. I clarify beyond any doubt that Google is the new Microsoft. NOW do you see how clever I am?

So if Google is the new Microsoft, what’s going to happen next? For Microsoft a few things happened. Legal action was a big part of it. The US Department of Justice (which uncovered the EEE phrase on which I’ve now built my EEEE reputation) and European Union did their best to stop many of the monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. The other big thing that happened to Microsoft was Google.

So what will happen to Google? The same the thing happened to Microsoft, of course. We’ll start to see Google as the enemy There will be government legal action. Eventually some other company will ride some new technology wave and displace Google.
Somewhere I can now hear an old old timer pointing out that IBM did all the same stuff in an earlier phase of technology (and probably AT&T before that)—riding a cash cow monopoly and anti-competitive practices to kill the competition—until there was legal action, a new technology wave, and a new technology behemoth: Microsoft. It was said then that Microsoft was the new IBM.
If Microsoft was the new IBM, and Google is the new Microsoft, then who is going to be the new Google?  For a while they worried that Facebook was going to be the new Google, but it turns out that Facebook is just the new AOL (i.e. a garden that is “the internet” for people of a certain age).

As long as we’re playing the “is the new” game:
• Amazon is the new Sears Roebuck
• Apple is the new Sony
Airbnbconfessions is the new Wikileaks
• Law & Order is the new Dragnet
• Lupo is the new Friday
• African American is the new Black
• Lost Sirens is the new New Order