Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: October 2009 (page 2 of 4)

Stephen O’Grady on the Oracle-Sun merger

Stephen O’Grady explains why he is in favor of EU approval of the Oracle-Sun merger. He argues that Oracle and MySQL are not really competitors, but there’s too much to it to summarize. It’s an interesting argument, but I think he underestimates the degree to which MySQL competes with Oracle at the low end of the market.

Tim Bray on MySQL

Tim Bray worries:

It’s like this: MySQL just isn’t a very big business, by any measure. And it represents the sort of Open-Source entanglement that essentially every major technology player now has one or more of. So, my worry is: If, in a merger or acquisition, partial control over a financially-insignificant Open-Source project can now be expected to result in many months of anti-trust review, that’s going to have a massive negative effect on the viability of M&A transactions all over the technology landscape.

I would argue that MySQL is “special”. It may not be a very big business, but it has a very large footprint on the technology scene. It’s the “M” in LAMP. It’s the database that powers most Rails applications. On the other hand, MySQL is not evolving that quickly, and the versions that are already out will probably work perfectly well for long enough for a fork or replacement to become the new standard.

RMS opposes Oracle acquisition of MySQL

RMS and some other open source advocates are urging the EC to prevent Oracle from taking over MySQL. Here’s why the GPL is inadequate to preserve MySQL, in their estimation:

Defenders of the Oracle acquisition of its competitor naively say Oracle cannot harm MySQL, because a free version of the software is available to anyone under GNU GPL version 2.0, and if Oracle is not a good host for the GPL version of the code, future development will be taken up by other businesses and individual programmers, who could freely and easily “fork” the GPL’d code into a new platform. This defense fails for the reasons that follow.

MySQL uses the parallel licensing approach to generate revenue to continue the FLOSS development of the software. If Oracle acquired MySQL, it would then be the only entity able to release the code other than under the GPL. Oracle would not be obligated to diligently sell or reasonably price the MySQL commercial licenses. More importantly, Oracle is under no obligation to use the revenues from these licenses to advance MySQL. In making decisions in these matters, Oracle is facing an obvious conflict of interest – the continued development of a powerful, feature rich free alternative to its core product.

As only the original rights holder can sell commercial licenses, no new forked version of the code will have the ability to practice the parallel licensing approach, and will not easily generate the resources to support continued development of the MySQL platform.

The acquisition of MySQL by Oracle will be a major setback to the development of a FLOSS database platform, potentially alienating and dispersing MySQL’s core community of developers. It could take several years before another database platform could rival the progress and opportunities now available to MySQL, because it will take time before any of them attract and cultivate a large enough team of developers and achieve a similar customer base.

Their conclusion is not obviously insane:

We recognize the support Sun provides to increase competition in numerous markets through its support of FLOSS and open standards. We also recognize that Oracle’s acquisition of Sun may be essential for Sun’s survival. However, Oracle should not be allowed to harm consumer interests in the database market by weakening the competition provided by MySQL. For the reasons elucidated above, we ask that you block Oracle’s acquisition of MySQL.

How Shazam works

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo explains how Shazam works. If you’ve never seen Shazam, check it out, you’ll be amazed. Its incarnation as an iPhone app is its most famous — I had no idea it started out as a dial-in service. Shazam fingerprints songs and then compares the fingerprints of submitted samples to their database. The service fingerprints “important” notes in a song, not sequences of notes. I wonder how long note sequences would need to be to constitute a unique fingerprint? It’s probably less than you think.

Contrarianism is overrated

Crooked Timber on contrarianism, as exemplified by the new book Superfreakonomics:

To sum up my current view: “contrarianism” is mostly contrary to reality, the “conventional wisdom” is probably wiser than the typical unconventional alternative, and “politically incorrect” views are almost always incorrect in every way: literally, scientifically and morally.

I’m not sure, but I think that this makes John Quiggin a conservative by temperament.

Fox News is not a news outlet

Looks like the mainstream outlets are beginning to acknowledge what’s been obvious for a long time — Fox News is not a legitimate news organization. When they went all in as a network on organizing, promoting, and endlessly covering the “tea party” movement, they jumped the shark. They’ve been biased in an obvious and embarrassing fashion for a long time, but that was the moment that (to me) they committed to manufacturing news rather than simply reporting it. I’m glad the Obama administration has seemingly cut them off.

Cooks Illustrated versus the madding crowd

Cooks Illustrated editor Chris Kimball believes that recipes developed by professionals in a test kitchen will always beat recipes developed collaboratively by enthusiasts and has issued a challenge to prove it. The folks at food52 have accepted the challenge. This should be fun. I can’t wait until they make the movie version.

Learning by blogging

Here’s your quote of the day, courtesy of Tyler Cowen:

Not many outsiders understand what a powerful learning mechanism the blogosphere has set in place.

The pros and cons of transparency

Larry Lessig writes about transparency in The New Republic. Here’s his argument:

How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious. But I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement–if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness–will inspire not reform, but disgust. The “naked transparency movement,” as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.

His argument is lengthy and nuanced, but what it comes down to is that all the transparency in the world doesn’t change the fact that people draw spurious conclusions because people don’t pay enough attention to fully understand the information they’re given (for perfectly rational reasons). There’s another version of this argument in Malcolm Gladwell’s article on Enron from 2007, OpenSecrets.

I’ve seen something similar in my own work running software projects. I’m a fan of transparency, and I generally try to set things up so that anybody can figure out how the project is going. I set up a bug tracking system, version control, and notifications that are sent out when code is checked in. My theory used to be that if I did those things, there’d be less need for meetings, email, and other hand-produced communication. Non-programmers could track the progress of the project through the tools I provided, and everybody would be happy.

Unfortunately, that has never turned out to be the case. Even if you give people access to the code repository and the bug tracking system, they still don’t have the needed context to make any sense of what they’re provided with, and even if they did, trying to keep up is a lot of work. It’s easier to just ask a developer for a short summary of what’s going on. I still think that the transparency is helpful, but it doesn’t provide the benefits I originally envisioned. And sometimes it’s painful because people look at a few data points and draw incorrect conclusions that require even more effort to deal with.

As someone who strongly and often uncritically favors transparency, I found Lessig’s article an interesting and provocative read. Check it out.


Rogers Cadenhead posted a thoughtful reply to Derek Powazek’s anti-SEO rant that’s worth reading:

Have you ever tried to help a small business launch a new site and be discovered by potential customers on search engines? It’s a difficult task that’s vital to their livelihood. The black-hat junk that he slams makes it even harder for them.

Good SEO is essential to these businesses, which aren’t in a position to simply “Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again,” since they are not web auteurs with a 14-year track record of launching great sites. Try explaining to a company that provides environmental cleanup services across two states that it doesn’t need SEO because it just has to create something cool and tell people about it. Or a local chiropractor. Companies pay yellow-page publishers hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single ad because the need to be found by customers is so important. A lot of customers never look at those phonebooks anymore. They use Google.

Having read both pieces, I think in large part what we’re talking about is a difference in terminology. Derek classifies all of the things Rogers is defending as part of a Web designer’s job responsibilities.

To take a stand in this argument, I’d say that I see building sites that Google views favorably as an economic necessity. If there are things you can do to your Web site that don’t make it harder to use and make it more likely that humans will find it, you’re a fool not to do those things. There is a very strong incentive to figure out how Google works and take advantage of that knowledge to gain a larger audience.

That said, I find “SEO consultants” universally disreputable. The problem is this — SEO consultants have a very strong incentive to use their knowledge of how Google works to cheat, because cheating is often the fastest path to demonstrable results (and by that I mean a higher position in the list for targeted search terms). The businesses that Rogers uses as examples won’t know whether their SEO consultant is using techniques that lead to better usability across the board and have Google’s blessing, or techniques that are essentially spam and will get you blackballed from Google’s index. So my advice to a small business owner would be to avoid SEO consultants.

I think you’re safer dealing with people who can improve your site holistically. Raising your search engine ranking is important, but so is building a site that delivers your message effectively once people click on it in the search results. Anyone who’s paying a Web design firm to build a site for them should work together with the designer to develop metrics that can be used to measure how successful the new design is in terms of meeting the client’s goals and then to use those metrics over the long term to further improve the site.

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