by Danny O'Brien
For reasons too obvious to go into here, Bill Gates himself is permanently exempted for our monthly competition for evilness in the open source world. But, like Satan or the other voices in your head, we should expect him to chip in from time to time, if only to tempt and confound our vulnerable minds.
For instance, during January's competition, Gates whispered into the media's ears those who campaigned for reforming intellectual property laws were "modern-day sort of communists".
Everyone got very upset by the analogy - especially the remaining communists, who immediately demanded to know whether open source advocates were allied with the World Council of Modern-Day Communists (Marxist-Leninist, Sort-Of), or The International League of Syndicalist Sort-Of Communists (Modern-Day, Trotskyist).
Labels certainly are hard. Some open sourcers would nod proudly if you called them commie; others would not accept that title even after you pried their guns from up your own cold dead backside.
As Senator McCarthy discovered, communism is one of those vague attributes which grows in the dark corners. You can find it anywhere - if you're flexible with definitions, and looking hard enough. And you don't stop until you find some.
Fortunately for our purposes, the search for evil works in *exactly the same way*. Plenty of evil around, if you look for it - especially in those dark unlit places.
So, let the January witch-hunt begin!
Under The Bed With The Sun Hotspot Java Virtual MachineSlava Pestov thought he'd found true evil when he spent the first days of January picking through the source code of their Hotspot Java Virtual Machine.
The JVM lies in one of the shadier corners of openly viewable source. It is licensed under Sun's Community Source License, so you can download the source code, but you can only pass on the code to others who have signed the same license. There are other strings attached, too. It's not an open source license, it isn't meant to be, and few open source coders have chosen to look inside.
Pestov did. Behind the click-through, he found what he called a "bad joke". A beast of over three million lines of Java, C++, awk, sed, and Scheme; awkward special cases, and code cut-and-paste - code so horrific that he could barely bring himself to speak of it.
Of course, Sun's legal forbidding him to also helped the brooding silence. Good news for Sun's image, if not for Pestov's therapist.
So, is the Hotspot Java Virtual Machine evil?
Sadly, to accuse someone else of a sin, one must ensure you're not tottering around with a plank in your eye yourself. Who of us can really say their code perpetually fails to suck? Especially code that we wrote to just bloody well get the job done, under a tight deadline, based on some crazy Smalltalk VM, and with a misplaced confidence that our horrorful hacks would never see the light of day.
Sun's code may look shoddy in places, but it's good enough to do the job, most of the time. That's not evil: that's job security.
See No Evil, Speak No EvilAh, but what if we turn the tables? What about Pestov himself? A few people criticised him for talking smack of such an ambitious project as the Hotspot JVM. Isn't it rude to pour scorn on Sun's generosity? Could he, they asked, write a better JVM?
Maybe not. Unfortunately, we'll never know. To see Hotspot's innards, Pestov signed the dotted line of the SCSL. The SCSL seems to forbid anyone implementing any of its included "Specifications": which means, unless he wants to rewrite the whole thing and then hand it over to Sun under their conditions, Pestov can't write his own JVM ever again. You can hardly pick on Pestov, when these days can do nothing but gripe and half-heartedly patch Sun's VM.
Or perhaps he is being overly harsh. Perhaps the JVM isn't as bad as he says it is. Again, we'll likely never know: without signing the license ourselves, none of us can check what he says. And given that everyone these days dreams of writing own JVM on their off weekends (including, it's said, IBM), who would want to do that?
Good or bad, with a half-arsed license like the SCSL, Pestov and other hackers lose out. If the JVM was brilliant, it can never be an inspiration; if it was terrible as he says, he is forbidden allow it to goad to write a better one.
Sun decided to choose a more open license for their impending Solaris source release, set for later this year. This one at least is official Open Source(TM), as approved by the decidedly non-communist Open Source Initiative.
People are still suspicious about Sun's plans: they've omitted some anti-software patent protections from their license, in such a way as it seems to be deliberately leaving GPLed software unprotected. But Sun appears to slowly getting over the spectre of their own paranoia - and putting the Sun back into sunlight.
Meanwhile, another spectre was haunting Europe in January - the spectre of Verizon.net.
The American ISP, according to several news reports, had decided a unique filtering technique for eliminating spam: banning email coming from countries outside the USA.
Given that most spam comes from American companies, this sounds a bit like fighting stings by locking yourself in a beehive, and smearing yourself with royal jelly. But mostly, it's odd because eventually those foreigners are going to find someone they *can* communicate with. And once they snap out of that crazy bloo-bloo language they all speak, and talk proper English to a journalist, Word Will Get Out.
What's really crazy, though, is that it's not entirely clear that cutting off the world is really was what Verizon is up to. Some European e-mail gets through; others do not. Strangely-configured SMTP servers are rejected; others slipped right by.
But when the world was reporting that Verizon was dropping mail, the company kept everyone in the dark, including their customers. They didn't tell them they were filtering; they didn't tell them how they were filtering.
People had to draw their own conclusions: and what they concluded is that Verizon hates foreigners.
The truth is probably more complex. But hell, really, who knows? Keeping quiet about your anti-spam techniques a good idea. It's an evil idea. It's the spammers who are supposed to live under rocks and fear the light, not ISP sysadmins (unless they like it there, and there's an Xbox down there, and pizza). What Verizon bowed to was insecurity through obscurity.
There's a reason that, against intuition, the open source SpamAssassin beats out most other anti-spam systems, even though its rules are out in the open for any spammer to study. And there's a reason why people get angry when their mail disappears for automagical reasons.
It's because, when you're kept in the dark, you end up seeing evil everywhere. When you don't trust your customers, or even the rest of the world, they end up not trusting you. And you don't learn a thing.
"Each according to their abilities, to each according their needs", said those rotten stinking commies (Marxist-Leninist, Stinking-Rotten Tendency). It doesn't matter whether you get the "each" for free, or you pay via the distributed wonders of the free market. The important thing is that the knowledge, eventually, gets through. Stop that traffic, and you're getting nowhere - except to your own private Hell.
Somebody done you wrong? Mail email@example.com with names and category of wrong-done-ing, and your assailant could win a valuable punishment gift.
Danny O'Brien is the co-editor of NTK incarnate.
To Evil! appears monthly.