Readers’ Beat SF Gate column readers respond

Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, November 24, 1999

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/1999/11/24/readers.dtl

When I started writing for SF Gate about a year ago, I promised myself I would respond to all emails generated by this column. It was, I thought, a matter of principle. What could be more rude than ignoring someone’s attempt to start a conversation?

It was pretty easy at first. But keeping up with all of the emails has since turned into a sisyphean task. In the process, I discovered a new, even more compelling principle: columnists must sleep from time to time.

I hope to catch up on all the email eventually and extend apologies to readers still waiting for responses. Most of your letters have been positive and often touchingly kind. I’m grateful. Some of the more interesting ones, however, came from readers with a bone to pick.

The angriest, most outraged emails were those disagreeing with my suggestion that the Feds should punish Microsoft but leave the company intact.

That column generated what is a personal record: most viruses sent by readers in response to a single piece of writing. Six so far, including one that did something very, very nasty to my config.sys file. Bill Gates is apparently not the only bully who knows how to use a computer.

Dale McCrossen’s email was one of the more reasoned responses.

“Dear Horse’s Ass with the Soapbox: I hope the millennium finds you as jobless as a Microsoft competitor, because you’re a moron.” (Yes, many others were considerably less kind).

McCrossen’s letter went on for some five pages, pointing out the many ways consumers, and other software companies, have been victimized by Microsoft’s predatory business practices. McCrossen’s assessment of my talents as a technology analyst were echoed by about a dozen other readers.

“I’d like to suggest you use some of the money Microsoft’s PR people probably paid you to write the article to do two things: invest in a flame-proof, asbestos email client (I don’t suggest Outlook!!) and buy yourself a clue,” wrote software engineer John Griggs.

Several readers also questioned my ethics, noting my affiliation with CNBC.com, which is owned by NBC which, in turn, is owned by GE, which owns MSNBC, in partnership with Microsoft. (Making me guilty by a kind of tangential association).

For the record, no one at CNBC, GE, Microsoft or MSNBC paid me a dime or encouraged me in any way to write the piece.

As faithful readers of this space know, I’ve written quite a few other columns that were hardly Microsoft-friendly, including giving the open source movement some of the first accolades it received in non-technical circles.

I’ll come back to Microsoft as the case moves along. Suffice it to say, though, that I still don’t think forcing Bill Gates to own three wildly successful software firms instead of just one would be the best outcome.

My columns on the cold fusion research program underway at SRI, led by Dr. Michael McKubre also touched off an avalanche of email. Many writers appreciated the update on cold fusion research, a subject most of the mainstream press continues to ignore or ridicule.

More than a few physicists, however, were not the least bit amused.

“Discovery is hard work,” writes physicist Tom Case. “But neither light bulbs or transistors required breaking the first law of thermodynamics (energy conservation) or well established cross sections in nuclear physics. That is what makes physicists look so hard for errors in this work in particular.”

“With all respect to Dr. McKubre, I, and many other folks, would claim there is no way the observed data implies a nuclear reaction of any type,” adds Chris Gesh, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University.

Gesh, along with several other physicists, supplied me with a list of known nuclear reactions that theoretically could be involved and then explained, in great detail, why each was impossible or not supported by the evidence.

I forwarded Gesh’s email to Dr. McKubre who responded, in part: “I don’t know what reactions are occurring in our experiments beyond the facts that: a) more heat is observed than can be accounted for by any chemical reactions, and b) plausible claims have been made to observe [helium isotopes] in amounts approximately, or exactly, commensurate with the excess heat.” (Helium isotopes are, most physicists concede, one by-product of nuclear reactions).

Although fascinated by this debate, I can’t say with any certainty where, or when, the truth will emerge. I’ll keep an eye on the story and will file an update on the status of McKubre’s experiments in the coming months.

Readers were generally divided over my suggestion that mainstream civil rights groups should look for new ways to increase high-tech educational opportunities for minority students in order to more quickly close the Digital Divide.

Paul Jackson agreed. “As an African-American and recent PhD graduate of computer engineering, I thought your points were right on target,” he wrote.

But TC, a veteran Silicon Valley African-American hardware engineer, says racism won’t be that easily overcome. “From personal experiences, as well as those of my minority friends and associates, it’s more than likely that an African-American applicant for an open position will more often than not get passed over for a White or Asian applicant with similar education and work experience. People tend to hire people who look like they do, or people they perceive to be ‘easier to work with’ or ‘would fit in better with the team’…Racism exists in high-tech, and I haven’t seen much evidence that it’s much different from the larger society.”

Jeff Royer, of Toronto, responded to my column on how the Internet might be used to build trust in the Middle East by sending me the URL of a web site (http://www.kotelkam.com/) that shows, to some degree, how web cams could contribute to the peace process.

And San Mateo’s Steve Mace wrote in to say he liked the idea of staging a contest, with a ten-million-dollar reward, to help government agencies make better use of the Internet. Mace even promised to drop a few bucks into the reward kitty. Unfortunately, the idea still languishes in the nether world where legislative proposals unaccompanied by hefty campaign contributions usually go to die.

That’s not the case, however, with the idea of instant runoff voting (IRV), which has gained voter approval in Santa Clara County.

More recently, several San Francisco Supervisors have also been talking up IRV. It’s a change Hazel Masters would welcome. “I’m 75 years old,” she writes, “and I’m so sick of listening to the negative campaign ads on TV that every time I see one, not matter who it is, I mute it.”

Eliot Van Buskirk agrees that candidates could do a much better job of using the Internet. “It’s mind-blowing to think that Howard Stern can get Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf elected as People magazine’s Person of the Year via the Internet but none of the candidates realize the potential of the Internet to mobilize people.”

Software expert John Hillstrom, meanwhile, says he likes the idea of getting more high-tech people into school classrooms, but doesn’t think kids should be taught how to program computers. “Teaching them programming so they can learn computer skills is like teaching them how to weld so they can drive a car, and it is just as archaic… And if we give our teachers more computer skills, I suspect they will abandon the profession for high-tech, and go for the money like everyone else does.”

In the sad but true department, Michael Torpey wrote in to say he doesn’t think the RICO statute, which was designed to punish organized criminals, will ever be applied to high-tech companies. “Since the law serves money and power and not the people, don’t get your hopes up,” he writes.

My column on the University of California’s fight against companies that post online lecture notes also generated some thoughtful reader comments.

“The gut reaction of schools such as UC Berkeley to online class notes shows there still remains a strong aversion to opportunities to share information… It will take a long time to reverse this, and class notes should only be the beginning,” writes Charles Beeler, an investment banker who is backing one of the online note-taking companies under attack.

Another interesting tidbit on the subject came from Rowan Blaqflame. “My daughter is enrolled in the University of Idaho. All class notes are posted for their students… UC is supposed to be a high-tech university, but little old Idaho sounds like they have them completely beat.”

But by far the best suggestion I received this year came from 15-year-old Berkeley resident Matt Werner, who has figured out how the Y2K hysteria can be used to help feed the hungry. “You should write in your column that people should stock up a two weeks supply of food and then if the Y2K global disaster doesn’t happen… people could give their canned goods and non-perishables that were stocked up to a soup kitchen.”

Thanks for the great idea, Matt. I’m getting my bag of groceries ready — and hope others will do the same.

And thanks to all of you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me.

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