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Editor's Note: Dark Magic

Nov 22, 2003, 00:00 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I know one magic trick.

One.

The fact that I only know just one is indicative of the fact that I have very poor hand-eye coordination and not a heavy interest in magic. But I needed something for a high-school talent show way back when, and rather than massacre a song or monologue, I tried this magic trick.

The premise is this: you take a dollar bill out of your wallet, and show it to an audience member. You have them examine it and then you take a highlighter and highlight the serial number. You ask them to read it off for someone to transcribe.

After the serial number of the bill has been noted, you then proceed to destroy the bill by tearing it to pieces in front of the volunteer and the audience. Don't worry, you say, you'll get the bill to reappear across the room on a table. Put the shredded bill into the magic teleportation box and say a few words and tell the audience that poof! The bill has been reassembled and teleported over to the table.

But when you go and look, there is no bill. Only a centerpiece basket of fruit and the tablecloth. You make a great show of looking for the bill, acting very embarassed, when suddenly you hit your head in realization.

Chagrined, you grab the bowl of fruit and take it back to the volunteer. You forgot that sometimes the act of teleportation can sometimes miss the target. Ask the volunteer to choose a piece of fruit. Whatever fruit they choose, open, slice, or peel the fruit and a dollar bill will magically appear.

When they open the folded bill, their mouths drop in amazement when they read off the highlighted serial numbers and discover that they are exactly the same.

And... applause.

(If you want the answer to how this one is done, look to The Source.)

I described this trick in detail because I will have very little use for it in the future at LUG meetings or Linux conferences, so I do not think I will perform it at these events. Plus, after 19 years, I figure it's time for a new trick.

But it also serves to illustrate the point I wanted to bring up today about misdirection. Misdirection, if done correctly, can fool even the most intelligent person into seeing exactly what the misdirector wants them to see. Magic tricks are excellent everyday examples of how this concept works. And we enjoy them.

Less benign are the slights-of-hand that may cost us something beyond entertainment. Three-card monty and the shell games are examples of this kind of misdirection.

Then there is the massive kind of misdirection, like the kind the SCO Group is attempting.

What makes misdirection work on any level is that there is a grain of truth that the brain is tricked into forgetting. We see the dollar bill destroyed, but the sight of an identical bill reassembled across the room makes us forget the bill's destruction. Even after this brief of suspension of disbelief passes, and we remember that it's just a trick, we miss the obvious solution.

The scale of SCO's misdirection is both grand and subtle. It is grand in that they are trying to fool a lot of people at once and it is subtle because it seems to be wheels within wheels. Complicated, sometimes illogical, but always designed to direct people away from the truth, the core of their arguments: is there SCO code inside Linux?

All of the fussing, all of the accusations, all of the threats--they are all designed to have CIOs, analysts, and journalists forget that there is no legal proof there is unauthorized SCO code in Linux. We're not supposed to pay attention to that one glaring piece of news. To his credit, George Weiss of Gartner had his eye on the ball and shells this week.

I said very early on in this process that there may very well be SCO IP in the Linux kernel. It certainly wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. It still isn't, though with each passing day the prospect of actual stolen code seems more and more remote. But now, it does not matter. This ceased being an argument about the truth a long time ago, if it ever was about that. This is now about money, pure and simple. If it were about protecting SCO's IP, then the allegedly stolen code would be out in the open and out of Linux while SCO sued the parties responsible for putting it there.

All the lawyers and the bodyguards and the threatening letters are all a part of a big elaborate illusion. It's all bling-bling, set up to make SCO look bigger and more powerful than it really is so it can make as much money as it can for its investors. SCO CEO Darl McBride said it himself this week: he's not out to make the Linux community happy, he's out to make SCO money.

But sooner or later, all illusions have to come to an end. You have to make the big flourish and trust that the audience believes, even if for a moment, that the illusion is real.

Little by little, people in SCO's audience are starting not to believe. CIOs are not snapping up their $699 insurance-policy licenses. Analysts are not rallying to their side in droves. And, most telling of all, the business and community of Linux is not slowing down to watch the magic show. Not one bit.