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Rant Mode Equals One: Poll Madness!

Sep 18, 2000, 11:49 (13 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

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by Paul Ferris

Well, the "Linux Today BEST Unbiased and Unscientific Operating System" poll is over. I must thank everyone who, um, "participated" in the poll, as it was an overwhelming success.

Successful, quite frankly and honestly, because the results were exactly what I expected and wanted. To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes about benchmarking: "Never trust a poll you haven't rigged yourself."

Feedback on the poll was generally favorable, except for the usual conspiracy theorists. To those people I jokingly have to say: "Hey, this poll was *obviously* rigged! Lighten up already!" This is in keeping with true open source tradition -- if we're gonna do something, even something as devious and dishonest as rigging a poll, at least we're gonna be honest about it. The idea that we're hiding behind some cloak and dagger scheme to dupe the public is just plain nonsense. Cut me some slack here already.

But, I'm pretty sure that most people (even the conspiracy theorists) were right along with the gag. If I did have a serious goal, it was to make the biggest mockery that I could of "unscientific" polling. And Microsoft (or likely, somebody behind the walls of the the Redmond infirmary) decided to take it a step further. It appears that someone "rigged" the results of the MSNBC poll as well.

It's kind of hard to vote multiple times when the process involves shutting down the browser, removing a cookie file, restarting said browser, and voting. Granted, there exists a slight possibility that someone scripted this or wrote some program to vote this way. The idea that they did it at over 400+ votes per minute -- especially considering the bloat on the MSNBC polling page -- it kind of stretches the imagination.

Could it have been readers, tuning in on a Saturday morning, all hitting it at once? Doubtful -- the page was no longer a front runner on MSNBC by that time. No, something seriously fishy was going on there at MSNBC. Take it with a grain of salt -- it could have been someone inside the system that seriously couldn't take a joke for what it was worth.

Now, for my confession time. I had obviously set up one crazy poll (if you haven't already done it, try selecting either Windows 3.1 or Windows 9x in the poll for a seriously good time). It was meant to pretty much expose the stupidity of online polling in general. Not that you can't gather some interesting information with a poll -- it's just that the results are not something you can base important decisions upon. It's pretty easy to fake the results.

So I had rigged the poll, pretty much in favor of Linux (what a surprise). I checked the poll at around 6:00 EST, and Linux was way out there in the lead. /dev/wife and I went out for a bottle of wine at one of our favorite wineries and to enjoy some hammered dulcimer music. I came back at around 11 p.m. feeling pretty hammered myself and still laughing about all of this nonsense. I then tuned in to find the BSDs kicking the crap out of Linux.

Man, were my cookies seriously frosted.

What to do? Someone was making a real mockery out of my mockery of MSNBC's mockery. Well, there were several choices:

  1. Take it on the chin, and admit that the BSDs were "BEST".
  2. Firewall off the robot that was making a mockery of my mockery of their mockery.
  3. Make my own robot to sway the results back the other way. (Somewhere in the twisted set logic and synapses that comprise my mind, this set off a flag with the word "unethical" attached to it. I don't know why -- it must have been the wine).
  4. Alter the database by hand (no, I couldn't do it. See above).

Well, there was one more choice -- I was the guy who wrote the poll, and I had seriously rigged it for the results I wanted. Obviously a patch was in order here. I laughed maniacally -- a simple fix to the program would take care of it all:

default:
   if($vote=="BSD"){
      pollselect("L");
      pollselect("L");
   }        

The initial try here had about 5 of the pollselects instead of two. That was inside the php "switch" statement that was allowing the results to be tallied. A couple of seconds later and the poll began to sway in the desired direction. My apologies to whoever wrote the BSD voting robot, as things began to go really good for Linux. After the results (which were still unbiased and unscientific -- read the disclaimer at the bottom of the poll for more) swayed into the Linux camp, I removed the extra voting lines, leaving the two statements above.

Heck, most people that run BSD often have a couple of Linux boxes laying around (*wink wink*), so it wasn't that bad of an assumption anyway. (This, by the way, in case you haven't sensed it yet, is meant to be taken extremely lightly).

I don't know about you, but I find all of this ironically funny.

By the way, you BSD guys who feel you haven't had the last word, actually haven't, as a similar poll should soon be up and running on BSD Today. I urge when that happens not to rig it and to instead vote for Linux (cough), er the "BEST" BSD operating system.

Getting back to what I was saying earlier about the MSNBC poll, and the stupid idea that one operating system is "BEST". Operating systems are complex beasts. There is no such thing as "the BEST" operating system. There are numerous factors that go into why people choose an operating system (if in fact, they did "choose" it) for a particular task, and making a blanket statement like 'Linux is the BEST operating system' is mind-numbingly stupid.

Although the poll results on Linux Today clearly show that this is the case.
(You're supposed to laugh now, in case you missed the joke -- LT Ed.).

This leads back to the questionable results of the MSNBC poll. Our results are not questionable now -- they are clearly rigged, leaving no doubt as to the rock-solid validity of their rigged-ness.

As one of our readers pointed out, the idea of setting up a poll that says in effect, "Choose which operating system is BEST," is kind of like the old Groucho Marks routine "For $50, answer yes or no, have you stopped beating your wife?" Or was that Bugs Bunny? It doesn't matter, the problem is the same. The direct implication when you take the poll is that you believe the pollsters -- there must be one operating system that's BEST.

Give me a break. We're striving for diversity here, because the computing problems of the world are so darn diverse. There isn't now, and likely never will be, one operating system that's BEST. Whether or not this was intentional (yes, I'm of the opinion that it is) or not, the effect on the general public will be the same. The real issue, that of diversity being important in this internet connected age, is thwarted by making the poll question itself simplistic and monotone.

Their problem, ultimately, came down to the unexpected result that more people had voted for Linux than for Windows. Maybe if enough Internet-savvy Windows-loving people knew about the poll and had participated in it, the results would be the ones the powers that be had desired. I seriously doubt that this was the problem. Most of the technical people I've found that like Windows products like Linux or some BSD* variant even more.

The people that aren't technical usually don't even understand what Windows, or an operating system for that matter, really is. It's almost as if when you cross the line into understanding what an operating system really is, you immediately sense that something important is missing. You look for it, and find Unix/Linux/SomeBSD sooner or later.

Also, if you read the article that goes with the MSNBC poll closely, it strives to be a bit on the unbiased side. Somebody might just get in contact with us from MSNBC and stammer that things were really that way. I'm of the opinion that this late in the game, it hardly matters.

You see, either way I have a hard time believing anything of a statistical nature coming from a source associated with Microsoft. Because of Microsoft's many past transgressions with the truth (the most unbelievable of them all, false evidence presented to a Federal court judge) -- I really don't believe the results of the MSNBC poll. Even if it is fun to don a "Marketing Droid" hat for a minute, and crow about the mindless statistics of the matter (Linux beats Windows by a factor of 40:1, according to a poll on Linux Today!), this is a bit out of hand.

The sad truth of the matter is that Microsoft has a reputation for doing FUD-like things, statistical misrepresentation (like the MSNBC poll) and astroturf. They do it so often, in fact, that we tend to ignore them as harmless.

The trouble with this is that I find a lot of people in the real world that don't ignore the false marketing techniques being generate by Microsoft. I've had old acquaintances parrot all of the standard FUD about Linux back to me like it was gospel -- FUD does work, albeit temporarily.

The real problem with these techniques for Microsoft is that they work best on corporate entities that need revenue to survive. Linux pretty much exists apart from all economic structure, making the FUD about it come back to slap Microsoft in the face eventually.

We now have things like Ed Muths "Weak Value Proposition" to parrot, when Microsoft comes out with new FUD. Next year we will have Bill Gates' fine "Linux Myths" interview with the AustralianIT. We will be able to point to the mistakes made in the past, predicting this or that nonsense, and say "Oh, yeah, well remember that at this time last year they were saying other stupid things about Linux -- what's changed?"

This is a strength we have as a group -- staying power. Corporations that lost their revenue would not even be here to point back at the FUD. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for Microsoft. Well, we're still here, and stronger than ever. Any doubters out there that this time next year Linux will be surpassing all expectations? Notice how you don't see a lot of "Linux will need [X] to survive [whatever obstacle]" articles of late? This is in part due to the fact that we continued to grow, despite being labeled "OS/2 for the new millennium" and other stupid and clueless predictions.

Why is it this way? Because we're here, and IBM is here, SGI is here, HP is here, and yes, even DELL (no, I wouldn't have predicted it in a million years) is here -- and the list goes on. Nicholas Petreley is right about the Linux movement -- we're no longer an underdog class. We have arrived, and if hardware vendors don't support us, it's time we petition those vendors. It's time we simply used our vote to claim what is rightly ours.

The misguided ideas of FUD, statistical manipulation and astroturf -- they are techniques that worked in the past against corporate entities that were playing by some set of fair rules and using a similar business model to that of Microsoft. They ultimately will not work in the future against us. Don't get me wrong, we're still an underdog in many respects. We're the underdog, however, with time, momentum, resources, and most importantly -- the truth -- on our side.

I believe that some of the powers that be at Microsoft still have faith in these techniques, but are smart enough to know that FUD and things like the polling fiasco here are pretty much dying off in a more technically aware Internet age. The truth keeps coming out faster and faster, and damage control becomes harder and harder to execute under these conditions.

It's my opinion that they still have faith in the one remaining item -- astroturf. Of all of the techniques, FUD, statistical manipulation, and astroturf -- which one would make the best basis for a class action lawsuit? Which one will bring the most public outrage when exposed?

I leave the questions to you. I can tell you this -- the last word on astroturf has yet to be spoken.

But it will be.

I hope someone in Microsoft's massive PR machine is listening.

Truthfully I swear -- no, I guarantee you -- it will be.


NOTES:
Note that there wasn't a choice on the MSNBC poll for BSD at all. This is common, internet.com recently polled people on PHPBuilder.com and I took the poll -- BSD wasn't mentioned. Jeremy Reed finally got them to add the code to BSDToday so as not to offend his readership with a poll (that was simply asking what primary OS you surfed the web with).

Since BSD isn't on the radar map of a lot of marketing people, they tend to not mention it enough. Regardless of the fact that this could be construed as malicious, it's falls under the rule "Never assign to malice that which can be adequately explained with stupidity." This is my opinion, and you will note that I did make a selection for BSD's on my poll.

You may also note that I made *one* selection, not for example "FreeBSD" and "NetBSD" and "OpenBSD" as separate selections. The reason was deliberate -- the BSD crowd would have gone crazy on the poll, each trying to make a mockery of my mockery of MSNBC's mockery -- possibly resulting in some kind of wild accidental DoS attack on Linux Today, when in fact we're all just attempting to have some fun.

Please, if you're in the process of writing a bot to do this on BSDToday right now, keep this problem in mind.


Astroturf:
The process of providing misleading responses in public discussion forums, email and newsgroups, meant to be interpreted as truthful and widely accepted public opinion. Writing letters to writers or editors attempting to either sway their opinions or instill doubt in the minds of their controlling editors. A costly technique, practiced by large corporations, such as drug conglomerates and in the context of this article -- Microsoft.

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