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Rant Mode Equals One: Poll Madness!

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.