Stop that Prop!
Tuesday, October 29, 1996 by Dave Winer.
Saturday night I watched the last game of the 1996 baseball season. The Braves vs the Yankees in game six of the World Series. Before watching the game I checked my hometown newspaper, The New York Times. There's a rivalry between Atlanta and New York. They're taking shots at each other.
Atlanta is the city on the rise. The home of the Olympics and Ted Turner, CNN and the Braves. A baseball dynasty, the Braves have been in five World Series in the nineties. Atlantans think of New York as Babylon (which is actually on Long Island) with a crumbling infrastructure. An obsolete town. Old Media. Grouchy cab drivers and waiters!
New Yorkers like to point out that Atlanta has the highest per-capita murder rate in the country. A tiny city by New York standards, with huge poverty. The Atlantans respond with southern hospitality. Y'all come back now! Then New Yorkers point out that Ted Turner is great, for sure, but he sold out to Time-Warner, a company based in (you got it) New York.
Who cares? Both are great cities. I prefer New York. So be it. OK. Let it rest. Well, not quite. At the end of the game, the series over, the TV camera focuses on a sign, clearly from a New Yorker with a New York attitude. He sums it all up. "Y'all Go Home Now." Ooops.
So much for northern hospitality. Hey I *like* grumpy waiters! Baseball is so cool. New York won. Congratulations to the Yankees and their fans. The Bronx Bombers. I'm still a Mets fan. Wait till next year! There will be a ticker-tape parade down Broadway later today. I wish I could be there.
What a question! In most contexts it truly is. If someone gave you $25 million it would probably change your life. But if it's the quarterly profit of a $10 billion company, two quarters after a $740 million loss, the answer is no. It's accounting noise, and it's insignificant. So why is the business press reporting Apple's $25 million profit as a sign of a turnaround at the company? Surely they must understand how the system works.
Here's how it works. A new CEO comes on board. It's financial house-cleaning time. Lose as much as you can right now. If you can move a loss into the past, the story looks worse now, but not much worse. And it isn't your fault, it's your predecessor's. In the wierd logic of corporations, this is good news. Glad he's gone. The worse the old guy is, the better the new guy appears to be. Onward!
It's a flexible but honest system. If you're losing, at some point you have to report the loss. You can't keep moving losses into the future. If your business is unhealthy at some point the numbers will reflect it.
Check Apple's numbers some time next year for a dose of reality.
I got so much mail from the piece I did on Larry Ellison, the chairman of Oracle, the lonely wolfe of the software biz, on the prowl for chickens and Bill Gates.
Ellison is really out there. In an excellent and revealing piece in the current issue of Fortune, 10/28/96, Janice Maloney gets to some of what makes him tick. The pictures are of a lone man, piloting a huge yacht in San Francisco Bay. An adventurer who last year broke his neck and punctured a lung in a surfing accident. His sexuality is an issue. He says "I like women, no doubt about it." Maloney and her editors must have thought this was an important part of the Ellison story.
In the Wall Street Journal and on Oprah he says he wants to marry again. Wife number four. He wants an exciting woman, smart, and very good looking. Will he get one? And if he does, what will he do with her? Will he let her pilot the yacht?
Listening to him I'm reminded that business and baseball are often symbolic stages for our sexuality. If you look deeper into what motivates business people (and writers!) you may find, just below the surface, a desire to express feelings that have been supressed. Ellison is fascinating person because he's so open about his sexuality. It's right there, up front, so in your face that you can't help but wonder about it.
All his money must be a barrier. It keeps people away. How many other billionaires are there for Ellison to play with? And is he the kind of man who shares his toys or is he the kind who kicks and scratches and tattles? I want to know what kind of mother Mrs. Ellison was. This 50-year-old boy seems to be hurting, but he doesn't seem to want a hug. What does he want?
People who think that financial wealth is a panacea should look again. Money builds walls that separate people from each other. Inside the walls is not a happy place as many people imagine. Once people attain wealth, they still must struggle with their issues, and since we look more closely at wealthy people, the struggle attains a twist, it's important to hide yourself. Ellison breaks the pattern, he's an open man, he tells you, clearly, what's really going on with him.
I look at the pictures, read the interview, and think how much it must hurt to be Ellison. Where's his community of peers? Who else has the power to create this huge yacht and staff it with yachting experts? What woman deserves his brilliance? And what woman will want it?
Against this backdrop, the issues of the Network Computer and Bill Gates and Ellison's potence as a software industry leader seem to be secondary. We're seeing a huge bonfire built of cash, it says Look Here! Something great happened. I'm ready to kick butt! All by myself. No invitation to play, to have fun, just an invitation to admire Mrs. Ellison's little boy.
I wonder what would happen if we said yes, we admire you Larry.
In reading the previous section I am aware that it might appear that I'm criticizing Ellison for being so open, and for exposing his inner child in print and on TV. Not true! I want to be clear about this.
If you can't tell, I have little boy too. His name is Dave. He wants to play! Coool. So, please, it's important to create a safe play space for our little boys and girls; but it's also important to take a chance. Risk is cool. No pain no gain. So, with all due respect, thanks to Mr. Ellison for having the courage to talk about himself in public.
Every once in a while I have to, or feel I have to, set the context for this writing that I call DaveNet. This is one of those times. If you are already OK with this stuff, feel free to skip to the next section. This is overhead, I admit it. But you gotta pay the bills, every once in a while.
Even so, I got several comments on that mention of scripting, since in addition to writing DaveNets I am also the author of a scripting system for the Mac platform, and soon for Windows. Some of the comments were sarcastic. (I hate sarcasm!) They all accused me of being unobjective. I'm sensitive to these accusations, as would any writer who takes his or her writing seriously.
Every writer has conflicts. Anyone who writes without conflict isn't living a life. We do the best we can to keep the different parts of our lives separate, but it's a joke! Maybe that's where great writing comes from, the struggle to build a personna that's free of conflict, totally objective, with no body, no need for food or love or human contact, no diversity.
Following this to its logical conclusion, the best writer would do nothing but write; would never take a hike, never fall in love, never earn a buck, never buy anything. That would be god. If you want to hear from god, go to a mosque, church or synagogue. Or be with yourself, go deeper, you may find god in there.
I am not god. I have conflicts. I am not objective. I aim to learn and teach, to amuse and evoke, and most important to share myself thru writing. Verbal expression is my thing. I really like to write. I take risks in my writing. I expose my vulnerability. Ask anyone! And when I write about scripting, there's nothing casual about it. I believe in the stuff.
I have a choice -- attempt to hide my passion for scripting, and the people who do it, to draw a line that excludes my life as a software developer. Or I could draw the line on the other side and include it (as I have), with the disclaimer that this is one of the major things I do. Understand that my objectivity in this area is non-existent.
Further, I don't have an obligation to tell you everything about myself. It's up to you, the reader, to take everything I say with a grain of salt. To question it, to get the facts, to draw your own conclusions. Think! Respect yourself. And understand that most of who I am is not public.
For example, when I'm focused exclusively on software development, as I was in September and early October, from time to time I get the idea that some facet of the software could benefit from exposure to DaveNet readers. There's a lot of value in a plug in DaveNet. It's a flow-builder. But Dave the editor tells Dave the software developer that this is an inappropriate use of the medium, just as I would tell anyone else that wanted to run an ad in this column.
It actually happened once -- someone asked me to run an ad masked as commentary. He is a famous journalist for a famous newspaper and should have known better. It was just as DaveNet was starting and he must not have understood that my integrity is important to me. The man had just written a book. He wanted me to run a review. He even wrote it for me! (and put my name on it). I asked him to send me the book to read and review, if I thought it would be interesting my readers I'd write about it. He refused. I got a speech about what a low form of life I am. I went into a silent rage.
Nothing that dramatic has happened since. Nowadays I believe that writers I respect also respect me. I do this because I like to write and share and influence. That's all that's going on here.
If you've been paying attention you already know that California's Proposition 211 is a very important issue in this year's election.
Election Day, November 5, is one week from today. This is the end-game.
It's hard to imagine how we'll do business if Proposition 211 passes. It makes it easier for attorneys to prosecute class-action suits against public companies, especially high tech companies. The lawyers make a lot of money. Shareholders, employees and citizens pay. Big time.
Here's how it works. A company reports earnings that are below expectations. The stock price drops. A group of attorneys file a lawsuit on behalf of the shareholders of the company. A judge issues an order allowing the attorneys to access all the company's business records, email, correspondence, meeting notes. The company must comply. The attorneys go on a fishing expedition, looking for anything that makes it look as if the company knew what was coming and didn't tell the shareholders.
The complaint grows. Damages are detailed. Were any shareholders actually hurt? It doesn't matter because shareholders pay the settlement price in a successful strike suit. So the money just moves from one hand, back into the other hand. With a tariff, of course. The attorneys in the strike suits are the only ones with a net-positive cash flow, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It's the shareholders that pay the price, the people these attorneys claim to protect.
But Prop 211 takes the current system a step further. An important part of the current corporate system is protection of officers and directors from personal financial liability. If it becomes law, Prop 211 would remove any possible protection. The assets of all officers and directors would become exposed. So what? you say. Get their money. They're all rich anyway. Well, it won't work out that way. They'll just resign!
Now, you might like that system. Only people with zero assets will be able to afford to run a public company. Here's your chance to get rich. Ah ah. As soon as you get some money, they'll sue you! Ooops.
I try to imagine how this world would work, and I come up empty. If nothing else, right or wrong, this is a major revolution for the economic system of California. We should consider it more carefully before ratifying it. We should debate thoughtfully. The chaos that will result will put a lot of people out of work. It's dangerous stuff.
Plus, companies will have to devote much more energy and attention to defend against these suits. There's the catch, to protect shareholder interest, they have to defocus from the shareholder's interests. It doesn't work. Prop 211 is an irresponsible no-win power grab by greedy attorneys who represent no one but themselves.
But it gets even worse because Prop 211 will impact any company that has even a single shareholder living in California. This law will upheave the entire U.S. economic system! Could the voters really be so dumb that they would go for this? We'll find out on November 5.
What to do about it? That's simple...
Please vote no on Proposition 211 on November 5.
And tell your friends.
Stop that Prop!