Archive for December, 1998

Means, fair and foul

Wednesday, December 30th, 1998

Dec 30, 1998

If the end is money, the means must be fine — or so Ellroy would have us think.

I have just finished one of the most gripping books I have read in many years. Strangely enough, it’s an autobiography: American crime novelist James Ellroy’s My Dark Places. Ellroy is little known in India; the only novel of his that is somewhat easily available is L.A. Confidential, and that too because the film was quite a hit. I too discovered Ellroy through the film. The book splattered my brains all over the wall, and sent me scurrying for anything else that he has written.Ellroy’s mother was murdered in 1958, when he was 10. She was either raped or had consensual sex after a night of bar-hopping and was strangled with both a nylon cord and one of her stockings. The body was dumped on a quiet street in the dead of night. Neither her other stocking nor the murderer was ever found.

Jean Ellroy and her husband were divorced, and neither parent hid the fact from their son James that they hated each other viciously. After the murder, James was brought up by his dysfunctional father-who, however, he idolised. As a teenager, James turned into an alcoholic, a drug addict, a thief and a pervert, sneaking into houses to feel and sniff lingerie. Simultaneously, he became obsessed with crime and the working of the criminal mind.

Ellroy’s father died when he was 17, and after some more years of living the sick life, he suddenly cleaned up his act and started writing crime novels. His books have made him serious money, not least because Ellroy cleverly went public with the story of his mother’s murder. That got people interested, they bought his books: he had given them an extra hook to remember his name and make him a conversation piece.

Finally, after he had raked in the big bucks with his L.A. Quartet (L.A. Confidential is part of this series), in 1994, his wife convinced Ellroy to face off with the obsession that had shaped his life, though he had never acknowledged it: his mother’s murder. Thirty-six years after Jean Ellroy’s half-naked corpse had been discovered in an El Monte sidestreet, Ellroy decided to reopen the investigation. He hired retired L.A. detective Bill Stoner to find her murderer. My Dark Places is the story of that investigation.

To publicise his hunt (so that people who knew something about the murder could contact him) Ellroy went on national television, gave dozens of interviews to newspapers, set up a toll-free telephone number for informants to call in. He and Stoner spent one-and-a-half years meeting every person they could find who knew Jean Ellroy, or frequented the bars she visited on the night of her death, tracking down every known sexual offender in the El Monte area around 1958, chasing up hundreds of leads. The result-My Dark Places-is breathtakingly riveting.

Stoner was paid his expenses and a percentage of the money Ellroy made from writing the book. Ellroy does not say whether the expenses were also paid by his publisher, but one would guess they were. And this is where we enter some morally ambiguous financial territory.

Ellroy has himself admitted that he has very consciously used the fact that his mother was the victim in an unsolved murder to sell his books. It’s worked wonders. The first time I encountered his name was a few years ago when I saw a photograph of the 10-year-old Ellroy taken minutes after he was told of the murder, on the cover of an issue of Granta. This sort of information gets stuck in one’s memory; when I heard the name again in connection with the film L.A. Confidential, I was immediately interested to know what kind of novel a man who has gone through this childhood experience would produce.

Ellroy’s 1994-95 investigation was for him a purging of the grime and filth he had carried around in his head for as long as he could remember, a journey to discover himself, and finally to know the woman who was his mother. But it was also a great commercial idea. Ellroy did not keep the results of his investigations private; he laid it all out in a surefire bestseller that he’d planned before he started off on the investigation. His use of the media to seek leads on the murder also worked as an 18-month-long pre-publication advertising campaign for My Dark Places. So what’s the ethical take on Jean Ellroy’s repeated contributions to her son’s riches?

I don’t know the answer to that one. The issue is muddied even more by the fact that Ellroy himself says he has used his mother’s death for commercial gain, and offers no excuses. There’s no self-pity or guilt in Ellroy, and he presents himself and his deeds with no apology: this is what I am, and if you have problems with that, I can’t help you. He says he is an exhibitionist by nature and intensely ambitious. At no point does he claim to be anything other than a man with a menagerie for a mind. He is not looking for any sort of judgmental response to his deeds from the reader, he is not interested to know how he is perceived. He has bared himself in his book, and if you don’t like his innards, he’s not bothered. As long as you pay for the book.

The uncompromising honesty of his ambition makes him, in a loopy way, a significant moralist in his own right.

Gateway to glory

Wednesday, December 16th, 1998

Dec 16, 1998

All it takes is one fellow with the goods to not give a damn about the price.

A fortnight or so ago, a Microsoft Corporation internal memo got leaked to the American media. The memo worried about the threat posed to the Windows monopoly in operating systems — the programme that runs the basic functions of a computer — by a software called Linux, and speculated on how Microsoft could crush this new rival like it had everyone else who had stood in its way. But the most important part of the memo was an admission that Microsoft would not be able to match Linux — in price or quality.

Why is it that the world’s most powerful company can’t produce anything that can measure up to this little-known — outside the infotech community — software? The answer: Microsoft can’t compete on price because Linux is free. According to the terms laid down by the young man who developed the kernel of Linux, the software cannot ever be sold — it can only be given away free! Microsoft can never compete on quality, because this young man has also made public the source code — the very fundament of any computer programme — so any programmer can actually write his own improvements to Linux. By giving away free the deepest secret of his software, the creator has got thousands of programmers across the planet to be his unpaid team: they tinker with Linux, improve it, share their improvements with one another, and just keep making it better and better, faster than any corporation, however big, can! Even Microsoft can’t afford to hire so many programmers. Anyway, these people are doing it for fun, or to feed a passion, they are doing it because they want to, a working condition that no corporation can ever manage to create on such a large scale.

This is all the work of a 25-year-old Finn called Linus Torvalds (he was 22 when he wrote the Linux kernel). Apparently, when asked once why he gave it all away instead of making money out of it, he said he just wanted to confuse the hell out of Bill Gates. Well, yes, one can put it that way. Linus is just the apotheosis of a reaction to the incredible dominance that Microsoft has developed over the software business, and as a result, on anything to do with anyone who uses computers. More than 80 per cent of the world’s desktop computers run on Microsoft operating systems. It is akin to Microsoft owning the grammar of the language that we speak, and if you own the grammar, you can control or destroy anyone who wants to speak the language. One by one, nearly every company that made software packages competing with Microsoft — whether word processors like Wordstar, or spreadsheet programmes like Lotus 123-gave up, moved away or closed down. Every time — which is around once in two years — Microsoft changed the grammar, these companies had to learn to speak all over again, because they had to amend their products to match the newest version of Microsoft’s operating system

And then comes an anarchist like Linus Torvalds, who dares to violate the rules of the game set down by Microsoft — in fact, any rules of this game known till now. Because Linux is free, it is immune to any Microsoft marketing attacks. As infotech columnist Robert X. Cringely has put it, Linux is a threat to Microsoft, but Microsoft is no threat to Linux. It cannot be. Terms like market share, revenue, profits, costs, management, upgrades-these are totally irrelevant to something like Linux. Since it refuses to fight, it cannot be defeated.

Confuse the hell out of Bill Gates… well, let’s keep Gates out of it now, he has enough problems even without Linux, what with almost everyone in the US infotech industry and half the US states having slapped some sort of lawsuit or the other on Microsoft. Con-sider simply the plight of any businessman faced with a Linus Torvalds phenomenon.

“What’s wrong with this guy?” they must wonder. “Now let me get this straight: this guy has created something good, and he’s giving it away free. You mean he’s not interested in money, f’chrissake? Is this some sort of mental disease or what?” What a spoilsport this man is! He isn’t interested in profits, and he threatens other people’s profits. What does he want?

I know little about Torvalds, except that he likes drinking beer, and currently works for a small secretive Silicon Valley company called Transmeta. His e-mail address is quite public, but I have no intention of adding to his already awesome junk mail burden (according to his fans, he’s so polite that he actually tries as far as he can to reply to every piece of e-mail he receives, thus wasting a lot of time). So my guess is as good as the next man’s as to why Linus did it. The trouble is: any explanation of his motivations runs the risk of making him out to be the official saint of the late 20th century, something I feel Linus may not be too keen on being portrayed as. So let’s avoid the profound stuff.

Maybe he just thought giving it away free was the right thing to do, so he gave it away, what the hell. Maybe he just wanted to play a joke on all the world’s hard-nosed, hard-headed, hard-boiled, hard-driving businessmen, who spend their lives amassing more wealth than anyone has any use for, and take themselves more seriously than anyone in their right minds would.

All those people who never have any fun.