Month: December 1997

Microsoft World

The federal government’s anti-trust prosecution of Microsoft, and media coverage of it, has been a fascinating exercise in avoiding the real issues. The story is tailor-made for two of of our favorite infotainment images: personalizing institutional issues (in this case, big government vs. Bill Gates), and the fall of the powerful and wealthy. For local media- -which, despite its extensive coverage of any and every gleam in the eyes of Redmond media spinners, avoided this story until it became major national news last week–the focus is on possible lost profits. But the story’s real importance for most of us, and its implications, have gotten precious little attention.

If you use a personal computer, you probably also use Microsoft software: DOS, Windows, Word, Excel, Access, Word for Macintosh, Basic, or one (or more) of a dozen other applications, operating systems, or programming languages. If you’ve purchased an IBM-clone PC in the last three years, you’ve probably also bought Windows–an annoyingly slow, inefficient, and poorly designed clone of the Apple operating system. You probably know that, unless you buy Microsoft application programs (Word, Excel, Access, Mail, etc.), you’ll find that Windows performs so poorly, you’ll wish that you’d kept that old 286 with its DOS programs.

Microsoft has a lock on the PC market, with over 80% of all PCs sold carrying Windows software, and nearly that many carrying Microsoft applications programs, because (as everyone knows) Microsoft writes code into Windows to prevent other companies’ applications from working efficiently with Windows. In spite of Microsoft’s promise to the Justice Department when it signed a consent decree in 1995, there are no real walls between Microsoft’s operating systems development teams (DOS and Windows) and its applications teams.

And now Microsoft is in trouble again, for extending its monopoly on the PC software market to the Internet. The real conflict is over its Web browser, Internet Explorer, which competitors say is a separate applications program running on top of Windows, while Microsoft claims it’s an integral part of Windows. The evidence seems to favor Microsoft’s competitors, especially after Compaq Computer executives testified that Microsoft tried to cancel Compaq’s license to load Windows 95 on new computers when the company wanted to remove the Internet Explorer software-~an easy operation that involves changing only a few lines of code in the Windows 95 program.

The judge in charge of the government’s case has ruled that Microsoft must stop using strong-arm tactics to sell its browser software, but he’s also refused to enforce the Justice Department’s levy of a $1 million fine on Microsoft for each day it continues to package and market Internet Explorer as part of Windows 95. He’s appointed a technical investigator to review the case and report back to him by May 31. Until that time, Microsoft can continue business as usual. By the end of 1997, Microsoft will have approximately 50% of the Internet browser market sewn up. By May 1998, they’ll undoubtedly dominate the market for Internet browser software. The judge’s decision amounted to less than a slap on the wrist. In fact, it practically assures that Microsoft will continue unimpeded in its drive to control the Internet.

Microsoft’s competitors have taken the cheapest, but also least effective, route to hamstring Big Green: using taxpayer money to sue the company via the Justice Department, instead of taking Microsoft directly to court and footing the bill for their own legal expenses. It’s interesting to watch influential companies like Novell, IBM, Oracle, and Netscape Communications push the government to work on their behalf, and yet suffer the same frustrating response that average people do when we ask for something from the feds. This whole business make it obvious who the government works for: Microsoft is bigger and more influential than its competitors. Period.

The technical issues involved aren’t hard to understand: Microsoft’s competitors want a standard language to operate on all devices that access the Internet, from PCs to new “network computers”-~cheaper, stripped-down models of PCs that are made just for accessing the Internet. Their language of choice is Java, which is “platform-independent” (it can run on any kind of computer). But it’s still a proprietary language, written and developed by Sun Microsystems. With Java in place as a standard, any company can write and sell software applications that can run easily and smoothly on top of it, because Sun has never written hidden code into Java that will keep other companies’ applications from working with it, as Microsoft has done with Windows. Microsoft sees this as a direct threat to its dominant Windows operating system, and is out to get rid of Java, just as it has driven other competing operating systems off the market.

Just in case you’re thinking that Sun Microsystems and its business partners are the good guys, here’s Marc Andreessen of Netscape Communications: “There’s a very strong incentive for us to push as hard and as fast as possible toward a world where operating systems are commoditized, chips are commoditized, and the Net becomes the platform. We all see an opportunity to make a tremendous amount of money as that world unfolds.” That’s their goal, plain and simple–make a lot of money, regardless of how it’s done. If Microsoft goes down so that Sun and Netscape can rise, so much the better.

The real story here is that regardless of what the Justice Department decides, the Internet is rapidly moving away from being a diverse community of users sharing information using non-proprietary software (shareware) like Unix and Linux. It will soon become yet another privately-owned and operated utility, and a monopoly, too. It won’t matter very much if it’s Microsoft’s operating system (Windows) or Sun Microsystems’ language (Java) that controls our access to the Internet; the effect is the same. We’ll pay more in software upgrades, access fees, hookup costs, and other fees, and this will exclude everyone but privileged and well-educated people from accessing the Internet. We’ll lose our ability to screen out advertising, access the Internet without government regulation, and eventually our freedom of speech. Having a standard language or operating system in place may make the Internet more efficient, but with that efficiency we’ll lose the diversity that makes the Internet a valuable resource for information and communication. Instead, it will become a lot like TV’-and who needs another home shopping network?

Right now, if you can switch to a low-cost, local, small Internet service provider that uses Unix or Linux, you should do it, before these businesses disappear altogether or merge into larger behemoths, like America On-Line, Compuserve, AT&T, or the Microsoft Network. In Seattle, you can join the non-profit Seattle Community Network free of charge. Many non-profits run Internet and email service providers; it’s worth searching for one you like. Unix, Pine, and Tin may be more difficult to learn to use, but with some patience you can do it. In another year or two, you won’t have the wide range of choices you have now. Take advantage of them while you can.

Burning Down The House

This week’s hot story (literally) in the press is the Global Warming Conference in Kyoto, Japan, where heads of state are arguing about who will cut greenhouse gas emissions and by how much. What’s noticeably missing from the press coverage is any report about the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Global warming is an accepted fact by scientists in every nation, except for the United States, which has the highest rate of carbon dioxide emissions of any nation in the world (see Stump Talk, ETS! vol. 2, #11). Conservative estimates conclude that the global mean temperature will rise by six degrees and ocean levels will rise three feet if nothing is done to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The global climate is a delicately balanced system–small changes can trigger enormous problems, including massive drought and starvation in one part of the world, while excessive rains, flooding, and soil erosion plague another region.

All too often, the mainstream press only reports specific natural disasters, but never the underlying causes of an increasing string of hurricanes, floods, and drought. Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, is produced by the burning of oil, coal and gas in electrical power plants, and the burning of gasoline in automobile engines. This summer U.S. drivers burned up 356 million gallons of gasoline per day in the month of July. Overall U.S. gasoline consumption averaged a record 336 million gallons per day during the first eight months of 1997. Drivers are not entirely to blame for this trend; automakers are pushing more expensive minivans qnd sports utility vehicles, which are heavier and more fuel-hungry than older model cars. Congress refuses to appropriate funds for mass-transit and is considering a move to either privatize or close down Amtrak and sell off its assets, leaving travelers with no other options than to fly in fuel-hungry 747s or take to the road.

Global corporations also profit from destroying the one resource that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: forests. Massive clearcutting continues. Plantation farming takes over cleared land and burns the remaining brush, releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the air, and causing choking clouds of smoke over nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil. Locally, new research on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest shows that Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, with their long growing seasons and high volume of organic matter, are the most efficient forests in the world for trapping and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, yet they’ve also been targeted for logging (see Stump Talk, ETS! #51 and #45).

Other solutions to global warming exist. A fierce battle over mass transit is taking place all over the country (not just in Seattle), while press and politicians everywhere try to sweep it under the rug. Automakers and the oil industry discourage mass transit, but also refuse to market fuel-efficient cars–while they admit to having the capability to make electric cars, solar-powered vehicles, and hydrogen engines.

Conservation of electricity is no longer debated in the media. With the current push to privatize public utilities, government funds for conservation programs and advertising is fast disappearing. Once privatized, utilities will search for the cheapest, dirtiest methods of generating power to maximize profits.

In short, it’s going to take major, binding legislation to force industries to change. Yet, in Kyoto, Bill Clinton has made the weakest proposal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions of any nation at the conference; if any agreement is forthcoming, it will be too little, too late–and it will contain few, if any, penalties for corporations that fail to comply. However, this won’t stop Clinton from declaring a victory if and when a toothless agreement is signed, and it won’t stop the press from ignoring the main issues. It’s up to us to not be fooled by this posturing or lulled into complacency; we are responsible for global warming, and it’s occurring right now. We need to change our habits, push for an end to our dependence on oil and, most importantly, integrate this fight with other struggles going on over labor issues, human rights, free trade, and social justice.

King County’s Mystery Budget

Most Seattle residents assume that the city council covers all of Seattle’s services, and that the King County Council doesn’t have any impact on their lives. We should be so lucky, on both counts. King County, with 1.6 million people, is the largest governmental body in the state (excluding the state itself); it has a multi-billion dollar budget and produced our new governor, but is rarely covered in local media. A government with jurisdiction over 1.6 million people does something. But what? Let’s find out.

County government covers services that affect all cities within King County, and serves as the primary local government for unincorporated areas. County-wide services include: the Metro bus system, emergency medical services, SeaTac Airport, Kingdome management (sic), search and rescue services, solid waste and landfill management, and open space acquisition. The county also provides grants and funding for arts projects (i.e., Kirkland Performance Center, Bellevue Philharmonic, Pacific Science Center, etc.), and funds community service programs (Fremont Public Association, Central Area Motivation Program, Northwest Labor & Employment Office, etc.). But these last items-~arts, community services, and recreational services’-are only tiny pieces of the whole pie. To find out what the county government really does, we need to look at the county budget.

To do that, we need real numbers; however, the budget ordinance is a mess. Nothing is written in an organized fashion, and nothing is explained in any detail. There are no breakdowns of expenses per category, and no balance sheet or summary of the overall figures. It doesn’t even begin to resemble a real budget. It’s something the county executive and the county council threw together to satisfy public disclosure laws.

For instance, the county council’s website (http://www.metrokc.gov/mkcc) boasts: “The $2.6 billion plan is the result of an unprecedented month-long public review of the budget. The Council’s Budget and Fiscal Management Committee held three nighttime public hearings and gave the public an opportunity to comment on changes to the Executive’s budget three days prior to adoption.” Wow. Three whole days. Those three days were Friday, Nov. 21 through Sunday, Nov. 23. Some chance for input. For those lucky enough to notice in time, the message is clear: “Don’t bother us, we’re busy spending your money.”

In the mystery pie that is the King County budget, “Equipment Repair and Replacement” might cover anything from new computer equipment for county administration to repair and replacement of equipment at SeaTac Airport, and we wouldn’t know the difference. Why didn’t the council explain what $29.6 million in CX Fund Transfers (huh?) are? What differentiates the Criminal Justice Fund expenditures from the regular “public safety” expenditures? And what the hell is the Grants Fund? $23 million in grants for what?

Given the vagueness, all of the following numbers are only rough estimates, and may be much lower than the actual figures for each category.

The largest expense is for transportation (no surprise): about $478 million, including road maintenance, bridge repair, and transit funds.

The second largest chunk of the budget is devoted to law enforcement and the maintenance of the police state. Some amounts:

Adult Detention: $78.3 million; County Sheriff: $71.8 million; Prosecuting Attorney: $32.5 million; Public Defense: $21.3 million; Superior Court: $20.7 million; District Court: $17.7 million; Automated Fingerprint Identification System: $10.8 million; Judicial Administration: $10.1 million; Licensing & Regulatory Services: $5.7 million; “Inmate Welfare”: $1.1 million; total, $270 million.

By contrast, there’s low-income housing (only $34.3 million), and community and youth services ($41.9 million, probably including amounts for youth detention that should be in the law enforcement category). Health and emergency medical services total about $274.1 million, but “health” also includes $80 million for mental health services, much of which also involves detention.

Like other governments, King County appropriates a lot of money for administration. Much of this is hidden in the other categories, so it’s not possible to reach a total figure, but here are some interesting details:

County Council Administration: $7,677,270; County Council Expense Fund: $2,374,787; County Executive: $219,103; Deputy County Executive: $2,264,343; Office of Budget & Strategic Planning: $6,178,823; Council Auditor: $1,316,413; Human Resources Management: $5,851,856; Records & Elections: $7,203,621. That’s right–the Deputy County Executive figure is listed as ten times that of the County Executive. No clues as to why.

And then there’s debt servicing. The “Rich Folks’ Gratuity Fund” includes money paid to retire old debts, pay back bonds, and pay interest on bonds (see ETS!, Vol. 2, #12). 1998 total: $212.7 million.

For anyone who takes the time to puzzle through the budget ordinance, there’s a treat at the end: the Capital Improvement Program, a list of major repairs, open space acquisitions, facility upgrades, and construction projects for the next few years. These are projects the council expects to fund through bonds, because there’s no budget money. Again, public transportation tops the list at $714.8 million (no details given); wastewater treatment ($531.4 million) and road improvement ($52.1 million) follow. The total debt is $1.5 billion-~nearly 60% of the total budget for 1998, a very high debt load.

From reading (or trying to read) the budget ordinance, we have a sketchy, tentative answer to the question: what does King County government do? The answer: King County Council is in the business of financing large construction projects, making interest payments to the wealthy, putting people in the slammer, handling (or mishandling) garbage and wastewater, rescuing idiots from steep mountainsides, and hauling taxpayers off to the hospital when they go into cardiac arrest after receiving their latest property tax assessment–oh, and also providing jobs for politicians and administrators. Looking at where the money goes, it’s easy to peg one of the primary political tasks of the County Council: “managing” growth. Or waving at it, and pocketing the campaign contributions, as it drives by.

After all that’s been taken care of, a few crumbs trickle down to us in the form of parks and library services, arts funding, and drug rehab counseling. Those crumbs, however, seem to be dwindling–although it’s not possible to know for sure. Only the council knows–and it’s not telling. Nor is mainstream media asking, nor is most of the public even vaguely aware of the pile of tax dollars at stake. Those mystery line items sure must be interesting.

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