Pipers' Rights


Right before I dropped my permanent complimentary subscription to the “Internet Protocol Journal” I had spotted a Letter to the Editor that prompted me to make one last try at overcoming the well known prejudices of said Editor – who had been, until then, a long-time friend despite said prejudices -- against real sentences and real paragraphs. So I sent off something that bore a strong resemblance to what follows (although I've improved what was the final paragraph somewhat for present purposes by adding an explicit "moral" I'd managed to forget to put in first time around because I'd already wasted so much time and energy on the letter that I incautiously decided it was in good enough shape already to send off before it cost me another hour or three), and perhaps needless to say received a response which I found so inappropriate that it led to my dropping said subscription ... and dropping said Editor from the list of those who are welcome to visit the Reference Collection, but that's almost irrelevant for present purposes even if it is historically accurate – and emotionally satisfying to say, by way of requiting spitefulness with spitefulness.

The central metaphor of the piece, as I see it, is, however, of sufficent interest and applicability that I felt impelled to go to the trouble of putting it on/in the old Personal Web Page, at the cost of another hour or three after all. Indeed, as I write this I realize that the whole annoying flap with IPJ can be construed as another case in point wherein it's important to attempt to exercise those "Pipers' Rights" that are said central metaphor regardless of consequences.

A bit of context before turning to the body of the piece: There had been a rather negative review of a book by one Milton Mueller (unknown to me) in the previous IPJ, written by one Dave Crocker (long known to me). The book was called Ruling the Root and apparently dealt with the commotion about the Internet's Domain Name System in general with some emphasis on Jon Postel's role in said commotion in particular. Crocker's review, and Mueller's subsequent Letter to the Editor attempting to rebut the review, and for that matter Crocker's attempt to rebut Mueller's letter in the immediately following Letter to the Editor, all suggest that Mueller placed more blame on Jon, the only person in the field I took with fewer grains of salt than I took myself when I was still active in the field, than I would agree with had I felt inclined to read said book (which, despite the amusing title, I wouldn't think of doing). Well, "he's entitled to his opinion", one is obligated to say; but when I happened to notice a particularly red flag while skimming his letter, out came, pretty much, the following:


Normally, I wouldn't put wrists'n'fingers at further risk of wear'n'tear over so fundamentally unwinnable an issue.  Nor would I run the risk that some might misconstrue what I'm about to say as supporting Dave Crocker's position (which would, of course, spoil my unblemished record of 30-some years).

(Nor, for that matter, would I normally run the risk that others might find me remiss in pretty clearly not having bothered to carefully re-read either Dave's book review in the previous IPJ, nor Milton Mueller's letter rebutting it, nor Dave's letter rebutting Mueller's letter, before writing this --  all of which I might actually have done had I not long since retired to tend my crabgrass -- much less read Mueller's book itself at all ... which I can't conceive of having done at any point in my career despite the fact that I like the title a lot, since I've never believed you can "do" technohistory.)

However, the rigid, off-handed embracing of the to-me pernicious and appallingly defeatist precept that "whoever pays the piper calls the tune" in Mueller's letter caught my eye and raised my ire to the point that I feel compelled to comment, irrespective of the cited negatives.

Whoever's got the gold might well rule, as the even more cynical modern saw would have us believe, but I submit that the rule should not be accepted without debate as being unidirectionally coercive, as implied by Mueller's "it was unrealistic to expect Postel to be exempt from governmental authority" because his work "was supported by U.S. government money from day one".

Exemption from authority isn't the point.  Interaction with authority is.

Proposed: If all the "pipers" -- mainly metaphorical, but doubtless some literal as well -- had just shut up and followed orders during the Dark Ages, there would have been no Renaissance.

That is, a far preferable precept to apply would be that "when a bad tune is called for, the Superior Piper educates and/or otherwise persuades the tasteless patron to call for a better one".  Not always, certainly, but enough of the time to enable Progress to occur, whether in choice of dance tunes in feudal halls, "fine art" in papal palaces, or even technology policy dicta in the Clinton White House (in principle, anyway) -- and if you don't think technology is an Art, you don't understand technology (and/or haven't understood The Book, at any rate).

The only problem with that fine, idealistic position is that it overlooks the consideration that the metaphorical piper who exercises his [sic] rights sometimes has to pay a very high metaphorical price, regardless of whatever literal wage he's receiving.

Granted that it's unknowable whether Jon's life was materially shortened by the stresses attendant to his attempts to elevate the tastes of his governmental sponsors/patrons, but I must confess to an emotional  conviction that it was.

This almost certainly stems from my lingering sense of guilt over not having argued harder with him when he told me that "the Government just gave the Name Server contract to some little Subsection 8 company in Washington" (almost certainly not verbatim, but I believe pretty close). I replied, "Well, I hope _they_ have the sense to demand that whoever asks for the 'Coke' domain at least sent the request in on a sincere-looking company letterhead" (probably even closer to verbatim), alluding to an earlier-discussed topic, but he merely said "Well, it's _their_ contract and _their_ problem now" (or words very much to that effect) and we let it go at that.

Not that I have any reason to believe I would've won the argument.  Just that I'd feel better now for having tried harder then ('92 or '93 it must have been, if the putative histories of the DNS, IANA, ICANN, et al. can of snakes I've glanced at in the last year or two are correct as to when the NIC contract was "re-competed" ... and if memory doesn't serve a fault).

And most definitely not that I foresaw at the time that over the forthcoming years it would become a ritual for him to reply to my nearly-weekly "How goes?"-es with either "At least nobody's sued me this week" or "Another lawsuit [or two, or three] this week" depending on the week.  Just that my natural prudenoia ("When you've been around long enough, you no longer have to bother to distinguish between prudence and paronoia" -- previously unpublished MAPhorism) rang further alarm bells over just how applicants would/should validate their claims to particular names, which I'd previously mentioned not having heard of any good rules for having been promulgated by the NIC, and now some strangers were going to be inheriting things and who expected them to be any better at it than the NIC had been.

But I had already retired to tend my crabgrass by then, so it wasn't _my_ problem; and besides, I didn't want to risk lowering my pba (Postel batting average). After all, having won one and a half out of the five arguments we'd had over the years, my .300 pba was as high as anybody's I was aware of, so I didn't press the point.

I still wish I had.

As is perhaps needless to say, it's too much to hope that it would have staved off the eventual disasters and it clearly wouldn't have forestalled Mueller's apparent belief that being a Superior Piper is dramatically less important than "not being a good soldier", but at least it would've allowed me to feel more like a (former, anyway) pretty good piper myself ... even though I just realized while doing a final proofread of this that the consequences of Jon's possibly-probably uncharacteristic good-soldierly acceptance of "orders" and/or failure to exercise his piper's rights on that particular occasion stand as further refutation of Mueller's implicit position as I understand it, and the fact that it took me this long to work that out argues strongly that I'm nowhere near the piper I once was, however good that might or might not have been.  Ah, well, which of us is....

Said "Moral"

The letter to IPJ (copynpasted from the "Out box" without alteration) ended there (over a "muted cheers, map") since, as noted, I'd managed to forget my decision to draw the "moral" explicitly in my haste to be done with what I knew had at best a 50-50 chance of being published to begin with. (And, it must be admitted, because I'd become enamoured of the punchline.) Here's how it should have ended:

However much I like that as a punchline, I've also realized that because of my still-intense sense of loss over Jon's painfully early death I spent more time on the case where he didn't exercise his Pipers' Rights than I probably should have and wrongly left it to the reader's willingness to draw inferences from longer-than-fashionable sentences and paragraphs to make the connection to the "flip side": the major issue on which I feel he did, quite properly, exercise said rights. So while it might well be viewable as "ironic" that the one time Jon didn't exercise his Pipers' Rights (in re who got the Name Server) backfired as badly as it did, to me it's downright iconic [sic] that whatever his motivations were in the "highjacking the root" flap -- and I deliberately didn't ask him about that; I was retired, remember -- whose payroll he was on should not have affected his piper's right to strive for the calling of a better tune.

He might have been performing a long-planned experiment on root transportability, as I believe was publically stated. He might have been trying to embarrass, or enlighten, or sensitize, or whatever, the jerk from the White House he'd been forced to interact with, as I assume some believe to be "the truth". He might, for all I know and anybody can prove, merely have thought it was a good joke, as I'd actually prefer, at some level.

It's not only unknowable, it doesn't matter, for the real point is not that he, or I, would have -- or anybody with any sense should have -- "expected him[self] to be exempt from governmental authority" regardless of whether his work "was supported by U.S. government money from day one" or even if he'd been a "dollar a year man". The real point is that he had the Superior Piper's Right (make that Obligation if you prefer – as I do, actually), and, for that matter, arguably a Constitutional right, to attempt to redress a grievance ... in this case, an instance of grievous taste in "governmental authority"'s tune-calling.

Anybody know what the Latin for "Rest in Righteousness" is?

[See also the relevant paragraphs somewhere around the middle of <http://www.lafn.org/~ba213/context.html> for another perspective on the price paid for exercising Pipers' Rights, if you're so inclined.]