Deconstructing Katz

This article was posted to gnu.misc.discuss by Lloyd Wood and is archived here with his permission.

From: Lloyd Wood <>
Newsgroups: talk.bizarre,gnu.misc.discuss
Subject: seeing Stallman and deconstructing Katz
Date: Fri, 26 Mar 1999 03:40:52 +0000
Reply-To: Lloyd Wood <>

I would like to say that the Stating the Obvious article below is the
most accurate and incisive 'Stating the Obvious' piece that I have
ever read. However, and but first...

Right around now I was supposed to be getting around to describing
what it was like to see Richard Stallman live when he appeared at the
Commonwealth Institute in London on Tuesday night. I was sidetracked
by the Obvious piece, which clearly articulated reasons for disliking
Jon Katz's writings more clearly than an infinite number of anonymous
cowards armed with keyboards could ever do. 

[Short Stallman summary: if Eric Raymond gives a good performance and
 could do credit to a suitable role in a film, Stallman would be the
 man who wrote the book the film was based on - and that book would
 be something like Eco's 'Name of the Rose'. Would you prefer to
 converse with a shallow and vain actor, or to someone who can expound
 his own philosophy of life to you in a reasonably compelling and
 convincing way? If Raymond is Pepsi, with fashionable marketing,
 Stallman is the original Coke, and the choice of a Gnu generation to
 boot - and Stallman doesn't score points by explicitly lambasting
 Microsoft or others in the way that Raymond increasingly feels he
 needs to.

 Although giving a less polished, much less scripted, jetlagged
 performance and obviously less comfortable with the same stage that
 Raymond occupied two months earlier, I found Stallman far more
 credible in person -- even if I will never forgive him for that
 do-not-use-Tcl outburst of a few years back. Mind you, it appeared
 that half the audience always seemed to be laughing with Stallman,
 while the other half laughed at him - but the halves regularly
 swapped places, and the laughter was generally goodnatured.
 On the other hand, Stallman is fussily literal-minded in the extreme,
 to the extent of pronouncing the 'slash' in GNU/Linux, and not
 referring to Torvalds by name but as 'the author of Linux'. His
 comments when asked about MP3, sampling, music copyright and payment
 systems wavered between naive, idealistic and just plain stupid; he
 should think about these more and carefully before speaking on them,
 and the contrast between this part of the discussion and the more
 solid and developed philosophical ground of GNU was vivid.

 The amount of time spent talking about emacs - an infinitely
 customizable kitchen-sink editor and travesty of lisp that you no
 longer want to customise after you've invested semi-infinite time
 learning it to the point where you can actually customise it to the
 way you'd have expected an editor to function before you'd succumbed
 to the meme of emacs and how RMS believes an editor should work
 despite years of human-interface work to the contrary - was
 disproportionately large compared to the time spent talking about
 gcc. I know which one was more important to the development of
 GNU/Linux, and it wasn't the network packet hog with the patronising
 'Please answer yes or no' that couldn't handle single keypresses.
 Back to the Obvious...]

Unfortunately, the Stating the Obvious article below is ruined by that
gratuitous 'pay the Obvious for recommending Katz's book' Amazon link
at its end. Furthering Katz's agenda while furthering your own
monetary gains loses moral high ground and brings you dangerously near
Katz's level of advancing and promoting clueless-content-free rhetoric
for fame and fortune. (Take note, Obvious, NTK, and others. Reviewing
books while making money off the sale of those same books is ethically
questionable in the extreme.) 

Criticising Jon Katz for using the login JonKatz on a site where
Anonymous Coward is the lowest of the low is an unnecessarily cheap
shot; I cannot fault Katz for identifying himself as himself - it's
fair warning, after all - but only for _being_ himself and telling us
about it in such detail. I must fault Rob Malda for letting Katz be
himself in front of us in exchange for the occasional Slashdot mention
on primetime television and in mass media. That's selling out,

Enough of such stunts. Katz claims to be a writer, and should be
judged on that. Better, if slightly more work, to spend more time
examining and reading Katz's writing, to see if there is anything
worthwhile or notable in there.

Let's begin with:

where Katz praises a favourite site of his, Keith Dawson's Tasty
Bits from the Technology Front (TBTF). Katz writes:
                    Like most good Net and Web sites, TBTF
                    includes vigorous public discussion areas where
                    readers can share information and argue about
                    Dawson's tasty bits, sometimes in brainy, usually
                    civilized, running conversations that continue for
                    months, even years.
and what public discussion areas would those be? TBTF has culled and
edited emails from readers related to stories in the newsletter -
material deemed appropriate and placed publically after being chosen
and asked permission to post by Dawson. This is not a public
discussion area. Why is TBTF's information sharing good? Because
Dawson has reasonable taste, education, judgement and editorial
control, while public discussions generally don't. Read usenet lately?
Or Slashdot, for that matter.

Katz describes TBTF as one of his favourite sites, and he _hasn't
noticed this_? You might think that Katz skimped on background
research, and you'd be right. This is one of the more obvious, more
recent, examples outside Slashdot of Katz's lack of background

[necessary disclaimer: is my output,
 unpaid, and you should be aware of this when evaluating my comments
 concerning TBTF above.]

Speaking of Slashdot, let's look at Katz's output there. There's:

where Katz writes:
                         It takes a certain amount of shamelessness to
                         be a monomaniac billionaire dwarf.
Well, it takes a certain amount of shamelessness to be a content-free
pundit with nothing to say, either. Katz then goes on to harp on about
deconstruction, prompted by the wake of a not-very-suited-for-Slashdot-
either piece by someone else that, to its credit, did actually result
in anonymous cowards arguing about Foucault for a couple of posts.
It's not as if Foucault invented criticism; he merely brought thinking
about other people's arguments critically back into fashion amongst
the fashionable-but-woefully-uneducated. Following the Foucault lead,
I will attempt to deconstruct Katz, to see what remains in the harsh
light of criticism.  Or at least, to examine anything amusing that
turns up.

where Katz commits such memorable aphorisms to paper as:

                        Movies (and TV) are, after
                        all, one of a culture's most revealing,
                        reliable mirrors

And what does this tell us about ancient Rome - or should I watch a
rerun of 'Ben Hur'? If this is true of the United States, I'm glad I
don't live there. I'd hate to think that the Jerry Springer show was
real life, or that Katz appearing on the Today Show would indicate
that many Americans using the Internet are just like Katz. Or: 

                        Geeks bit the heads off of
                        chickens and rats in carnivals at the
                        beginning of the century in exchange for
                        room and board.

Suggesting that Alice Cooper, faded mainstream media musician who gets
television time as an indicator of American culture, is a geek,
strikes me as rather, well, odd. Come again?
                       The excerpting of my book "Running To The
                       Mountain" on Slashdot last week was shockingly
                       and surprisingly successful. Because of the
                       excerpting here, I shot near the top of
                       Amazon's Top 100-selling books in just a few
                       hours, and stayed on the list all weekend. 
Katz applauds both his self-promoting cynicism and the lack of
education and nous of the Slashdot readers who bought the book in good
faith. To add some context, I'll just note some Amazon comments
on one of Katz's previous books, the punchily-titled 'Virtuous
Reality; How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values
to Opportunists, Nitwits, and Blockheads Like Will':

Here's Katz on Katz's own book: 
                                I'm the author of Virtuous Reality
                                and am much struck by the ways in
                                which this new medium works for

You can see the 'self-promotion' light switching on round about... 

                                Above is a summary of the book, an
                                author's an editor's description, a
                                review, and a pro and con response as
                                part of a running opportunity for
                                people to talk about it.  This kind of
                                discussion is a reminder to me that
                                this medium doesn't undermine
                                literacy, but promotes it in
                                completely new ways.  I haven't seen
                                them in bookstores. 
The currently concluding reader comment:
                                The author is apparantly ignorant of
                                most if not all of the philisophical
                                and religious literature dealing with
                                questions of morality which is just as
                                well as he prefers his intuitions to
                                any appeal to reason. His main
                                argument in any case seems to be that
                                traditional morality as expressed by
                                Bennet et al won't let him do whatever
                                he want to whomever he wants to do it
                                to. This is the philisophical argument
                                of a three year old. 

At least there was more to Foucault than that. Despite the misspelling
of 'philosophical', that reader appears to be literate; Katz doesn't.

Rob Malda is someone who can lay claim to an enviable drawing ability
while constantly and honestly disclaiming any ability with the English
language whatsoever and throwing considerable and mostly-laudable
effort into running what has become a popular public service. He's
also someone who appears to be functionally illiterate (cf his review
of the 'Open Source Book' on Slashdot) and it looks as if he would
think that 'editorial balance' has something to do with spreading
webserving load via SMP.

I could forgive Malda that, given his youth and lack of a decent
education, but I cannot forgive him latching onto Katz in the hope of
bringing Slashdot more business. (Can a leech leech off a leech?) 
This is a marriage of financial convenience, nothing more, as shown

Katz, if asked to identify himself as a type of programmer, would
probably say something fashionable and meaningless like 'open source
libertanian who is learning object-oriented', yet here he pontificates
about Y2K. This is a review of a book covering the Y2K problem from
the man who consistently types the year beginning with a lower-case L,
and who has taken considerable time to get the hang of something as
simple as cross-platform apostrophes.

It would be both curmudgeonly to suggest that Katz - someone who has
never discussed Y2K in comp.risks - is unqualified to review this
book, and completely unnecessary. It's OBVIOUS Katz is unqualified,
dammit. Not that that stops him or even gives him pause for thought.

                             Winner, a political scientist at
                             Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New
                             York, and one of the country's most
                             thoughtful technology scholars, 

...presumably numbering Winner's output among the kind of vacuous
things you'll find in abundance in poor company at
<>. Not a Y2K expert, then?

Further on, there's Katz on Katz, when you know he's at his best
because there's a good chance he's factually correct and may have
actually done his background research to boot:

                             Journalists don't seem to have a clue.

It's correct. It's self-referential (if you're willing to regard Katz
as a journalist), but it's correct. Journalists don't have a clue.
That's the whole point of journalism; the ability to see things from
the general ('clueless') layman's perspective, although defining the
layman - or rather, the journalist's chosen target audience - is
becoming increasingly tricky.

The redeeming feature of the good journalist is the ability, time and
funding to find information and sources who do have a clue, and to
apply critical judgement in obtaining and parlaying the information he
gains onwards within the framework of a comprehensible story. Katz is
not a good journalist. Katz isn't even a good _writer_. Many
journalists use the web the same way you or I do, only not as well; a
good journalist is not this lazy. Good journalists are increasingly

                             When I was a columnist for Wired News

...while columnists are increasingly commonplace. Heck, I seem to be
turning into one myself, and even Stallman's thoughts litter usenet
like unexploded mortar shells, demanding corralling into a column to
provide a counterbalance to whatever Sheriff-Ed material Raymond is
churning out in LinuxWorld this week. (to whoever gets to subedit
Stallman: lose the 'we'. to whoever gets to subedit Raymond: send it
back for a rewrite, and remind him that not everyone has read
everything else he's written. Much less agreed with it. Much less
found it hilariously memorable or funny.) 

Those two comments in Katz's article are correct. Self-referential,
but correct. Katz is, unfortunately, at his most accurate when talking
about himself in tedious detail, and this is why he does it so much...

                              I know sober and
                              knowledgeable computer programmers
                              and engineers

... but I very much doubt this, unless the 'of' is missing from the
first line. A knowledgeable computer programmer would have trouble
keeping a sober face while talking to Katz. But that's not important
here; what's important here is the 'You can buy this book at Computer
Literacy and help Slashdot out' at the end of the article, which is
rather the whole commercial point and so financially convenient. And
that's where we came in. 

Does Katz know anything about computers? Well, there's:

                            Clicking on Star Office took me to an open
                            file, where I wrote a message I intended
                            to post directly to Slashdot. In two
                            minutes, I had gone deeper into the inside
                            of a computer than I ever had. And I was
                            writing in a word program that was every
                            bit as easy and comprehensible as

At this point, I'd like to remind the stout-hearted reader who has
stuck this out this far of Slashdot's motto: 'News for Nerds. Stuff
that Matters'. Who is Malda trying to kid here? If Katz's technical
knowledge is still open to question, I'll point out:
and its ilk:
                           Join the Katz-alert listserv: E-mail
where <> wwill give you a 'welcome to the NT
4 options pack' page running on an IIS server. Remember, Katz is a man
praising Linux to the skies (All Hail Linux! To criticise Linux is to
risk the wrath of thousands of high school students and other
sociopaths who can't spell!), while dismissing Gates as a dwarf
even as he relies on Gates' software. And then there are articles
such as:

trumpeting the end of the Microsoft Age. This is a man who appears to
have questionable sincerity. Rather unlike Richard Stallman, who you
may choose (a word that Stallman has always had trouble conjugating,
presumably because he has never had much use for it) to regard as
nuts, but _sincerely_ nuts, and who practices what he preaches.

                           The Internet is the first organic
                           technological revolution, the first one
                           that and self-replicates.

I'd nominate agriculture for this, where next year's crop comes from
the seed of this year's crop (unless you're buying from Monsanto, of
course); that was a revolution equally as full of, well, manure.
                           Online, everybody is a critic, each opinion
                           as good as any other.

This is said by the man who goes on to talk about text written in
'ASCCI', thus disproving his own claim. I think the opinion that it's
called ASCII is likely to be the rather better opinion. The opinion
that relates it to ISO-8859-x and Unicode is better still.
                          Lurkers are one of the Net's biggest
                          disenfranchised groups
                          Online, Lurkers are a culture all their own.

Indeed. They're the people who lurk. And several hundred words of
generalisation about lurkers later:

                          It's impossible to generalize about Lurkers,

Oh, how very well done! Better would be to say that it's impossible to
generalize _well_ about lurkers. In the interim, the description of
lurker culture was skipped over through copious waffling.

I believe that Katzing will be to Slashdot as Wilsoning is to
Neuromancer:  to be remembered for all time by the public for screwing
up stupidly. Eventually, they won't even remember _why_ it's called

Still, it's the second best shot at immortality Katz has after his
daughter. This is, however, an unfortunate and ignominious end for
those who are luckless enough to share his name, especially if they're
running ISPs:

And here's the in-the-public-eye-so-he-must-be-the-real-Katz back on a
book tour in early 1997, long before he allied with Slashdot:

                          LAMB: W--let me ask the obvious question:
                          Why is Bill Bennett an opportunist and
                          you're not?

                          Mr. KATZ: Well, he's made a lot more money
                          than I have, basically. Whe--if I get to
                          the point where I've sold as many books as
                          he has, we'll be equal.

...and with the aid of Slashdot, Katz has now achieved that. He's an
opportunist even in his own lights, nothing more; he may have written
books, but that doesn't mean that he can write. He has nothing much to
say, and too much media coverage to say it in. He appears to know
little, and demonstrates this apparent lack of knowledge constantly.
All he appears to care about is his profit. As for literacy and
education, what of it?

                          LAMB: By the way, did you ever get that
                          college degree?

                          Mr. KATZ: No.

Well, Gates dropped out of college too - and Katz does have those
important advantages of not being either a monomaniac or a dwarf. Both
Raymond and Stallman are on the short and portly side, and can be... 
well, a little focused in their interests. (And just how tall is Bruce

One of Katz's claims is that he answers every email sent to him, no
matter how gushing or flame-filled, how thoughtful or trite - and I've
observed that his rushed replies tend towards the trivial
and content-free as a result. If they were usenet postings, they'd be
rejected by the newsreader for having more quoted material than new
text. Much more. Much much more.

Katz's belief that this is a worthwhile exercise shows his emphasis on
the goal of mass marketing - ever emailed Scott Adams? - and suggests
a lack of critical judgement, never mind lack of anything worthwhile
to discuss. 

I expect that this email will receive an amused smiley or something
equally slapdash from Katz, despite demonstrating careful tedious
background research over a period of months, quoted sources, and all
those other things that Katz doesn't care about. After all, Katz _is_
on a book tour. He's got interviews to give and books to sell.

Katz just doesn't care, period. Katz is still getting our attention,
and that's all that matters to Katz and, by association, to Slashdot.
And that, quite simply, is the only possible conclusion to this
deconstruction, such as it is.

                           It's no longer possible even to guess at
                           the cultural and technological challenges
                           the journalists of the future will be

I find it hard to believe that Katz didn't see the challenge of this
backlash coming - but writing about this backlash and describing
exactly what it means for _Katz in particular_ will be increasing
grist for his mill as he sets new records for gall.

If I posted this to Slashdot it would be quietly censored - as
previous anti-Katz material has reportedly been. I don't believe Malda
has either the courage or the understanding of editorial balance to
post this in full in his Brave New Widely-Moderated World Where
Anything Supposedly Goes, despite the traffic and attention it may

Consider that a challenge, Jon 'Journalist of the Future' Katz and
your cravenly commercially-focused sidekicks. Richard Stallman has
more editorial balance in his usenet postings than Slashdot has, and
he's widely regarded as a whackjob - at least according to Eric
Raymond, who's not as commercially focused as Slashdot by a long
long way. 

You've got a long way to go, guys.


This article is copyright (c) Lloyd Wood 1999, apart from the bits
quoted under fair use which are the property of Jon Katz or other
owners, and which should not be attributed to Lloyd Wood under any

The Berkeley licence isn't so much a licence as a clear disclaimer of
responsibility for use, and Apple and Eric Raymond should be ashamed
of themselves. Yes, Open Source and Pepsi leave me with a bitter
aftertaste - why do you ask?


Date: Thu, 25 Mar 1999 11:08:56 -0800
From: Stating the Obvious <>
To: retro-push <>
Subject: The Katzdot Effect


    This is the email channel of Stating the Obvious, located
    on the web at <>.



The Katzdot Effect

***Wednesday's "News for Nerds" on Slashdot: Novell goes open source, Linux
2.2.4 is out and Jon Katz got to be on the Today Show with his dog.***

When Slashdot creator Rob Malda added filtering capabilities to the site
this month, he announced snidely that it was "for all you Katz haters." Jon
Katz, the first well-known journalist to write for the site, is now the
first to inspire a tool for completely avoiding his work.

If you haven't heard of Jon Katz, you must not have read his work for WIRED,
GQ, Rolling Stone, HotWired and the New York Times. Not a problem, though --
Katz made sure you knew about these credits by listing them in full on his
Nov. 17 news item, two weeks after he arrived. And what news did Katz
contribute that day? A poll conducted at his request so everyone could vote
on whether he should stick around. "Do I belong here?" he asked in the
front-page summary of the poll, which was given the loaded title of "dump
the jerk?"

Katz, like most journalists of any stature, considers himself a central
element of every story he writes. Count the number of personal pronouns he
uses in a typical Katzdot piece and the number of times he makes himself the
subject of a sentence. If they were a trigger in a drinking game, you'd have
a guaranteed recipe for morning-after hangovers.

Compare this to the approach that has been taken by Malda and others who
post news on the site. Little is known about them because they never make
themselves the story. They don't even associate their real names with their
efforts, choosing the kind of anonymous handles you'd see in Internet chat
rooms such as CmdrTaco, Hemos and Sengan. Jon Katz's Slashdot handle?

Katz has used Slashdot as a platform for promoting _Running to the Mountain:
A Journey of Faith and Change_, his new book that's about as far from the
norm as anything ever covered on the Linux-heavy site. There are no Slashdot
icons for mid-life ruminations of a man buying a rustic fixer-upper so he
can commune with a dead monk.

An excerpt from his book was followed quickly with Katz's announcement that
it has become a "surprisingly successful" best-seller. In an industry where
writers must generate buzz, he got it at the most crucial time --
publication -- because of his relationship with Slashdot. Although Katz
minimizes the financial impact, he admits that the trip into Amazon's Top
100 is making a huge difference. Before it, he was a writer "trapped in
mid-list Hell, struggling for a way to reach readers," as he wrote in a
February 22 Slashdot story. Now he has his publisher's "full attention."

Slashdot, from day one, has been a place where the technology was more
important than the technologist. An open-source project where no one cares
who you are if you can code. A brilliant hack of a Web site written by
programmers for their own amusement. An accidental success for all the right
reasons. No one needed to know who Rob Malda was before they were impressed
by his site. Everyone on Slashdot knew who Jon Katz was before they had a
chance to be impressed.

Since he appeared last November, every Katz action results in a negative
reaction. While some say this is driven by his critics, recent events show
why Jon Katz makes himself the focus of attention: Celebrity sells.

Though you might not think the word applies to Katz, the only way he gets
the editorial prominence of Slashdot is through the power of celebrity. The
only way his book falls under Slashdot's definition of "Stuff That Matters"
is through celebrity. The frequent self-promotion of his book shows how an
egalitarian community like Slashdot diminishes itself by rewarding a member
for being a celebrity.

Slashdot is a news community driven by submissions from ordinary people who
make themselves known by their technological acumen. Slashdot's honesty
comes from this -- real people are making the editorial judgments on topics
they know well. Turn the contributors into celebrities and you end up with
people like Jerry Pournelle, who can't review a monitor without describing
his home, spouse, relatives, friends, recently published novel and the
insipid pet names of every computer that he owns.

If Jon Katz really wants to understand Slashdot, he needs to set aside the
self-centered approach that made him into a writer who gets published in
places like the New York Times. The same approach that sent his book into
four printings, as he announced this Wednesday in a Katzdot contribution
about his book tour. By defining his life as Stuff That Matters, Katz sets
himself apart from everyone else in the Slashdot community. "This flap about
me has to do with the kind of place Slashdot decides it wants to be," Katz
stated in November. "I'd rather write about other things."

Until he can do that, Katz doesn't belong there.

-- Rogers Cadenhead

Rogers Cadenhead <> is a professional writer who did
not mention any of his books in this commentary.


Related links:


Katz's new book:

Jerry Pournelle:


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