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More on Monoculture February 18, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Computers, Family, Morality, News, Politics, Race and Prejudice, Religion, Religion, Philosophy, and Science, Science & Technology, Technology.
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Since posting a discussion about the inherent dangers of monoculture in the areas of faith, I’ve had several interesting discussions (online and off) about possible flaws in the original premise: that the “Microsoft monoculture” poses an inherent threat to computer systems, and therefore our information infrastructure. Dan Geer posed this argument at the Usenix 2004 conference.

As quoted by SearchSecurity.com, Geer’s argument was countered by Microsoft Strategist Scott Charney, who posed an analogy of Southwest Airlines, which relies on Boeing 737 airplanes exclusively. Charney argued that there are benefits to a monoculture, in terms of deployment costs and procedures, that make up for any possible risks due to common weaknesses.

Charney’s point is valid, but in the same way that he accused Geer of misapplying the agricultural analogy of how the American South’s cotton economy was devistated by the boll weevil or how the Irish potato farmers reliance on a single crop put their nation at risk. I would like to counter that Charney’s 737 analogy is similarly flawed, and furthermore that a monoculture of political ideology has some of the same risks as the monoculture of theology I described earlier.

Charney vs Geer
Charney’s assessment focused on the benefits of a monoculture. In short, there are lower deployment costs, related to common training materials, pilot familiarity (any pilot can fly any aircraft in the fleet), as well as volume production of the planes and all of the parts they share in common. In addition, he suggests that “true diversity” would require not a duoculture (Linux & Windows) but “thousands of operating systems” as being an untenable solution to what he perceives as a different problem.

This, like so many other defenses proposed by Microsoft when attacked with logic and information, appears to be a diversionary tactic. That is, take the opposing view, and take it to a logical extreme to show how ridiculous it is, and then perhaps people will abandon it.

Conservative vs Liberal
Does this sound familiar? Consider how many debates are in the public view right now, which are largely composed of shouting matches, where opposing camps take each others’ views and make them as ridiculous as possible. Here are a few examples (some of which I am guilty of):

  • Democrats/liberals presenting Republicans/conservatives as Stalin/Hitler, proposing the notion that the current administration is interested in an Orwellian police state, where the rights of the people are not just secondary to the state, but completely lost
  • Republicans/conservatives presenting Democrats/liberals as naively like Neville Chamberlain in his endless negotiations with Hitler prior to World War 2, and wanting to “love Osama bin Laden” into not attacking us
  • Muslims extremists presenting Americans/Danes/Westerners as completely irresponsible, Islam-hating, gun-toting, mindless expansionists, bent on the complete destruction of any state that doesn’t align itself with Christianity
  • Westerners presenting all Muslims as suicide bombers, bent on eliminating all political, ideological, or technological advance

A Look in the Mirror
Looking at the current environment of the Southern Baptist Convention, there are disturbing parallels:

  • Conservatives presenting non-inerantists as “not believing the Bible”
  • Liberals presenting theological conservatives as “more concerned with politics than evangelism”
  • Calvinists presenting non-Calvinists as Universalists
  • Non-Calvinists presenting all Calvinists as “those who would abandon all mission work”

Unfortunately, these are just a few of the many divisions that endanger us. We are systematically “cleansing” our ranks with theological litmus tests, questions or creeds that pose “defining questions” that will help us to categorize our fellow worshipers and co-laborers. In the meantime, people are dying the world over. In the meantime, while we argue with each other, we are not teaching our neighbors the truths that we do agree on.

Meanwhile, Back on the Plane
I mentioned earlier that there were flaws in Charney’s argument, and that the extremism was a diversionary tactic. Here’s what I mean.

For Charney’s analogy to be apt, Southwest would need to be flying planes that were designed with a much lower standard of quality control. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not just Windows bashing. Outside of NASA and the DOD, very little software goes through the kind of quality control from the design through execution that exists in the realm of modern aircraft.

We all joke about being glad that airplanes aren’t built by Apple (flying only to Apple-owned airports), Microsoft (they crash unexpectedly, forcing complete loss), or Linux (safe and secure, but you and the rest of the passengers assemble the plane yourself on the tarmac). However, until someone builds an operating system from the ground up with the type of design and code inspection techniques that have existed in the aircraft industry for decades, we’re going to continue to see fundamental flaws in both design and execution.

Evidence of this quality control can be seen in assessing the intelligence of Southwest’s choice of 737’s. How many times have problems in the planes grounded the entire fleet? Compare that with the number of times (just in the past 2 years) that serious Windows vulnerabilities have caused IT managers to scramble to “lock down” their networks, and immediately apply patches until they can safely expose the machines to the Internet again. The fact that computers are deemed “safe” to return so quickly is both a testimony to the speed of software deployment, but also to the lack of security testing that many companies apply prior to saying “good enough.”

Beyond these issues, there are other problems with Charney’s argument. If a 737 engine fails, does it immediately attack the other engines? Do you see rogue Southwest planes jumping into the adjacent hanger to destroy the fuselage of the other planes? As Geer suggested in his original article, infected computers are much more like characters in a bad Vampire (or Zombie) movie, where they immediately turn much of their energy into infecting and destroying the uninfected around them.

Homo vs Hetero
Given the trend toward homophobia that exists among many Christians, it’s not surprising that the term “monoculture” is more acceptable than a “homoculture.” However, since one of the arguments that Fundamentalist Christians will make against gay marriage is the inherent benefit of heterosexual parenting, namely that parents of opposite genders bring a valuable diversity to the family, it seems amazing that these same Christians aren’t more tolerant of theological diversity. On the other side of the aisle, why aren’t Moderate Christians more tolerant of the theological conservatives?

Likewise, political conservatives seem to highly favor the opportunity for freedom of expression, as demonstrated by the correlation between conservative views and republishing of the Mohammed cartoons. Looking at the other side, political liberals seem completely willing to lump all conservative views into the same batch with those who are furthest to the right, unwilling to acknowledge any good done by the current (admittedly conservative) administration.

Isn’t the heterogenous value proposition just as valid when applied to politics or religion as in interpersonal relationships? Regardless of your sexual orientation, isn’t there practical value to heterosexual relationships that don’t exist in a homosexual one?

I don’t want to pull a Rodney King and yell “Why can’t we all just get along.” I don’t think we need to “get along,” and would suggest that we should endure more conflict than we do.

I just think we need to listen to each other more, and shout at each other (while covering our ears) a lot less.

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