Random thoughts:

Richard Cunningham connected some dots I’d missed with last week’s column about the need for consensus in product design. Because, he said, each element of design (engineering, marketability, manufacturability, design, profitability and so on) affects all of the other elements, “… it seems like compromising is a process of each party accepting something suboptimal to what they want for the good of the overall result.”

Bullseye. Consensus leads to superior results when all participants are committed to a common overall purpose. When that isn’t the case, even a room full of geniuses becomes a collective idiot.

Among those not committed to a common purpose are the purveyors of spam; the common purpose to which they aren’t aligned is the health and well-being of the Internet they rely on — a classic example of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.”

Spam has no clear definition. To some, it’s any unwanted e-mail — a definition that is clear but circular. To others, it’s unsolicited promotional e-mail that’s sent to a large list. I’ve already critiqued that one; it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

I have a new definition, or at least a new criterion, which if not comprehensive is at least immune from what scientists and diagnosticians call “Type 1 Errors,” otherwise known as false positives. It’s this: If an e-mail’s Subject line, auto-preview, and content aren’t consistent, it’s spam. If the sender has to trick you into opening a message, there’s no question as to whether it belongs in the junk bin.

What I don’t understand is why anyone bothers to send stuff like this. Whether it’s physical direct mail or promotional e-mail, if you know the recipient won’t be interested before you send it, what’s the point? I always figured it was to make money, but with these the only possible result is aggravating the recipient, with no hope of a sale.

Why cheat when it’s pointless?

It’s a question that comes up over and over again, as when reading about multibillionaires who violate insider trading laws to make a $50 thousand profit, or when looking at Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Advantage license validation program. Advantage? Sure — and down is the same as up only farther. Microsoft seems to have launched it without first making sure that (1) the software works properly; (2) its database includes all vendor pre-installs; and (3) its technical support staff have been properly trained to always give the benefit of the doubt to the caller.

Ed Foster has been reporting on this story. The short version: It appears Microsoft is requiring lots of people to pay it for licenses they already own.

I hope it’s an example of Napoleon’s dictum that you shouldn’t ascribe to malice what you can explain through incompetence. Otherwise it’s an example of cheating when you don’t have to. There just can’t be enough money involved for this to matter to Microsoft, in spite of its whining about pirated copies of Windows XP.

If you add Microsoft’s cost of tech support calls, this one-license-at-a-time approach has to cost a lot more than going after those who sell the pirated copies in bulk. Beyond that, the odds of someone filing a class-action lawsuit are, if I were to calculate the odds, approximately certain, and Microsoft will spend more to make the lawsuit go away than it can possibly be making with this program.

This would seem to be a perfect opportunity for those promoting desktop Linux. It would, except for one small problem: Whoever is responsible for desktop Linux’s success is doing their best to make it a chancy proposition for CIOs.

Oh, I forgot. Nobody is responsible, and the result is that, more than a year after Open Office 2.0’s official release (the version you need if you want to exchange files with MS Office without dying of acute annoyance), it’s still listed as “test” for at least the widely used Debian distribution — the basis for some of the more popular desktop Linux brands. CIOs don’t want to wonder whether the software they need will be compatible with the Linux version they choose. They’re looking to reduce their headaches, not make them worse.

Which brings up an important question: What is the point of making the various Linux distributions different enough that software stable on some is unreliable on others?

The open source “community” represents itself as having common goals and purpose. That must not be the case, because if it was, its members would be willing to make the minor sub-optimizations necessary to achieve easy compatibility among versions.

Clearly, they aren’t in consensus.