RSS, sick finches, and a bouncing ball

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I sent an email to Dave Winer and Rogers Cadenhead yesterday morning with a question:

Which came first: the business disagreement or the problems with the RSS Board?

If the issue between Dave Winer and Rogers Cadenhead was one of two people disagreeing about business, I wouldn’t have been that interested in the events. Being a contractor, I have some sympathies for Rogers, because I also have entered into working relationships based on a verbal contract. At the same time, I have had long experience with Dave Winer, and one could say to Rogers, “Rogers, you’ve made your bed, and now you have to sleep with the devil.”

Regardless, if it was only a business disagreement between two people, the issue would be done and over. But it isn’t just a business disagreement.

A couple of months ago, Rogers began to publicly discuss ongoing effort with the RSS advisory Board. The Board would, he said, be creating a document that would clarify several elements of the RSS specification. The hope was that this could avoid some of the confusion that has impacted on many of us.

Evidentially, Dave Winer disagreed with the Board’s efforts. Disagreed to the point that at one time, when Seth Russell created a cartoon featuring Dave Winer as Big Dog–a nickname I coined–Winer wrote a post calling him and others who used this term,anti-Semitic, and likened us to Nazis. He subsequently pulled the post.

However, Winer didn’t pull another post, where he implies that Sam Ruby had an agenda in regards RSS, and hence so did IBM, Sam’s employer. At the time, Sam supported Rogers efforts because of his own efforts with the feed validator. Winer didn’t interpret Sam’s interest this way. He wrote:

Here’s an illustration of tech industry interference with RSS. That’s Sam Ruby, the lead of the Atom working group, an employee of IBM, trying to rewrite the rules of RSS 2.0. Do you understand what he’s saying? I don’t. Assuming he means well, which I think is a stretch (he’s got a huge conflict of interest) he surely doesn’t understand the philosophy of RSS 2.0. Does management at IBM know he’s doing this, is this part of a strategy to keep their lock on the enterprise software business, which RSS clearly is a threat to? Like Sam, they have a conflict of interest too. In the tech world, I’ve learned that if you think the worst of people’s motives you’re usually right. IBM doesn’t generally go for the high road. In any case, IBM should call him off, now. Atom is fine, let people use that if they want, but if you screw with RSS, we’re going to shine the light on you.

You’ve heard all this before–too many times. But let’s take a look at the chronology of events:

In 2005, Dave Winer and Rogers Cadenhead into an agreement over the Share Your OPML web site.

In early December, Rogers and Dave Winer could not come to a written agreement on their verbal contract. According to Rogers, the original deal was for a partnership, but the written agreement he received converted the relationship into a work for hire. (See Rogers’ comments for exact wording from the contract.)

January 30th, 2006, Rogers Cadenhead announces the Board.

February 17th, Dave Winer wrote his note about the Board, using the past tense.

February 17th, Rogers Cadenhead wrote his own response to Winer. The discussion escalates.

February 22nd, Dave Winer wrote in the RSS Advisory Board email list:

And with that, I am banging the gavel and ending this experiment of

Tomorrow I will talk individually with all the corporate members of the
“board” and ask them to resign.

Rogers may then wish to propose a new structure, one that is
consistent with the “come back to earth” message.

They may wish to join with him, or they may not.

If anyone else decides to join up with him on the terms of the old
“advisory board” I will talk with each of them individually, until
they see that it serves no purpose.

This process will go on until Rogers gets the idea that it isn’t go to

I may at some time send him a bill for all of my time that he is wasting.

Good night and good luck to all of you.

Remember that Winer was not a member of the board, and had resigned from the board in 2004. Within a few days, two actual members did quit–Dave Sifry from Technorati and Greg Reinacker from Newsgator. Both quit specifically because of the communications with Dave Winer.

March 10th, Rogers receives the email from Winer’s lawyer, demanding the return of the money and some loaned code and data, by Wednesday March 15th–less than a week after him receiving the note.

Now, turning to the emails I exchanged with Rogers yesterday (Dave Winer never responded), I asked him, which came first, the business disagreement or the problems with the RSS Advisory Board. Rogers replied:

The first time I was told that Dave Winer didn’t want to launch
Share Your OPML and expected his initial investment back was on
Feb. 21.

We were at an impasse over a written contract from early
December, but I figured we would work something out. As I told
him in February, my preference was to reach an agreement that
enabled one of us to recoup his investment and the other to
launch the application. That’s still my preference today.

The timing was such that it seemed to me that Rogers was being ‘punished’ for his effort with the Board. If so, wouldn’t this impact on the board, and on RSS? Rogers responded with:

I’m concerned about that, for two reasons:

1. People shouldn’t have to endure attacks to their professional
career because they wanted to help the RSS community by joining
the board. That was true of Dave Sifry and Greg Reinacker, as I
told them when they first considered quitting, and it’s true in
my case.

2. The board needs to coexist with Dave Winer because of his role
in RSS 2.0.

If I reach a point where I feel like my presence on the board is
a hindrance because of outside matters, I’ll move on.

Just to clarify, I asked Rogers a direct question: Do you feel your Board activities led to this business disruption? He replied with:

Yep, in the sense that our impasse seems pretty easy to resolve
if both parties are interested in doing so. But Dave flipped a
switch when the RSS board went public.

I’m not unhappy that the business relationship has soured,
because I’d rather learn that before a launch, even if it
ultimately costs me another $5,000.

But it would be nice not to have the threat of litigation hanging
over my head, which stresses my wife and I out.

According to Dave Winer’s view of the issue, Rogers would not sign the agreement, Winer asked for his money and the code and Rogers did not give him either. They both agreed to have their lawyers talk with each other, to work things out. Dave Winer then had his lawyer write to tell Rogers to return the money, the code, and do so in five days. It would work out, Dave Winer writes, if:

He can take down the site, return my software and content, and pay me back the money.

By Winer’s own words, no compromise would even be considered.

So what does this have to do with us? After all, this is a personal business dispute between two individuals — a divorce, if you will, between two who once were friends and business associates. Normally in a divorce, though, the first question asked is, “What about the children?”

What about the children?

I want to leave the subject of this dispute for the moment and talk about something else: my finch garden.

I and my roommate have been putting out a mix of seeds and nuts out on the dirt in front of our window, hoping to attract birds and other critters. Over the last two years we’ve managed to gather a regular following of finches, mourning doves, cardinals, squirrels, and rabbits. They’ve provided entertainment for both of us, as well as our cat.

However, the last few months we noticed something that disturbed both of us. Many of the birds and animals showing up have something wrong with them: one squirrel is missing a left paw, another looks absolutely ratty, a third had its right side of its face swollen and so on. As for the birds, one finch looks like half its head has been smashed in, another has what could be a deformed wing, and on and on.

We also discovered that hawks have taken to hanging around in the trees around our place, hoping for easy pickings on finches lured into the open by our ‘finch garden’.

What we’ve found is we’ve disrupted the environment of our immediate area, and animals that should be dying are surviving thanks to our intervention (not to mention animals are dying thanks to our intervention). Unfortunately, what we’re doing is increasing the numbers of wildlife around our building, when naturally, there wouldn’t be enough food to support the numbers.

The reason I bring this up is that what we’ve done to the natural ecology of our area is what’s been happening with RSS 2.0 in the last few years: we’ve all been compensating for a specification that is, frankly, ill. If there had been no such compensation, it would have died out, almost from the moment of its birth.

It a popular specification, though, made more so by the single-minded dedication of its lead creator, Dave Winer. As an example of evangelism, there is no finer than Dave Winer’s determined and consistent support of RSS, particularly RSS 2.0. It is because of Winer’s evangelism, and the popularity of RSS 2.0 that big companies have embraced the specification: companies such as Apple and Microsoft. And like the hawk on the branch looking for finches to come to the garden, Microsoft and Apple are ready to swoop down to pick up any tasty bit–adding their own stamp to the RSS 2.0 implementation. They do so not because they’re ‘evil’–after all, the hawk isn’t evil for wanting to survive. No, they do so because they want to stay in business and doing so requires that they compete, and continue to compete.

Unfortunately though, the vulnerabilities inherent RSS 2.0 combined with some of the company modifications have only added to the confusion about how this specification is to be interpreted.

It isn’t the fault of RSS 2.0 when it gets picked at, as it isn’t the fault of the finches to fall victim to the hawks when they come to feed in our garden, or the hawk for wanting a consistent food source. It isn’t the fault of RSS 2.0 that’s it been left in a vulnerable state, requiring constant intervention in order to survive, as it isn’t the fault of damaged and sick squirrels kept alive by an artificial food source.

In both instances, the responsibility rests firmly on the caretakers.

Realizing what we had done by creating our finch garden, I and my roommate made a decision to gradually decrease the amount of seed we put out until we stop about when the food sources around our home are at their peak. It will be difficult to see our friends, the finches, gather in the branches overhead, waiting for seed; or to watch Lefty as he comes up to our screened window and peers in, and knowing we can’t toss out his favorite cracked corn.

As for RSS, if Cadenhead and Winer are at an impasse in their negotiations, we are now at an impasse in the care of RSS 2.0. Of all the RSS Advistory Board members, past and current, Rogers is the only one who sought to actively close the vulnerabilities inherent in RSS 2.0; leaving a stronger and healthier specification. Past members came and went with nary a word, though some exits from the board seemed to be hastier than others. The current custodian of the RSS 2.0 copyright, Harvard, takes a passive view of the specification–seemingly willing to have the authority over the specification, without accepting any responsibility for its care.

Whatever your personal opinion is of Rogers, whether you consider him a friend or not, no one can deny that his effort with the new advisory board isn’t the first real step in making RSS 2.0 a better specification. Now, though, he’s embroiled in a legal matter with the creator of RSS 2.0, Dave Winer, and as such, any actions he does from this point on will be suspect–a state of affairs most likely encouraged by those who have more voice and clout in this environment than he himself does.

There really is no other option but for Rogers to resign from the Advisory Board, but to do so is tantamount to admitting that obfuscation wins out over clarity; mediocrity over excellence; and though the meek may inherent the earth, weblogging belongs to the aggressive, and he with the most points, wins.

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