I christen thee … Samizdat!

In 1625, King Gustav of Sweden commissioned a warship, the flagship of his fleet, to be called the Vasa. Built to the king’s own specifications, the ship would be the largest in the world — a fitting symbol of Sweden’s naval might. August 10, 1628 was a sunny day, and crowds turned out to see Vasa launched. The great ship was indeed a beautiful sight. As the city cheered, she slipped into the waters of Stockholm harbor, sailed a mile or so, turned upside-down and sank to the bottom.

It was the most humiliating ship-launching in naval history.

On May 14, 2004, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution announced the upcoming release of a book by its president, Ken Brown, to be titled Samizdat. According to the AdTI press release the book would “directly [challenge] Linus Torvalds’ claim to be the inventor of Linux.” With obvious pride, AdTI said that

Brown’s account is based on extensive interviews with more than two dozen leading technologists in the United States, Europe, and Australia, including Richard Stallman, Dennis Ritchie, and Andrew Tanenbaum.

The announcement caused a flurry of publicity. Within two weeks, nearly every well-known name associated with Unix and Linux (including Richard Stallman, Dennis Ritchie, and Andrew Tanenbaum) had weighed in, and their opinion of Brown’s thesis was unanimous.

Andrew Tanenbaum, Brown’s primary source, published a brilliant (and often hilarious) account of Brown’s efforts to tease accusatory statements from him, contradicting him on every point and remarking in passing that Brown is “not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

Alexei Toptygin, the expert Brown had hired to find evidence of copied code in Linux revealed that his analysis had found just the opposite, and that Brown had promptly dropped the code comparison from discussion. About Ken Brown, Toptygin remarked in passing that “to the best of my knowledge he is talking out of his ass.”

Knowledgable people from all corners of the Unix / Linux universe added their respective takes to the discussion. Eric Raymond remarked in passing that “Judging by these excerpts, this book is a disaster.”

Failing even to do Ken Brown the courtesy of being offended, Linus Torvalds offered his own theory: Linux was written by “the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.”

Comments from the experts continued to stream in over the following weeks.
Ilkka Tuomi, the author of a study of the credits list of the Linux kernel, remarked in passing that “he tried to help Mr. Brown to comprehend the study, but that he had ‘only limited success'”.

But the unkindest cut was administered by Microsoft. After a month of hideous embarrassment over what Redmond must have seen as the spectacular incompetence of its PR firm, a company spokesman called the study “an unhelpful distraction from what matters most — providing the best technology for our customers.”

For AdTI, a pseudo think-tank funded largely by Microsoft, and for Ken Brown, that must have been tough to take.

Today, over a year later, the book remains unpublished, and AdTI is doing everything it can to pretend it all never happened.
This may have been the most humiliating attempted launch of a book in publishing history.

2 Responses to “I christen thee … Samizdat!

  1. coturnix Says:

    That is soooo funny.

    BTW, I went to the Wasa museum in Stockholm. Whoever celebrates the biggest national embarassment with a museum!? Still, it was impressive to see.

  2. Wayne Says:

    It’s April 15, 2007, and Brown’s book is now longer shown as available by the publisher, though the ADTI website still links to the publisher’s site. I wonder if Ken now wishes he’d never heard of Linux?

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