Leonard's old Segfault stories
2007/01/24 - From 1998 to 2001 I was an editor, and
eventually the editor, of the online geek humor site
segfault.org. I'm not particularly proud of this. For the first year
of its life, Segfault had an effectively unmoderated comment system,
and it bred not only hideous trolls but an entire subculture of
hideous trolling. We left the comment cesspit untouched for far longer
than we should have, because we were working from an incorrect model
of how the web fosters free speech. The Wikipedia
article makes it sound Segfault was the proving ground for the
modern techniques of Slashdot trolls, which is probably within a
Wikipedia-sigma of accuracy. So I apologize for that.
The other reason I'm not too proud of Segfault is that the concept
turned out to be flawed. The idea was that Segfault would be an
operational parody of Slashdot (for the youngsters in the crowd,
imagine Slashdot as a cross between Digg and Boing Boing). The geeky
masses would submit their hilarious satirical news stories to us, and
we'd aggregate the best ones by publishing them on our site. In
retrospect, this was exactly the kind of fuzzy idea that people come
up with while there's an Internet bubble on.
See, submitting a link to Slashdot is easy because someone else
(the person at the other end of the link) has already done the work of
being interesting. To write a good satirical news story you must have
1) a funny idea, and 2) the ability to write. Comedy is humor plus
delivery. It was a rare Segfault submitter who combined these
qualities, and despite my attempts to punch up the "funny idea"
stories, the expected quality of even the published Segfault stories
was pretty low. So Segfault stumbled along for three years publishing
"eh" stories and occasional gems, and when our host (VA Linux, now VA
Software) destroyed the site in a hard drive mishap I didn't exactly
have a whole lot of incentive to get it running again.
But there are some things about Segfault that I remember fondly and at
a safe distance. There were the stories that burst free of Segfault
and became folklore, like the Gospel of
Tux, and the ones that should have but didn't, like RFC 31337 and
Martijn Faassen's series about the busybodies at GOSSIPI (Good Open
Source Software In the Public Interest). There was the story Rick
Miller wrote where he got Linus Torvalds to pose like Bill Gates. I
still think about my own stories, when they were good, and good lines
from my lousy stories (an otherwise unremarkable story had the epic
headline "Linux: Windows Avenger or Worm-Ridden OS of Filth?"). I
think about the way this site let me catch onto some small portion of
the dot-com wave, or at least fool myself into believing I had. And of
course there's the fact that I met my wife through
Maybe enough time has passed that the Segfault stories can be seen
as historical documents, ways of gauging at the obsessions of nerds in
the late 1990s. I look at these stories, and remember the ones from
the slush pile, and I can't believe people were so obsessed with
Microsoft, so fundamentally insecure about Linux and the open source
model. I go weeks now without thinking about Microsoft. If Segfault
were around today it would be full of lame jokes about Google and
Wikipedia. You'd still have the MPAA lawsuit jokes; some things never
That might qualify as humor but I always wanted Segfault to be
satire, to hold a mirror up to the insanity of the times. When I look
back on my early writing, that's what I look for. I've decided to give
a new home to a few of my stories that best capture the fervor that
heralded the rise of Linux, as well as the hubris of the dot-com boom
and the denial stage of the bust.
With that in mind, here are my lame-ass ten-year-old stories.
- 2001/05/08 Open Source Advocate Has Yet To
Rebut Craig Mundie. I wasn't going to put this up because the
"Thermodynamic" story from 1999 covers the same ground more fruitfully
(see below for an analysis), but this was the last story I ever wrote
for Segfault, so it deserves something.
- 2001/03/02: Banner Ads Now Themselves
Have Banner Ads. The second-favorite of my stories. It's the
perfect condensation of the post-boom mentality in the lower end of
the market, where sites like Segfault were firmly rooted.
- 2001/02/13: Bacon Lovers up in Arms Over
Ximian Keyword Purchase. A surreal retelling of one of those
two-day stories that no one remembers a week later (hell, no one
remembers Ximian anymore). Chosen because it's short and contains the
first of only two Segfault mentions of Google.
- 2000/12/24: Tech Journalists Begin
Work on Incompatible Linux Kernel. One of my favorites. The kind
of trade press writing mocked in this article started around 1997
(despite what it says in the article) and I'd guess it let up around
2002. You still see it occasionally; not so much "Linux will fork" as
the other stuff.
- 2000/12/15: Genetically Modified Teosinte
on the Loose. Nowadays I'd be paid big money by some astroturf
organization to write this kind of satire.
- 2000/08/08: Industry Unites Around Vague,
Poorly-Defined Vision. My favorite of my Segfault stories. A focal
point for my Segfault-era bêtes noires: corporate
doublespeak, technological verbiage, bitter rivalries, a servile
press, all backed up by the nagging feeling that none of it matters
even a tiny bit.
- 2000/07/12: CARROT Reforms as STIC, Unveils
Demographic Demands. A tragic story of the crash.
- 2000/07/09: 13-Year-Old 'r00ts' Popular
Polynomial. This got picked up by Crypto-Gram and RISKS Digest,
giving me a couple moments of fame. It's just math silliness, though
it gets in some interesting pre-9/11 digs at security theater.
- 2000/05/14: FSF Violating the GPL?
Pretty much a straight parody of 20 or 30 Slashdot stories, where
breathlessness outranked cluefullness by a wide margin. Frederick Lee
was a friend I was in college with at the time.
- 2000/02/23: "What If Linus Torvalds Gets Hit By
A Bus?" - An Empirical Study. WILTGHBAB? was a common bogeyman
among Concerned Nerds and the trade press. These days the phrase
mostly turns up people talking about this article.
- 2000/01/05: Microsoft Knowledge Base:
Not Installing Linux. My foray into Microsoft-bashing. My favorite
Microsoft joke was making fun of how official Microspeak always used
the full and complete names of the products complete with service pack
number. But that joke could never really carry anything else. Oh,
another joke I picked up as an editor was to use question marks
instead of quotation marks when quoting Microsoft employees. Smart
quotes, y'see. I'm fairly confident nobody at all saw that joke.
- 1999/12/16: Linux and the Use-Mention
Distinction. Terrible headline. A story about the then-common
technique of attempting to save your flailing dot-com company by
hitching it to the Linux bandwagon with a speech act. The strange last
paragraph about mowing the lawn is making fun of something ESR wrote
about the VA IPO.
- 1999/10/31: DST Bug Causes Widespread
Panic. Self-explanatory. I like the incongrous descent into city
politics at the end.
- 1999/10/11: Netscape 4.8 to Feature More
Bugs, Useless Crap. Probably the most accurate story Segfault ever
- 1999/10/07: Thermodynamic
catastrophe looms; insane number of "Linux Myths" rebuttals
blamed. There really was this super defensive pile-on effect. It
was an extremely useless time-waster in a crowded field of useless
ways of wasting time, and it lasted well into 2001, as my final
Segfault story demonstrates. Nowadays you mainly see this behavior in
the political realm. The "Linux Myths" page is long gone, as is
Windows NT, but if you're curious here's a page from Linux
Weekly News that quotes some of it.
- 1999/09/16: Press Release Successfully
Disguised as News Article. Self-explanatory. I like the made-up
headlines from other publications.
- 1999/07/05: Calling All
Investors. Lame headline, good story. My dot-com reductio.
- 1999/04/15: NT outperforms self on same
hardware. Another thing that was a huge deal at the time but now
who cares, or even remembers? Microsoft paid off some folks to do a
rigged demo, and they really did find some problems with Linux. This
semi-funny story was the result, or more accurately one of about a
billion results, most of them totally pointless. The only useful
result was that the problems with Linux got fixed. It's not a great
story but it's historical, it's short, and it's got a graphic.
- 1999/04/12: Jabba the Hutt offers bounty on
XSL implementation. Silliness, based on the ubiquitous use of
"bounty" in press coverage of Sun's similar move. Sometimes I still
say the Jabba lines from this story in a booming Jabba voice. Not when
other people are around.
- 1998/11/19: Media Watch: Coverage of SuSE,
Red Hat support announcements. The first in my "awful headline"
series. One of the standard 1990s arguments against using Linux was
that you couldn't buy support for it. Like most such arguments it was
more a defense mechanism than a real argument, so the fact that you
could pay for support did nothing to dispel it. Today I read a
weblog entry that said something like "So you're thinking of
installing Linux. Oracle and Red Hat give you all the enterprise cred
you need, but what about X?" X being some trivial thing. Concerned
Nerds would have wept to have read that sentence in 1998. But they
would have found the word "cred" a little odd.
- 1998/09/14: Security Alert: Bug Found in
GNU Acronym. Good idea but not as funny as I remember. This was
reprinted in a humor section on gnu.org for a couple of years, which I
thought was quite the deal, and you can still find it elsewhere on the
web. Since Jake Berendes's name is in the body of the story and mine
is just in the metadata (Jake helped me with the Esperanto), he
usually gets more credit for this story than I do.
- 1998/08/11: "Microsoft stole my pants",
alleges Caldera CEO. I wanted to include one of my very first
stories, and this one at least had a funny headline. This was probably
the second story I wrote for Segfault. The first was an extended riff
on the pun "Open Sores". I used to think that was a hilarious story
and that anyone else who used that joke had ripped it off from me, but
I just read it and it's not that good, and these days no one even
bothers to rip off the joke anymore. So mellow out, earlier version of
Be Dope Bonus
I also wrote three stories for Be Dope, the boom-era geek
humor site whose archives are still online. Here they are:
- 2001/01/11: eVilla
vs. Godzilla. Great stuff. Unfortunately, the crash came long
before I ever got the idea to put Godzilla's mission statement on my
own business cards. PS: I can't believe I actually researched the name
of the biologist to quote in the story. PPS: I can't believe I just
looked it up again to see if that's what I did.
- 2000/07/25: Be's
Tim Self Deallocated in Freak Accident. Takes about as many
liberties with Squeak programming as the average SF movie takes
- 1999/07/01: Be
Assures Users: Your Ass is Safe. The Jean-Louis Gassée
quote has aged well, like a fine wine.