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[Nettime-bold] Feuerstein: I Don't Like Your Examples!

Date: Wed, 18 Oct 2000 21:07:53 -0100
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Subject: Feuerstein: I Don't Like Your Examples!


   Steven Feuerstein    I Don't Like Your Examples!
   by Steven Feuerstein, author of numerous O'Reilly Oracle books
   11 October 2000

   I have been writing books about the Oracle PL/SQL programming language
   for the last five years. In 1999, O'Reilly published my fourth book,
   Oracle PL/SQL Programming Guide to Oracle8i Features, which created a
   bit of an uproar among my readership, caused considerable discussion
   within O'Reilly, and led to my writing this article.
   Why did this book cause a sensation? Consider this excerpt from
   Chapter 2:
     Let's look at a simple example. Suppose you are responsible for
     building a database to keep track of war criminals for the
     International Court of Justice. You create a package called wcpkg
     to keep track of alleged war criminals. One of the programs in the
     package registers a new criminal. You want that register program to
     always save its changes, even if the calling program hasn't yet
     issued a COMMIT. These characters are, after all, fairly slippery
     and you don't want them to get away.
     The package specification holds no surprises; the transaction type
     is not evident here:
         ...     PROCEDURE register (
             culprit IN VARCHAR2, event IN VARCHAR2);
     END wcpkg;
     The package body, however, contains that new and wonderful pragma:
         PROCEDURE register (
             culprit IN VARCHAR2, event IN VARCHAR2)
             INSERT INTO war_criminal (name, activity)
                 VALUES (culprit, event);
     END wcpkg;
     And now when I call wcpkg.register, I am assured that my changes
     have been duly recorded:
         wcpkg.register ('Kissinger', 'Secret Bombing of Cambodia');
   Now, I expect it's not every day you pick up a technology text and
   read a charge that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal for the secret
   bombing of Cambodia. The examples I used in this book, in fact, were
   dramatically different from my earlier texts--and from just about any
   technology book you can buy. Here are some of the other topics I
   incorporated into my text:
     * Excessive CEO compensation--and excessive, destructive layoffs
     * Union-busting activities
     * Positive role of unions in society
     * Police brutality
     * NATO bombing of civilian targets in Serbia
     * Managed Care
     * National Rifle Association and gun control
     * The prison industry
     * Slashing social programs to finance tax cuts
   I did give my readers ample warning. Here is a section from the
   preface titled "About the Examples."
                                            [dotclear.gif] [dotclear.gif]
      [dotclear.gif] It's not every day you pick up a technology text and
       read...Henry Kissinger is a war criminal for the secret bombing of
                                            [dotclear.gif] [dotclear.gif]
     "I've been writing intensively about PL/SQL since 1994, and I have
     a great time doing it. At the same time, I must admit that I have
     simultaneously grown a little bit bored with using the same set of
     examples again and again (yes, those infamous emp/employee and
     dept/department tables), and I'm also very concerned about the
     state of the world as we approach the end of the twentieth century.
     Sure, things could be worse, but things could be a whole lot better
     (with my examples and the world).
     "Given these twin preoccupations, I have decided to offer examples
     that are decidedly different from the usual. I'll be talking about
     topics ranging from the state of health care in the United States
     to the strength of the gun lobby, from wage structures to
     environmental issues. I believe that even if you don't agree with
     the positions I have on a particular issue, you will find that this
     "breath of fresh air" approach will help you engage with the
     technical material.
     "I would also be very happy to hear from you--whether you agree or
     disagree!--and I encourage you to visit my Web site, at, where you can read more about my life and
     viewpoints and can get in touch."
How Fresh is That Air?

   Though I thought these examples would be a "breath of fresh air," some
   of my readers felt that the air stank. Here are some typical
     Dear Mr. Feuerstein,
     I, thankfully before buying the book, was able to peruse a copy of
     your latest PL/SQL programming book. I think you have forgotten one
     basic principle when you planned the examples. This was supposed to
     be a book about PL/SQL, not blatant sociopolitical rantings. If I
     had bought the book, I would be returning it immediately for a
     complete refund. It doesn't matter whether I agreed or disagreed
     with your views (in some cases I agreed, in some cases I strongly
     disagreed). I found the examples so distracting that I was unable
     to get the information I needed out of the book. Please in the
     future, remember that we, the book buyers, are looking for
     information about using PL/SQL. I am as tired of the emp and dept
     tables as you are, but less distracting examples would have been
     more appropriate.
     Personally, I am no longer buying your books nor am I recommending
     them to my clients as long as they contain the types of examples
     you used in your latest books. I cannot, in good conscience,
     recommend them as PL/SQL manuals because the examples removed the
     books from that category.
   I have to admit, getting emails like these has not been fun. Here's
                                            [dotclear.gif] [dotclear.gif]
      [dotclear.gif] How often do you see real political debate, crossing
                                       the entire spectrum, taking place?
                                            [dotclear.gif] [dotclear.gif]
     I have just been shown a copy of the Guide to Oracle 8i Features
     and to be quite honest am embarrassed on behalf of the O'Reilly
     publishing company. It is well-known throughout the industry that
     O'Reilly books are said to be the bibles for technical reference. I
     am appalled at the liberty that Feuerstein has taken in imposing
     his personal beliefs throughout the text and examples and am even
     more appalled that O'Reilly allowed this kind of content to be
     published. It is highly offensive regardless of freedom of speech
     and Mr. Feuerstein's belief system and to choose such an unwilling
     audience is absurd! I will not buy this book and will tell each and
     every person I know in the industry to do the same. I will as well
     be cautious when purchasing and or recommending any other O'Reilly
     technical reference books. This is not the forum for this kind of
   You get the idea. Now, I should also mention that:
     * I have received at least an equal amount of emails praising this
       particular book, sometimes for the political content explicitly,
       sometimes simply for the technical content, indicating that my
       choice of examples was not problematic.
     * O'Reilly & Associates reviewed the book's content and its lawyers
       did recommend making a few changes. (They didn't, for example,
       want me to explicitly and blatantly accuse a sitting governor of
     * This book became a subject of active debate among O'Reilly editors
       about what limits, if any, should be placed on an author's desire
       to include possibly controversial examples.
     * Tim O'Reilly and I talked about this subject at length and he
       thought that it would make a great topic for public discussion. So
       here I am!
   All the negative--in some cases strongly negative--feedback I got sent
   me back to the book to examine the content and ask myself some
   questions: Was I wrong to include this content? Why is it so difficult
   for people, especially those in the United States, to hear viewpoints
   that make them uncomfortable? Would I be willing to put these kinds of
   examples in my "bestseller," the foundation of my series, Oracle
   PL/SQL Programming, and take a chance at putting off readers? Were my
   examples full of opinions or facts? Can I really separate the two? And
   what about the examples in all those other books (mine and the several
   hundred other Oracle books, and thousands of other technical books)?
   Are they all free of political content?
Democracy and Political Discourse

   As I work on this article, I am flying back from a week's teaching in
   the United Kingdom. As is usual when I spend time outside the United
   States, and particularly in the U.K. (where I can understand the
   language), I am struck by the open political discourse--and open
   challenge--in the media and among individuals.
                                            [dotclear.gif] [dotclear.gif]
              [dotclear.gif] It is very difficult to talk politics in our
         society--especially if your politics are anywhere to the left of
                                            [dotclear.gif] [dotclear.gif]
   It seems to me that one part of having a true and vibrant democracy is
   the free flow of ideas and active debate among neighbors on the
   crucial issues of our day. Does that go on around you? I sure don't
   experience it in my neck of the woods. On the contrary, I find that,
   in the United States, very few people are willing to talk "politics."
   It is, along with the topic of money and sex, generally veered away
   from in trepidation. Better to comment on the weather and sports.
   Where would such an attitude come from? Much of any individual's
   behavior in society is patterned after what she or he perceives to be
   acceptable. Most of us do not want to stand out as different, and
   certainly not as "troublemakers." What determines acceptability in our
   society? To a large extent, the mass media.
   Reflect on the television, radio, and print media reports you receive:
   How often do you see real political debate, crossing the entire
   spectrum, taking place? How often do you hear a member of the media
   truly challenge politicians and business "leaders" to justify their
   policies and actions? I believe that very little real debate ever
   takes place and our journalists, especially the high-profile ones,
   treat those in power with kid gloves. Sometimes it seems like there is
   a debate going on (within a T.V. program like "Crossfire," for
   example), but in fact that debate is missing/ignoring/silencing a
   large swath of viewpoints: pretty much anything to the left of Bill
   As a result, it is very difficult to talk politics in our
   society--especially if your politics are anywhere to the left of
   center. And it is almost impossible to present an informed,
   sophisticated critique of the role of global capitalism in the world
   Now, you might well say to yourself, "Who cares?" You like global
   capitalism. You don't think it's all that bad, or at least you don't
   care if a few hundred million people are paid pennies for their labor.
   And, well, you don't want to talk politics. That's fine. That's your
   choice. But I also believe that almost every technology book we buy
   and read is full of politics.
The Hidden and Prevailing Ideology

   I believe that just about every technical book comes with a body of
   politics, an ideology that governs and usually restricts its example
   set. We don't notice the political slant because it reflects the
   dominant viewpoint in our society and is thus invisible.
   After reviewing many books, I feel comfortable in summarizing the vast
   majority of texts as having these characteristics:
   [dotclear.gif] [dotclear.gif]
   [dotclear.gif] I don't see [the gain] from the unwritten but
   rigorously followed rules that technical books the
   status quo in our society. 
   [dotclear.gif] [dotclear.gif]
     * Business-centric: Most examples used in technology books focus on
       how to make business work more efficiently, regardless of its
       impact on human society and the world as a whole. As a result, we
       constantly read about human-resource or personnel systems. And
       while examples frequently touch on education, these applications
       have more to do with managing students (the business side of
       education) than with improving the quality of education those
       students receive. All of this seems perfectly "natural" since the
       vast majority of technology is used by businesses to make profits.
       But does it have to be that way?
     Consumer-oriented: Many, many examples promote the perspective that
       the only reason we exist in this world is to buy things. Just
       about every book about the Internet focuses on some aspect of
       e-commerce, such as how to maximize the use of banner ads, how to
       grab and hold eyeballs, how to present product information
       In 1999 Addison-Wesley published a truly marvelous book titled
       Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code, by Martin
       Fowler. In it, Martin offers a systematic method for improving the
       quality of our code without affecting the interface to and
       behavior of that code. To demonstrate his techniques, the author
       offers a refreshing example: video rentals. Yet it still comes
       down to commerce. We are what we buy, not what we think and do
       with our lives outside of the exchange of items for money.
     Humans as numbered entities: This is particularly true in
       database-related books (including my own!). Technology is
       presented through a medium of scenarios that represent--and
       manipulate--humans as numbers. Just about any Oracle text you pick
       up is dominated by "emp-dept" examples: a personnel application
       that talks about salaries, bonuses, and commissions, when you were
       hired, which department you belong to, the name of an employee
       based on an employee_id, and so on. The message, so clearly
       presented in this dominant theme, is that we are defined primarily
       as workers and our value in life is derived from the contribution
       we make to our employer.
     Everything and anything as numbered entities: Hey, it's not just
       people! Technical examples extend the quantification approach to
       natural resources, information, entertainment, etc. Oracle also
       offers a standard demonstration base of tables and data for a
       sales/order entry system. This, of course, makes perfect sense in
       the world of Oracle--driven by the obsessive personality of Larry
       Ellison to sell, sell, sell software and services. (I own shares
       of Oracle stock and have benefitted directly from Larry's
       There are exceptions. Scott Urman's latest book on PL/SQL,
       Oracle8i Advanced PL/SQL Programming, uses a college registration
       system as his example base. [Editor's Note: We tried linking to
       Scott Urman's book on the McGraw-Hill Web site, but the nature of
       their URLs made that impossible.] Although many American colleges
       are overly focused on preparing young people for a life of
       drudgery in one job or another (and corporations are
       commercializing higher education to an alarming degree), I
       congratulate Scott on taking a road less traveled.
Breathing Life Into Technical Books

   I could go on and on, but I think you get the drift. The bottom line
   for me is that books written about technology are written by human
   beings with perspectives and beliefs. Some of us center our lives
   around a particular technology or around the business applications of
   that technology. Many of us see the technology as one part of a rich,
   complex way of life--and dream of ways that this technology can
   transform and improve human society and our planet. I don't see what
   any of us gain--writers and readers alike--from the unwritten but
   nonetheless rigorously followed rules that technical books must
   conform to and further support the status quo in our society.

    2000, O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.

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