The Fear of Knowledge

I had the opportunity of listening to a presentation by a poorly-informed faculty member at my school regarding copyright laws.  This was an eye-opening experience for me into the way those who believe to have a solid grasp of copyright view it.  My class of 30+ students listened intently, believing everything they were told, as Mrs. Smith started her lecture…

This teacher (whom I’m referring to as Mrs. Smith) is very knowledgeable about what she does.  Her job mandates that she know a lot of “facts”  about copyright.  (“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts.  Facts can obscure the truth.” – Maya Angelou)  It is quite apparent that she learned about copyright from the same place as other teachers who are obsessed with “facts” about it.  Just do a Google search for “copyright for teachers” to see what I mean.

The presentation started with Mrs. Smith explaining to us a very basic overview of what copyright it, things even monkeys probably know. (Though, I admit, the class was not packed with monkeys.)  “Any violation of copyright law is called plagiarism,” she explained.  She went on to tell us a story about a woman from Duluth who was caught downloading only 24 songs illegally, and was charged over $200,000.  “You will get caught,” she exclaimed.  The truth behind this court case was obscured by her “facts”.  The lady in question, Jammie Thomas, a single mother of two, was sent a text message by the record companies telling her that they knew she was sharing at least 1,702 songs, and that she needed to stop immediately.  She didn’t.  She received a letter in the mail asking her to settle for a rather small amount of money.  She replaced her hard drive, and took the issue to court.  The lawsuit itself was over only 24 of those songs, for which she was charged $222,000.

“Do you know who you are stealing from?” she asked.  “The artists.  Every time you illegally download a song, those artists lose the money that is rightfully theirs.”  In reality, though, the artists only make about $1 from every full-length CD sold.  Online, it can be an even lower percentage.  It has been shown that illegal file sharing actually helps the artists, though no major media company will allow these types of stories on their news networks.  Think about it this way: the artists see so little of the money that their music sells for.  Sharing this music gets it out to more people, boosting the popularity of the artist.  If you were an artist, would you rather have your music reach everybody in the world and become extremely popular, or reach fewer people and make a small sum of money from the sales?  Most of an artist’s revenue comes from live concerts, and ticket prices are directly correlated with popularity.  “Some artists put their music in the public domain, just to get it out there, but almost all free downloads you find are illegal,” stated Mrs. Smith.  Artists don’t benefit from public domain music, which is probably the reason that very few public domain tracks exist.  Most prefer a Creative Commons (or another “some rights reserved”) license, which carries the attribution clause.  She made the assumption that anyone with a copyright will protect all of his/her rights.  This is not the case with the music I compose, nor is it the case with the thousands of people on Jamendo and similar sites.

Regarding academic copyright, Mrs. Smith explained the concept of “fair use”.  “If you are working for academic reasons, you get additional benefits from this system.  You can use any copyrighted material you find in schoolwork, as long as you cite the creator appropriately, and use only pieces small enough to be accepted as ‘fair use’.  Now, fair use includes…”  I raised my hand.  “What about the DMCA?”  “What about it?”  “If it comes from an encrypted source, we are not permitted to touch it, even for ‘fair use’.”  “You’re right.  Every now and then you come across a website that doesn’t allow you to right-click and copy.  Those sites are the exception to this rule, but for everything else, this rule is effective.”

The worst part about Mrs. Smith’s presentation, though, was that the only argument she gave was fear.  Her message can be summed up in a quote of hers: “Don’t do it – you will be caught.”  When her husband brought home illegal DVDs, she apparently told him, “You may not play those on our DVD player.  They are against the law, and we will be caught.”  She told us about how the computers at school were constantly being monitored, and how any administrator could view the screen of any computer at any time.  “Does anyone monitor your computer at home?” she asked random students throughout the class.  Mrs. Smith “explained” to us who was monitoring our computer at home; she claimed that the police, the government, and our ISPs are monitoring our desktops at all times.  The examples she cited mostly involved students getting seen with drugs/alcohol on their Myspace pages.  Our government is becoming more and more involved as a Big Brother every day, but it still cannot watch desktop activity.  It does have the ability to monitor packets from suspicious parties, but those parties are untouchable if they properly anonymity themselves.  Microsoft has the ability to do so much more than the government, so why didn’t she mention them?

Copyright infringement should not be based on fear.  Fear is a very powerful tool that is all to often exploited by governments and those in power to get the information they want stuffed into people’s minds.  Where do you think Mrs. Smith learned this information?  Was it a credible source?  Chances are it was, which brings up the question of who you can really trust.  If people stopped blindly trusting the government, what would happen to fear as a propaganda technique?  When discussing copyright, it is best to decide where your ethics are.  “Should I share an ogg (or mp3) of this out of print CD with my friend?”  “Should I consider a small violation of the DMCA a crime if I will only be using the content for what used to be called ‘fair use’?”  “Should I cite this public domain resource?”  “Should I tell my friends about this artist and give them this audio file to get them interested?”  “Should I download this BBC documentary I found on BitTorrent so I can learn about Elephant migration patterns for my report on African mammals?”  There are so many possibilities.  The government has drawn an unreasonably inhibitory line in the dirt, and used fear to enforce it.  As a result, the only way to figure out what is right or wrong is to make the ethical decision yourself.

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Published in: on May 3, 2009 at 11:03 am  Comments (9)  
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The Future is Here: OpenGoo

Sometimes, it seems, the best and most promising pieces of Free Software can be found in the most unlikely places.  OpenGoo is no exception.  For those unfamiliar with OpenGoo, it is a GPL’ed web office and productivity suite, similar to Google Docs.  I don’t think that most people realize OpenGoo IS the future, not only because of its quality, but also because of its growing need and development model.

OpenGoo fills the largest gap in the world of Free Software today: being able to access and use one’s data equally from anywhere in the world.  This gap doesn’t just exist in the Free Software world, however.  Software as a Service (SaaS) has been trying to fill this gap for some time now.  Free Software and Open File Format advocates use the analogy of “packaging up your data and mailing it to a random company” as an analogy for why people should use Free Software and Open file formats.  People can’t understand or connect to this analogy, because the file is right there on their computer.  They feel this is just an exaggeration, since the document is sitting there on their hard drive.  With SaaS though, people are going to come to realize, after the first large server break-in/crash, that they are giving up all rights to their files.  What can you do, though?  If you want to access your data on the cloud, there seems to be only one choice: sending it off to some random company and praying that they return it when you need it.

As a self-hosted web application, OpenGoo is practically perfect.  The user’s data is accessible from anywhere.  That user can view and edit his/her data using only a web browser, and still have complete control over all of the data.  Pretty soon, the OpenOffice, Kontact, and even Microsoft Office that we know today will vaporize and be unneeded.  As more and more internet-connected devices hit the market, it will become so much more practical to put all of one’s information online instead of confined to a single computer.

The only major flaw currently in this system is the absence of an “offline mode”.  To make data truly accessible, it is important to be able to access it whether connected to the internet or not.  Most of the time, especially on desktop computers, people are online.  But what about mobile access?  Anyone who owns a laptop, cell phone, netbook, or pda will understand what I mean when I say, “Internet access isn’t always available.”  With this additional feature, OpenGoo would become the most accessible Free Software platform for productivity.  Coupled with the overwhelmingly large number of flexible features for a variety of practical usages, it would turn OpenGoo into a truly unique solution for almost anyone wishing to be productive.

Not only is OpenGoo itself innovative, but its business model is genius!  While a select number of project have been using a similar method, OpenGoo really nails it.  They have an option to “sponsor a feature” on their site.  Instead of spending money to restrict oneself with a proprietary package for a desired feature, why not pay someone to implement it in a Free Software solution?  This makes the features accessible to anybody, and carries a similar, if not slightly smaller, price tag for business users.  Since sponsored features appear in the normal releases, these releases are of higher quality than they would have been otherwise.  These features obviously benefit the end users, but they also help out the developers.  The developers have started a company called FengOffice to cater to businesses and provide hosting/maintenance.  It brings the accessibility of Free Software to those who do not have the time, resources, and/or interest to support it.

It may bring up the question of why other Free Software projects don’t adopt this business model.  The answer to that is more disappointing than it would seem.  In order to peak interest, one must have a solid piece of Free Software.  In order to have a solid piece of Free Software, one must have the financial means by which to develop it.  In order to have the financial means by which to develop it, one must peak interest in the product, spiraling the process into an infinite loop.

There are a few ways to get around this, however OpenGoo found their own way.  The one that comes to most peoples’ minds is the study of “Shuttleworthology”.  If an individual can get filthy rich by other means, like Mark Shuttleworth did, then there is certainly a starting point.  Anyone with that much money should consider using that money for good purposes, such as developing software to benefit the general public like Shuttleworth did.  While Shuttleworth didn’t end up using this business model, it is still a good example of how to get a Free Software project rolling.

Nobody from OpenGoo struck it rich in the stock market or had a long lost rich uncle die, though, so how did they get started?  It’s simple: by exciting people about a really cool project, and then opening up commercial services later.  Until recently, none of these commercial ventures were opened.  Now there are a large number of people working to help this company make money.  Ask Microsoft if that ever happened to them!  (Okay, that’s a bad example, people help Microsoft all the time with every non-coding related task imaginable.)  The spreadsheet component is a great example of 3rd party work bettering OpenGoo and FengOffice (even though it is not implemented quite yet).  The number of Javascript spreadsheet editors already available is very limited.  This component was created by computer science students as a project, and will be merged into the main trunk soon.

I strongly suggest anyone with even the slightest interest level check out OpenGoo and FengOffice.  It is really an extrordinary piece of software, and does not recieve nearly as much credit and recognition as it should.  Not only does it fulfill a desperate need, but it does it in style.

Published in: on April 5, 2009 at 2:34 pm  Comments (2)  
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Software Company “Infinite Campus” Lies

Recently, there have been two comments on my blog about Infinite Campus, both of which praise the quality of Infinite Campus.  They were both made within an hour and a half.  Hmmm… I thought I’d better look into this one a little bit more.

They were a lot worse than I initially thought.

The emails were both fake, unless you believe “info4nancy@comcast.net” and “jeff@jeff.com” to be legit email addresses.  The two comments said nothing but good things about this “amazing” company.  They were both apparently from people with authority in large school districts; at least, they implied being from different school districts.  The comments were written in different styles of writing, so one may think they were from different people.

I agree that one should not jump to conclusions.  I won’t.

I thought I would check the IP addresses.  What a surprise.  They were the same.  Why not look that one IP address up on an IP locator out of curiosity?  Hmm… The IP was “207.225.137.8”, so the location is “Minneapolis, MN”.  That’s interesting.  That is where their headquarters is located.  Oh!  This is even more interesting!  The ISP field says “Infinite Campus”.  Do I need a screenshot to prove this?  This commenter believes I need to “check my facts” before writing, so this screenshot will give the reader an opportunity to do so for his/herself.

Response

One of two conclusions can be drawn by this.

  1. Just recently, another school district opened in Minneapolis.  Both this school district, and the existing school district in Minneapolis have broken into a single computer at the Infinite Campus HQ and tunneled through it to steal their bandwidth.  The company Infinite Campus has no idea this is going on, because nothing has been done to stop it.
  2. Infinite Campus, as a company, LIED to the general public to try to get more business.

I’ll assume the latter.

It is scary to me, though, to know that proprietary software companies as well known and widely used as Infinite Campus must LIE to retain their status.  We trust these companies with so much, especially those who make a Student Information System.  Every known piece of personal information about students and their families is put into this system, including a picture.  How can we, in all honesty, know that they haven’t lied to us again?  It is very possible that there is an intentional security hole in there so creepy employees can stalk random students.  This would put more control into their hands than even MySpace or Facebook has.  There is no way to find out, but I can tell you one thing: I don’t want my information in there!  I don’t want my school to unintentionally exploit a creative way to bypass information privacy laws!

This all just goes to show that money comes first for greedy proprietary software companies like Infinite Campus.  Money comes before education.  Money comes before freedom.  Money comes before morals.  Shouldn’t education software companies in particular actually come so far as to think about the morals that educators are trying to instill in their students?

Hey, employees at Infinite Campus!  Give some ethical software a try.  You can take your first steps with one of my previous blog posts.  Even if you never went to college, just like your CEO, you might just learn something!

Published in: on February 23, 2009 at 11:50 pm  Comments (16)  
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Corporations are idiots!!!

Everybody has his/her own reason for using Free Software.  Unfortunately, my favorite reason seems to be among the most “FUDed” by proprietary software companies.  (Behind “Lowering the TCO”)  I personally believe the most important aspect of Free Software is the advancement of society.

Proprietary software companies in power today will probably tell you just the opposite.  “Society can never advance without proprietary software,” they say.  “Nobody would pay developers to write the software if money could not be earned directly from its sale.”  I could go into how companies have managed to get rich by doing exactly that, but I won’t.  Instead, think of it this way.  The cost to develop the software is actually very low.  Take a look at any company you want.  You will see that the actual programmers make up a very very small percentage of the staff.  Most companies don’t release enough data about this kind of thing to actually make that well known.  I sure wish I could reveal what percentage of a certain proprietary software company’s staff are developers. (cough Infinite Campus cough)  I have, however, been inside the headquarters for a small to medium sized publicly traded proprietary software company.  I can assure you that the support team, a group of 4-6 people sitting in a cubical room, was about the same size, if not a little bigger, than the team of developers in the development cubical.  The other 85% of the company went to managing everything.  I wish I had the exact numbers, but I don’t.  I can assure you it made the developers themselves seem irrelevant, which they may have been.  I would be willing to bet that the rest of that team could sell you the next version of that flagship piece of software with no technical changes whatsoever.  In fact, I could almost guarantee it.

My point is  that very little money actually goes to funding development.  The money you spend on proprietary software is used, mainly, to try to get you to buy the update in the future.  There are plenty of people in the Free Software world that could get you to use and/or donate to a certain project.  Just do a Google search on “Best Open Source Applications” and see how many you get.  People promote their favorite Free Software applications because they think they are great, and that enough people don’t know about them.  To properly understand the quantity of promotion that goes on, do a search under “‘you should use firefox’” (in quotes).  At the time of writing, 16,900 results are returned!  Even the phrase “‘I hate george bush’” (in quotes) returns less than half the number of results from the former search.  Remember, though, that this is only one way of saying you advocate for a single piece of Free Software.  (Wording it as “‘I love firefox’” in quotes returns 206,000 results at the time of writing.)  The marketing expense that costs proprietary software companies so much money is annihilated.  Packaging is gone as well, with prepackaged versions only generating additional income.  If the only thing that was paid for was the programming and packaging cost, Microsoft Office would most likely be under $20.

The problem is that companies are sticking to old-world techniques, partially because the government is allowing them to do so.  Companies are treating their software as if it is a commodity.  They have yet to take advantage of the efficiency that can be achieved now.  While using these old methods, society will never advance.  Instead of everyone working on developing similar applications, they keep reinventing the wheel.  According to Michael Tiemann, Red Hat Vice President, the world loses over $1 trillion ever year due to proprietary software.  When you think about it, though, this is not that big of a number.  Think of any software industry.  They all have two or more big proprietary “overlords” that do essentially the same thing, with several other less powerful proprietary alternatives which are often either more lightweight or add some significant feature.  Take the media player market for instance.  iTunes/Quicktime, Windows Media Player, and Real Player dominate this market.  Other than support for various format and services, these players differ very little.  They all just reinvented the wheel.

Had all of the money these media player developers received from their products been used to develop the software, it may be a different story.  Instead, though, a huge amount of money goes into the costs associated with competing against one another.  On top of those costs, of course, we have the cost of actually programming the nearly identical application.

There is another problem with their theory, though.  They call what they are doing “advancing society’s technology” to give their employees a warm fuzzy feeling that they are actually doing something for the benefit of the general public.  I suppose it is kind-of sort-of possible to confuse the advancement of technology with developing proprietary software, but the two are so different!

Think of it this way.  Lets say we figure out how to send things back in time.  We send a modern high powered computer back to the year 1900 (along with a “using computers for dummies” book for the sake of this example).  This would, in many ways, be like the proprietary software we have in society today.  The people that received the computer would have access to something that does wonderful things.  It would not, in any way shape or form however, advance their technology.  The people would hail it as a miracle, and be able to do a few useful things with it.  No matter what happened, these people would never really figure out how that computer worked.  Without the skills and equipment to create it, those people would never be able to actually create another computer like that.  When the cheap hard drive died, everyone would be back in the same position they were in before it was invented.

How about we magically solve this problem?  Instead of sending just one computer back in time, lets send 1 million of the most high powered desktop computer we have today.  Wouldn’t that work?  In reality, this may have a negative effect.  With such a high quantity of computers available, people would see no need for developing the technology.  No early computer would have ever existed, because what would be the point of something like ENIAC, especially with so many higher powered computers available?  Without these groundbreaking discoveries, related inventions would have never happened either, because the required technology would have never been developed and fully understood.  The communication age would never have taken place.  In addition, when the last of those million computers finally died, the world would be left with less than it started with.  Do you really think “computing machines” would continue to be developed after so many years of living with their extremely high powered descendants?

Proprietary Software works exactly the same way.  When we use proprietary software, our lives are being dictated by a corporation.  We are not able to build on what has been created by those companies just because they believe it will make them a little bit of extra money.  We are not able to study and understand was has been created for the same reason.  What is money worth?  Obviously quite a bit to some people.  The other less obvious thing that it gives that company is power.  With the computer time-travel example above, imagine what would happen if all of those computers were put in a large locked warehouse, and only one person was given the key?  It would give that person power.  More power than he/she would know what to do with.  It would give him/her the amount of power that proprietary software companies have today.

To get to the point, am I advocating for socialism?  No.  I am saying that proprietary software corporations are idiots.  In American history, it was the goal of progressive presidents like Theodore Roosevelt to limit the power of corporations by making it wise for them to serve the public.  The same must be done in today’s society.  No government has managed to achieve this yet, and I’m not holding out much hope that it will ever happen.  Therefore, we must take it upon ourselves to use only Free Software, and convince everybody possible of its importance.  Once the general public understands, companies will adapt to society with no government intervention necessary.  We already have a gigantic web of software that is, in many cases, better than its proprietary counterparts.  It is not enough, though.  The mass of proprietary software is bigger.  To stand a chance, it’s going to take some elbow grease.

P.S. – Please keep in mind that not all corporations are guilty of the above charges; however, the vast majority are at fault.

Published in: on January 25, 2009 at 10:27 am  Comments (12)  

What happened to Free and Open Knowledge?

Recently in US History class we have been studying The Gilded AgeAndrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and other businessmen ruled the US with such power that it made the government useless.  When the government could do something about the problem with the cases that came through Supreme Court, it almost always sided with the corporations.  After many of the “successful” businessmen retired, they ran around doing philanthropy.  Are you starting to see a parallel to modern day society?

Yes, there are a bunch of parallels between the current monopolies of the software industry and the robber-barons of the Gilded Age, almost enough to make it scary.  They both made money by putting others through misery and hardships.  They did not care about their customers, as long as they continued to buy their products.  In the same way, many software companies today lock people into their platforms, making sure that once you use their product, you are never going back.  Back then, trusts were developed by the biggest railroad companies to ensure competition would not get in the way of money.  Now, this comes back as a deja vu in the form of software patents.  Huge companies allow other huge companies to use their patents, excluding the patent-less home user and small developer from the mix.  Both the businesses from the Gilded Age and those today managed to control the government as well.  Back then, they managed to get the government to go along with Laissez-faire economics, even though it was obvious that the common man was being trampled over as a result.  The government even issued huge land grants to the already gigantic railroad companies to build new lines.  In a similar way today, the DMCA “protects” “intellectual property” and DRM through law, software patents are given away like they are going out of style, and citizens are required to be subjected to these companies (in many cases) in order to interact with their own government.  Certain companies even have control of the ISO!

There is a major difference between these two time periods, though.  In the past, the most important thing in society was still free and open: information.  While monopolies back then could jack prices up, they couldn’t control the freedom of redistribution or modification.  If somebody wanted to resell the kerosene they bought from Standard Oil, nobody had any problem with that person doing so.  If that person wanted to try to use the kerosene in a new way, the companies would most likely encourage the practice, as new discoveries would increase the value and demand of the products created by Standard Oil.

Now, however, software companies “create knowledge”.  This practice is sort of like a restricted version of an encyclopedia.  Imagine what outrage the public would have been in years ago if some major encyclopedia company required that no information learned from their encyclopedia could be used or applied for any purpose without explicit written permission.  What would be the point in purchasing this encyclopedia set?  I can assure you the publisher would convince you of its importance anyway.  Notice how I said, “…the public would have been in years ago…” earlier though.  People have stopped appreciating the value of Free and Open Knowledge because companies today have convinced our consumer-based society that it isn’t important.  Ironically, the philanthropists from the Gilded Age gave huge amounts of money to spread Free and Open Knowledge by building libraries and founding universities, yet big business today relies on secrets and preventing the free flow of information.

What this does is create artificial barriers.  I am not saying that the tactics used by the captains of industry were necessarily moral, but they did not create artificial barriers.  The oil, steel, or whatever was only available through one company at high prices back then.  That is bad, but not horrible.  Once you got your hands on that product, you could do what you wanted with it.  Forget about that now.  The reason you can’t do what you want with that piece of computer software is because the corporation says you can’t.  There is nothing physically preventing you from spreading that knowledge.  Most computer users today are fully capable of sharing that knowledge with others, but the law gets in the way.

On a related note, I worked with another student on a music project recently.  We were discussing when we would be able to have a performance of a piece that we wrote.  I suggested, “If we are done in 2 weeks, we should be able to have it performed right after that.”  He said, “Well, you know, you can’t just print off a piece of music you made and put it in front of some people and say ‘Play this!’ [chuckle]  There is a copyright process you have to go through first.”  Even though this piece of music was 100% original, he believed that we still had to “get permission” to perform it.  This shows exactly how used to and accepting of this kind of thing my generation has become.  Before we do anything, we must “make sure it is okay” with a “higher power”.

People have been bullied through laws and propaganda into “helping” those corporations (and supposedly society as well) by treating abstract computer-readable files as physical objects.  This information could be shared freely and benefit all.  Advocates of this technique say that it is the only way to promote progress, but in reality, it does nothing but diminish its importance.  I suppose I can see how some could confuse “progress” and “private inside information”, as they look the same from the outside.  What is the purpose, however, of useful information if it cannot be built upon and actually used?  Think about if your grandma had a “secret recipe” for the greatest cookies in the world.  If she kept this recipe to herself, nobody but the people in your close family could enjoy these cookies.  Master chefs could, no doubt, fiddle with this recipe for years trying to find an improvement or inventing ways to adopt these cookies for other cultures.  If they were unable to improve perfection, they could still learn new techniques from your grandma and apply those to other recipes.  They are unable to do so, though, because your grandma has kept it a secret.  When she passes away, this recipe may or may not be saved, depending on whether she decided to share it with anyone.  The same thing may or may not happen with the “products” created by most “information” companies today.  It is really difficult to call something an “innovation” when the strides made by that something cannot be innovated upon.  Do we trust one company to do all of the innovation for it’s respective market?

I am not trying to insult your grandmother, but rather, get you to think about this from another angle.  In the whole scheme of the world, your grandma’s cookies are probably not the most important thing.  They do, however, represent a small model of a bigger problem.  Progress, especially in todays time, is one of the most important things in the world.  Small additions or changes to software unavailable for modification could mean significantly less carbon emissions to help the environment.  The company that “owns” these ideas may not think this environment-friendly change would increase sales, so they don’t bother to implement it.  Some piece of highly-urgent medical software could have a small bug in its core that stops doctors from accurately saving several lives.  Obviously these are extreme situations, but image what would happen if educational software was made open and freely modifiable!  Educators would be able to make the classrooms into what they should be, instead of training students through mouse clicks how to make a PowerPoint Presentation or an Excel Spreadsheet.  Educators could turn the classroom into that of a 21st century school, something most schools have yet to accomplish.

The main problem with the current approach is that the major companies today are guarding “knowledge” and “information”.  They are treating ideas as commodities, instead of as the ideas they really are.  If we both have apples, and exchange them, we each still have one apple.  If we both have ideas, and exchange them, we both now have two ideas.  Keeping ideas private will not help the world progress.  Did you appreciate the Wikipedia links I provided in this article?  It shows just how much Free and Open Knowledge is available now that we, as a consumer based society, tend to take for granted.  Wikipedia is not enough, though.  There is so much knowledge in the world that goes far beyond the scope of Wikipedia.  Our society could advance in ways we never thought possible if we could learn to collaborate.  So, whether you are J.P. Morgan, Richard Stallman, Joe the Plumber, or Steve Ballmer, please remember to keep in mind all of the ways Open and Free Information will benefit not only you, but society as a whole.

Published in: on December 20, 2008 at 11:21 pm  Comments (6)  
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Attention Schools: Beware of Infinite Campus

My school uses a SIS program called Infinite Campus.  The SIS (Student Information System) is the backbone for any school.  It manages everything from grades to lunch money, from registration to lesson plans, and everything in between.  If you use, are employed by, and/or have high regards for the Infinite Campus company, I strongly advise that you not to read this post, as it may smash your high-held opinions about this fraud into little tiny shards.

On their homepage, they state, “With the future in mind, Infinite Campus is focused on the long term to help you transform K12 education. … Infinite Campus delivers out of the box functionality, proven rapid implementations, through training and ongoing support so you can focus on what really matters – improving education for all students.”  That’s a load of crap.  Really.  Lets look a little bit more closely at this statement for a second.

They use the phrase “transform K12 education”.  Quite honestly, there is no way you can transform education if you are forced to sign an NDA and promise to never look at or modify the source code.  Lets say, for instance, that a District wants to transform education by matching teachers to students more closely in the scheduling process.  That would be pretty darn transformational, but schools can’t do it because Infinite Campus doesn’t want to serve it up on a silver platter for them.  Just like with all proprietary software, schools cannot help themselves, they must wait to be served.  Will this feature ever be added?  Maybe, but probably not.  However, this is just one of many features that schools will eventually need to be able to teach more successfully.  This quote also said their piece of proprietary software allows you to “focus on what really matters – improving education for all students.”  What if some school needs to have different grading methods for different parts of a single school, or to vary the number or type of classes based on preselected student groups to fit the “small learning community” style that is starting to become popular in education today?  New research is constantly coming out, and schools will want to start using it faster than some company can read it, let alone interpret it and implement something to promote it into its software.  Most of this research, however, will never be read nor interpreted by the company.  The only thing schools can hope for is that Infinite Campus is reading this research and applying it to their software.

They claim their mission statement is “Transforming K12 Education™”.  I believe I have already explained enough to show why this is the stupidest statement any proprietary software company can make.  How can anyone transform something if they can’t access it?  Could have anyone improved upon the Model-T automobile if Ford had only made a few of them, and then offered rides to people when it was practical for him?  In the same way, can anyone improve software if the malevolent company that “owns” the software forces that person to treat its use as a privilege?

Infinite Campus has three “goals”.

  1. Streamline Educational Processes
  2. Promote Stakeholder Collaboration
  3. Individualize Education

Number one sounds reasonable.  Lets streamline the process of what most schools go through.  An issue in education today is how to meet every student’s individual needs, but software companies serving schools don’t need to even think about the fact that all schools, just like people, are different.

Number two is fine.  The description below this goal is, “Using information technology, this weakness [of having too many people to manage] can be turned into a strength.”  With this goal, Infinite Campus can lock more people into their system more easily.  (They even brag about their 99% lock-in rate in the “History” section of their site.)  Since nobody is allowed to look at their code, nobody knows if they have hidden spyware in their software that sends the data of “more than 4 million students in 42 states” back to the Infinite Campus server, or included a back-door that allows them to access any school’s site anonymously.  There is no way for anybody to tell.

Number three is outrageous.  How can any proprietary software company claim to say their software is individualized?  Can any school ever really individualize any piece of software under an NDA?  NO!  There’s more, though.

The key beliefs of the company are as follows:

  1. Public education exists to serve society, its customer. All aspects of society are being transformed by information technology.
  2. In order to prosper, educators must employ modern information technology to meet the demands of its new customer, the information society.
  3. Information technology should streamline administrative tasks while enabling new and innovative educational processes.

Number one – That has to be one of the easiest ways to serve society: write a piece of proprietary software.  That way, anyone who wants to make improvements to benefit all of society will be unable to do so.  Perfect!

Number two – Yes!  You are correct!  Educators do need modern technology to prosper!  Opinions on the definition of “modern information technology” will vary from person to person, though.

Number three – There is nothing that helps innovation like an NDA does.  NDAs work so well to disallow anyone to even think about making a worthwhile change to their source code that would improve the quality of education for all students in the world.  In many cases, NDAs go as far as prohibiting anyone who has signed them from making contributions to the code that would help other people who have signed them and and thrown away their rights too. I am not aware of how far Infinite Campus’ NDA goes, but I can guarantee you it isn’t very forgiving.  How the heck can any school innovate this way?

I contacted Infinite Campus about this major problem.  I explained to them why they should GPL their code, and explained why.  They didn’t respond to me.  Instead, they contacted someone of “power” from my district and reminded him to abide by the NDA.  What?  Did they really think I would be able to do so without being caught by one of those back-doors that they may have put in there?  I emailed them again, clarifying my first email.  Surprisingly, though, I never received a response to either email.  Could this fairly large company not think of anything to say to my arguments, or did they just think I was some stupid kid who knew nothing about “how business works”?

Do they justify their crimes by saying they are necessary, because nobody would be motivated to write the software in the first place if they “didn’t get paid”?  As if they wouldn’t get paid just because their flagship product is available under the GPL.  They would probably get paid more, considering many schools would probably rather use GPL’ed software than sign away all of their rights.  Their user base would grow to be enormous!  Plus, most schools will end up buying the “premium service” subscription because if something goes wrong, it needs to be taken care of immediately, especially in a large school or school district.  I can’t even begin to explain the havoc that ensues when my district’s network goes down for an hour or two!  In addition, they should hire developers, representatives, and executives that actually care about education in the first place.  It takes true devotion to learning and the well being of the world to be a teacher.  Studies have said that teaching is one of the most time consuming jobs out there, yet a huge number of teachers show such an unbelievably large amount of devotion to their students.  Teachers are, in my opinion, the most important job in the world by far, yet they are given far less attention and appreciation than they deserve.  If the developers and executives in Infinite Campus actually cared about what was best for education as much as teachers, maybe they would actually GPL their code.  I don’t know of any teachers that are in the field of education to serve their own self interest over the interests of society and education as a whole.  You would think that someone who writes software for education would have the same views, but unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case here.  The false belief that proprietary software is the only way to make money overrides the desire to do good in the world.

Do you think it is ironic that the CEO of this education company “vowed to never set foot in another school” after high school, and never went to college as a result?

I don’t.

Also see Software Company Infinite Campus Lies

Published in: on November 23, 2008 at 7:35 pm  Comments (44)  
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I met Richard Stallman

Yes, I seriously did have the opportunity to meet him personally, and listen to his speech on the Free Software Movement.  Let me attempt to explain the experience, and how it came to be.

About three weeks ago, I was reading my email.  I got one from the tclug (Twin Cities Linux Users Group) mailing list claiming that Stallman was going to be in town for a speech at the University of Minnesota.  I was a little skeptical at first, but after checking the UMN website and confirming that he was really going to be in Minneapolis, I was overwhelmed with excitement.

Somebody from the tclug list emailed Stallman and asked if some people from the list could have dinner with him.  His response was, “I will have dinner with you if you change the name to the Twin Cities GNU/Linux Users Group.”  A flame was ensued.  I started getting an average of 30 emails a day on the subject, with the spike being (I believe) 60 messages in 8 hours.  The flaming continued, when some people decided to start sending in email ballots to vote.  This infuriated some people, and caused even more of a flame war!

The emails died down a few days before he started speaking. This was a bummer.  I would have liked both to eat with Stallman, and to change the name to “Twin Cities GNU/Linux Users Group”.  At least I would probably get to kind-of talk to him at his speech.

I got a phone call during Calculus class last Monday, the day before his speech, about an hour before school got out.  It was my mom.  Somehow, she worked her magic and got us both seats to a dinner with Richard Stallman.  Some other people from the tclug list would be there, she said.  I ran home and checked the emails she had forwarded to me.  It was true.  I had a personal invitation to dinner from Richard Stallman.

When my mom got home, we left right away to get to Minneapolis on time.  We arrived early.  I had a conversation with one of the other tclug members for a while, when rms walked into the restaurant.  There he was.  Standing in front of me.  He was a little shorter than I expected.  His hair was jet black and his beard was a shade of gray, in contradiction to the picture on Wikipedia.

He wanted to make sure this restaurant was “just right”.  I read that he was very particular about his food, and this was confirmed almost instantly after he walked in the door.  He ended up deciding that he did indeed want to eat there.  Even though it was louder than he wanted, their menu looked very good.  We all sat down and started discussing Free Software.

He was very opinionated.  For the most part, he had a strong opinion and could defend himself on everything that was brought up in the conversation.  Looking back on it, it shouldn’t have been that interesting considering the strong opinions he has on Free Software, but there was still something unnatural about it.  For example, after someone from our table ordered a Coke, he informed us (and the waitress) about a Coke boycott due to the murder of several Columbian employees, and directed us all to www.killercoke.org.  Whenever someone asked him a question, he didn’t hesitate at all, or try to think of an answer.  It was almost as if he had premeditated the questions.  Even when he heard about my “seafood-phobia” for the first time, he talked to me for a surprisingly long time, giving me arguments as to why I should try my hardest to grow to love seafood.

Towards the end of the meal, he passed around his “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book” for us to look at, and pointed out some of his favorites.  After some pictures with him, he declared that he was tired, and wanted to go home.  After a friendly “Happy Hacking” to us all, he left with his driver to go back to his hotel room.  It was an eventful night, and I think all of us there were excited for his speech the next night.

My mother, brother, and I all arrived on the University of Minnesota campus the next afternoon to hear his speech.  I had invited some of my district’s tech people, but none of them were able to make it.  We made sure to get there extra-early to get a good seat.  As people started to pile in, it began to be a geek-haven.  40% of the people all had laptops.  Most of them I saw seemed to run proprietary software except one: an OLPC XO.  Almost all of those without laptops had some other device, like an iPhone, a Treo, or a Blackberry.  I didn’t see any Freerunners, but I’m sure there were some, probably even a couple Debian ones.  This would be a very educational opportunity for most of the crowd.

His speech began with an introduction of the 4 freedoms, and the explanation of why each one is important.  “Leaving so soon?” he asked someone as he walked out of the room.  “I hope it wasn’t something I said…”  “No, I’m selling FSF merchandise.”  “Oh, then go right ahead!” he responded.  He went on to talk about how proprietary software is unethical, and how it is our job to bring Free Software to the world.  Then, of course, he became St. IGNUtious, a saint in the Church of Emacs.  Both my mom and my brother were surprised at how informative his speech was, and had all kinds of questions for me about why Free Software wasn’t more widespread.  Both of them were surprised at the amount of humor he used as well.

After the speech, he auctioned off a large GNU, and then had a QA session.  Someone (who obviously wasn’t a big fan of his) tried to outsmart him about his opinions on copyright.  Earlier in the speech he talked about the moral dilemma with proprietary software.  He explained that if your friend asks you for a copy of a piece of proprietary software, you have a choice to make.  You can hurt your friend by saying, “No, I can’t do that, this is a secret that you can’t know about,” or you can give your friend a copy and hurt the proprietary software company by reducing their profit.  He claimed that hurting the proprietary software company was the lesser of the two evils.  This man wanted to know if, since he advocated for people to break the copyright of proprietary software licenses, he also advocated for people to break the GPL license.  The man asking the question had a smile on his face that said, “I got you!”  Stallman, obviously frustrated by this questions, told the man that it was not about breaking licenses, it was about doing what is morally right and just.  The man didn’t seem satisfied, but there wasn’t much time left and there were several more questions, so he continued on.  After the QA session, he started packing up.  People mobbed him asking “Can I take your picture?”  He responded, “You can do anything you want, just don’t take up a lot of my time doing it.”  I went down there to get my gnu signed, as well as take another picture before we all left.

Now that it has had some time to set in, both my mom and brother are “doing their part” to spread software freedom.  My brother explained the concept of Free Software to a bunch of his Mac-fanatic friends.  My mom explained it to one of her friends as well.  Overall, the speech had a very positive impact on my family.  I am sure each person that listened to the speech walked out with a different attitude on software.  Anyone from Chile, Paraguay, or Uruguay should make sure to attend Stallman’s upcoming speeches there.  For everyone else, watch/listen to a recorded speech of his, or watch Stephen Fry’s “Happy Birthday to GNU” video.

It’s a GNU day.  What will you do to spread the word?

Published in: on October 26, 2008 at 1:07 pm  Comments (11)  

Richard Stallman as USA President

With the US Elections coming up, and with my campaign to elect Leonard Bernstein as the President, it stuck me the other day: rms has a huge number of political views (most of which contradict the current state of the union), so what would he do as president?  What would the United States end up looking like?  Lets find out.

Day One:

President Stallman drafts the “DMCA2”.  The DMCA2 does the following:

  • Repeals the original DMCA
  • Forbids DRM
  • Outlaws the copy-protection included on hard-copies of digital media, especially DVDs and Blu-Rays

It is accompanied by the “Innovation Bill”, which requires that all software sold is accompanied by the source code in a freely modifiable and distributable form by the year 2010, making software work the same way physical products do.

Both of these are later unanimously rejected by congress, infuriating Stallman.

Day Two:

President Stallman creates the “Privacy Amendment”.  This is an amendment to the constitution that:

  • Prevents the government from collecting data from privately-owned tracking devices
  • Forbids officials from searching and/or confiscating citizens’ digital devices, especially before airtravel, without a warrant
  • Repeals the USA PATRIOT Act

This was also later rejected by congress.

Day Three:
President Stallman immediately withdraws all troops from Iraq.  He then channels all of the money that was going to fund the war into ending world hunger.  He also meets with those in charge of the main government sites to make sure the Solaris and Windows Server 2003 servers are converted to Free Software.

Day Four:

A riot breaks out among people who supported the war in Iraq.  Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Mr. Z (from Microsoft, obviously) arrive to talk to President Stallman about how he should cease the promotion of Free Software if he knows what’s best for him.  They also say he must pay them a large sum of money to make up for the mistake he made in trying to pass the “Innovation Bill”.  Stallman lectures the three men on the importance of Software Freedom, and then goes back to his office to figure out how to appeal the ISO about OOXML.

Day Five:

After figuring out that there is no way to get rid of ECMA-376, he tries to figure out ways to make sure “Main Street” takes priority over “Wall Street”.  His goal is to make sure that the rights of the corporation never take priority over the rights of the individual.  After figuring out a plan, he takes it to congress.  Congress later unanimously rejects this proposal as well.  Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Mr. Z’s report to Microsoft infuriates Ballmer, and causes him to send out his “men in black” to meet with every member of congress individually.

Day Six:

President Stallman quickly ties up some other important issues.  He manages to legalize same-sex marriages nationwide and ensure abortion rights.  He also figures out a way to make sure that all electronic voting machines are reformatted to use only Free Software.  His attempt to completely legalize marijuana fails, though.

Day Seven:

President Stallman resigns out of frustration, making Vice President Eben Moglen the new president.  Congress is relieved, as he saved them from having to impeach him.

In conclusion, a presidential position would probably not give Stallman the control he wants.  His ideas are so radical that the system of checks and balances would fail to give him the control necessary.  The average congressman doesn’t understand how many of these changes would just enhance the nation.  Some of the decisions, though, would do more harm than good in the US.  Many would just cause the economy to crumble.  It isn’t that they are bad ideas, it is just that the United States is already too established to make any of the changes.  If these ideas were applied to a new country, they would do nothing but good, but to an already-running country with an established stock market, they would make the economy suffer temporarily.

Where Stallman would really shine and be able to improve the nation is as the “Chief Technology Officer” that Barack Obama wants to create.  That position is the one thing that really concerns me about Obama’s plan.  With all of the control Microsoft has over the US government, will this position be taken by an employee/ex-employee?  Even if it is not, the chances are still strong that the the person appointed as Chief Technology Officer will be a proprietary software advocate.  What will that do to the FOSS community?  Even of the people who appreciate Free Software, how many of them would really fill the position well and know what really needs to be done?

Published in: on October 12, 2008 at 9:47 am  Comments (9)  
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Microsoft’s plan for the future: The Ribbon

A few days ago, I saw the leaked screenshots from Windows 7.  Microsoft Paint and Wordpad now “feature” the ribbon bar, just as Office ’07 does.  It finally occurred to me: Microsoft isn’t stupid.  It’s not like they didn’t recognize that the switch to the ribbon in Office ’07 (with no alternative interface) would drive users to OpenOffice.  They are simply investing in their future user base.  They want to lock users into the new system.

This is Microsoft’s plan:

Think about your average Joe Shmoe user for a minute.  Joe has always used Microsoft Office 2003.  One day, Joe’s friend Pete tells him about a “free of cost” application called OpenOffice.  Pete claims that OpenOffice should be easy for Joe to learn, because it works just like Microsoft Office does.  He also mentions that OpenOffice is “Open”, meaning that it won’t ever limit functionality nor restrain the people who he can communicate with.  Joe ends up trying OpenOffice and, realizing that it does indeed work very much like the Microsoft Office he is used to, ends up switching.

If Joe’s friend Pete had never told him about OpenOffice, he would have eventually ended up switching to Microsoft Office ’07 and Windows 7.  While he didn’t want to have to learn the new system, he recognized that it was the future of technology.  If he didn’t learn it soon, modern technology would leave him behind, and he would no longer know how to use computers well.  By the time Microsoft Office ’11 and Windows 8 came, he was all prepared for the upgrade.  Both of these pieces of software used the ribbon as well, so Joe felt right at home.  As time went on, Joe came to accept the fact that the ribbon was “the way computers work”.

Now that Joe is a Windows 8 and Office ’11 user, lets say Pete tells him about OpenOffice.  Joe sees the interface.  It is just like that version of Microsoft Office he used 10 years ago.  “Why can’t they innovate?” he wonders.  After inadequately trying OpenOffice, he finds that he doesn’t remember the old cascading menu system very well anymore.  It has been years since he last used it, and he can’t figure out where anything is.  With the “you get what you pay for” attitude, he goes back to Microsoft Office ’11.

Microsoft recognized that people hate change, and the only way for change to happen is to force it upon people.  They understood that they would be losing several users when they switched to the ribbon, but they also realized that if they were ever going to make a change like this, now would be the time.  Now, Microsoft can afford to lose some users.  In the future, they believe it will help lock in users to their platform.  In a way, it is like investing in the future, only doing so with their user base.  It is a strange technique: using people’s unwillingness to change as a technique to lock people in.  Combined with the Openness piece, it is a great way for Microsoft to make sure its users stay.  It is really a genius plan.

As technology advances, people are beginning to demand openness.  This demand will increase greatly in the future.  The “Openness Movement” is just beginning.  Governments, schools, and individuals who recognize the importance of openness are beginning to gravitate toward Open formats.  Many of them haven’t realized its importance yet, which is why the Openness Movement is still in its infancy, but in the future, this adoption of Open Formats will drastically increase.

Microsoft knows this, and has suddenly become “open”.  Microsoft Office will support ODF (or, at least a proprietary fork of it).  All of the Microsoft products support OOXML, which the ISO says is open.  In addition, all of the Microsoft ads say Windows is “life without walls”.  “Without walls” equals “Openness” for most people.

So, how does the Openness Movement tie into the ribbon?  Once Microsoft has established their ribbon user base, they will also have all of this garbage behind them that they claim is “open”.  Those with the most money can usually convince people whatever they want, so people will believe that Microsoft really is open.  Microsoft has applied for a patent on the ribbon.  They are currently licensing the design to other companies free of cost.  The only prerequisite is that the use of the ribbon is approved by Microsoft.  The goal is obviously to make sure competitors, especially the Free Software people, don’t get ahold of it.

Will this plan work?  Possibly.  I can’t see much interest arising in adding a ribbon bar to OpenOffice or any other Free Software application.  That’s not really the point, though.  Microsoft has a huge number of tricks up its sleeve.  This is just one of those.  There are still several more that nobody has figured out yet.  Microsoft can pay for a huge amount of thinking power to figure out evil plans like this.  Hopefully, none of those plans will affect the freedom of of those users who really want it.

Published in: on September 28, 2008 at 9:45 am  Comments (4)  
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Will someone please kill one of Google’s heads?

Ah, Google. They run all of their servers on GNU/Linux, so try to give back to the Free Software community. Notice how I said “try”. Google is sort of like a two-headed monster. One head looks like a cuddly penguin who just wants to spread freedom.  This head started GSoC and GHOP, supported Software Freedom Day, and promoted openness through projects such as Android.  The other head looks like a vicious freedom-eating butterfly, ready to make money with proprietary software.  This head made Google Earth proprietary, used Flash for Youtube and Google Video, and prevented the other head from using the AGPL. It is obvious which head said “do no evil”, and which head invalidated that motto.

Google’s heads settled on an agreement. They would make an “open source” web browser named Google Chrome. The source code would be publicly available under a Free Software license, but it would require a 400+ MB download and 10 GB of space to compile. It would be available for both free and non-free platforms, but the non-free platform (that built only under a non-free compiler) would be released before the free one even built properly.

I found a Windows computer to test this so-called “Google Chrome” on. The installation was kind of a pain, because the install file didn’t have all of the required components. It had to download additional stuff during the installation. I suppose, though, that’s what you get when your system doesn’t have dpkg or yum… The only benefit I found was the speed of the V8 javascript engine.  It was noticeably faster, and javascript speed tests confirmed my observations.  The javascript caching made this already fast javascript engine even faster.

Cutting a few milliseconds off a stress test isn’t going to make me switch browsers anytime soon, though, not even when that browser will eventually support my operating system. It is a fad.  Some sites have reported that 2% of users are using Google Chrome. The purpose of Google Chrome seems to be to provide a framework for transforming the “traditional” operating system to a web-based one. Dumb idea. Firefox already works great for web services. That’s all we need. Google is spending all of this time trying to figure out how to integrate their services into the desktop. They come to the conclusion that all they need to do is A) make it available when you aren’t connected to the internet, B) make it faster, and C) make it not look like a web browser. For the majority of people, this doesn’t cut it. There are just so many other glitches. People are constantly saying “everything will be web-based” and “tomorrow’s operating system will be a web browser”. I don’t buy it. The world isn’t web-based yet. Until all computer users have internet access, nobody will switch completely to the web.I hope that everything will never be web based.  The biggest problem with becoming completely web-based is competing companies. If you use Company A, you can collaborate with people who use Company B and Company C. Company D only lets you collaborate with Company B, and Company E has a partnership with Company F. Data will be locked off in a similar way to proprietary standards today, but there will be a new problem. Open File Format advocates today use the analogy of sending your most valuable data off to a company, and hoping they give it back. This would literally be true with a web-based world. Think about it: your data is on some remote server, in some SQL database, run by some web application that nobody can look at or change. How do we know Google’s code isn’t relying on “average users” not knowing that the password-unprotected administration section is located at: http://www.google.com/admin_section_dont_go_here_2b49ac39593f3?  (You would be surprised at how many well known sites do this!)  Do we trust Google, or any other company for that matter, with our data?I predict the future will be semi web based.  After a while, more projects like EyeOS will sprout up.  They will allow you to use online word processors, operating systems, or whatever, but they will let you host them from your own computer.  People will have complete control over their data, yet they will be able to access it from anywhere and easily share it with anyone.  Google won’t lead us down this path, though.  Google is like any company: it wants money.  It will continue to use Free Software as a platform for locking users into its products.

The evil butterfly head won.

Published in: on September 14, 2008 at 12:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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