Five things Free Software has taught me

I’ve been in Free Software for a few years now and learned a ton from it.  Sure, I learned how to use new types of software, became efficient on them, and honed my programming skills, but stopping there would be missing the point.  Free software has so much more to offer than just computing and technical benefits.  In fact, the technical side is the least important thing I’ve learned from my experiences.  Free Software has brought me far beyond knowledge of its source code and taught me lessons I will value for a lifetime.

1. Centralized control isn’t worth it

When one single governing body gains absolute control over something, it is only a matter of time before that governing body increases its power tremendously.  Many times, it does this in order to avoid vice, but counterintuitively, only ends up creating more of it in the process.  Take any modern established proprietary software company that started out in the 60′s or 70′s for example.  These software companies were revolutionary in their decision not to share their software for the benefit of learning, but rather, keep it a secret in order to make money from it.  As time went on, the companies began imposing slightly harsher methods upon users in an attempt to foil the plans of those who refused to pay.  This was the beginning of techniques such as license keys.  As users developed ways around the methods, the methods kept getting progressively harsher, severely punishing casual proprietary software users who had been legally using and paying full price for the software since the beginning.

It would not be enough to stop here, though.  Proprietary software companies, caring only about eliminating competition, have no regret in choosing not to support competitors’ file formats (or even worse, supporting them incompletely), slowing down their software to sell the user a “speed upgrade”, and spying on the user without his/her consent to aid their marketing departments.  They even have no shame in not bothering to release security updates until there is already an epidemic.  Users don’t have the freedom to correct any of these because one company alone controls all aspects of the software in question.

Just the other day, I overheard a conversation between two of my peers.  It went something like this:

“I got a new iPhone the other day!”

“Sweet!  Are you going to try to hack it?” (Note: “Hack” here is used in the sense that it has come to mean in today’s society: breaking security.)

“I don’t know.  I know someone who broke into his iPhone and bricked it.  And, I mean, you can’t just go into the store and ask for a repair, because you’ve voided your warranty by hacking it.”

“I hacked my iPhone.  It worked perfectly.  And it is awesome!  Now I can run all sorts of apps on it that aren’t in the App Store!”

It is sad to see that people today actually have to use the term “breaking in” to describe changing the software on the cell phone they own.  People now willingly accept the fact that they just can’t run any application that the developing company didn’t authorize, because this restriction has become so common.  In the case of the iPhone, owners have to make a decision as to whether they want to try to modify the software on the device they own (described as “hacking”) and risk an update from Apple that destroys their phone, or use a device that performs only as Apple wishes it to perform.  Purchasing an iPhone is willingly handing over complete control of the device to Apple because this approach has been so tightly ingrained in society as necessary.

2. The strongest approach is a philosophical approach

As the main partitioner between the Free Software Movement and the Open Source Movement, it is apparent, in this regard alone, that it must have a significant amount of meaning.  When one really digs into the specifics, though, this idea becomes even more important.  Nobody would ever build a skyscraper without spending tiring hours on a sturdy foundation to keep the building up.  Likewise, constructing a movement on the grounds that a development style always produces less-buggy, more secure, or more featureful software is worthless.  On these foundationless grounds, what would be the problem with using Skype and locking not only yourself, but also all of your friends, into one company’s software and protocol?  When cost gets thrown into the mix, things get even uglier.  One who bases his/her opinions on these subjective measures would be enticed by high-quality software available at no cost.  Though I make no claim to it’s quality, even Microsoft Windows is “free of cost” to consumers.

The majority of the people in the world choose not to pickpocket.  But why?  It couldn’t possibly be too difficult.  If the thief runs, he/she probably won’t get caught, and it is a quick way to make some extra cash.  Most people believe it is wrong to steal, and therefore, won’t rob a wallet.  The philosophy that one should not steal overrides the benefits that may come from stealing someone’s wallet.  It is the same reason that Vegans don’t wear leather, Mormons abstain from caffeine/alcohol, and environmentalists drive hybrid cars.

When it comes to software, though, the majority of people take a lesser stance.  For those “casual users” who have somehow learned about the Free Software Movement, few will take the philosophies seriously since they create so much inconvenience and trouble.  Would one be likely to support dismantling one’s house upon learning that it was seated upon a sacred ancient burial ground?  Because it creates so much inconvenience and would be outrageously expensive, most people would likely ditch this new ethical dilemma, on the grounds that they had very little opinion about it before it began affecting their life.  Yes, the house is ruining the sacred area, but nobody informed the homeowner in question about this problem before the purchase, so the shame should be placed elsewhere.

When one keeps a 100% philosophy-based center when making every-day choices, it is impossible to make a regrettable decision on those aspects in which one has philosophies or values.  Putting morals before convenience and ease may be tough at times, but it will help ensure permanent solutions that carry much more meaning.

3. An open and creative mind does wonders

Before I became involved in Free Software, I had far different opinions, ideas, and beliefs than I do today.  Free Software helped me open up my mind to new and unfamiliar concepts.  This software universe had been going on behind my back for years.  If there was this much in software alone that a technology-savvy guy had never even heard of, I figured, there must be quite a bit out there.

One of the best parts about the Free Software community is that it is composed of a huge diversity of people with a huge diversity of ideas.  Richard Stallman’s stallman.org is a perfect example.  Most of his ideas and beliefs, especially his political ideals, are somewhat unorthodox and not widely accepted.  Previous to reading his opinions, I had laughed Ralph Nader off as a joke, as I had heard nothing but humor about him previously in my life.  When I actually met someone who supported him, I took the time to understand his politics.  It just so happened that I shared some of Nader views.  I stopped my warrantless distaste for the 3rd party candidate, and gained a great deal of respect for the man.

Another good example can be drawn from my life.  I am a composer, and one of the biggest hurdles for me in switching to exclusively Free Software was my sheet music typesetting software.  I used a proprietary package under Wine for quite some time, because none of the other options available did what I wanted.  Or so I thought.  I had tried Free Software packages to fill this purpose, from Rosegarden, to MuseScore, to Lilypond, to Canorus.  I convinced myself that, since none of them behaved exactly like the proprietary package I was used to using, none of them were as good.  Some time later, I decided the final movement of of my last piece of proprietary software should end soon, and that I best move to exclusively Free Software.  I forced myself to use MuseScore for my next composition project.  By the time I was done, I had actually forgotten how to use my old piece of proprietary garbageware.  MuseScore did everything I wanted and more.  Yes, it behaved slightly differently, but I found I could be much more efficient – while using Free Software!  It was a double win for me.

For developers, opening one’s mind to unfamiliar creative ideas is essential to creating practical solutions.  The majority of those working on Free Software are autonomous and get to choose what they want to work on.  (Even of the large corporately-funded developer base, many have a great deal of liberty in this regard.)  They are not told to implement specific attributes by their management, or pressured by paying customers to add a certain feature.  They work because they want to help themselves, their user base, or their software project.  There is plenty of room for experimentation.  One of the main arguments used for Free Software is the advantage of not reinventing the wheel, yet in the case of nearly every hole in the software platform to fill, there are at least two equally effective options.  KDE and Gnome.  Grub and Lilo.  OpenOffice and Koffice.  Emacs and Vi.  The list goes on.  These pairs exist because the developers had different ideas as to how to design an application, which features to implement, and what the goals of the project were.  In all of the cases above, the synergy created between the pairs has only gone to further enhance both projects.  In other words, contrasting ideas have improved each other.

4. Knowledge was meant to be shared

Back in the middle 1850′s, when the Industrial Revolution was beginning in Britain, the country attempted a quarantine of ideas.  Britain was the first country to go through an industrial revolution, and wanted the ideas for the machine designs to stay contained within the country so that it might prosper economically.  It was a failure.  It was unbelievably naïve of them to think they could stop the spread of an idea.  As the cliché goes, “If we both have an apple, and we exchange apples, we each still have one apple.  But, if we each have an idea and exchange those, each of us has two ideas.”

Some companies try to restrict the flow of this knowledge.  In fact, many companies do this and expect to get away with it.  They believe that putting DRM on digital media will prevent it from being illegally pirated.  They believe that product activation procedures will prevent it from being illegally shared.  They believe that information can be contained.  Even in the days before the Internet, information and so-called “intellectual property” could still be, and were, exchanged.  As the information age went on, though, corporations became progressively more obsessed with controlling the spread of knowledge.

This trend of open information holds true even in tightly-protected situations.  The Watergate scandal leaked to the press through one of US President Nixon’s most trusted colleagues.  Microsoft was recently discovered to be using code stolen from a competitor on a social networking site, even though the code was never released.  Pictures from the Iran protest in early June of this year circulated the Internet, despite the efforts of the government to prevent their spread.  The examples continue, but all hit the same chord: there is no use in preventing the spread of information.

So instead of working to prevent this spread, why not encourage it?  Why not get the ideas, capabilities, and functionality of any given piece of software out to as many people as possible and kindle the flame?  There are many ways to make money, so why choose a method that requires investing just as much time and effort into making software that lots of people want to use as trying to prevent the usage of said software?  It sounds counterintuitive and/or just plain stupid on paper, but is generally seen as the traditional and conservative way to do it.  Physical products must be treated differently than knowledge.  Government can assist in the process of selling knowledge in the same way as a physical product, but due to the nature of the commodity, it will never be the same.

5. Anyone can make a difference

When I started off in the world of Free Software, I wanted to contribute, but didn’t think that an 8th grade student would be able to contribute anything worthwhile.  I proved myself wrong, and joined the Joomla! Documentation team, writing and editing documentation for the software package.  As I learned later, documentation was one of the most lacking areas in the Free Software community.  When I started learning to program in PHP, I wrote small extensions for the Content Management System I then knew so well.  They were small enough to be easily written by someone with little experience, yet useful enough to be widely-deployed.  I moved on to larger applications and contributions.  Frequent emails from users of my software showed me just how much of a difference I was making for them.

No matter what you do, remember that your actions do make a difference.  If you find a bug, report it!  The first bug report of your life may be a little shaky, but how else can one learn to report bugs?  Your reports make the software better for everyone.  Just maybe that crash you reported will save some people from a major data loss in the future.  If you have decent writing skills, consider writing or improving some documentation for your favorite Free Software application so others will have a less frustrating learning curve.  Translating documentation or an application itself opens up that software to a new demographic of people, most of whom could not possibly use the application prior to your translation.  Bringing up Free Software in a conversation and/or promoting it more seriously opens the philosophies and the software itself up to new people as well.

Even a simple “thank you” to a project member can go a long way.  Free Software isn’t written by machines; it is written by countless individuals that give up a significant amount of time each day to do what they do.  Showing appreciation helps developers know their work is worthwhile.

Now, just for a second, I challenge the reader to imagine what the world of Free Software would be like if nobody believed they could make a difference.  Very little Free Software would be written, and that which was written may not be released to the public.  A completely Free operating system would be out of the question, as only small research projects would exist.  Businesses, with no faith in their ability to succeed with Open Source, would resort to writing proprietary software that can be sold on a shelf.  The Free Software Movement would be inexistent without this wisp of a thought.  In fact, Richard Stallman wouldn’t have bothered writing the GNU system if he thought his project wouldn’t mean anything.

It is so easy to imagine how horrible the world of Free Software could be like this, so why do people all too often let it slide in the “real” world?  This world is so much bigger than the Free Software Sphere that people tend to feel that their actions mean less.  However, they seem to be forgetting that, while some action we make won’t directly influence everybody, every action we make affects somebody.  And just maybe, when one totals the sum of the somebodies and the somebodies of those somebodies, just maybe every one of us changes the world every day.

Because our actions mean so much, it is vital that one governing body, be it a corporation, government, or other mass, doesn’t take away our freedom to express ourselves as we please.  We would no longer be changing the world in our own way, but in the way desired by this group in power.  It is vital that we keep a philosophical approach so that our beliefs stand behind our actions.  Even if we make an unwise decision, we make it for a rational reason that shines through to others.  It is vital that we keep an open mind to ensure no good idea goes unnoticed, and a creative one to generate good ideas of our own.  One man’s seemingly worthless idea may be another man’s inspiration.  It is vital that there is an uninterrupted stream of knowledge, and that information is not held back for personal benefit at the cost of others.  Knowledge and information are the building blocks of change.  These concepts are vital not only to software, but also to every-day life.

And to think some people only see the technical benefits.

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 4:42 pm  Comments (69)  
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Free as in Car Keys

I have been working as an intern with the FSF this summer.  The majority of my time has been spent on a new program that will take a stab at revolutionizing the world of Free Software.  This initiative, called GNU Generation, works to fill a vital time-sensitive hole in the world of Free Software: involving young people.

Yes, all Free Software contributors are important, but none so much so as young people.  Microsoft, Apple, Infinite Campus, and other malevolent software companies are constantly trying to wedge themselves into this market.  Why?  They recognize the importance of this age group.  Young people are the future, and if that future is going to involve Free Software, they have to learn about it and its importance early on.  That is why GNU Generation targets the 13-18 year old age range.  This age group in particular is just beginning to discover talents, interests, and ethics.  More than any other age group, they understand the importance of freedom, decentralization, and improving “the system”.  The only thing 98% of this age group know about is “free of cost software” and “paid-for software”.  In fact, the majority of them haven’t ever used a single piece of Free Software in their whole life, let alone understood it.  Most of those who have used Free Software have used only OpenOffice or FireFox due to their “free of cost” benefit without knowing anything about the concepts behind them.

Proprietary software companies can squeeze themselves into this crack simply because they have piles of money.  They are so rich that a major advertising campaign doesn’t even leave a dent in their wallet.  Some of them are so rich that even failed advertising campaigns get as much attention as wildly successful ones.  (**Cough cough** Jerry Sienfeld **cough cough**)  Most proprietary software companies use the methods they do because they are, well, proprietary software companies.  They create their “product”, and sell it in the same method products were sold hundreds of years ago.  This concept is then applied to public relations and marketing.  They don’t recognize the power of the communication age, and that they can have all kinds of unaffiliated people working to advance their company.  Most Free Software projects use a distributed model for development.  Each person contributes his/her efforts to the project, and the project grows.  Though it is not Free Software, Facebook is a wonderful example of this model applied to advertising.  It only took one person in any given circle of friends to sign up before everyone else in that circle had to join.  Eventually, Facebook became the size of medium-sized country.  It never had to run any major advertising campaign.  Instead, it applied Free Software concepts to advertising its proprietary service, encouraging each person to do his/her part.

GNU Generation aims to work in a somewhat similar fashion, without the proprietary edge.  It’s goal is to create a support network for young people to start contributing to and advocating for Free Software.  It is easy to become overwhelmed in a world where people consider “Do you prefer PC or Mac?” to be an intelligent-sounding question that demonstrates one’s knowledge of technology.  (Especially when they assume “Windows” by saying “PC”)  The social “viral” effect has been shown to work as long as long as the objective is easy, accessible, and worthwhile (in the eyes of the general public).  Applying these concepts to the current state of Free Software gives the basis of GNU Generation.

GNU Generation provides services to both Free Software projects and young people interested in contributing.  It aims to create a welcoming environment that encourages and provides resources for high-school-aged students (approx. 13-18) to contribute to Free Software.  Free Software projects can register and submit tasks to be completed by participants.  Participants can choose to either sign up for a one of the tasks created by these Free Software projects, or create their own project.  Creating a project can include either a contribution to an existing Free Software project, or a brand new project from scratch.

Free Software is really something to get excited about.  Through the community created by GNU Generation, hopefully that excitement will persevere through the years to come.  Unfortunately, it will take more than just a small little campaign to make this happen.  It will take the cooperation of all Free Software users, developers, and advocates to really get the message across.  So if you value your freedom, and would like Free Software to succeed, take the time to talk to your family and friends about the importance of Free Software and the values it carries on its shoulders.  Together, we can create a real GNU generation.

The GNU Generation Homepage

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 9:57 am  Comments (3)  
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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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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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Is Free Software dependent on the Internet?

Is Free Software dependent on the Internet?  I have fantasized a (hopefully) comical situation that describes where I believe Free Software would be today if the Internet had never been invented.


Once upon a time the was a man named Tommy.  Tommy’s loved his job as systems administrator for the grain distribution giant Garcill.  He never had to do any real work; he could get by fine by doing almost nothing at all.  Every now and then someone would have a problem with one of their computers.  No worries; it didn’t take any effort whatsoever to throw a new cd in the cd drive and wait for Windows to reinstall itself.  Other than occasional responsibilities, Tommy was free to sit at his desk all day, eat popcorn, and play hours worth of “Captain Comic”.

In order to make it seem like he was really motivationally driven to create the best possible technology system for Garcill, Tommy would occasionally attend technology conferences.  The Chicago Mid-summer IT Convention was one of his favorites.  You see, most of the people attending this conference were going for technology news and advice.  This was one of the few places these pieces of information could be obtained, other than the occasional newspaper or TV story.  Tommy thought differently.  He knew the tourist attractions in Chicago were plentiful, all of which could be paid for through company money.  Plus, the presenters never used microphones, so they couldn’t wake you up during a well-deserved nap.  Life was good, thought Tommy, as he loaded up his suitcase with the things he would need to have a blast roaming the streets of Chicago.
Tommy arrived at the convention ready for a good time.  Every year, he would compare the sessions he attended with the ones from the previous year to see what the worst one was.  So far, the most boring one was “Understanding the Security and Compliance Implications of Large Scale Data Management” from 2005.  Would this year be better or worse?  By the sound of the first session, it would be worse.  “GNU: The Operating System of Hackers”.  Wasn’t a gnu another name for the wildebeest, and what the heck was a hacker?
When he walked into this session, there was some hippie standing on the stage.  A hippie?  Why in the world was there a hippie standing on the stage?  What could he possibly lecture about, freedom?  Yeah right.  “Go back to the 70s,” Tommy thought to himself.  While waiting for the lecture to start, though, it started to bother him.  What could a hippie possibly lecture about.  He obviously wasn’t going to lecture about freedom.  What did freedom have to do with technology? “Maybe it has to do with saving the wildebeests,” he thought.  “But they aren’t endangered.”

Tommy’s mind kept ping-ponging until the hippie stepped up to the podium to begin his lecture.  He introduced himself and claimed he was the last true hacker, and that a hacker was someone who programs for fun.  When he wasn’t allowed to modify the source code to a printer during his days at MIT labs, he decided to make a complete operating system that allowed anybody to modify it.  He called this operating system “GNU”.  Releasing GNU this way allowed people to have the freedom (“uhhh”, Tommy moaned) to use the piece of software, make changes to it, and give away the original program with or without your changes.
The presenter went on to talk about how he created the GNU project.  In the 1980s, he started working on some of the basic components of GNU.  He continued working faithfully on it, and had a usable operating system by 2005.  Another benefit, he explained, was that it kept growing.  If somebody wanted to add a feature, they could add it, and then give away the new modified version to anyone interested.  Then this person could modify the modified version, and give that away again.  After explaining all of this, the speaker put an old computer disk on his head and said he was “Saint IGNUtious, of the church of Emacs, granting computer freedom to all.”

“That was different,” Tommy thought.  “Some of these presentations are really boring, but that was just plain stupid.  How many times am I going to find someone who just made the changes I need to a piece of software?”  As he walked out, he noticed that there were some demonstration computers set up.  Tommy thought he would try one out, just to see how powerful this GNU thing was.  Tommy sat down at the computer, and stared blankly at a screen that was, well, almost blank. It was a terminal.

“What does this thing do?” he asked the man next to him.  “Type ‘ls /usr/bin’,” he replied.  Tommy typed ‘ls /usr/bin’ and words were printed on the screen.  “Those are all of the files in the ‘/usr/bin’ directory.”  “What else does this do?  I can do that on any UNIX machine.”  “Not much.  I suppose, though, that no one person can program a good operating system all by himself.”  “I am sure there are a bunch of people out there who really want to work on GNU, but have no way of doing so.  How would that person get his/her changes integrated into the code?”

“I should have probably introduced myself.  I am Dan, from Indianapolis.  I work in the Garcill IT department.”  “You work for Garcill!”  Tommy exclaimed.  “Yeah.  I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I do a lot more work than you probably think.  The technology director in Minneapolis doesn’t exactly do what he is supposed to, so I am usually stuck cleaning up after him.  So, where do you work?”  “Uh… I…” Tommy stuttered.  “I am on the All-Mart IT staff in Kansas City,” Tommy lied.  “Sounds much more appealing than my job cleaning up after that buffoon,” Dan joked.

Not finding that joke very funny, Tommy quickly looked back at his computer screen.  It still had the output of the command he had typed earlier on it.  Among those words listed was word ‘emacs’.  “Wasn’t Emacs the name of that ‘church’ from the presentation?” asked Tommy, trying to change the subject. “Yeah, I think it was.”  Tommy typed ‘emacs’, expecting something amazing to happen.  A text editor popped up.  After a few minutes, the two men gave up trying to figure out how to actually type something into the text editor and left to go their the next presentation.

“What is your next session?” Tommy asked.  “Caldera UNIX Desktop Deployment for the Medium-sized Business.”  “I’ve got the same one.”  As the two men walked to their next session together, their conversation had nowhere to go but back to the previous presentation.

“So why would anyone ever use GNU over a more powerful version of UNIX?” “It seems to me that he has this insane dream of everyone working together to create software for the greater good.”  “Unless people printed out their changes and mailed them to a central developer, there is no way to communicate changes to the main developer.  It’s impossible for anything productive to ever happen.”  “Yeah, it’s not like computers can call each other up on the phone and have a conversation!”  They laughed, but the laughter was short-lived.  For the next seven hours, Tommy got to sit through session after session after session.

After the convention, and some fun roaming the streets of Chicago, Tommy caught the flight back to Minneapolis.  He forgot about the presentations he attended at the conference, but he didn’t forget about the fact that someone else had to clean up after him because of his laziness.  Tommy learned that the time he put into his job really did make a difference.  He had a good feeling that he was, ethically, doing the right thing.  He walked hastily down the hall to help some co-workers with their Windows computers.

Published in: on August 2, 2008 at 9:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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Explaining Software Freedom to a Beginner

I needed a good way to explain software freedom to people who have little to no computer experience (possibly parents or grandparents, kids, stay-at-home moms/dads, etc.), so I created the following blog post.  Many of these people could benefit from free software, but aren’t going to learn about it through mainstream media.  These people are usually easy to convert to Free Software, because they don’t already have blind opinions about the benefits of proprietary software.  They also don’t resist with the “I don’t want to learn a new program” excuse, because they haven’t put much time into learning any software yet.

You are free to modify and distribute the following under the terms of the GNU FDL.  To redistribute this, you can download it in PDF format or ODT format.

What is Software Freedom?

Many years ago, when computers were just being invented, people really didn’t care about computer software. If a company or organization was lucky enough to own a computer, it would find or create a piece of software to use on it afterwards. Other companies or organizations with computers would be nice enough to give away the software they had written, because it really didn’t mean that much to them. People had all the freedom they could want with this system. They had the freedom to give away their own software, and to receive software from others. They had the freedom to change any piece of software to accomplish the task at hand. They even had the freedom to give their modified version of a piece of software away to someone else in need.

Since then, the times have changed. Now, many pieces of computer software are locked down in a way that prevents people from making changes, just so that the software can be sold for a profit.

What is wrong with most software?

The reason companies lock down their software is because know they can make money off something that should be shared among everyone. Under normal circumstances, there isn’t any problem with people trying to make money. There is a problem when people want to make money so badly that it interferes with progress and innovation.

Different companies and individuals had to keep reinventing the wheel in order to sell their software; they couldn’t just change someone else’s software to fit their needs. Lots of people spent a lot of time writing computer software that somebody else had already written. If these people had shared the software they wrote with everybody, all of the time spent duplicating an existing program could go to improving it.

Another problem with not sharing software is the fact that one company or individual maintains complete control over what that piece of software does. More often than not, that person or company will be interested in making money instead of making the software as powerful and useful as possible. Therefore, the program’s creator is free to put obtrusive or unobtrusive advertisements into the program.

Obtrusive advertisements are pop-ups, nagging screens asking you to buy the “full version”, and other advertisements that ask you to spend your money in a certain way. An example of an obtrusive advertisement that you may be familiar with is the MSN icon (the butterfly) on the bar at the top of Windows Media Player. Another example of obtrusive advertising is when the Apple iPhone adds the text “Sent from my iPhone” to the bottom of all emails sent.

Unobtrusive advertisements are certain features or the lack thereof that force you to use software from a certain company again in the future. Unobtrusive advertisements are far more common than obtrusive ones. An example of unobtrusive advertising is the fact that Microsoft Word saves in Microsoft’s “.doc” format instead of the international standard, “.odt”. This forces you to use Microsoft Word again in the future if you want to view or edit that file. It also forces anyone else who wants to view or edit that file to use Microsoft Word.

The History of Software Freedom

One of the first people to realize a problem existed was Richard Stallman. In the 1970s, Stallman became frustrated when he couldn’t make an improvement to a piece of software he had received at no cost. This made him start to think about the computer software market. He was talented at creating software himself, and he knew several other people who were as well. They decided to create all of the software that a computer needs to run, and then share it with anyone who wanted it. It would be free of cost, but more importantly, anyone would have the freedom to change and redistribute it. Stallman wanted to make sure that, if modifications were made to his software, other people would be able to benefit from those modifications as well. Therefore, he put a modest requirement on his software that stated, “If you make changes to this software, those changes need to be shared as well.” He called this collection of software “GNU”. In 1991, another component was added to GNU to complete it called “Linux”. Therefore, the complete system was called “GNU/Linux”.

What is is called?

Stallman called this form of software “Free Software”. Most people incorrectly call any software that is free of cost “Free Software”. In true Free Software, the “Free” part refers to freedom, not cost. While it is true that most Free Software is free of cost, not all software that is free of cost can be called “Free Software”. Many times, applications that are free of cost are marketed as Free Software. There have been other names given to Free Software to help differentiate it, including “Freedomware”, “FOSS”, and “FLOSS”. Often, is is also called “Open Source Software”, or “OSS” for short. (Open Source Software has a few very minor differences from Free Software, but for our purposes, they are the same concept.)

Stallman also called any piece of software that wasn’t Free Software “Proprietary Software”. He carefully chose not to use the term “Commercial Software”, because he knew that some companies have indeed found ways to make money off Free Software. Calling freedom-subtracted software “Commercial Software” would give the impression that Free Software can’t be used in the industry, which is far from the truth.

Why Free Software is great

Free Software is generally much higher quality than Proprietary Software for several reasons. Many of the people who create Free Software do not get paid for doing so; it is created completely in their free time. These people obviously have a passion for creating software, since they are willing to do it in their free time. This gives the free software community the cream of the crop developers. There isn’t anyone working on Free Software who does it just for the paycheck.

In addition, all software is shared. This means that, unlike proprietary software, the wheel is never reinvented. Let’s say an German developer spends several years of his life creating a computer program that does the user’s yard work, and decides to make it Free Software. Now let’s say that a Russian software developer wants to create the same program, but in Russian. All that Russian developer has to do is go through and translate the existing piece of software. In the world of Proprietary Software, that Russian developer would have to start from scratch and recreate the whole application. Free Software just saved this person years of work. After a while, you can see everyone’s hours, days, and years start to add up to a considerable amount of time saved. This time saved directly translates into quality and progress

Free Software won’t always do everything people want, but it is guaranteed not to do the things people don’t want. If there is anything that the world as a whole does not like inside a piece of Free Software, it will eventually be removed by someone who feels strongly about its removal. This system of checks and balances is one of, if not the best, system of quality control ever created.

Final Comments

Free Software is any software the gives people the freedom to do what they want with it. Proprietary Software is any piece of software that is not Free Software. Free Software offers a massive number of advantages over Proprietary Software, because it is created by people, for people. Features are not added to or subtracted from Free Software based on how much money they will generate, but instead on how useful they will make the software.

One of the reasons not many people know about Free Software is because Free Software projects usually don’t advertise. The creators of software usually prefer to use all of the money available to them to improve the software. The only advertising these projects get is word of mouth.

To help promote the spread of Software Freedom and the advancement of technology, try using some pieces of Free Software instead of Proprietary Software. Two very well known pieces of Free Software you may want to try are the Firefox Web Browser (http://mozilla.com/firefox) and the OpenOffice Productivity Suite (http://openoffice.org). There are Free Software applications to replace most Proprietary Software. Two good sites to go to to find more free software are Osalt (http://www.osalt.com) and the Free Software Foundation Directory (http://directory.fsf.org). Together, we can help spread Software Freedom.

Published in: on July 4, 2008 at 12:45 pm  Comments (13)  
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If only schools could change

Right now, many schools’ technology systems are corrupt, but not necessarily for the right reason.  It seems like schools are completely locked in to Microsoft, not only as a platform, but also as a curriculum.  A great example of this is the description for the “Using Tech – Accelerated” class in my school.  The prerequisite for going into the advanced “Using Tech” class is “experience using most Microsoft products”.  This just shows that schools today aspire to teach kids how to use Microsoft, not how to use computers.  The excuse is that “Microsoft is what is used in the business world”.  Make of this statement what you wish, but I don’t believe for a second that that is the only reason.  I am making these generalizations based on my school district and other school districts I have seen.  I speak with my district’s technology coordinators regularly, so I understand the attempt to make the perfect technology system, but it isn’t really happening.  The reason is society in general.  My school is already completely based on Microsoft.  The experience of other school districts, and common sense, tells us that staff members will not allow something like this.  In other districts, attempts to make even the tiniest changes repeatedly fail due to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.  I overhead a conversation a little while ago.  For the most part, this is how it went:

Teacher: “It’s almost time to go, so save your work and email it home if you aren’t done.”
Student: “Can I use Google Documents?”
Teacher: “Why?”
Student: “It is a lot easier than emailing it home.  I learned about it in ‘Using Tech’ class.”
Teacher: “Well, you could, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Student: “Why not?”
Teacher: “Because there is no need to use it.  Emailing it works just fine.  Plus it doesn’t sound very reliable, and if something goes wrong, no one will know how to help you.  Just email it home.”
Student: “Okay”
A great technology wasted because the teacher doesn’t know how to use it.  The student knew perfectly well how to use it, but the teacher was clueless.  This is a perfect example of how schools want to change, but can’t.  This situation is kind of like a school district switching to GNU/Linux.  In the teacher’s eyes, Google Documents did the same thing that emailing it home did.  Teachers (and even most people in general) don’t want to learn a new technology if it doesn’t offer immediate significant advantages.  They are willing to put in the time to learn other technologies, like LCD projectors in the classroom, because it is obvious that there will be instant bennefit.  To them, GNU/Linux is just another headache. In addition, there is no cost effective way to switch immediately, especially in larger school districts.  GNU/Linux turns out to be far more expensive than Windows, after staff training and migration costs.  Now, my district is trying to adopt Moodle.  This is a giant leap in the right direction, but in a marathon, a giant leap means nothing.  It takes a sustained effort of steps to win a marathon.  A sustained effort is the only way for any school district to switch.  The problem is that there are too many other resistant people and other issues (http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2002/05/13/schools-microsoft.htm) for something like that to happen.  The only way to push this forward is for community support.  If there are more people pushing for FOSS adoption than against it, we can make something happen.  I STRONGLY encourage you to write a letter to your district’s schoolboard, superintendent, principal(s), administrator(s), technology coordinator(s), or anyone else that may or may not listen.  A battle of this magnitude must be done Bazaar style: with numerous people doing their part.

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 1:32 pm  Comments (4)  
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