This year’s Python Convention , being held this weekend in Dallas Texas, started off with an inspiring presentation by an engineer from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project  (Ivan Krstić) , showing off the hardware features of the new “OLPC XO 1” prototype, as well as some “dangerous ideas” about its software design: a large part of the user space code for the laptops will be implemented in Python, mainly because of the ease of manipulating the source code. The OLPC laptop software will be 100% free software, not just in principle, but in spirit as well—the assumption of open source design is literally built into the hardware.
To me, Python represents the quintessential free software programming language: its central design values are the ones that are most import for the free software community—clarity and pragmatism. Yes, I’m sure other people have their own pet languages, but Python is definitely my favorite.
One business model that I’m surprised hasn’t been further explored for funding free software is advertising. Ads have been a standard way to make “free” media pay in countries like the USA, where advertising-based commercial television broadcasting has been the dominant medium for decades.
There are really two bazaars that fire the boilers for free software: one dominated by talented amateurs who create for love; the other, by professionals who create for money. This creates a curious bi-modal nature to the free software/open source community: there's always a certain amount of tension between the schedule-driven bottom-line interest of commercial entities like Novell, Red Hat, or even Canonical and individual hobbyist developers.
There’s no point in having a world full of “ethical” but unemployed artists. I think there is an ethical compulsion for people with talent to use their talent (artistic talent is power which carries responsibility). And, since making money at doing it is frequently a requirement for that to happen sustainably, then making money at doing your art is also an imperative.
It's entirely possible that Novell is about to get fleeced, and that GNU/Linux will take a hit in the process, and Microsoft has a history of playing the Big Bad. But are we really being smart to always assume that Microsoft will win every battle it enters?
Novell lawyers pulled some fairly smooth legal judo against SCO only a few months ago. I think it might be a little early to call a winner. Eben Moglen and some other observers have noted the peculiar and difficult to predict consequences of the kind of deal that is being reported.
Some time ago I posted Just a thought: free distributed search?, suggesting that maybe relying on the centralized approach of search engine companies like Google was unwise, and that some kind of decentralized approach could work better for searching. Recently, I was directed to an actual attempt to implement this kind of strategy called Majestic-12. It's a UK-based project which applies the distributed computing model made famous by SETI@home to the problem. Isn't that amazing?
One of the things I love about using a large free software distribution, especially on a suitably large harddrive, is that you can sometimes just go exploring in your applications menu. It seems like there’s always something there I haven’t looked at yet. Jan Schäfer’s KImageMapEditor was one of these discoveries—and what a gem it turned out to be!
Somebody recently noted that, what with all the bombing and killing and tyrannical madness going on in the world, how can we waste all this time talking about free software? Surely there's more important stuff to worry about?
Well, they’re absolutely right that there are bigger problems in the world. When I get a chance to do something more direct about it, I plan to. So far, it looks like voting is about it, though.
Recently, I've become involved in the ongoing discussion between the Creative Commons and Debian over the "freeness" of the Creative Commons Public License (CCPL), version 3. Specifically, the hope is that Debian will declare the CC-By and CC-By-SA licenses "free", as most people intuitively feel they are. There are a number of minor issues that I think both sides have now agreed to, leaving only the question of "Technological Protection Measures" (TPM, also known as "Digital Rights Management" or "Digital Restrictions Management" or "DRM").
Singularity of the soul and the myth of consciousness
Okay, I've laid a bit of groundwork for this with my last few blogs, and now I'm going to talk about something they do say you never should: my religion. It's not something I talk about much, and indeed, I'm probably known for avoiding the subject. That's because it tends to be a sticky and involved conversation if I address it fairly. Curiously, this does actually have consequences for free software. Richard Stallman likes to talk about the ethical reasons for writing it; Eric Raymond likes to talk about the pragmatic reasons; but here I intend to address a spiritual reason for doing so.
I’ve been hearing about BitTorrent for at least a year. It’s an exciting technology in principle, because it solves traditional central repository file distribution problems, uses peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing technology, and is written in my favorite programming language, Python. All interesting material—but what about practical utility?
One of the most disturbing ideas I've encountered in intellectual property law is the peculiar idea of owning and being able to patent naturally occuring gene sequences, such as those in the Human Genome project. Even though we have been fortunate that most of that information is not under restrictive licensing conditions, that the laws allow such a thing is something I find bad enough. How can it be that this holy of holies, the fundamentally defining data that makes every cell in my body uniquely me, should be treated as property to be owned. And if it is owned, why is it not owned by me?
It's well-known that the way that people choose to appear online is distinct from physical appearance, and this is often perceived as some kind of falsehood. But honestly, for someone you've never met, which is their “real” face? And do you learn more from a photograph or an avatar? This is my first departure from “pragmatic” ideas into somewhat more “spiritual” territory, which I plan to follow up for a few weeks. I hope to explore some of the human side of online interaction, since that's how most free software gets made.
If you had a matter economy based on free-licensed design, what would you do with it? Why does this apply to space settlements? Are there practical projects? Who would need them? Why is free-design the right way to go? This final installment in the free matter economy series will attempt to answer these questions by taking a brief tour of the kinds of roadblocks that lead to the concept of applying free software methods to space.
Today, I finally decided that my gVim editor needed a smaller font, and the process of getting it to work right has made me notice a fundamental flaw in the way we think about user interfaces. It’s not an innovation that you’ll get on the proprietary side of the line, because it’s an innovation required for the digital middle class of ‘user-developers’ that I mentioned last week.
Essentially it’s just this: GUIs should teach, not obfuscate or hide the underlying mechanism.
Some prominent people have called free software “communist” in an attempt to bring Cold War bugaboos to bear against the movement—a kind of “nuclear option” of FUD. I remember the paranoia of the Cold War personally, and I thought then (and I still do now) that it was “just stupid”.
So rather than react as some have done with a knee-jerk “no it’s not!”, I propose to accept the label and see where that insight takes us. Maybe there is something communist about free software? I think we will see, however, that the idea behind free software is far more radical: no less “communist” than “capitalist”, but no more so, either.
Back when I got my first computer (a TRS-80 “Color Computer” with a whopping 32 kilobytes of RAM and Microsoft’s “MS-BASIC” in ROM), programming was something that computer users took for granted they’d have to do. That’s what you got a computer for! But something dark and sinister happened after that: a great divide opened up between the ‘developer’ lords and the ‘user’ serfs.
Fortunately, free software has liberated us from this digital feudalism, and revived a new middle class of ‘user-developers’.
Well, I know what I want for Christmas!
I actually imagined this board a long time ago, and spent many hours brainstorming how it could be built. I imagined a single LCD or LED screen with fiber-optic lenses to carry the changing keycaps through to the surface without interfering with the key action. I had a lot of uses for such a beast if only I could figure out how to make one. Too bad it was just technically unfeasible.
Fortunately, materials science moves on! The Optimus Keyboard by Art Lebedev will be both simpler in mechanical design, and amazingly progressive in its electronic design. The keycaps will each carry their own “Organic LED” display panel, allowing digital keycaps to be downloaded for each key.