What is free software? Should you care and if so, why and what does it have to do with cakes and my mother?
Last week I mentioned my decision to learn Python and write a free software program. I found some cool online tutorials. I found my Learning Python book, and I was ready to begin. So like many a programmer I sat down in my chair, opened my books... and watched "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" instead.
At the very beginning of the “commercial internet” era, around 1995, the internet was all about communities. Mailing lists and Usenets were crucial tools which allowed people with similar interests (and similar problems!) to hang out together in what was considered a fantastic virtual square.
Then, shops started showing up in this square, and... well, its inhabitants got a little distracted.
My younger son likes tractors; big machines and anything that can lift large objects up and throw them great distances. You know the sort of thing, The Hulk, Superman, Terminator III, my wife and sometimes my boss. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to you that I spend time sitting behind this computer trawling archive.org, an excellent repository of historical content for the correct media to present.
Last week I wrote about using GNU/Linux, and justified why I use it. But, as I confessed, the main reason I started using it wasn't because I'm a rigorous political activist with a go-get-em attitude. I'm Australian, people! America might be the land of the brave, down here we're the land of the apathetic... Anyway, I started using GNU/Linux because it was put in front of me and my old system was taken away. And I could get all embarassed about the beginnings of something I am now a firm believer in, but then I ask myself, does the means justify the end? Does in really matter how and under what circumstances I became involved as long as I'm here now? Does it matter if I'm using it because it's cheap, or because it's better, or because I like the politics? What if I don't give two hoots about the politics? Is there a good way and a bad way to use FLOSS?
With the draft of the GNU General Public License Version 3 (GPLv3) have come many interesting comments, although not all of which I have found positive. While I understand proprietary vendors have offered complaints against a license they do not even use, I was surprised that Linus Torvalds had taken some issues which I thought were in any case misguided criticisms.
The big questions are being answered. Now is the golden age of cosmology. Astronomy, astrophysics, particle physics and the rest of the outward facing sciences are moving forward in leaps and bounds of credible theorizing and searching. Yes, a massive shift towards a truly profound understanding of how things work in this Universe. It comes as no surprise that with so much knowledge and data flowing that the elite temples of understanding such as Universities we risk submergence under the velocity of model change and data storage requirements.
When I was last at uni (which I go back to every so often, just to prove to myself that I can’t sit through another degree), I found myself in a situation where I was sitting at a computer in the library of a public high school in Western Australia, trying to write a lesson plan (I was dabbling with the idea of being a high school teacher at the time). It was 40°C (104°F) outside, and inside wasn’t much better. I was sitting on an uncomfortably high plastic chair waiting... waiting... waiting... and that was just for the office suite to load on MS2000.
How much material has been lost through the years? Now the question is of course what do I mean by material. For example, do I mean the trivial stuff such as typed office memorandums or the less trivial—the missing live broadcasts of the early Dr Who. No, let me focus on what I consider to be the most important material of all, that which may have a positive effect on the next generation— the historical and educational material that helps our children form sophisticated models of the Universe around us.
The world is a very big place. However, every sub-world, no matter how big it looks, is itself really quite tiny once you’re in it—and always made up by the same few “famous” people.
I was at the MOCA meeting in Italy last year. It was a fantastic experience, full of people who were really interested in computer security and were way beyond the script kiddie phase of their lives. I couldn’t walk very far without being stopped, and asked “Are you ‘the’ Merc? Like, the one in the book ‘Spaghetti Hacker?’”
Why aren't there more female free software developers out there. In my attempt to find out, I decided to write a program and see what barriers got in my way.
Most free software developers are men. Women are vastly under-represented in the world of free software. Being a woman, I wanted to know why, so I tried to do it myself. The first barrier was my inability to program in any modern computer language, so my first step was to learn a new one.
First I had to pick a language to program in.
With all of the recent argument over the lack of women in the free software community, especially as relates to the reports from the Free/Libre/Open Source Software Group, which state that only 1.5% of the free software development community is female, and that women are actively discouraged from becoming free software developers. I decided to take a new approach and ask myself, "Why am I not a free software developer?"
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?
I own an old, quite customised Thinkpad a21m laptop, which I still use intensively when I’m out of town: with 256 Mb of RAM, a 750 MHz Pentium 3 chip and a 1024x768 screen running off an ATI chip, I can run pretty much all recent GNU/Linux distros around. I also have built a nice living-room warmer based off an Athlon64 X2 3800+ with a big, fat hard disk and more RAM than you can shake a stick at (well, almost). Is there a problem here?
If I tell you that I need to download ten (10) different CD images to install both according to their specificities, maybe you’ll get it.
Your daughter has just been in a car crash. She falls unconscious on her way to the hospital, but not before she is able to tell the paramedics the name of her doctor. This is vitally important because the emergency room won’t know that she’s an insulin-dependent diabetic with a penicillin allergy, but her doctor will be able to give them her relevant medical history.
Or, at least he would be if he’d renewed the tech support contract on his medical records software. He didn’t, though, and now his information—and your daughter’s—is locked away in a proprietary database he can’t access.
I am a great believer in karma. If you are generally nice then generally nice are the events that you get back. Being the school bully is only short-term fun. As you get older and your bones become more fragile then others will take over your role and trample on your head. This is also true in business. Sure you have to be hungry and competitive, but not at the cost of losing your native support along the way. Let this blog be a warning to you... wag, wag my finger is wagging.
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.
There have been a couple of “chicks in IT” news items recently that have been turning heads. Firstly, there was a very high profile story in Australia about Sonja Bernhardt, an IT professional from the Gold Coast who decided it would be cool to release a calendar featuring women in IT, posing as movie sirens, to try and drum up girly interest in joining the IT forces. That caused a furore down here, let me tell you. Technology news is usually stuffed down the back of the paper, but when you might sneak a peak at a calendar girl it’s a whole different story... even if she is into computers. There was also a recent slashdot entry about Fedora introducing a group for Fedora women, to help support women in the FOSS world (apparently, chicks don’t dig IT and they REALLY don’t dig FOSS).
A wiki is a series of searchable web pages that many people can edit. This works well for Wikipedia because people will search for a particular topic in an encyclopedia. This also works for Wiktionary because people search for definitions of words, but what about other Wikimedia projects such as Wikibooks? Is a wiki the appropriate software for these projects? Are these projects doomed to fail?
How should I say this politely: I do not like spam! I hate spam. Can I choose something different? Perhaps a nice cold beer on such a warm day, but definitely not hot steaming, bug infested spam.