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Vintage Outlandish!

This Content From 2003 (or earlier) see index

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Free Software

We can build the web
I've always wanted someone to re-make this poster to relate specifically to the web and tech, because the truth is that we build it. We can do it!

Use the Source, Luke

I've been into writing software about as long as I've been into computers. One of my first real treats was to cause my poor little Commedore to have buffer overflows (now a popular way to hack/crack software) by making it do math that overran it's ability to count. It always seemed logical to me that if other people were doing all these great things with these machines then I could as well. I never got too deep into it though, as other interests gradually arose and took me away from the screen.

But since I've become more and more a tech professional, I've become more and more aware of the history and culture around and behind the world of computing. While original forrays into hacking were largely thwarted by the notion that programmers were a highly selective and secretive breed, this changed when I discovered free software. Getting into the online world, I used tools like Apache, Perl and PHP and started to learn about this thing called the GPL, and how all these things were Good. I was a convert. I was at the RMS speech at NYU covered in chapter 2 of his bio.

Growing up in a Macintosh household, I had no love lost for Microsoft, but when I started understanding what free software was all about, things moved to a whole new level. For those of you who aren't initiated into the debate, here's a great parable I've lifted from some brilliant post on slashdot:

Once upon a time, some people lived in a cave, and no one knew that there was a world outside of the cave. The cave provided everything they needed, with plenty of fish and water. Luminous mushrooms provided both food and light. The only thing in short supply was air. All air came through a small shaft connected to the outside world. The shaft was controlled by a single company, Microshaft, which carefully rationed its flow to maximize demand and collected breathing license fees from everyone who had to breath. To save money the company hired cheap labor to operate the valves, but these laborers were often barely competent, and the air supply was unreliable. The shaft was poorly maintained, the air was often stale and laden with viruses. By selling a product that cost them essentially nothing to produce, Microshaft's profits were enormous and they became rich and powerful.

One day, a group of daring young renegades discovered that there were other ways to get air, just by moving some rocks that blocked openings to the outside. And they offered their air free. At first people were hesitant to use Free Air, thinking something must be wrong with it since it was free. Initially Microshaft ignored the renegades, dismissing them as a fringe movement and minor nuisance. But eventually Microshaft saw them as a threat. They started a major marketing campaign to convince people that the Free Air was bad for their health. But people found that they actually felt better and healthier breathing the free, fresh air. Microshaft added more and more features to their air, perfuming it and coloring it with smoke to give it "added value". Many people started to dislike Microshaft's heavy, bloated air that was hard to breath and began flocking in droves to the sources of Free Air.

About this time, after some years of hard volunteer work, Open Air developers finally increased the size of a Free Air portal so that a person could actually squeeze through to the outside. The first brave individuals who ventured through it discovered that not only was there an unlimited supply of air in the outside world, there was no way you could harness and control its supply.

Alarmed, Microshaft sought to have the government declare Free Air illegal since it threatened their business model, which they had developed and rightfully earned through many years of hard work. They called the use of Free Air "theft" and claimed that the "viral" nature of the Public Breathing License advocated by many Open Air rebels would threaten the livelihood of Microshaft's suppliers and distributors. Indeed, the whole economy of the cave would collapse, they said. Laws were quickly passed and the portals of Free Air were sealed off.

A charitable organization called the Business Air Alliance was formed to help protect businesses against the threat of Free Air portals. By proving that it was theoretically possible to fund terrorist organizations with the money saved by breathing Free Air, the BAA successfully lobbied to strengthen the laws so that any attempt to make an opening to the outside became punishable by death. Possession of shovels and picks became a criminal offense, and the BAA performed random audits to help citizens comply with the law. For their protection, everyone was required to wear an Air Rights Management security device, which would send an alarm to the authorities if it didn't detect a secret mix of fumes found only in Microshaft air.

As time passed, Microshaft and the government became indistinguishable. To prevent future uprisings, a new feature was added to the air to keep the people sedated happily ever after.

This guy is right on the money. The comparative possibilities of free software to better the world at large and create more value and economic activity far outweigh the comparative economic and public-good benefit of having a few very large proprietary software giants. In another decade or two, the proprietary software boom will be just another footnote to history, and interesting time when a few lawyers found a way to briefly make a big bunch of bucks by getting people to agree to restrictive licensing terms. In the long run, the total economic benefit of having open information always outweighs the economic benefit of secret methods and vertial integration.

The industrial revolution went through the same thing in its early days, with people clamping down on design innovations and trying to ride one good idea to a palace of riches. Eventually the information got out anyway and success in business became once again a factor of how well you did your job. In fact, the more freely information was exchanged, the more rapidly the science of industrial design advanced. Today open standards are what make most of the industry around the world and global trade possible. It will be the same with computers. In fact, it's already effectively happened with hardware (c.f. Sillicon Valley vs. Route 128), so it's only a matter of time until the software industry catches up.

See also: why technology is revolutionary

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Trips in Space and Time 8/02/03

Big Wheels in Berkeley
I scored a set of west-coast wheels today at the Ashby BART station flea market. It's a very tall schwinn road bike, black, deceptively heavy but smooth-riding. Thirty-five dollars to boot. I oiled and cleaned the works, dialed in the bakes and took it out for a shake-down cruise immediately. Nice riding on a beautiful saturday, realizing how out of shape I am as I wheezed my way though the hilly area behind the Berkeley campus.

After about an hour I started to get the swing of it. Made some minor mechanical adjustments (including a free wheel truing at the bike collective on Shattuck), drank a few liters of water and started finding my groove, cruising up and around and ending up with a beautiful view of the whole bay. The roads here are not kind to the speed inclined -- too many stop signs and crosswalks and lights -- but it was good to get out and proj for a while. This changes my summer dramatically.

...older trips...


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