Archive for the ‘issues’ Category

GPL vs BSD, a matter of sustainability

December 15th, 2007

If you haven't been living under a rock the past decade (I suppose Stonehenge qualifies) you may have walked in on some incarnation of the famous GPL vs BSD flamewar. It's up there with the most famous flamewars (now *there's* a research question for a brimming sociology student!) of our beloved Internet society.

Both licensing models have been around for a very long time. I don't know which predates which, but it really doesn't matter. The spirit behind both licenses is very similar: free software is good. But they realize this idea in different ways.

In the GPL license you have the four freedoms: to run the software, to have the source code, to distribute the software, to distribute your modifications to the software. What this implies is that when you obtain the software, you have the *obligation* to ensure that these four things hold true for the next person you give it to. After all, someone had to go to the trouble of preserving these rights for *you*, so you have to do the same for the next guy.

The BSD license is different, because it gives *you* the right to distribute the software, but it does not oblige you to make sure that the next guy has any such right. Well, that's not really a problem, the next guy can ignore you and get the software from the same source that you did (if that source is still available). But if you change it and you give it to him, you can forbid him from passing it on.

So who is right? Well, the BSD camp is. The BSD is no doubt a freer license, it gives you the right to decide what rights to bundle with the software. That is much closer to the absolute meaning of "freedom" than the GPL. Alas, it's not "completely" free, because you can't remove the name of the software's author and replace it with "Leonardo da Vinci".

What the GPL terms "freedom" is actually fairly subversive, because it *forces* you to do certain things. Most people who are forced to do something call that a "restriction" rather than a "freedom". It's true that you have certain freedoms when you get the software, but if you want to pass it on you have restrictions, so they could just as well call it the four freedoms and the four restrictions.

Therefore, if we take the philosophical ideal of freedom to heart, even though both of these licenses promote free software, none of them represent freedom, and the GPL is far less free than the BSD.

Harmless restrictions

Suppose you're a parent and you give your kid a candy bar and say this is for you and your brother, you can have half of it, and when he comes home give him the other half. Do you think that is going to happen just as you instructed? How confident are you?

Well, your intentions were good. You tried to ensure fairness. But we humans are scheming devils, aren't we? So our philosophy is a bit of an idealization, we just don't live up to it.

Is there some way we can find a measure of freedom that is good enough? The fact is that we live with a lot of implicit restrictions without worrying too much about them. If you tell your kid you're free to wear anything you want, eat anything you want, be anywhere you want, and do anything you want, except you can't burn the house down most kids would find that a very satisfying degree of freedom, despite the restriction. They would probably say well I wasn't going to do that anyway, all my toys would go up in smoke.

So what can we do about sustainability?

Freedom in its pure form is a wonderful thing, but it's not inherently sustainable. You can take something and compare it up against freedom and tell if it's free, but you can't use freedom to enforce freedom. That would be absurd.

The GPL model is sustainable. It offers freedom, but with the pragmatic twist that there needs to be some kind of force to keep the freedom in place. In that sense it could even be said to be more free, because the *accumulated* freedom over all people involved is higher than when one person has all the freedom and everyone else has none.

GPL freedom is isomorphic. If OpenOffice needs a way to open jpeg files, and the gimp already has code for this, OpenOffice can just take it. Then two years later if OpenOffice reads jpegs much faster, the gimp can take the modified code from OpenOffice and use it. Both parties have the same degree of freedom, and no freedom is lost along the way, the process is "lossless".

BSD freedom, on the other hand, is "lossy". If I get BSD code I have a lot of freedom, but the next guy doesn't. It's fairly well known that there is BSD code in Windows. And obviously, whatever Microsoft did with that code, they have no obligation to release their changes. So the code *was* free at one point, but it didn't *remain* free. Furthermore, even if they didn't change it one bit, if the original author is no longer around, Microsoft is still sitting on BSD code that is free for *them*, but it's no longer free for anyone else.

So what can we conclude from all this? Both license models make software free, but only GPL software is sustainably free. The BSD gives greater freedom, the GPL gives more freedom. Choose which one you value more.

For a more in-depth discussion see this essay, not only for itself, but also the many many references it contains to other relevant texts.

UPDATE: Alexandre Baron has written a French translation.

let's make Bill Gates happy

November 11th, 2007

In the annals of computing we find his Open Letter to Hobbyists, which attempted to appeal to our morals so that we stop pirating software.

The problem, of course, is that software is just not worth paying for. If we didn't run pirated software, we just wouldn't use software. That's the reality of it, pure and simple.

If you're a seasoned Windows user, somewhere in your house you have a cd/dvd kit. Or a dedicated partition on your disk. And what you have there is a full suite of install programs for all the software you run. Windows is unstable and insecure, and since it's also impossible to backup fully, the only solution is to keep copies of all software in installers, so that you can restore your system when the need arises (and if you've used Windows for a few years, you've done this several times already, or you have "a geeky friend" that you call and he does it).

This is the reality of Windows, you need all these crappy little programs like WinZip (who the hell is gonna pay for that?), because otherwise your system is unusable. Windows by itself is unusable, the first thing you have to do is install all these little "helper" applications that help you get anything done.

[too] few women in engineering

October 31st, 2007

Okay, it's an old issue and a well known issue that has been systematically raised for decades and I'm not going to replay the usual rhetoric.


sex play in kindergarden?

October 16th, 2007

There's a story making the rounds in the Norwegian media about a certain day care center that promotes "sex play" among the kids. Aftenposten has the story in English (for the record the translation is a bit half assed and doesn't reflect the story completely).

Children, she said, should be able "to look at each other and examine each other's bodies. They can play doctor, play mother and father, dance naked and masturbate.

"But their sexuality must also be socialized, so they are not, for example, allowed to masturbate while sitting and eating. Nor can they be allowed to pressure other children into doing things they don't want to."

The argument here is that sex is a natural and fundamental thing and kids need to learn about it. Since sex play among kindergarden kids is not unusual anyway, it's just a matter of how we respond to it. Pia Friis is the manager for the day care center in question, and she argues that it's harmful to inflict guilt on kids for this kind of conduct. Furthermore, kids should draw their own boundaries. Her position is backed up by phychologist/sexologist Thore Langfeldt.

"The only thing that is absolutely certain is that children, sooner or later, will play sexual games and examine each other at the kindergarten (..)"

It is certainly a progressive thought to permit this in kindergarden. However, there is a wider context to this issue. People like to point out the double standards surrounding sex in our society. There is no doubt that a lot of people (whether it's many or most is hard to say) are interested in pursuing the topic of sex publicly. We are in a sense surrounded by sex. How many commercials and billboards have you seen this week that exploit sex to sell a product? How many movies have seen this month with sexual content? How many sex jokes have you heard? It's evident, people don't want sex hidden away, they want it out in the open. When it's hard to find a movie that doesn't make any reference to sex, it's a pretty clear sign. Meanwhile, a lot of successful tv shows like Desperate housewives and most of all, Big Brother, sell primarily on sex. If there ever was a time when sex was a private issue out of the public realm, it certainly is long gone.

And yet, sex is still a taboo subject. People are mystified by it. It's embarrassment, not a permissible topic. And so people maintain this charade of taboo while they indulge in it whenever it isn't banned. Why is it that the most obvious, tired jokes get laughs as long as they contain sexual innuendo? Because sex remains a repressed topic. People are not free to express themselves openly, it's frowned upon. While I think that sexual behavior is for the most part pretty unrestrained (or so it seems), discussing it isn't. Do what you want, but don't talk about it.

When I read this story my initial reaction was pure skepticism. "What on earth?" It's the same reaction that was quoted in the story.

"Sexual games don't belong in a kindergarten," she declared. "Children don't need more exposure to this in kindergartens. We think it will damage their health."

But that set off an alarm bell in my head. I had formed an opinion without even thinking about the issue. Wait a second, why exactly am I skeptical? Based on what? Based on current norms of society? Norms are completely relative, and they change. Unless there is a solid argument as to why things must remain as they are, it's pointless to argue against change. And what is the argument from this politician? None whatsoever. "This doesn't belong in kindergarden." "We think it could be harmful." How? What studies are you quoting?

If one thing is obvious to me it is that we don't know what to do about sex, how to deal with the subject. Our traditional norms of keeping it locked up have been gradually pushed back to the point where it surrounds us, but we're still not supposed to talk about it. As a society we are extremely immature about it. And most of all, "protecting kids" from sex has been a moral effort. All the while kids themselves are in fact just as sexual and we have a serious disconnect from the point where they are old enough to pursue sex to the point where their parents think they are old enough to acknowledge it.

Perhaps if kids in kindergarden were taught to not to repress their sexuality they would grow up into more mature adults. And maybe then we could do away with the ridiculous double standard and stop surrounding ourselves with sex all the time?

Maybe the kindergarden concept is a good idea, maybe it's not. But we should determine this based on facts determined scientifically. The stupidest thing we can do at any time is to dismiss ideas out of hand because they don't conform to our superstitions.

the most compelling world view yet

October 3rd, 2007

I've had my share of exposure to the Christian world and pretty much decided I don't belong there. I haven't had very much to do with the atheist society, and so I've familiarized myself with the ideas through Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Granted, when people write books for the mass market, it's sometimes hard to know to what extent they really assert their own beliefs or whether they are just exaggerating on purpose.

Having seen Dawkins in a number of talks, I would say that he is very consistent in the ideas he expresses, and his book is true to this as well. Reading Dawkins I once again feel a little alienated, on several points. There is the notion of being atheist and proud of it which it isn't at all convincing. It is nice to know that one isn't alone in the world with some idea, but the whole thing of some kind of virtual march with banners telling people you're *proud* of what you are just doesn't register with me. Why would you be proud of the way god/evolution determined you would become? What is the accomplishment here? And the second thing is the black and white classification of all things religious. Dawkins won't say that some beliefs are more harmful than others, he just wants to condemn everything under the banner of religion.

Sam Harris, on the other hand, takes a much more nuanced stance. In fact, while his book is provoking and inflammatory, I find his talks to be much more compelling, and the best reflection yet of what I could agree with wholeheartedly. In particular, this talk (transcript) is as close as anyone has ever come to write something I agree with completely.