Archive for January, 2010

how Free software supports schools

January 29, 2010

I wrote the following list of advantages schools get by procuring Free software. I did it for the school I currently teach at though I hope others may find this useful. Any suggestions for additions or changes are welcome.

Civics and Ethics in Action: From an early age, we wish to teach students to share, cooperate, and engage their curiosity. Typically, proprietary software licensing restricts users from modifying their software or making copies to share with others. By contrast, teaching students the civics of community and the ethic of sharing is harmonious with Free software licensing and core educational goals. That is, we can promote these values and concurrently encourage students to respect the law. This is essential to an education that values global citizenship and civic responsibility.

Local Community Building: The freedom to share copies of GNU/Linux and other Free software means students and teachers can install this software on their computers at home. By contrast, proprietary software forbids this. Many teachers, students, and parents will want to have copies of the software used at school on their personal machines. When a school uses proprietary software, it compels community members to acquire their own restricted copies if they wish to compute using the same technology. By using Free software, a school does not pressure community members to purchase (or illegally acquire) equivalent software. Free software puts no limits upon the community.*

Global Community Building: Any money or effort spent by the school on the development of Free software can go directly toward improvements that other schools and organizations are free to benefit from. Those investments are sustainable as no developer can unilaterally choose to discontinue distribution. Additionally, simply by using Free software schools add to its economic value (via the network effect) and receive the benefits of source code peer-review from a global community. Using Free software is to participate in a cooperating community with no borders.

Depth of Learning Opportunities: Software is fundamentally a set of mathematical and logical instructions expressed in something called source code. Typically, the source code for proprietary software is kept a trade secret. Without source code, knowledge of software is kept shallow and the ability to modify (i.e. experiment with) it is impossible. Because Free software makes its source code available, the science behind such software can be studied by students. A Free software system is especially fitting for educational environments as any level of curiosity can be satisfied. Tools that are open for students to tinker with broadens learning opportunities and fosters community when those same tools are used by the students’ peers and teachers.

Security: Free software programs are adept at warding off viruses. Successfully planting a back-door in a popular Free software program is virtually impossible due to public scrutiny of the source code. Public peer review acts as an effective defense against the dangers of worms and trojan horses. The security a Free software program offers is a positive in terms of the productivity of users and a school’s technical staff.

Constructive Spending: Typically, using Free software instead of proprietary software releases funds that can be spent on developing desired software features or other school-related needs (e.g. professional development, facilities, books, etc). By contrast, using proprietary software means funds are directed toward perpetual licensing fees and upgrades – some of which are compelling whether or not the school sees a need.

Performance On Hardware and Hardware Life
: While not an inherent property of Free software, GNU/Linux is known as a lightweight and customizable system that performs well on older hardware and new hardware with low specifications (e.g. netbooks). This can translate into savings and waste reduction by extending hardware life.

Data Ownership and Vendor Choice: Free software is closely coupled to open standards for file formats. Students and teachers using Free software are ensured their information is stored indefinitely in universally accessible formats. Vendor lock-in through proprietary formats is never an issue when using Free software applications. Schools that adopt Free software are free to seek support and services from businesses of their choice.

* Some Free software does put a limit on individual community members (or companies) distributing copies. Sometimes, conveyed (i.e. distributed) Free software must carry with it the complete corresponding source code and the license the conveyor received with her or his own copy. This is known as copylefted Free software. Non-copylefted Free software is permissive, as it can be re-distributed as proprietary software.

perhaps an american can explain this to me…?

January 22, 2010

I don’t get how restricting corporate spending on political campaigns violates free speech. This is disgraceful. Implied by the freedom to speak is the freedom to think for oneself. A corporation is incapable of personal thought or speech because it is not a real person. Sure, a corporation can release a statement to the press but a corporate statement is always bound by groupthink.

Every CEO, shareholder, and employee of a corporation is already a citizen granted the right to free speech and the right to put personal dollars toward political use. Therefore, I don’t see how restricting corporate spending violates any person’s right to speak freely. The US has taken the idea of corporate “personhood” way too far.

Free software and externalities

January 14, 2010

I’ve been thinking of externalities and by far the hardest form of an externality example to come up with has to be a “positive production externality”. That is, where the production of a good or service has a beneficial spillover effect for the rest of society’s producers. I came across an older post by Jason Welker where he speaks of the difficulty in providing examples. In that post he quotes economics professor Dr. Tim Haab who had this to say about PPEs:

The problems usually come in defining a positive production externality. A benefit to someone that is not fully captured by the producers–usually difficult because producers are usually pretty funny about finding ways to recover the full benefits of their production.

The case of proprietary software provides evidence for this claim. When proprietary software is published, it uses trade secret, patent and copyright laws to keep other producers from benefiting fully from the spillover. For example, trade secrecy keeps useful source code hidden from 3rd parties. Patent laws can keep 3rd parties from implementing similar ideas in their programs. As well, non-disclosure agreements are used within companies in an attempt to stop any benefit from “leaking” to other producers. Proprietary software production is an allocatively inefficient deployment of resources (historically justified under the fallacy that quality software won’t be written otherwise) and represents a market failure.

In the case of Free software production, the PPE isn’t negated by NDAs and patent thickets. With Free software, all producers are affected by the benefit. Non-copylefted Free software brings the marginal private cost (MPC) curve closer to the marginal social cost (MSC) curve while copylefted Free software aligns the two even closer as producers are unable to prevent others from acquiring the same benefits they received. Therefore, it makes the most sense for government policies to support businesses and other institutions in a way that encourages even more development of Free software.

On a related but unfortunate note, countries like Germany are trying to correct a negative consumption externality of proprietary software. Specifically, the burden of malware. Promoting Free software also tackles this problem as Free software offers users the best defense against malicious code.

one kernel, on the rocks

January 7, 2010

I recently spent some time in Bali, Indonesia. A few friends and I went for some refreshments at a restaurant in the town of Ubud. If I recall, it was on Monkey Mountain Road and the name of it was “Wardani’s”.

Apparently, someone working at the restaurant has Free software on their mind. Check out the fourth drink down on the menu.

No, I didn’t try the “Gorilla Fart”.

Creative Commons licensing for Utah educators

January 2, 2010

Tom got me thinking about this here and here. Some great progress in Utah public schools comes in the form of Rule R277-111. In short, teachers have the right to share their lessons under Creative Commons licenses.

Of course, teachers should have the freedom to share the resources they author. Denying this freedom runs counter to progressive practice. It is good to see this right explicitly stated. Hopefully this will catch fire.

Via Luke and David Wiley.