Archive for the ‘software’ Category

and how freedom can work

March 4, 2010


Note that step #6 (which is closely coupled to step #5) is required for DRM to have its intended effect. I recommend running a Free system (e.g. GNU) and if you must, skip straight to step #20.

More of the above will encourage the popularity and development of services (for example) that offer win-win possibilities. Such services are examples of how freedom can work.


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.

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.

two words…

December 9, 2009

negative externality

Google says: if it’s private, it’s probably illicit or illegal

December 8, 2009

If you install proprietary software on your computer, you’re putting your privacy at risk. This is but one of several reasons not to. It’s possible however, to run a completely Free system yet forfeit the protection Free software offers. All one needs to do is use “cloud” computing. Essentially, this means crunching your data while it resides on another’s server. In the case of Google (and others), this appears to be an inevitable trend in the coming years.

The idea of having one’s data in another’s hands is nothing new…mainstream Internet users have been doing so with email clients like Hotmail and Yahoo for years. It’s the ubiquity that’s alarming. We’re not talking only of email. We’re talking everything. At least that’s the early idea behind something like Google’s Chromium OS.

It’s alarming (though not surprising) then, to hear Google CEO Eric Schmidt claim that:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

This makes clear that Google’s obligation won’t be to take a stand for free speech or privacy rights. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of just uses of cloud storage that certain governments through corrupt law will deem harmful to society and demand the “perpetrators” be outed. Google being a corporation, doesn’t care at all about anyone’s rights or spreading the freedom that comes with Free software (despite many individuals within the organization that may). Google’s top priorities will be to serve local laws (not out of respect for law, but to do business) and their bottom line. Schmidt’s quote is a stark reminder that while systems like Chrome OS help steer us successfully away from the chains of proprietary software, it’s still important for society to have viable, Free, local computing environment options for the sake of privacy rights.

If we do this…if we enable this environment and promote systems like Chrome in tandem, then perhaps we will be working toward something of benefit to computer users around the world.

Free software: the best defense

October 31, 2009

Spyware and malware survive and thrive on secrecy. The best way to maintain secrecy in a software program is to deny users access to the program’s source code (i.e. by making the whole or part of the program proprietary). With Free software, users are free to audit and modify the corresponding source code of a program. This means malicious code (like backdoors) are easily thwarted.

In theory, malicious code can exist in popular Free software programs but it’s not practical. Adding malicious code to a Free software program and attempting to distribute that code through a mainstream channel is like knocking on every door in an apartment complex to inform the inhabitants of

A) you spying on/attacking them and
B) the method(s) you are using to do so

Of course, many users don’t look at or change source code (just as many people are not in their apartment when there’s a knock at the door). But all it takes is one honest programmer (or one person at home in the entire apartment complex) to become aware of what’s happening. In effect, someone will blow the whistle on any attempt to harm the users. This benefit is had by both programmers and average computer users alike.

The freedom that Free software offers is the best defense against malware and spyware.

This post is an update from a March 2007 entry.

windows: GNU/Linux’s latest app?

October 16, 2009

Check out this new Acer netbook that “dual-boots” Windows and Google’s GNU/Linux variant “Android”:

(No, this post is not to point out the video cutting at 1:33 because Windows is taking a lifetime to boot – that laugh is bonus)

At the 1:16 mark we see Android ask, “Switch to OS: Would you like boot (sic) to Windows?”. After confirmation, we see Windows begin to boot…or is it launch? I’m curious – has the Windows operating system been turned into a proprietary GNU/Linux application? It appears this Acer isn’t hard booting when the command is given to start Windows (where’s the BIOS’s output?). So is this a warm boot or has Windows been virtualized?

I’d be grateful to anyone with more information willing to pass it on. When Windows is shut down, are we back to GNU/Linux? Or do we need to boot the machine again?

proprietary software needs “piracy”

September 22, 2009

Let’s say the Wal-Mart Corporation could wave a magic wand, putting an end to all shoplifting from their stores. Would they? Let’s say the Microsoft Corporation could wave a magic wand, putting an end to all unauthorized distribution of their software. Would they? Perhaps surprisingly to some, the answers to these two questions are polar opposites. It would seem there’s not much difference between the two suggestions, right? After all, unauthorized distribution of software is “stealing” – just like shoplifting. It is to commit “theft”, so they say. It would be absurd not to stop people stealing from your business.

Organizations like the BSA claim that “piracy” does “harm” to the proprietary software industry. However, it’s “piracy” that keeps their ship from sinking quickly. Without “piracy”, one of the biggest obstacles to Free software adoption would be removed. To claim that “economic viability is threatened” with billions in losses is to twist the truth by ignoring the bigger picture. Without “piracy”, the actual losses would put those numbers to shame. The more Free software gains traction, the more “piracy” becomes proprietary software’s life jacket.

“thanks”, brokep

July 6, 2009

Apparently, some Pirate Bay users are unhappy that the site is being (has been?) sold. I’m not sure why there’s gloom – it’s just a site. Instructions to download similar files can be (and are) hosted on other sites. For nostalgia, some may desire the name “Pirate Bay” to refer to an uncompromising domain (it’s quite possible users may see the site compromised in the future) – but nostalgia is useless.

The money generated from the sale will go to an unnamed foundation that understands the political importance of this issue. As well, the video/audio tags of HTML 5 could (but not necessarily) make the Video Bay a site that needn’t require visitors to install any proprietary software on their machines in order to have a quality experience. The avoidance of proprietary software is what makes “breaking” any technical restriction as easy as slipping out of Jell-O handcuffs.

What I did notice is that the Video Bay asks one to register with an email address and tag it with a username. I sympathize when it comes to those posting, but it’s unclear to me why one who simply wants to watch/listen to and/or download a file must register.  So while my thanks are sincere, they do come with scare quotes. This is more information about you in the hands of others. Why does the Video Bay require this? Will it always operate this way?

the GPL and “development” versus “distribution”

April 2, 2009

The following paraphrased argument is extremely common:

I’m not against Open Source, I’m against the GPL. I’m against the GPL because it doesn’t give the developer the freedom that the MIT or BSD licenses offer. Copyleft restricts the right of developers.

To develop software means to make changes to your software and expect those changes to run as expected. The GPL, MIT, and BSD license all allow this to happen. All Free Software and Open Source licenses allow this to happen. What the proponents of the above view want to make-believe is that to be a “developer” can simply mean to re-license and distribute code – a task any semi-determined dimwit can accomplish. The mistake (whether through ignorance or an effort to confuse others) made is to make synonymous the act of licensing/distributing with developing.

So when a developer complains that his “freedom” (they like to use this word in an attempt to manufacture a copyleft “hypocrisy”) is obstructed by the GPL, point out to him that it is not his freedom to develop that is obstructed but rather, his privilege to distribute in a way that restricts others. A subtle but enormous difference.