Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

Tony the Mechanic

February 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Tony the Mechanic is a character that I really loved on Seinfeld.  Tony believes that Jerry’s Real Problem is how he takes care of his car.  This of course puts Tony in a position of power:

Public institutions act a lot like Tony:  “Come here and you will get what you need.”  I see universities especially telling people “as long as you come here, pay your money and give it a real effort, you will be okay.”  Unfortunately universities go quite a bit further than that: even as young as Kindergarten, children are being told that to be “good” they have to go to college and try to get into medical school.  Only then will they be able to get all the things they really need in life, like a house, three cars and a big huge TV with an Xbox attached.  And when people tell their friends and relatives they want to do things differently they get “I don’t understand you.”

I’ve written a bit more about Tony in my teaching philosophy.


Why are public schools an avenue for commerce?

October 11, 2011 1 comment

My son has been in public school for about six weeks. Every week we get an invitation to buy something from some company, or support corporate advertising through his school. The first week was NFL week, where the school tried to win a “grant” from the NFL by submitting pictures of students wearing NFL apparel. Next it was the “Fall Fundraiser,” where a corporation came in and showed my son a video of a bunch of kids having a party, then gave him an envelope containing the tools for us to provide data and money to a corporation selling candy and magazines. Next it’s the bookfair, and then picture day. These are all things that we had when I was a kid, except for NFL Week. I don’t suppose there’s anything hugely different, but now I’m seeing it as a parent.

NFL Week was thoroughly transparent: it raised a lot of questions. There’s the typical question of why the NFL doesn’t just give money to a randomly or thoughtfully selected school near each of its teams; there’s the question of why people who wouldn’t otherwise be buying NFL apparel (like my wife and I) should go out and get some in the name of providing money for the school; then there’s the question of why there’s chance involved. We felt uncomfortable turning our son into a billboard (something we avoid in all clothing purchases). Other corporations are doing similar things. We have recently seen high school students at our supermarket telling us to go to the Pepsi-Cola website to vote for their school, so that they can “win a grant” from Pepsico. This raises the same questions, and again it’s thoroughly transparent. Why doesn’t the company just use advertising to tell people to go their website, or a phony contest? If they want to tell people to go to their website, why do they have to fool children into doing it for them?

We hear all the time about how public schools just don’t have enough money, teachers don’t get paid enough, and so on and so on. That may all be true, but has anyone stopped to think about who has an interest in propagating that story? It may not be true after all, since when I was in contact with private schools, even in the richest of them I would hear talk of fund-raising and budget shortfalls all the time. They were just like public schools in that respect, except that it was obvious that they actually had huge piles of money. I just didn’t get why they had such a scarcity mentality, although I should point out there were some schools that didn’t. Those tended to be the ones who actually had fat kids and teenagers with funny haircuts (you know, like a normal school).

Whether public schools have enough money or not is really irrelevant when we see schools turned into avenues for advertising and commerce. Basically every week our son comes home with a piece of paper saying that there’s something we can buy through the school. Doesn’t that seem weird? Doesn’t it seem like these companies would be making less money if they didn’t have this avenue?

Now consider that these companies also have enough money to influence law-making.

UNC Chapel Hill Migrating to Microsoft Exchange: a poor choice for freedom

July 10, 2011 9 comments

The University of North Carolina has a long history of supporting software freedom. The University has sponsored since before I started using the internet, and recently made the very smart move to switch away from the proprietary Blackboard online learning system to Sakai, which is licensed under an Apache-like license. Recently however the university has made an unfortunate choice about its email systems. I wrote in my last post about the dichotomy between academic computing and commercial computing, and unfortunately UNC Chapel Hill has chosen commercial computing over academic computing in handling its email systems. This disappoints me. I contend that their justifications, mostly based on “performance” and “meeting the needs of users” are hollow. Performance is not the only thing that is important in computer systems. As far as I can tell, the only feature that distinguishes the new system from the existing system is the ability to invade user privacy. Worst of all, the university is sacrificing academic computing ideals, including freedom, and “outsourcing” its email to a commercial interest. The fact that a world-class university like UNC Chapel Hill would trust Microsoft instead of using their own talent is really stupid.

Take a look at this list of advantages of the new Microsoft-based email system, offered by the ITS staff at the medical school. Look carefully and notice that the only feature that is really new is the “[a]bility to ‘wipe’ lost/stolen portable devices.” Everything else on that list is available with Cyrus IMAP. In other words, the university prefers a system that allows invasion of privacy. Now, I understand that there is a good security motivation for this feature. However, when considering that this is the only new feature of Exchange over Cyrus IMAP, it seems odd that the university is favoring a new system that does allow invasion of privacy. Why is that so important? Clearly the new system does not “meet the needs of users,” as much as it meets the needs of administrators.

Another feature that doesn’t make sense to me is “Scalable handheld (smart phone) e-mail solution – works with Blackberry, iPhone, Windows Mobile, Android, etc.” This is a little weird because I don’t need to view a webpage to get my email on my desktop, why would I need to view a webpage to get my email on a smartphone? This demonstrates the most annoying aspect of all the announcements I’ve gotten about the new email system: confusion between, or failure to distinguish client and server. Many of the justifications for the new email system are made on the basis of clients, but the change the university is making is a change of server. That’s weird because the whole point of standardized protocols like IMAP is so that clients can be entirely agnostic to the identity of the server. If the server chooses to depend on nonstandard features, that messes things up for clients. Which client I use is my choice, and the server should accommodate. That’s the “needs of users.” However, I know at least one user who’s having trouble even marking her mail read while connecting her chosen client to the new server.

Features and “performance” are a common justification for using proprietary software. There is a common attitude that “open source is best for making the world a better place, but I need to get my work done and I’ll choose the best tool for the job.” We’ve already ruled out any advantages in terms of “features” of Microsoft Exchange over the Cyrus IMAP daemon. There are other things to consider: the quality of service and the message that the choice of proprietary software sends to students of the university. The quality of service with Microsoft Email servers that I’ve experienced is terrible. Again, the biggest problem is the confusion of client and server. I used to work at a large hospital system that used Exchange, and whenever I called the helpdesk, they would refuse to answer any questions about the server until I told them which client I used. In other words, they wouldn’t simply tell me if the server was down because I was using Thunderbird to read my mail. Storing mail and reading mail are two different things. Sending mail and fetching mail are two different things. The only people in charge of an email system should be people who (minimally) understand those facts. Microsoft’s sales tactic, on the other hand, is that their “customers” will save money by hiring less qualified people. In other words, screw service, screw your users, save your own ass some dough. That’s what UNC Chapel Hill is choosing.

The message this sends to UNC students is that the university cares more about money and less about student lives and intellectual freedom. They’re already raising tuition. The university is effectively making itself another corporate entity. They are in the business not of education, but of being in business, just like any other vacuous corporation. That’s insane. Universities should be bastions of intellectual freedom and they should cultivate and harvest the fruits of that intellectual freedom by providing key infrastructure themselves. They should not seek to emulate the corporate world. I understand that they want to save money, but they should do it by hiring fewer, well-qualified people to staff fewer servers running free software.

I often mention that I’ve been using the internet for almost twenty years. I do this for two reasons, neither of which is to brag or apply seniority. One is to emphasize that before most people found out about the world-wide web, there was an established culture on the internet of scientists, engineers and computer personnel. Universities were the backbone of that community. After the concept of the internet was established by the military, universities carried the torch and led the way in technology. When the military needed a new technology to build up their newer communications network, where did they go? They went to Berkeley. A university has the necessary expertise for what they needed.

The other reason I point out how long I’ve used the internet is a sort of nostalgia. The best way to use the internet was always on university machines, running some form of Unix: BSD, System V, SunOS and more recently GNU/Linux. Universities were always the best places to use computers. Why? Because universities were where the talent grew up, developed and was allowed to be creative. Universities existed outside the stultifying, cost-saving world of corporations.

It seems that now universities are done giving the baby a bath, they are throwing the baby, the bathwater, the tub, the sink and the baby’s mom out of the window. They might as well kick dad in the balls by only teaching their computer science students how to work for Microsoft. Using Microsoft servers, software and supporting corporate culture (i.e. the culture of Microsoft) doesn’t serve the interests of students, researchers at the university, or society. Universities serve their students by teaching them how to be flexible, creative and constructive members of society. Universities do not help their students by teaching them to be money-hungry, cog-thinking, competitive corporate flunkies. A university can teach all of the above good values by teaching students with free software based on Unix ideals. It can even do so in an inclusive environment that includes Microsoft software. However, teaching students in a university computing environment mainly based on Microsoft software does not teach them creativity or flexibility: it teaches them “you don’t have a right to learn until you are chosen as one of the elite; then you can subjugate people just like we’ve subjugated you.”

Anybody who says “We have to be realistic and teach students to use software X because those are the jobs that are out there” is a corporate tool. People who learn properly at a university can learn to use anything that someone hands them: that’s the point of a college education, to be able to learn, not to know something.

Furthermore, universities do not serve their researchers by running Microsoft software. Researchers at universities are professionals and they need to be treated that way. Microsoft products are just not professional quality. Even if they were, they limit freedom in such a way that they should not be taken seriously by researchers. This goes for all proprietary software, including Mathematica and Matlab, but researchers have choices on what to use in their own research. Unfortunately they often have to use what a university will provide for them when it comes to basic services like email. Universities should provide the best, and Microsoft Exchange is just not the best. If Cyrus IMAP was not the best, they could have chosen Dovecot, Courier, Zimbra or any of the huge number of free software alternatives. If the Cyrus system “… is old, complex, outdated, and does not fully meet the needs of our users” they can hire dedicated, talented people and make it simple and current so that it meets the needs of users. Instead they choose Microsoft.

Both of these failures to meet the needs of students and researchers mean that the university is failing society as well. People denigrate the “ivory tower” all the time, but there are chunks that fall from that ivory tower that change society and even make people a lot of money. Let me see if I can think of a few examples: the internet, the world-wide web, science, liberalism, Charles Darwin…

What can you do? Complain. If you have a problem with the new email system, let the university know. They do listen. A list of the relevant managers in charge can be found on the ITS web site. Email them directly. Another alternative is to stop using email. I don’t advise this because UNC has made email an official form of communication. You could probably rig something where they have to contact you by campus mail (forcing you to use email is discriminatory). However, another problem is that email is, I believe, with all its problems, the best form of electronic communication. If you want to ‘e’-anything, you should email it. One thing I know I will do is I will seriously consider the IT infrastructure at the next university I go to. I’m a graduate student, so my time at UNC is limited. I will have things I will miss and things I certainly won’t.

One more thing: don’t wait until the forced transition if you plan to continue using email. I’m going to transition tomorrow and I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading.

I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person

April 4, 2011 1 comment

Since writing about how Time chose Mark Zuckerberg as Person of the Year I’ve gotten lots of traffic from people searching Google asking if Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person. I didn’t understand why people were asking Google, but last night I watched The Social Network and I realized that a major theme of the film is Mark Zuckerberg’s character. In rather artful form, the film leaves it an open question, but I can see how it would get people thinking. Surprisingly (and not) the film focuses on the legal question, and the moral questions that the legal questions are proxies for, as the meat of the plot. Despite that focus, it includes a lot of realistic dialog (“I need a dedicated Linux box running MySQL…”), and even realistic computer screens (KDE).

I was mainly interested in seeing the film for the music composed by Trent Reznor, but I saw the same themes coming up that plague our society and indeed fuel Facebook’s traffic today. The point of the film is basically that Mark Zuckerberg is a “post-modernist demon” who does what he does because he just loves hacking and wants to keep doing it, but that means he screws his friends and pisses off some wealthy meatheads in the process. I think that overall this is a good film and everybody should see it, if only for the problems that it demonstrates about our society.

I really liked that the film incorporated enough real programming. To hear someone mention Emacs in a major motion picture was just irresistible. As I said, the dialog was realistic: the characters discuss algorithms, they mention software by name (I heard Python, MySQL, Perl, Mozilla, Apache, …), and they discuss the values associated with the internet. I loved the photography. I LOVED the portrayal of Larry Summers. What was weird was

  • Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake, and well done Mr. Timberlake!) refers to Napster as a “downloading and sharing site” when it was no such thing; this was the most unbelievable piece of dialog in the film; people keep saying Napster was a “downloading site,” continuing to demonstrate how they just don’t get it
  • The sound was badly mixed; I’m trying to attribute this to my bad speakers, but in some places there was just too much noise in the background
  • When the Winklevoss twins ask Zuckerberg why he “uploaded for free” his “MP3 player” he just shrugs his shoulders: this is totally out of character. He should have said “I was done with it,” or “I thought people shouldn’t have to pay for it, I just did it for fun.” That’s what somebody who “doesn’t care about money” would have said. This part of the character was poorly defined

Come to think of it, except for his gusto for work, very little about Zuckerberg’s character is well-defined. The movie totally glosses over how Zuckerberg himself came from a wealthy background, and was extraordinarily privileged (news flash: most people who make lots of money already have lots of money) — he wasn’t that different from other Harvard students. None of it resolves or even comments on whether he is a bad person. It doesn’t matter. Whether the real Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person doesn’t matter either. I don’t care if he is, I don’t know if he is. Again, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if Facebook is a bad company; it doesn’t matter if Facebook provides a good product. I don’t think you should use Facebook, but it’s your choice if you want to. I don’t think you’re immoral for using Facebook. I don’t think that Facebook (the corporation) is immoral for providing Facebook; they could do it in a better way, but there is no categorical imperative for them to do that.

The problem is this: we, in America, tend to revere people who make a lot of money. When they make a lot of money, we recognize that greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and then we backtrack and we come up with all sorts of other reasons to respect that person. Take, for example, two other icons of the computer world Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. People openly acknowledge that both these characters were ruthless, backstabbing, cunning businessmen, and that’s why they made a lot of money. However, I regularly hear people refer to them as geniuses.

Really? Geniuses? Witness the following conversation, where Fabian Scherschel insults Steve Jobs: even from within the free software community, he got replies saying basically “he’s a jerk, not an idiot.” Fab’s response was that insults needn’t be factually correct, which I basically agree with. However, it exposes the problem: we tend to associate “achievement” with “monetary achievement.” I think Jeffrey Lebowski (“the other Lebowski, the millionaire”) exemplifies this attitude best in the world of film characters.

The moral problem is not whether Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person. As I said, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that these are the people that movies are made about. What matters is that when people make a lot of money, we think they are good people, in one way or another.

Is Open Source a Failure?

December 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Factionalism is bad. I agree mostly with the points of people who call the software I use “open source,” whereas I call it “free software.” Most of the time, there is not a big difference. In fact, I feel like acting defensively whenever somebdoy bad-mouths open source software. I hear people do it all the time, and it bothers me, even though when those same people suppose I use “open source” I correct them and say “free software.”

Where does the problem lie? The problem lies in that when I correct people from saying “open source” and tell them it’s my freedom that I care about, they shut up. Many people use software knowing it’s open source, but don’t know that it is also free, and the implications of that freedom. For people who are used to proprietary software, open source is just an alternative that they have no compelling reason to entertain. Freedom, however is compelling. If it doesn’t change the minds of proprietary software devotees, at least they have no comeback. This is why I’m asking everyone reading this to start calling free software “free software.” Free as in freedom.

I’m unimpressed with open source: so are its detractors

The open source movement has not successfully shown that “open source” is a better way of promoting software freedom and their development methodologies. Nor have they shown that promoting user freedom as a primary goal is a bad idea. They have shown rather the opposite. Consider the following:

  1. Microsoft is now an open source company, without changing any of their business practices or policies on user freedom
  2. “Open source companies” are now suing other “open source companies,” debasing themselves to the level of corporate greed-vehicles like Microsoft
  3. The arguments for open source are not compelling to anyone who believes that proprietary software is better than free software
  4. While there are multiple, confusing uses of the word “free,” there are more confusing uses of the word “open”

By ignoring the moral and social conflict between user freedom and proprietary software developers, the open source movement has made proprietary software okay. That’s not okay. Furthermore, I hear people who cling to proprietary software laugh at “open source” as though it were the retarded cousin of software they believe is better only because you have to pay for it (they typically don’t notice or don’t care about the licensing terms). In 1998 during the height of the browser wars, open source was a good weapon, if not an outright success. Unfortunately, open source has become an avenue for proprietary software to infect people’s lives.

Open source has become a joke

Articles like this critique of Meego are what I mean when I say that Open Source is a joke. The author is even complimentary to open source, but he presents a good argument for how uncompelling it is. Or take this completely insane argument: Google’s ChromeOS will fail because

… Every year for the past decade was supposed to be “The Year of Linux on the Desktop.” It hasn’t happened and it’s not because it was an idea ahead of its time or it needed a stronger champion. The mass market has rejected Linux on the desktop. Linux is nothing more (or less) than a niche OS loved by a loyal group of highly-technical users. Even Google can’t change that, unless it’s prepared to write Linux device drivers for all of the world’s printers, digital cameras, keyboards, and mice. –Jason Hiner, Google Chrome OS: 3 reasons it matters, and 4 reasons it’s irrelevant

I agree with him that “The Year of the Linux Desktop” is a myth that will never materialize (at least it won’t be called “Linux desktop”), but “niche OS” is a bunch of bologna. It ignores the fact that most of the world’s servers are run by this niche OS, but it also ignores the fact that people choose to use software for reasons other than how successful it is in a highly anticompetitive market. People use GNU/Linux not just because it’s easier to use, more featureful and more reliable than Microsoft Windows (if you disagree then you haven’t tried GNU/Linux lately), they use it because of the freedom it allows them. Everything else (ease-of-use, features, stability) just comes along for the ride. (not to mention that his argument about Google needing device drivers is BS, too; he obviously forgot what ChromeOS is supposed to do; I’ve never had trouble with keyboards and mice, as those are most of the time controlled by the BIOS; duh)

By far the most effective argument against adopting the open source stance, as opposed to the free software stance is this:

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” –Richard Stallman, Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software

If you don’t believe that distinction is clear, then look no further than your university’s so-called “Linux” servers, which are probably mainly a platform for running proprietary software like Matlab.

Perhaps you consider my perspective a little narrow, and you’d be right: I’m an academic computer user. I have no investment in what “the market dictates” or “the ecosystem” says about what kind of development tools I should use. I make my own decisions about these things. I have the “luxury” of caring mostly about my freedom. Doesn’t that seem wrong to you? If you are in a job where you don’t feel it’s valid to consider your civil rights and the rights of your coworkers, neighbors and friends, maybe you’re in the wrong place.

Mark Zuckerberg is TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year? Where’s the “dislike” button? (

December 20, 2010 1 comment

Mark Zuckerberg is TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year? Is this because he made a bunch of money or because he gave some of it away? Where’s the majority of it still going to? What do we really value in American society these days?

Let’s get serious about our values folks: Bill Gates has made himself a model of what I call “laissez-faire-morality,” as in whatever makes him the most money is what’s right for society. So now Mark Zuckerberg is some kind of a social or humanitarian icon for following in those footsteps?

When I introduce the ideas of software freedom to my students, I point out to them that many many institutions have now fully embraced the idea that whatever makes Microsoft the most money is what’s right for society. Facebook is not far behind in influencing schools and universities. I have to actually point out to people that a culture of “illegal sharing” goes against what they learned in Kindergarten. Richard Stallman said it best:

I realized that signing this [non-disclosure] agreement was basically a promise to be a bad person

As long as we promote people like Bill Gates and Mark Suckerberg[sic] as role models (which is what Time is doing whether they admit to it or not) we will be raising conniving little thieves instead of healthy children. Am I supposed to say “Share with your brother” but then say “Don’t share software, you’ll be taking caviar out of the mouth of a really valuable member of society” to my son?

I admit that Facebook has been influential but that doesn’t make it good. Choosing Zuckerberg for such a distinction — albeit one bestowed by a private organization with its own questionable values — is a bad symptom of a society at risk. I’m hitting the Dislike button.

Not f'd — you won't find me on Facebook

FSF responds to Oracle v. Google

September 9, 2010 2 comments

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has an interesting take on the Oracle v. Google lawsuit. Of course they decry Oracle’s victimization of Google and abuse of the patent system. However, their analysis also includes this valuable lesson for future developers:

Unfortunately, Google didn’t seem particularly concerned about this problem until after the suit was filed. The company still has not taken any clear position or action against software patents. And they could have avoided all this by building Android on top of IcedTea, a GPL-covered Java implementation based on Sun’s original code, instead of an independent implementation under the Apache License. The GPL is designed to protect everyone’s freedom—from each individual user up to the largest corporations—and it could’ve provided a strong defense against Oracle’s attacks. It’s sad to see that Google apparently shunned those protections in order to make proprietary software development easier on Android.

Yes, it seems Google took the bait. This clearly shows what an “open source” company like Google is willing to do, and how that attitude can bite it in the ass.

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