So I am at my LUG meeting the other night listening to a spirited discussion, which is pretty normal for us. We have a lot of very opinionated people there, and there is never a lack of discussion. The trick is getting a word in edgewise, and normally three people are all talking at once trying to grab the floor. In this case, it got to piracy, the music industry, bit torrent, etc. One person tried to make the argument that bit torrent promotes piracy and is harming the industry, and seemed genuinely surprised that no one in the room agreed with him. But we all agreed that the music business had changed irrevocably, and that there would never again be a group as big as The Beatles. But why is that? I tend to think a necessary precondition for anyone getting that big is that they would first have to be that good, and in my own curmudgeonly way I don’t think any of the current acts are that good. Now, if you like to discuss the current music scene and the music business, I always recommend you read The Lefsetz Letter, by Bob Lefsetz. He is constantly explaining that the music world is different now, that you can’t just go into the studio, cut an album, and let the riches roll in.
I think the new music business is about the relationship the artist has with the fans. And it does not rely on mass media in any way. One of the things the Internet has done is kill broadcasting, and bring us instead narrowcasting. By this I mean that instead of attracting a mass audience, you go after a niche audience that wants what you offer. And to get that audience you need to work on your relationships. A very eloquent explanation is given by Amanda Palmer in her TED talk. She frames the question beautifully by saying that the industry is focused on how to make people pay for music, while she focuses on how to let people pay for music. Notice how the language changes when you do this, and what it implies. When you talk about making people pay you are using the language of force, the language you use with enemies, the language on conflict and confrontation. Is it any wonder the industry is imploding? Any business that treats its customers like the enemy does not have a long future in front of it. But if you follow Amanda Palmer and talk about letting people help you, this is the language of trust, of mutual respect.
This has implications beyond the obvious one of treating your customers better. Amanda Palmer recorded an album on a traditional music label, sold 25,000 copies, and was considered a failure. Then she left the label, started a kickstarter campaign to fund her next recording project, and raised $1.2 million. From whom? About 25,000 fans. In other words, she has a hard-core audience of about 25,000 who love what she does and will support it. For record labels, that is not enough. And for certain rock stars with a sense of entitlement that is not enough since they want mansions and expensive sports cars. But it seems to be enough for someone who just wants to make an honest living. This is the niche audience you get in an environment of narrowcasting, not the mass audience we used to get from broadcasting.
I see this in my own music tastes. There are a half-down artists from whom I will buy any product they put out, and I bet you haven’t heard of them. They are not mass artists. One of them, Jonatha Brooke, just did a campaign on PledgeMusic to raise the money for her next album, and I was happy to make my own pledge on return for a CD when it is done and updates and photos while it is being done. And you can be sure I will buy a ticket to her show any time she is in town. That is not to say I don’t enjoy music from some of the “big” acts. About 7 years ago I bought tickets for The Who. What I got was 2 tickets the cost over $100 each, and was so far from the stage that I had trouble even seeing the JumboTron. When Jonatha comes to town, she will play a local club that seats about 400 max, the tickets will cost about $25, and I will be maybe 20′ away from her. And she will stay after the show to sell and sign CDs and talk to her fans. It is artists like this that I support with my money, because I feel some relationship with them. But by the same token, if they didn’t make enough money to keep going, these artists with stop doing what they do. So my feeling is that I support you, and you give me something I want. Amanda Palmer puts her music out on the Internet without DRM, But she asks people to pay her for it, and they do.
I think this is something we can learn from in the Free Software community. If you focus on getting something for nothing, that is not sustainable as a model. Not only do developers have to eat, I think they need to know that people value their work and are willing to support it. And I think that can happen with small-scale applications, and in the age of narrowcasting that is viable, but only if the support is there. All too many people are looking for something free of charge, and get outraged when they can’t get it. This showed up recently when Google decided to end the Google Reader. This free-of-charge application was cancelled because the market was not large enough to make it viable. And that explanation does make sense. Google is one of the world’s largest corporations, and they operate at a very large scale. They simply cannot afford to put resources into small projects. I have heard that the usage for Reader was in the neighborhood of 10-20 million. A petition to keep it gathered 150,000 signatures. And while those may sound like large numbers, for Google they are tiny. They need 100 million to make it worth their while.
But, for a smaller developer, a market of 1-2 million might be plenty. Imagine this developer could provide a “cloud” service, similar to what Google offered, that would cost $2 per month. That would be $24 per year, and form 1 million customers it be $24 million. That is quite enough to run a good RSS Reader service, and it is completely sustainable. The service would have sufficient predictable income to maintain and develop the product. And they could develop a community of users who are passionate about the product. And the same reasoning would apply to downloadable software, even “free software”, if you use that term like I do, to denote software that gives you the Four Freedoms the Free Software Foundation has published. But the key is to understand that you need to support software that you rely on. If you only want “free-of-charge” software, you will probably pay for it with your your personal information or by watching ads. And you will be at the mercy of companies that will drop the product any time it suits them. I think you will find that this rarely happens in the free software community as long as a project has a passionate community that supports it, the way Amanda Palmer’s fans support her.
So what software are you passionate about? And how do you support it?
<a href=”http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5273962-the-daemon-the-gnu-and-the-penguin” style=”float: left; padding-right: 20px”><img alt=”The Daemon, the Gnu, and the Penguin” border=”0″ src=”http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348132467m/5273962.jpg” /></a><a href=”http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5273962-the-daemon-the-gnu-and-the-penguin”>The Daemon, the Gnu, and the Penguin</a> by <a href=”http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/328650.Peter_H_Salus”>Peter H. Salus</a><br/>
My rating: <a href=”http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/514861960″>4 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
I give this a high rating because it does what it sets out to do very well.Peter Salus was involved in the history of Unix and Linux, which makes him a good guide to that history. He presents it in a straightforward and spare style, so don’t expect a gripping page turner. But if you want to have good accurate data on who did what and when, this book will deliver. Also, it is a relatively quick read because of his spare style.
<a href=”http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/7609801-kevin-o-brien”>View all my reviews</a>
I recently had an exchange online with someone I tend to like, and it was about self-driving cars. My correspondent said that he would never, under any circumstances, get into a self-driven car. In fact, he seemed to think that self-driven cars would lead to carnage on the roads. My own opinion is that human driven cars have already led to a very demonstrable carnage, and that in all likelihood computers would do a better job. As you might imagine, this impressed my correspondent not the least. When I observed that his opbjections were irrational, he said I shouild choose my words more carefully, but that he would overlook the insult this time.
Possibly that is a bad way to phrase my objection, but it is also, in the strict sense of the term, the precisely proper word to use. What I was saying is that his view had no basis in data or facts, and was purely an emotional response. We all have those, and I’m not claiming any superiority on that ground. But when the Enlightenment philosophers talked of reason it was in contrast to religion and superstition, and really did mean thinking in terms of data, facts, and logical thinking. It is my own view that this type of thinking has the major reponsibility for the progress the human race has made in science and technology over the last few centuries. And it is also my view that this type of thinking is being attacked severely in these days.
The hallmark of rational thinking is that it starts from a basis in observed facts, but always keeps a willingness to revise the conclusion if new facts come to light. If that seems reasonable to you, good. Now think of how the worst insult you can pin on a politician is flip-flopping. The great 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes was accused of this and responded “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” That is how a rational person thinks. There are people who attack science for being of no use because occasionally scientists change thier minds about what is going on. But that is an uninformed (to be most charitable about it) view. Science is a process of deriving the best possible explanations for the data we have, but always ready to discard them in favor of other explanations when new data comes in. That may bother people who insist on iron-clad certainty in everything, but in fact it does work. If it didn’t work you wouldn’t be reading this. (Did you ever notice the irony of television commentators attacking scientists? You might think the plans for television were found in the Bible/Koran/etc.)
One of the biggest obstacles to clear, rational thinking is what is termed confirmation bias. This is the tendency of people to see the evidence that supports their view, while simultaneously ignoring any evidence that does not support their view. This why the only studies that are given credibility are what we call “double-blind” studies. An example is a drug trial. We know there is a tednency for people to get better because they believe they are being given a new drug. In addition, we know that just being shown attention helps. So we take great care (in a good study) to divide the sample into two groups, with one group getting the great new drug, and the other group getting something that looks exactly like it, but has no active ingredient. It may be a sugar pill, or a solution of saline liquid being injected, just so long as the patient cannot tell which group they are in. But the bias can also be on the experimenter side. If a team of doctors has devoted years to developing a new drug, they will naturally have some investment in wanting it to succeed. And that can lead to seeing results that are not there, or even in “suggesting” in sub-conscious ways to the patient that they are getting the drug or not. So none of those doctors can be a part of it either. Clinicians are recruited who only know that they have two groups, A & B, and have no idea which is which. This is the classic double-blind study: neither the patient nor the experimenter has any idea who is getting the drug and who isn’t.
The reason we need to be this careful is that people are, by and large, irrational. People will be afraid of flying in an airplane but think nothing of getting into a car and driving, even though every bit of data says that driving is far more dangerous. People are far more afraid of sharks than they are of the food they eat, though more people die every year from food poisoning than are ever killed by sharks. And we all suffer from a massive case of the Lake Wobegone effect, in that we all tend to think we are above average, even though by definition roughly half of us are below average on any given characteristic. We just are not good judges of our own capabilities in most cases.
But the worst case is the person who is absolutely certain, no matter what he is certain of. Certainty is great enemy of rationality. Years ago, Jacob Bronowski filmed a series called The Ascent Of Man. In one scene, he stood in a puddle outside at Auschwitz and talked about people who had certainty, and said “I beg of you to consider the possiblity that you may be wrong.” This is the hallmark of a rational person, this is the standard by which every scientist is judged. If you know anyone who can say “This is what I think, but I might be wrong,” you will have found the rarest kind of person, and you should cultivate their aquaintance. This type of wisdom is all too rare. And if you ever find a politician who says that, please vote for them, no matter what their party affiliation. They are worth infinitely more than a hundred of the kind that never have changed their minds about anything.
At a recent company meeting in Denmark, something very disturbing happened. An “entertainer” was brought on stage right after Michael Dell and proceeded to complement the crowd on not having many women. He then said IT should remain a bastion of male privilege, and the the way to address women as “Shut up, bitches.” You can read an account here. I think the only reasonable response from people with more than three functioning brain cells should be to stop all business with Dell Computer.
This is going to be a little bit different from what I usually post here, but it’s my blog. If you don’t like it, just click away.
It is easy to list many things going wrong these days, and I think most of us tend to look at the negative side. Regardless of political or social persuasion, most people would agree that the world is going to hell in various interesting ways. The politicians are so bad they aren’t even worth the bullets it would take get rid of them. Giant corporations are raping us all. And don’t even get me started on kids today.
But I am going to take a contrary point of view and say that things are getting better all the time.
I was born in 1951, which makes me 60 right now. I am part of that “Baby Boom” group that arrived after World War II and the Great Depression had created havoc with lives all over the world. And that is the first thing to point out: We have not made war entirely an anachronism, but after two major wars within 20 years of each other, we have not had any conflict like those since. And as Steven Pinker pointed out in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, This is part of a general trend in declining warfare.
Nor is it confined to just war. Because of the nature of news in our electronic age, and the relentless use of violence as a form of entertainment (which Hollywood is responsible for), we miss the fact that violence within our country has gone down. Because we see it on television without let up we think it is rising, but in fact it is falling.
When I was born, a number of US States had what were called “Anti-Miscegenation” laws which made it a crime for a white person and a black person marry. The last of these laws was not struck down until 1967 when the US Supreme Court decided the case of Loving vs. Virginia. This was the same year as the movie Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? which addressed the social discomfort felt by a white family over their daughter bringing a black fiance. Now, I know there are still racists in this country, a fact that is abundantly clear in the frothing at the mouth over Obama, but for most people this is simply not an issue they would even notice.
In a related vein, when I was born Brown vs. Board of Education was still 3 years in the future. I grew up watching on television as Bull Connor used fire hoses on black citizens trying to get their civil rights. And of course I lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. But in my life time I have seen a black man elected President of the United States in a free and fair election, and he is favored to win re-election this fall. I can say that even as late as the 1990s I would not have believed that could happen in my lifetime.
When I was born the roles of men and women were quite separate. My mother, who was by any measure a very liberal and forward-thinking woman, taught me and my brothers how to wash dishes and do laundry because “Until we got married we would have to do it for ourselves.” But my wife and I both have demanding careers, though you will have to ask her about the housework division (some of you wouldn’t believe me if I said we split it.) And I have had a number of female bosses, and many co-workers. That is a change just in my lifetime. If you younger folks want to know what it used to be like, find some old episodes of Ozzie and Harriet on YouTube. That was the world I was born into. And come to think of it, if we had not elected a black man as President in 2008, we would have elected a woman, since the only serious opposition to Barack Obama was Hillary Clinton.
One more thing I will point out. When I was a boy I don’t think I had ever heard of homosexuals. But there were laws in effect make homosexual behavior illegal, to prevent homosexuals from immigrating to this country, and for a time even to prevent homosexual literature from being sent through the mail. And now we have marriage equality in an increasing number of states (most recently Maryland), and 22 Democratic Senators have called for endorsing this in the official party platform for the 2012 election.
So when you think everything is going to hell in a handbasket, take another look. While change is sometimes slow and maddening, it is definitely happening.
And Linux on the desktop grew 64% in the last 9 months. See, I didn’t forget all about technology.
Well, I learned some more today in trying to install the software I use all of the time. As a long-time Kubuntu user I was used to how they set up their repositories, I know all of the command-line tricks for using apt, and none of that is any use to me now.:) But I knew that would be the case, so I persevered.
The first thing I learned is that there are a lot of repositories. I was trying to install a password manager I like, KeePassX, and finding which repository it was in took forever. openSUSE has these repositories called BuildService, and there are a bunch of them. As it happened none of them had what I wanted. Then I found one called Packman, but that didn’t have it either. Finally I added opensuse-contrib, and that had what I wanted. So now I have about 20 repositories configured. I can’t tell whether that is a huge mistake. I did notice that for some reason every repository has a GPG key that is untrusted.
Then I had one piece of software that had to be compiled. Again, everything is different. Instead of a package with everything included, you have to install the components, like gcc and make, separately. Or at least that is what got me going. If you know better, please share the knowledge.
My one big unsolved problem from today is that my favorite Chrome extension, G+me for Google Plus, is not working. I have installed it, removed it, reinstalled it, and it just isn’t working. At this point I have to call it a day, but I will try to get it going again. All of my other Firefox and Chrome extensions/add-ons seem to work fine. So, the day is mostly a success, but a few things to work on yet.
Yesterday I began my morning with a meeting involving members of various departments who are dealing with a major change to our IT systems. We are replacing a system from Vendor A with another from Vendor B, and just about everything changes. As a result, we have a lot of meetings. But I didn’t bring this up to get sympathy. Everyone has pain in their lives, and mine is not particularly more impressive than yours.
But in yesterday’s meeting, we got to to a discussion of terminology. You see, Vendor B sold us a system that uses different names for a wide number of of our data fields, and we needed to agree on the names we would use in our reporting systems. Should we use the new vendor’s names, use the ones we had traditionally used, or some combination of the two? Now, at this point I’m sure you’re thinking “Gosh, that sounds like fun.
I wish I could have been in that meeting!”
But what got me thinking was when one of the IT folks said “That is just semantics. I don’t care what you call them.” This statement was so profoundly wrong that I nearly admired it for the awesome scope of its wrongness. The first level of wrongness comes when you consider that all of us at this particular site, in all of the different departments, need to talk to each other. And that means we all need to understand what we are talking about. I wondered if this IT person had ever heard the term “naming convention”, and if so, did he comprehend why that was important.
Then I got to thinking about that phrase “It’s just semantics.” This is where the real problem lies, I realized. It is a common phrase, and usually used to imply that the meaning of the words is not important to understanding the issues at stake. In this colloquial sense it says that people sometimes use weasel words to avoid a truth. For example, a politician trying to explain away an embarrassing situation, like Clinton saying “I did not have sex with that woman.” We correctly see that people who do this are misusing language to confuse the situation.
But saying that this is semantics is profoundly wrong. What is really happening when people use this phrase is that they are saying that words and their meanings do not matter. And when you go down that road you have a serious problem. I doubt you can even think intelligently if you cannot use words with a certain degree of precision. And communication becomes pretty much impossible if we cannot use words and agree what we mean by them. That is what semantics is really about. So if someone accuses me of using semantics, I thank them for the complement. What they have said is that I care about what I say and try to use the best words to convey the meaning I have in mind. Of course, they don’t realize that is what they said.
This courtesy of the current issue of Wired magazine: “I don’t care what my friends are listening to. Because I’m cooler than they are.”
So, can I claim that is why I’m not interested in social recommendations for music?
This comes from Jason Perlow, a tech columnist. He says that Apple is the North Korea of technology companies. It seems to be run by a relatively unhinged leader, everything is shrouded in darkness, and very little useful information leaks past its borders. See the full blog post here.
I am not an expert on the GIMP by any means, but I always like to improve. I have a digital camera now, and I want to get started taking pictures and doing things to them. We have a local camera club, and I have some friends there who are helping me to get started. Everyone in the Camera Club seems to be using Macintosh and Adobe Photoshop, and I don’t plan to use either. So I want to learn how to do all the same things on Linux using the GIMP. As part of my research I added some links to pages that seem pretty good.