I thought I would share my own impressions of Penguicon 2012, which was held at the Dearborn Hyatt in Dearborn, Michigan, USA, on April 27-29, 2012. This is a rather unusual event, combining as it does both a Science Fiction convention and a Linux Fest. There are many examples of each of these, of course, on their own, but this is the only one I know of that combines both in one event. I have been going to this event for a number of years, and I have been a speaker for the last 4 years. So this is an event that means something to me. In what follows, I will mention what I did at Penguicon, but of course no other person would have followed this precise path. Every time slot probably had a dozen alternatives for what you could do, but that is part of the charm of these big conventions and conferences; you know you are at a good one when you feel that you are constantly having to choose between two good alternatives. My own choices leaned more towards the Linux/Technology side of things, even though I am a Science Fiction fan (hence my domain name), but I did manage to take in a few SF panels as well. The Guests of Honor this year included John Scalzi, perhaps best known as the author of The Old Man’s War, who was the SF Author GOH, and Jim Gettys, famous for diagnosing the problem of buffer bloat, who was the Tech GOH.
The con starts on Friday afternoon, so I took off work early and got there in time to hear my friend Ryan Kather give a talk on JuJu Charms. I didn’t know a lot about this technology, other than seeing a lot of posts by Jorge Castro that mentioned his work, but it was nice to get a simple, clear overview. And what I learned was that they are basically scripts for installing and standing up software platforms in the cloud. since my new job involves some of that it may come in useful. Then I gave my own talk, on Linux Directory Structure. It was well-received, and the room was fairly full, so I felt good about that. And the thing I liked best was that by giving my talk right at the beginning I could then relax and enjoy the rest of the con. Following my talk I joined the Ubuntu Michigan LoCo Release Party for 12.04, which had just been released the day before. Then it was time for dinner, and joined a group of people that included James Hice, Craig Maloney, JoDee Baker, and Rick Harding, among others. I had known the others before this but it was my first time meeting Rick Harding, who is a developer for Canonical and as I recall works on Launchpad. Rick and Craig also do a podcast together called the LoCoCast (http://www.lococast.net). And that concluded my Friday at Penguicon.
Saturday was a full day of activity, and my day started with a talk by Bruce Schneier called Security and Trust. It was based on his latest book, Liars and Outliers, which I bought for my Nook but haven’t gotten to yet (I’m still working on Peter Diamandis’ book Abundance). Bruce talked about the balance between the trust we show every day in various social institutions and the way that trust can be abused. Bruce did a small amount of Game Theory in his analysis, but in short trust can only be abused if there is trust to begin with, and too much abuse and we all stop trusting. So there is a natural balance. After his talk I got my copy of Schneier on Security signed. Then I hit the Dealer’s Room and picked up a few Steampunk books. This gave way to a session on the Beagle Board, led by Jason Kridner. The Beagle Board is a great platform for hobbyists to experiment with, and runs Linux. Then I went to a panel on Libraries and Librarians in the Information Age, with Janea Schimmel and Jeff Beeler. I then attended the Heinlein panel, led by Eric Raymond and Jim Gettys, which ended up being an hour of geeks talking tech all over the place, with occasional nods back to Heinlein.
I then attend JoDee Baker’s talk on Citizen Science, which talked about some of the ways each of us can contribute to science even if we are not trained scientists. Of course, JoDee teaches Physics, so she in fact is a trained scientist, and I would guess from her talk a pretty good teacher ass well. I know I enjoyed her presentation. Then Craig Maloney did a presentation on the recently released Ubuntu 12.04 that focused on the changes that had occurred and where it was at the 12.04 mark. 12.04 being a Long-Term Support release, the focus was naturally on stability and performance, rather than introducing new features, and I decided during Craig’s talk that I would install it on one of my machines and give it a workout.
After all of this Saturday activity I needed sustenance, and Catherine Devlin and I went to the food court at the mall across the street and found some decent looking Middle Eastern food. For those who don’t live in this area, there is a very large Arabic and Middle Eastern community in Southeast Michigan, and the heart of it is in Dearborn, where the con was held. Catherine is well-known in the Python community, and is someone I run into at pretty much every Linux event I attend. She most recently ran a workshop at Indiana LinuxFest called Python for Women (and Their Friends) which I think I mentioned in my report from ILF. After dinner, I went back for a talk on IPv6 Software, by Michael Mol. And by that time it had been a long day, so I went home.
Sunday began with a talk on Sustainable Engineering in Developing Economies by Kristy Currier. One of the key problems addressed was obtaining drinkable water, which is the key problem for many people in the world. The ideal technologies are ones that are inexpensive and can be maintained easily on the spot, and Kristy showed us some of that. Then I went to a panel called The Past Through Digital Audio, put on by members of the Science Fiction Oral History Association. We heard recorded talks and interviews with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Lester Del Rey, and others. SFOHA is doing two things it would appear, the first being to digitize audio recordings made on tape many years ago, and the second being to go to conventions currently and add to their wealth of material. This sounded exciting, so I have joined the group, and plan to do some digitizing since I have done some of that already and have it all set up right now anyway. I think this is something that SF fans should be helping.
I then joined a BOF session on Raspberry Pi, which was somewhat subdued because no one there actually had one yet. Then it was off to hear Ruth Suehle speak on The Pop Culture Guide to Open Source. Ruth made the point that open software and open culture are very related. I first heard Ruth speak at Ohio LinuxFest last September, so I knew she would give a good talk, and I was not disappointed. I got to chat briefly with her and Spot Callaway of the Fedora project. Then I went to hear Michael Mol one last time on IPv6 For the Home. For anyone who is interested, Michael pointed out that you can get IPv6 connections right now through Hurricane Electric (http://www.he.net), but what may be even more interesting is that they offer training materials and free certification for being an IPv6 expert. Well worth checking out. I ended my Penguicon 2012 experience with the closing ceremonies, where I learned that my friend Chris Krieger seems to be getting more involved with Penguicon. He has run the LAN room the last few years, but it looks like he is stepping up even more. Chris is a talented Linux and Security guy who has presented at my LUG, the Washtenaw Linux Users Group, for the last couple of years and just gave us a proposal to do it again this coming September.
So, I hope some of you may have found this interesting. If you are in the area of Southeast Michigan this is an event well worth taking in. It happens each year around the end of April or beginning of May, and I am already looking forward to 2013
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.
A few weeks back there was a small tempest-in-a-teacup when Linux Action Show invited Richard Stallman (RMS) on to their show, and were astonished that he refused to compromise his views. This led Bryan Lunduke to accuse Stallman of wanting to starve the Lunduke family since he would not give his imprimatur to Mr. Lunduke writing proprietary software. My initial thoughts were along the lines of “Lunduke is an idiot”, which are thoughts I have had before. Full disclosure: I find him to be annoying and grating. For that reason, I did not comment at the time. But I just read an interview with Michael Meeks, the LibreOffice developer, that brought up some of the thoughts I had previously, and I decided to write them out.
The essence of the dispute between Bryan Lunduke and RMS was that RMS argued, as he has consistently done, that proprietary software takes away the freedom of the user, and is therefor evil. Lunduke was arguing that he makes his living by writing proprietary software, and therefor deserved some kind of exemption from RMS, and was very upset that he didn’t get it.The immediate reaction I had was “Dude, have you ever listened to RMS?” Lunduke getting RMS to say that was about as likely as getting the Pope to say “You know, that Ten Commandments thing? Totally optional.” Then Lunduke just went nuts and accused RMS of trying to starve the Lunduke children. So it became a reason for me to once again unsubscribe from that podcast, as I have done before. (Though this time it will probably stick.)
But the point of interest is that Lunduke accused RMS of being against freedom, in this case the freedom of Lunduke to write proprietary software. And this is worth taking a closer look, since arguments about freedom often get bogged down in similar dichotomies. And to understand that, I think there are some fundamental truths that need to be pointed out and incorporated into the discussion. The first is that freedom is never absolute if you are living in a society. There are always conflicts and constraints in how you exercise freedom because what you do can impact on others. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said it in a Supreme Court decision, you cannot falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Or as another legal scholar put it, your right to swing your hand ends where my nose begins. In fact, a good many court cases are argued to decide among two different freedoms as to where the line will be drawn. This means that to say “I am in favor of freedom” is to make a mostly meaningless statement. It doesn’t become meaningful until you clarify whose freedom, and in what circumstances. And when you do clarify, you should not be surprised if someone says, and probably correctly, “But you are taking away my freedom to…” Yes, we are, and that is the point. Does my freedom to breathe clean air trump your freedom to pollute?
In this case, the conflict was between the freedom to make a living by writing proprietary software, versus the freedom of the software user to use software that gives us the Four Freedoms. Now to be clear, RMS never claimed he was in a position to actually stop Lunduke. He merely refused to countenance it as a legitimate practice. So the real issue boiled down to “He called me names!” But it is worth looking at this carefully because there is a real issue here that is worth exploring. And the issue is whether we should be more concerned with the freedom of the software user, or the freedom of the software producer. RMS is clearly on the side of the user. Lunduke was clearly on the side of the producer. And because of how these are related, you cannot simultaneously maximize both. If users have all of the freedom, there is nothing left for producers, and vice-versa. And that is why I want to turn this discussion to the topic of software licensing. For this is where the decisions are often made on where we draw the line.
In the case of proprietary software, the rights of the user are as minimal as companies can get away with. The road to evil began when someone got the bright idea that you don’t own the software you buy, you only license it, and the producer of the software can decide what you are allowed to do with it. And they can revoke your license to use the software any time they decide it violates their license, and even prevent you from selling it to someone else when you are done. Frankly, I am with RMS on this one. It is evil, and we should fight it. The answer he and others came up with was the GPL. This pushes the balance pretty far in the direction of the rights of the user, as defined by the Four Freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
I think of these as opposite ends of a spectrum. What is in the middle? The “less restrictive” licenses. Now, some would argue that these licenses are even “more free” than the GPL, but that just repeats the fallacy of thinking of freedom as an absolute without context. I am thinking of it as the balance between producers and users, and in important ways these “less restrictive” licenses move the balance back towards producers. The way this happens is through how the software gets ultimately used. For instance, it is a matter of record that important parts of BSD form the basis of the Apple OsX operating system. Apple no doubt used this software because there were essentially no restrictions on what they could do with it. And what they did was create a tightly-controlled OS that severely restricts what the user can do with it. I think that when you look at how the software offered with these “less restrictive” licenses is used, you will see far too many examples of this being used to restrict the rights of users when incorporated into corporate products. You may be of the opinion that what is wrong in the software arena is that companies just don’t have enough power, but I don’t see that on the planet I live on.
And that brings me back to Michael Meeks and the interview I read. He was talking about a huge increase in energy and activity in the LibreOffice project since it split off from OpenOffice. And the major reason he saw for this was that they went to the GPL! I think that makes sense. If I had worked hard on software code that I wanted people to use freely, I would want to know that it was in a license that guaranteed that freedom through all derivative works. And that is what GPL does. I think that is why so many proprietary software creators hate it so much. They are just fine with something like the BSD license that says they can take code and do whatever they want with it. But with GPL they can’t do that. And one thing I find kind of funny is that they could just not use the code if it is that big of a deal, but they don’t seem to think that is a good idea. Their software is licensed to people on a “You do what we let you, or you can’t use it” basis and they have no problem with that, but if free software developers throw it back at them, suddenly it becomes a “cancer”, “first step to communism”, etc. What you should consider when you hear these arguments is whose interests are they protecting? Yours?