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Here’s to a Freer 2011

A FEW DAYS ago I wrote about some plans for the coming year. One promise that I managed to fulfill was the revival of this Web log, which was started way back in 2004. I post less in Techrights these days because a lot of the content is being put in the audiocast and because there are some moving goalposts for any freedom fighter. Microsoft, for example, is losing its place in the world of technology (the media trends confirm this) and issues relating to free speech (including protests) and free Internet (communication) help show that our society is being closed down. It’s at times like these that speeches like the following one ought to be watched and shared.

2011 Resolutions – Professional Focus, Research, and Ethics

EVERY once in a while we all get a break from everyday life and potentially introspect. As the year 2011 is almost upon us, it’s time to explain — on a more personal note for a change — what needs improving. First of all, from a professional point of view, it would be important to ensure effectiveness and to spend less time responding to Internet trolls and other such distractions. It’s just too easy to descend to gossip sometimes, however it gets nobody anywhere. There are some people who revel in harassment of progressive individuals and the worst those latter individuals can do is lose sight of their goals, then engage with the harassers. It’s tempting to do so (one’s own defense), but it’s counter productive as it leads to more of the same. When one expresses strong opinions on any matter, detractors will exist; the polite ones are worth debating with.

On the subject of research, my plan is to ensure that I maintain contact with my roots in computer science with emphasis on computer vision. I may soon have a start-up on the side, but there is no final decision on that yet. Research can produce a skills-based service that helps individuals. This can be an ethical service which even advances software freedom.

Last but not least (quite the opposite in fact), living an ethical life is not the priority of those to whom keeping score means accumulating wealth, even when it comes at the expense of someone else’s (even one’s own) health. We only live once and we must take advantage of this opportunity to do something positive for our neighbours to enhance solidarity. The Earth’s resources are finite and wealth is relative, where one person’s well-being often depends on someone else’s labour (typically dissociated geographically). For harmonious co-existence on this planet people need to increasingly work together and this sometimes means sharing of knowledge, commodities, food, water, and shelter. It’s too easy for people in the West to pretend that the world is just the West when in fact it accounts for less than 20% of the world’s population. Legislators must begin to take into account that inequality is not necessarily the result of imbalanced motivation and determination among minds; many people are born with little or no opportunities and particular conditions imposed by international laws keep it that way. Institutions like WIPO, WTO, WB, and IMF are just part of it and with gradual reform a safer world for everyone to live in is not a distant fantasy. The only real wars are class wars and dimensions like religion/race/nationality are often just instruments that act as surrogates for those in power, not a replacement for identical, scientific, and social doctrines.

Why Leaks Are Scary

Wikileaks avatar

LEAKS are often just material which was supposed to be in the public domain all along. Copyright is not the issue. Since it was kept secret (often for no truly justifiable reason), input which was contained in it assumed no moderation would be needed. As such, secrecy resulted in mischief, rudeness, and often the perpetuation of misconduct, which relied on lack of wider awareness.

As I explained repeatedly over the years, I too was bullied for leaking documents which ought to have been out there all along. This is the main reason I am willing to dedicate so much time to defence of Wikileaks. I too may soon leak some more documents and I don’t want to get the “Assange treatment”. Nobody does. “EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me,” writes Daniel Ellsberg this week. For those who do not know, Ellsberg was partly responsible for ending the bloody Vietnam war.

Leaks hurt. Truth hurts, too. But always bother to check who it hurts the most. Therein lies the answer regarding the ethics of a leak.

The word “leak” — like “whistle-blower” — has a negative connotation. Let’s call leaks “enlightenment” and whistle-blowers “truth revealers”.

My Professional Focus and Goals in a Nutshell

Digital Control

I am not always a pessimist, but I do believe that in order to make positive progress we must concentrare on the illnesses and try to cure them. This is why most of my work at present revolves around advancing collaborative platforms like GNU/Linux (no tyranny on people’s desktops and servers). Sure, companies like Google and IBM make a lot of money out of the platform, but it does not take away from anyone else’s ability to use the same code. Overall, it leads to solidarity. Just watch how many companies jointly develop Linux (kernel space), including giants like AMD, Intel, and NVIDIA, which must play nice with the free graphics stack. A decade ago it was hardly conceivable, but here we are today with some truly powerful applications for GNU/Linux (some are still proprietary, especially games). It is exciting to see desktop environments like the K Desktop Environment (KDE SC) and GNOME desktop becoming highly competitive with whatever else is out there, proprietary included. LXDE and Xfce continue to serve an important role, especially in less capable PCs that rely on light-weight distributions. New releases of GNU/Linux come at a pace of about one per day and diversity continues to exist, with popular branches like the Mandrake/Mandriva family (with several derivatives), the Red Hat family (including Fedora), and the Debian family, which notably includes Ubuntu for the desktops (it has a huge number of variants).

The devices/embedded space is an area of considerable strength for Linux and sometimes GNU too. Phones are increasingly running Linux (with the industry’s leader, Nokia, among its biggest embracers, but Google’s Android is getting a lot more attention). Then we have sub-notebooks and tablets, many of which run Linux/Android. This is a triumph that almost nobody talks about. It also helped eliminate Microsoft’s margins in this area and got Apple so nervous that it decided to pathetically sue with software patents.

Sharing, Not Hoarding

Free software/Open Source is an even broader area where companies like Mozilla and projects like the Apache Web server show that technical merit is found in licences that encourage sharing. SaaS is increasingly a threat to software freedom, but it relies heavily on this software (databases, CMSs, etc.). Businesses increasingly adopt Free software, even though they typically call it “open source” (they are just allergic to the notion of “free”, perhaps still not realising that it’s about freedom, not cost). Funding for Free software continues to come as projects prove their worth to the market (MySQL for example) and BSD continues to evolve nicely along with GNU/Linux. Establishments like FSF/FSFE/SFLC provide a centre of power that is not driven by shareholders and GNU accommodates many important projects that are used by many millions (e.g. GRUB). Governments increasingly realise the importance of Free software licensing and openness of their data, which prevents perceptions of secrecy and thus corruption. Programmers increasingly teach themselves how to use languages and frameworks that put them in control, rather than put them in the hands of some ‘masters’ of a platform and an SDK/IDE. Applications that are free make up the ‘network effect’ that’s so crucial to the success of GNU/Linux and BSD. Almost anyone can now use a Free desktop without trouble (except for re-learning). Standards are promoted and made more prevalent as a result of Free software proliferation.

Addressing the Negatives

The revolution of Free software has wide-ranging effects on many other aspects of our lives. Science is enriched by it (increased sharing speeds up development), security is improved and surveillance gets reduced, the environment benefits from increased reuse of hardware components, and the financial market becomes more honest and transparent (e.g. for scrutiny before disaster strikes). The culture of AstroTurfing/lobbying is impeded by this culture of honesty and ethics; also, censorship is reduced, privacy honoured, and civil rights held up as more important and simpler to defend (no secrecy or conspiracy like ACTA or the Digital Economy Bill). The Internet becomes a more valuable resource (Wikipedia and Google are examples of valuable services), net neutrality is easier to defend (wireless meshes come to mind), and DRM becomes a relic from the past, much to the regret of the intellectual monopolies and copyrights cartel (which should not be allowed to exist in the first place).

I am NOT an ‘atheist’

Experience has taught me the role of words — not just sentence structure and arguments — in playing with one’s built-in interpretations and connotations. It may vary across cultures, but different cultures usually have different languages/dialects, so there is something universal about connotations within any particular culture. Communication between commons leads to an equilibrium or an agreement on what’s acceptable and what’s not. These are usually incorporated into one’s mind at a young age using imagery, as opposed to strict definitions of words. The way we interpret text and speech (sequences of words) very much differs from the way a computer does that.

Language is a funny thing. By controlling the vocabulary people can control thought. What sounds worse? Open Source, Free software, non-Free software, proprietary software, non-proprietary software, freedom software, licensed code, rented code, or licence to rent binaries? Depending on how this debate is posed, people will judge differently, based on prejudices and assumptions.

What are people defined by? ‘What’ am I? Not an atheist, that’s for sure, as people do not get described through negation — that is, things they do not adhere to. Can one be called a “spaghetti monster denier”? Or “pink unicorns rejectionist”? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. So what word best describes a person who adheres to the real world (or by extension, the universe)? We probably don’t have such a word, at least not in common usage. George Orwell warned about this. Lacking words that we can use, certain modes of thinking can be marginalised as they cannot be communicated. So what word better describes realists? “Logicians” maybe? Basing one’s view of life on reality, based on facts and observations, rejecting the unfounded and accepting that which is proven through rigourous tests — what is it called? Evidence-based reality is a much simpler one, but maybe not as satisfying as fairy tales, fantasy, and destinies that are never to be known (because — by definition — they come ‘after’ life, however this may actually work).

Playing the game of words helps one daemonise one side and win a debate before it’s even started, all through presumptuous labeling. That’s why I don’t call myself an “atheist”, even though others might call me that.

Question of Trust

Trust used to mean “big”.

Trust used to also mean “concurring with what other people usually believe.”

As a new year’s resolution I intend to explore the issue of trust more closely, as it became rather apparent that trust had become a somewhat political issue and people’s understanding of their surroundings warped accordingly.

As a broad and general word of advice, ask not what the source (person/channel) has to deliver but ask also where that source derives this information from and what motives are at play. Trust is not a matter of falsehoods and truisms (of which there are few in this world, usually pertaining to physical sciences, not social sciences). Trust can be earned based on many criteria and few sources remain which can be trusted. Each source has its biases, which is why news, for instance, is delivered very differently depending on geographical location. Diversity of sources can sometimes establish trust.

Truth should be absolute, so lacking consistency there is no truth to be found.

Linux, GNU/Linux, and Free O/S

MANY stubborn folks continue to insist that “Linux” is a more suitable name to use than GNU/Linux (even when entire distributions are involved). What if we just call edit a “Free operating system”? Our friends in the BSD side should receive some recognition as well because some drivers and work is clearly being shared. These are the two main families of Free operating systems, but the general audience will naturally assume that “Free” means “cheap” (and therefore ‘really, really poor’), not “libre”.

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