Category Archives: History

Free and Open matters

Why ‘Free and Open’ matters

Adobe is drop­ping Linux sup­port for their Adobe AIR devel­op­ment plat­form. To be hon­est, I don’t really care. Why? Because I’ve been care­ful enough to not tie my efforts to a pro­pri­et­ary platform.

I’ve had sev­eral groups offer to write applications/​activities for OLPC Aus­tralia using pro­pri­et­ary tools like AIR. I’ve dis­cour­aged them every time. Had we gone with the ‘con­veni­ent’ route and acqui­esced, we would have been in quite a spot of bother right now. My pre­cious resources would have to be spent on port­ing or rewrit­ing all of that work, or just leav­ing it to bit-​​rot.

A beauty of Sugar and Linux is that they are not depend­ent on a single entity. We can develop with the con­fid­ence of know­ing that our code will con­tinue to work, or at least can be made to con­tinue to work in the face of under­ly­ing plat­form changes. This embod­ies our Core Prin­ciple #5, Free and Open.

Free and Open means that chil­dren can be con­tent cre­at­ors. The tele­vi­sion age releg­ated chil­dren (and every­one, for that mat­ter) to just being con­sumers of con­tent. I have very fond child­hood memor­ies of attempts to counter that, but those efforts pale in com­par­ison to the pos­sib­il­it­ies afforded to us today by mod­ern digital tech­no­lo­gies. We now have the oppor­tun­ity to prop­erly enable chil­dren to be in charge of their learn­ing. Edu­ca­tion becomes act­ive, not pass­ive. There’s a reason why we refer to Sugar applic­a­tions as activ­it­ies.

Grow­ing up in the 80s, my recol­lec­tions are of a dynamic com­put­ing mar­ket. Machines like the ZX Spec­trum and the early Com­modore mod­els inspired a gen­er­a­tion of kids into learn­ing about how com­puters work. By exten­sion, that sparked interest in the sci­ences: math­em­at­ics, phys­ics, engin­eer­ing, etc.. Those machines were afford­able and quite open to the tinkerer. My first com­puter (which from vague recol­lec­tion was a Dick Smith VZ200) had only a BASIC inter­preter and 4k of memory. We didn’t pur­chase the optional tape drive, so I had to type my pro­grams in manu­ally from the sup­plied book. Along the way, I taught myself how to make my own cus­tom­isa­tions to the code. I didn’t need to learn that skill, but I choose to take the oppor­tun­ity presen­ted to me.

Like­wise, I remem­ber (and still have in my pos­ses­sion, sadly without the machine) the detailed tech­nical bind­ers sup­plied with my IBM PC. I think I recog­nised early on that I was more inter­ested in soft­ware, because I didn’t spend as much time on the sup­plied hard­ware schem­at­ics and doc­u­ment­a­tion. How­ever, the option was there, and I could have made the choice to get more into hardware.

Those exper­i­ences were very defin­ing parts of my life, help­ing to shape me into the Free Soft­ware, open stand­ards lov­ing per­son I am. Being able to get involved in tech­nical devel­op­ment, at whatever level of my choos­ing, is some­thing I was able to exper­i­ence from a very early age. I was able to be act­ive, not just con­sume. As I have writ­ten about before, even the king of pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware and vendor lock-​​in him­self, Bill Gates, has acknow­ledged a sim­ilar exper­i­ence as a tip­ping point in his life.

With this in mind, I worry about the super­fi­cial solu­tions being pro­moted in the edu­ca­tion space. A recent art­icle on the BBC’s Click laments that chil­dren are becom­ing “digit­ally illit­er­ate”. Most of the solu­tions pro­posed in the art­icle (and attached video) are highly pro­pri­et­ary, being based on plat­forms such as Microsoft’s Win­dows and Xbox. The lone standout appears to be the wonderful-​​looking Rasp­berry Pi device, which is based on Linux and Free Software.

It is dis­ap­point­ing that the same organ­isa­tion that had the foresight to give us the BBC Com­puter Lit­er­acy Pro­ject (with the BBC Micro as its centrepiece) now appears to have dis­reg­arded a key bene­fit of that pro­gramme. By provid­ing the most advanced BASIC inter­preter of the time, the BBC Micro was well suited to edu­ca­tion. Soph­ist­ic­ated applic­a­tions could be writ­ten in an inter­preted lan­guage that could be inspec­ted and mod­i­fied by anyone.

Code is like any other form of work, whether it be a doc­u­ment, art­work, music or some­thing else. From a per­sonal per­spect­ive, I want to be able to access (read and modify) my work at any time. From an eth­ical per­spect­ive, we owe it to our chil­dren to ensure that they con­tinue to have this right. From a soci­etal per­spect­ive, we need to ensure that our cul­ture can per­severe through the ages. I have pre­vi­ously demon­strated how digital pre­ser­va­tion can dra­mat­ic­ally reduce the longev­ity of inform­a­tion, com­par­ing a still-​​legible thousand-​​year-​​old book against its ‘mod­ern’ laser­disc coun­ter­part that became vir­tu­ally unde­cipher­able after only six­teen years. I have also explained how this prob­lem presents a real and present danger to the freedoms (at least in demo­cratic coun­tries) that we take for granted.

Back in the world of code, at least, things are look­ing up. The Inter­net is head­ing towards HTML5/​JavaScript, and even Microsoft and Adobe are fol­low­ing suit. This raises some inter­est­ing con­sid­er­a­tions for Sugar. Maybe we need to be think­ing of writ­ing edu­ca­tional activ­it­ies in HTML5, like those at tinygames? Going even fur­ther, per­haps we should be think­ing about integ­rat­ing HTML5 more closely into the Sugar framework?

I’ll fin­ish with a snip­pet from a speech given by US Pres­id­ent Obama in March (thanks to Greg DeKoenigs­berg for bring­ing it to the atten­tion of the community):

We’re work­ing to make sure every school has a 21st-​​century cur­riculum like you do. And in the same way that we inves­ted in the sci­ence and research that led to the break­throughs like the Inter­net, I’m call­ing for invest­ments in edu­ca­tional tech­no­logy that will help cre­ate digital tutors that are as effect­ive as per­sonal tutors, and edu­ca­tional soft­ware that’s as com­pel­ling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teach­ing you some­thing other than just blow­ing some­thing up.

Will it be Domesday or Doomsday for our information?

The ABC have a piece from National Lib­rary of Aus­tralia web archiv­ing man­ager Paul Koerbin, about the import­ance of digital records pre­ser­va­tion.

Of equal import­ance, how can we be sure that we can actu­ally read those archives in the future? Lit­er­acy of Egyp­tian Hiero­glyphs was long-​​gone by the 18th cen­tury, and it took the dis­cov­ery of the Rosetta Stone for them to start mak­ing sense again.

It’s dif­fi­cult enough deci­pher­ing human lan­guage. Under­stand­ing machine lan­guage is another thing entirely.

I’ve writ­ten about this in the past, con­trast­ing the thousand-​​year-​​old Domes­day Book (which is still legible) with the BBC Domes­day Pro­ject (which was rendered vir­tu­ally unread­able a mere six­teen years after production).

The means of pre­serving our cul­ture for digital pre­ser­va­tion is to use open stand­ards. If the means for ‘read­ing’ the inform­a­tion is widely doc­u­mented and under­stood, without any encum­brances, we stand a much greater chance of being able to inter­pret it in a couple of hun­dred years.

I’ve got essays from school writ­ten only ten years ago, and I can’t read them any more as they’re stored in a pro­pri­et­ary file format that is no longer supported.

Ima­gine you ran a com­pany that had import­ant and valu­able writ­ten records stretch­ing back for dec­ades. Stor­ing vast lib­rar­ies of paper is expens­ive and inef­fi­cient, so you decide to digit­ise them all. That’s great — you now have a sys­tem that is easy to man­age and search. Ten years later, you want to migrate your now-​​ageing data man­age­ment sys­tem to some­thing more mod­ern. Only, you can’t — it’s all stored in a pro­pri­et­ary format that can­not be accessed by any­thing else.

If you had kept those paper records, you would have still had access to that inform­a­tion. Your choices now are to con­tinue with your old, obsol­ete sys­tem for all etern­ity, or hire some clever hacker to decipher the file format. With no equi­val­ent of a Rosetta Stone, that’s no mean task. After spend­ing buck­ets of money on this avoid­able prob­lem, and los­ing even more due to inef­fi­cien­cies and com­pet­it­ive dis­ad­vant­age from the old sys­tem, you’d be wise to make sure it can­not hap­pen again.

This is a very com­mon kind of scen­ario. If our inform­a­tion can’t even last ten years, how can it last a thousand?

From a busi­ness per­spect­ive, open stand­ards pro­tect the inde­pend­ence of a com­pany. It means no vendor lock-​​in, so you are not stuck pay­ing mono­poly prices. Through the cre­ation of a free mar­ket sur­round­ing a method/​technology, open stand­ards give you the free­dom to select the vendors, products, meth­ods and tech­no­lo­gies that suit your require­ments best, or you can even cre­ate your own. They are the ulti­mate in risk mit­ig­a­tion, and through their flex­ib­il­ity can also open aven­ues for com­pet­it­ive advant­age. They just make good busi­ness sense.

LotD: Vioxx maker Merck and Co drew up doc­tor hit list and Merck Makes Phony Peer-​​Review Journal

Movie of the Year

I must nom­in­ate Hotel Rwanda as my Movie of the Year. I know that it was offi­cially released last year, but it only came to Aus­tralia this year. I rank it right up there with two of my other favour­ite movies, The Killing Fields and Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fire­flies).

These movies deal with incred­ibly dis­turb­ing sub­ject mat­ter: the effects of war on a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. Each movie took its own approach to the topic, but they all mas­ter­fully cap­tured the des­pair and suf­fer­ing that people go through. What I also like about these films is that they have dealt with incid­ents which were either ignored or for­got­ten by people in other coun­tries. Hotel Rwanda cov­ers the Rwandan gen­o­cide of 1994, The Killing Fields is set in the Khmer Rouge dom­in­ated Cam­bodia of the 1970s, and Grave of the Fire­flies is about Japan dur­ing World War II.

Hotel Rwanda and The Killing Fields both deal with civil war. Who cares about that? After all, it’s not in my back­yard. Most of the coun­tries in Africa are in some sort of war, yet the West cur­rently seems more con­cerned with Pope John Paul II’s funeral or Prince Charles’s wed­ding. In the case of Cam­bodia, Viet­nam (with dip­lo­matic sup­port from the USSR) turned out to be the Good Guys (fun­nily enough), invad­ing the coun­try and depos­ing the Khmer Rouge with pop­u­lar sup­port (des­pite their mis­giv­ings about the Viet­namese). The USA, Thai­l­and and China act­ively worked to sup­port the Khmer Rouge. Did we hear about any of this on tele­vi­sion? Is it in any school his­tory books? Nope, it’s as (self) cen­sored as the Japan­ese occu­pa­tion of Korea is in Japan.

The Rwandan gen­o­cide was yet another shame­ful event in world his­tory. The United Nations and eco­nom­ic­ally developed coun­tries had the power to inter­vene and halt the blood­shed, yet they didn’t. The US had been in Somalia only a couple of years prior, but I guess Rwanda wasn’t import­ant since it it didn’t lie on any major ship­ping lanes. The UN itself, France and other coun­tries also deserve much of the blame.

Grave of the Fire­flies is some­what dif­fer­ent, yet the same. Firstly, it is anim­ated. This is no children’s movie, how­ever, even if the two prot­ag­on­ists are chil­dren. I don’t think more impact could have been achieved if it were a live action film. Grave of the Fire­flies cov­ers yet another ignored event in world his­tory: the effects of World War II on the Japan­ese pop­u­la­tion. It is nat­ural to ignore the aggressors (or even applaud their suf­fer­ing), par­tic­u­larly ones as bru­tal as the Japan­ese in WWII, but it is import­ant to remem­ber that they are just as human as every­one else. Many Ger­mans con­sider the Allied fire­bomb­ing of Dresden as a war crime, but did you know that the fire­bomb­ing of Tokyo caused more dam­age and loss of life than the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Naga­saki (which BTW were dropped on non-​​industrial res­id­en­tial areas)? I won’t get into the debate over whether such attacks were truly neces­sary (it was a war, after all), but we shouldn’t for­get the human suf­fer­ing which took place as a res­ult, regard­less of whom it is.

Get your country’s economy out of the toilet and win the next election HOWTO

What do you do when you’re the gov­ern­ment of a nation whose eco­nomy is not as good as it once was?

  1. Spend $$$ on arma­ments in a Keyne­sian spend­ing spree.
  2. Go to war with a small, easily-​​defeatable nation.
  3. After win­ning, rebuild the nation so that it will be forever fin­an­cially indebted to you and heav­ily depend­ent on your tech­no­logy and expert­ise [altern­ate link].
  4. PROFIT!!!

Do I sense some déjà vu? Hitler tried this, as did Gen­eral Leo­poldo Gal­tieri of Argen­tina and count­less other gov­ern­ments world­wide, includ­ing sev­eral US admin­is­tra­tions. Is eco­nomic growth worth such blood­shed and trauma? That obvi­ously depends on the cir­cum­stances at the time, but for this war I am still uncon­vinced. We’ll see what hap­pens.

I found an inter­est­ing art­icle in The Guard­ian from last year (April 4, 2002). Here’s an excerpt:

The Brit­ish people have acquired some not­able inform­a­tion about the Falk­lands war in 2002 that they were denied 20 years ago, when the war itself took place behind a blanket of cen­sor­ship. In the 1982 author­ised Thatcher­ite ver­sion of events, Bri­tain set out to recap­ture the Falk­land Islands with strong but tacit Amer­ican sup­port, in the face of French dupli­city, and won a bril­liant vic­tory against a demor­al­ised Argen­tine enemy. Twenty years on, thanks to the mem­oirs of the then defence sec­ret­ary, Sir John Nott, and an inter­view with the task force com­mander, Admiral Sandy Wood­ward, we are learn­ing a very dif­fer­ent ver­sion. Far from being an ally, Ron­ald Reagan’s US stands revealed by Sir John as per­sist­ently unre­li­able. Mean­while under François Mit­ter­rand, a will­ing France turns out to have sup­plied Bri­tain with price­less tech­nical details about the Exo­cet mis­sile. Admiral Wood­ward has now revealed that the fight­ing in the south Atlantic was “a lot closer run” than we were told at the time. “We were on our last legs,” the admiral says. If the Argen­tines had held out for another week, they would have defeated an exhausted Bri­tain. Think how dif­fer­ent our recent polit­ical his­tory might have been then.

In other words, the USA stood aside while the ter­rit­ory of its closest ally was invaded by its bel­li­ger­ent neigh­bour. Maybe the Brit­ish should boy­cott everything Amer­ican? Even fun­nier was the rev­el­a­tion that the UK was aided by France!

The above-​​quoted art­icle high­lights the impact of cen­sor­ship dur­ing times of war, not only on the part of gov­ern­ment but also on the part of the media. Over the past few days on my tele­vi­sion I have seen images of “Coali­tion” POWs held by the Iraqis, often fol­lowed by a state­ment claim­ing that these images were taken by Iraqis in viol­a­tion of inter­na­tional law. And indeed they were. Yet nobody com­plains when the US does it! They did it in Afgh­anistan, Guantanamo Bay and, yes, even in Iraq! I’ve lost track of how many inter­na­tional laws the US has broken, not only in this war but also in pre­vi­ous wars. These include the use of chem­ical and bio­lo­gical weapons (I thought Sad­dam was the one using those?!), cluster bombs and depleted uranium, and the tar­get­ing of civil­ian facil­it­ies. What makes me sad is that my own gov­ern­ment is an accom­plice to this. There are (were?) Aus­tralian cit­izens being illeg­ally and indef­in­itely detained in Guantanamo Bay like anim­als, and the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment doesn’t care.

Another thing I can­not under­stand is the ‘logic’ that some people seem to hold that since the USA helped France in World War II, France should help the USA invade Iraq. Why should France help the US when it is the aggressor? Note that I’m not try­ing to defend France, because I don’t like them much either. How­ever, this doesn’t make any sense to me at all. If I wanted to use such ‘logic’ (which it isn’t), then I could men­tion that the French gov­ern­ment prac­tic­ally bank­rup­ted itself help­ing the Amer­ican col­on­ists achieve inde­pend­ence. Louis XVI basic­ally gave his life for the Amer­ican people, since the French Revolu­tion might not have happened hadn’t he been forced to pay for his war debts through rais­ing taxes. I could also men­tion that although World War II began in 1939, and France was invaded in June 1940, it wasn’t until Decem­ber 1941 that the United States entered the war. Even then, it was Ger­many that declared war, not the USA. Some ‘friends’ they were! Of course, using such argu­ments would be excess­ively facile, so I include them only to show their idiocy.

Update: I just came across this hypo­thet­ical dis­cus­sion between a war­mon­ger and a peacenik. I found it quite amusing.

Update [200304-06]: Britain’s Chan­nel 4 screened a great comedy/​documentary on 5 Janu­ary called “Between Iraq and a Hard Place”. You can watch the whole thing over the Inter­net (stream­ing, requires Real­player) here.