There is a lot of debate as to whether the FSF’s “free software” or the OSI’s “open source” is the better term. But I don’t think either fully describes the idea, or why it’s a good thing in this context. I prefer something like “open development”, because the point isn’t simply that you or I can read the code – I’m not much of a coder, and most people aren’t at all – it’s that as a result, the development of that code takes place in public. (It’s worth emphasizing, because although it appears obvious when put plainly like that, it’s not always immediately apparent to anyone who hasn’t been involved.) Even if the leaders of a particular project were to have closed-doors talks with some governmental agency, the code they produce will be seen and examined by all. Nothing is impossible, but this makes the sort of collusion we’ve seen between Microsoft and the NSA extremely difficult to pull off.
Hardware, as Shuttleworth points out, could still be a problem. Open drivers help, but the chips themselves could be doing nasty things that we don’t know about. Open hardware is the next frontier.
- Sam Duncan
I recently blogged about how open source software is one of the answers to government using technology against us. Mark Shuttleworth, space tourist, venture capitalist and founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, was answering questions yesterday about a new smartphone he is working on.
We’re entering a really interesting phase where in a sense our very own tools spy on us.
We will certainly have an easier time providing transparency on the origin of the code in the platform than, say, your average android device, where it’s all a big hacky mush. The core OS which will be updated regularly on the Ubuntu phones is all traceable directly back to standard Ubuntu source and binary packages.
There will be a core piece on each phone which handles the hardware, consisting of kernel and drivers and firmware and interfaces to things like the radio. That’s where unhealthy things could creep in from manufacturers and carriers. We can offer… constructive guidance there.
I am not sure the comparison to Android is entirely fair, though some phones are more open than others. What can be done about remaining blobs of closed source code on phones? The resistance to opening this code comes from device and chip manufacturers as well as mobile network operators.
There may be blobs in the first generation device. The way to a blob-free future is to show demand from folks who care about that, not to be ideological about it.
Incidentally, the same discussion also contained this nice piece of evidence of open source software creating wealth:
Thanks for empowering millions of people from developing countries like India (I’m from India) to have an alternative to Pirated Windows XP. We can’t afford OS like Windows and the simplistic nature of ubuntu (native graphic and audio support with indic language support) really helps many people in the villages to learn computers.
About a month ago, I did a posting here about the impact of digital photography on trade. The kind of trade I had in mind was the selling of stuff on the internet. That we can now easily take pictures of what we are selling makes such trade massively easier. (Or in my case take a picture of the kind of thing I was looking for. And no, I still don’t have a sofa of the sort I want, but that was really only an excuse for the posting.)
Here is another picture which illustrates another aspect of the economic impact of digital photography:
I took that photo through my own kitchen window, this morning, the big horizontal lines being my Venetian blind.
My kitchen is three stories up in the sky, and this guy was standing not on the ground but on scaffolding, bits of which you can see, and upon which workers now clamber about each morning, banging, scraping, hole-filling, painting, and so on, generally making everything look nicer and work better.
This guy was not taking pictures for fun. He was recording the progress of the job.
Think about that. Think how much easier it now is, in the age of cheap digital photography, to keep track of a job like this one. Think how much easier it is for the workers to know exactly what they did, exactly when. Any disputes about whether the various stages of the job were done, when they were supposed to be done, to the required standard? Did some damage get done, and is there a dispute about when it happened, and hence who was responsible for it? Here are the pictures. Human memory plays tricks, but cameras have memories built into them, recording not just the picture, but the date and the time of the picture. All the photographers involved need swear to is that they didn’t tamper with the timing system.
A basic part of doing work is recording the work you have done, and recording the fact that the work was up to standard. This is especially true if the work done will shortly be buried under further work, as is so often the case with building projects of course.
Think what a contribution to this recording process the digital camera has, for quite a few years now, been making.
When we learned how to make carbon our slave instead of other people, we started to learn how to become a civilised people. Thorium has a million times the energy density of a carbon-hydrogen bond. What does that mean for human civilisation? Because we’re not going to run out of this stuff. We will never run out.
So says Kirk Sorensen in a 5-minute YouTube video summarising the benefits. See also his company Flibe Energy and the Energy From Thorium Foundation. Between this and fracking there really is no need to worry about energy. That whole debate is simply between those who are for and those who are against civilisation.
I have long admired the libertarian historian and activist Stephen Davies, my previous posting here about him being this one, in connection with a talk he recently gave to Libertarian Home, in the superbly opulent setting of the Counting House‘s Griffin Room, in the City of London.
Here is a photo of Davies that I took that night:
Here is another, together with a photo of someone else also photoing him.
The Davies talk was predictably excellent, and this on a day when he had also given another talk elsewhere in southern England somewhere, to a bunch of sixth formers. I know this because I happened to share a tube journey with Davies afterwards, during which we talked about, among other things, his day, and why he was so very tired. I don’t recall where this other talk was, but do recall that it was definitely out of London and that Davies also organised for three other speakers to be present, as well as himself speaking. All this being part of the networking and speechifying enterprise that Davies masterminds from the IEA, along with his IEA colleague Christiana Hambro. LLFF2013 was but a London manifestation of a nationwide libertarian outreach programme.
The way Davies seems to operate is that he has a number of set-piece performances on particular themes, each of which he delivers pretty much off the cuff, with almost intimidating fluency but which he will typically have done several times before you get to hear it. So, when a particular audience assembles, they get to choose from a menu. There’s that history of libertarianism talk, which Davies did for Libertarian Home, having previously done it for the Essex University Libertarians and presumably for plenty of others besides. There is a healthcare talk, which I heard Davies do at LLFF2013, which he also did for those sixth-formers earlier in the day of the Libertarian Home performance. And there are several more of course, which I also asked him about, during that tube journey. I know. He was by then just about dead on his feet, but just sitting there and not asking such things would have felt even ruder than picking his exhausted brain.
A particular favourite of Davies himself, and of me now that I have heard about it, concerns history dates.
→ Continue reading: Steve Davies supplies some different and better history dates
Rob Fisher’s posting here a while back entitled Open source software v. the NSA reminded me that on April 26th, in my home, Rob Fisher gave a talk about open source software. I flagged this talk up beforehand in this posting, but have written nothing about it since. I don’t want to get in the way of whatever else Rob himself might want to write here on this subject, but I do want to record my appreciation of this talk before the fact of it fades from my faltering memory and I am left only with the dwindling remnants of what I learned from it.
My understanding of open source software, until Rob Fisher started putting me right, was largely the result of my own direct experience of open source software, in the form of the Linux operating system that ran on a small and cheap laptop computer I purchased a few years back. This programme worked, but not well enough. Missing was that final ounce of polish, the final five yards, that last bit of user friendliness. In particular I recall being enraged by my new laptop’s inability properly to handle the memory cards used by my camera. Since that was about half the entire point of the laptop, that was very enraging. I wrote about this problem at my personal blog, in a posting entitled Has the Linux moment passed?, because from where was sitting, then, it had. I returned with a sigh of relief to using Microsoft Windows, on my next small and cheap laptop.
I then wrongly generalised from my own little Windows-to-Linux-and-then-back-to-Windows experience, by assuming that the world as a whole had been having a similar experience to the one I had just had. Everyone else had, like me, a few short years ago, been giving Linux or whatever, a try, to save money, but had quickly discovered that this was a false economy and had returned to the fold, if not of Microsoft itself, then at least of software that worked properly, on account of someone having been paid to make it work properly.
The truth of the matter was clarified by Rob Fisher, and by the rest of the computer-savvier-than-I room, at that last-Friday-of-April meeting. Yes, there was a time a few years back when it seemed that closed source software looked like it might be making a comeback, but that moment was the moment that quickly passed. The reality was and remains that the open source way of doing things has just grown and grown. All that I had experienced was the fact that there has always been a need for computer professionals to connect computer-fools like me with all that open source computational power, in a fool-proof way. But each little ship of dedicated programming in each gadget floats on an ever expanding and deepening ocean of open source computing knowledge and computing power.
→ Continue reading: What I learned from Rob Fisher’s talk about open source software
My last Friday of the month meetings are now under way again, and they are accomplishing everything I here hoped they would. Worthwhile thoughts are being thought. I am making new friends. I am also reconnecting with friends from way back, which is a bonus I should have seen coming but did not. The most recent meeting was especially fine. About it I will surely be saying more, by and by.
Meanwhile, however, I continue making my small living room into the best place that it can be for these evenings. What I need next is one of these:
I came across that in a Pret a Manger (it seems they allow you to forget about accents) near Waterloo Station. The Wi-Fi there proved unsatisfactory for my purposes, but the above item of seating is exactly the sort of thing I now want.
It seats three in comfort, as do many sofas on sale these days. But it also has two other features which seem to be harder to come by.
First, unlike most the sofas I am now looking at, this one is not too deep from front to back. This comes partly from this sofa not also being a sofa-bed. I already have a sofa-bed. The last thing I need is another sofa-bed. A sofa(-bed) that sticks out too far into my small living room is no good to me. But many sofas that are not sofa-beds also stick out into the room far too much for my purposes. A sofa like the one above is what I need.
Second, the above sofa does not have wide and rather squishy arm rests. Instead it has narrow wooden ones. So just as it economises on depth space, it also makes the most of sideways space, space that I need every inch of for more seating.
Such wooden arm rests, in between meetings, can be easily used to rest a big plank on, which is helpful for when I am battling with paperwork, which I am, now and always. Also, during meetings, the wooden arms would be good for resting drinks on, in the way that big squishy arm rests are not.
Nevertheless, I would definitely consider something which is the same shape as the sofa in the picture, but without any arm rests at all. The important thing about this sofa is how well it uses space, compared the usual lumbering monster sofas that are to be seen in every furniture shop or furniture website in such abundance. Pret a Manger presumably have a problem not unlike mine, that made them want what I want. I want one sofa that helps me get as many people into my small living room as I can. They want as many sofas as possible, to get as many people as they can get into a larger space.
The sofa I seek doesn’t have to be any particular colour, or in as good condition as the one above. Rather battered would probably be rather good, because cheaper. It just needs to be that particular sort of shape, or as near to it as I can find.
So, can any of my London friends, or for that matter anyone reading this and living in London, or, really, just anyone, help? All relevant information would be gratefully received. (Comment, or email me by going here and clicking where it says Contact, top left. (That needs to be a slightly complicated process, to deter spammers.))
In order to rescue this posting from being an unadulterated personal advert, let me adulterate it with a broader observation about modern life. Notice how much harder it would have been for me to get across what kind of sofa I am seeking, had I not been able, at zero additional cost to me, to include a photo in this posting of what I am looking for.
→ Continue reading: On the sort of sofa I am looking for – and on the impact of digital photography on trade
At around midday today I caught Ed Davey MP babbling away on the telly about how 97 percent of climate scientists agree with him about the need to wreck the British economy and treble our fuel bills by making carbon illegal, or whatever. The BBC person present complained that Davey wasn’t doing nearly as much to wreck the British economy and treble our fuel bills as he should have been doing, and that what he was saying was merely bluster to comfort greeny true believers. It would certainly be nice to think so.
Peter Lilley MP, also present, had plenty to say about these absurd claims, but the word – just the one word – that he used that I remember most fondly was: Tosh.
Later in the day, on a tube train, I learned of better British economy and energy bill news, in the form of this City A.M. front page:
Here is the front page story.
THE UK’s shale gas industry was given a huge boost yesterday after one exploration firm massively lifted its estimate of the amount of untapped gas resources in the north of England.
Initial studies by IGas – one of the few companies with permission to explore UK shale reserves – have shown that reserves in its sites in the Bowland exploration area could hold up to 172.3 trillion cubic feet of shale gas – nearly 20 times higher than previous estimates.
My favourite paragraph of this story is this one:
But there has been opposition from green groups, who say it will reduce investment in renewable energy, and claim the hydraulic fracturing method used to recover the gas may cause earth tremors.
Anything that reduces invetment in “renewable” energy, which is the stupid kind, is all to the good. As for those earth tremors, bring them on.
City A.M. Editor Allister Heath starts what he has to say about Britain’s shale bonanza with this question:
What are we waiting for?
Waiting, presumably, for the likes of Ed Davey MP to be dumped into the dustbin of history where they belong.
Incoming from Rob Fisher (to whom I owe him a blog posting about this talk that he gave at my home a while back – short version: it was very good):
Finally I found a video that explains to my satisfaction what using Google Glass is like. It’s a display that you wear, that uses clever optics to give the appearance of looking at a 25 inch screen 8 feet away.
Parts of this video are welcome-to-the-future moments.
By the way, these voice commands already work on your phone; tap the microphone symbol top right and say something like “wake me up at 8am”.
My phone being the Google Nexus 4 that I have been going on about lately, for example in the previous posting here.
I won’t be watching this video in the immediately immediate future as I have other things to be getting on with. But I definitely will very soon.
What Rob says about voice commands is interesting, I think. I have long suspected that a big computer leap would occur when we stopped communicating with computers by typing on them, and instead just talked to them. “Jeeves, what’s that thingy where the thingamajig I was talking about yesterday is yellow instead of black?” “Do you perhaps mean this, sir?” “Yes, that’s the thing. You’re a genius Jeeves!” “One does one’s best sir.” Etc.
So it seems that it is possible to create a functional firearm with a 3D printer after all… awesome.
Ammunition may be a tad harder but where there is a will, there is a way.
If you want to introduce someone to libertarian thinking, encourage them to try this experiment. Spend a few days reading nothing but technology news. Then spend a few days reading nothing but political news. For the first few days they’ll see an exciting world of innovation and creativity where everything is getting better all the time. In the second period they’ll see a miserable world of cynicism and treachery where everything is falling apart. Then ask them to explain the difference.
- Andrew Zalotocky, commenting on this, here, about #HackedOff, many weeks ago.
I had this all ready to be an SQotD right after it first got said, but then another SQotD happened, and I forgot about it. Today, I chanced upon it again.
A typical reaction to global warming skepticism is to point to all the institutions that endorse global warming and argue that this would require a grand conspiracy if global warming were false.
I argue that all that is needed is for incentives to align in a certain direction. The awarding of grants, the publication of papers and the media attention all point in one direction and there is positive feedback between them.
As reported in the New York Times, Diederik Stapel literally made up results of psychological experiments that were never done. It is not necessary to go quite that far.
Fraud like Stapel’s — brazen and careless in hindsight — might represent a lesser threat to the integrity of science than the massaging of data and selective reporting of experiments. The young professor who backed the two student whistle-blowers told me that tweaking results — like stopping data collection once the results confirm a hypothesis — is a common practice. “I could certainly see that if you do it in more subtle ways, it’s more difficult to detect,” Ap Dijksterhuis, one of the Netherlands’ best known psychologists, told me.
Journals and reviewers can play a part:
If Stapel was solely to blame for making stuff up, the report stated, his peers, journal editors and reviewers of the field’s top journals were to blame for letting him get away with it. The committees identified several practices as “sloppy science” — misuse of statistics, ignoring of data that do not conform to a desired hypothesis and the pursuit of a compelling story no matter how scientifically unsupported it may be.
The adjective “sloppy” seems charitable. Several psychologists I spoke to admitted that each of these more common practices was as deliberate as any of Stapel’s wholesale fabrications. Each was a choice made by the scientist every time he or she came to a fork in the road of experimental research — one way pointing to the truth, however dull and unsatisfying, and the other beckoning the researcher toward a rosier and more notable result that could be patently false or only partly true. What may be most troubling about the research culture the committees describe in their report are the plentiful opportunities and incentives for fraud. “The cookie jar was on the table without a lid” is how Stapel put it to me once. Those who suspect a colleague of fraud may be inclined to keep mum because of the potential costs of whistle-blowing.
So there are incentives to take an easy path of painting a simple, neat picture because it is more persuasive and saleable.
Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said.
What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman.
It is not just money; the rewards are the respect and admiration of one’s peers. In my talk on open source software on Friday I mentioned that this is one of the reasons individuals give away their source code or donate their time to open source projects. It feels good to make something that others find impressive.
I am lucky enough to work in software. There, the most aesthetically pleasing solution is usually the best one. And software can not easily be faked; it becomes apparent very quickly if it does not work. I can imagine software that appears to do what it claims to do without actually doing it, such as an encryption program that leaks your secrets. Open source software has largely solved this problem. In fact, science could learn a lot from open source software.
H/T Watts Up With That?