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What I learned from Rob Fisher’s talk about open source software

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.

It wasn’t Linux that was bad, nor even the particular version of it that I tried to use, and still less the general principle of open source software. It was simply that the makers of my laptop just didn’t bother to do, or perhaps didn’t manage to do despite their best efforts, that last little bit of work that would have seen me entirely happy with it. And far from there having been a passing open source moment, it would be truer to say that there was a passing closed source moment.

It wasn’t gone into on the night, but I’m guessing this was because of the sudden and explosive growth of personal computing during the 1980s. This phenomenon had been predicted, because I remember reading in the mid-1970s about how personal computers were about to catch on big. But the suddenness and scale of the personal computer phenomenon, when it eventually erupted, was a surprise. Just for a while, there was a greater demand for cheap software than there was open source software, and open source software expertise, available to meet it cheaply, so instead that demand was met rather expensively. The desktop publishing programme that I then got stuck into, which cost me many hundreds of pounds, which I used both to make a living and to make libertarian waves, was a typical example of that moment in computing history. For a while, they charged large gobs of money for personal computer programmes because they could, both for programmes you bought in the shops and for much of the software built into personal computers. And then, in a blink of history’s eye, they couldn’t charge great gobs of money any more. Programmes of far greater complexity than anything you could buy in the 1980s and 1990s now change hands for pennies, or, just as likely, for nothing. Microsoft was a creature – the creature – of this closed source moment. It once seemed about to rule the world. But its work is now done and its glory days are over.

The underlying reality, meanwhile, is that computer software was and is a fundamentally open source phenomenon, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Simply, open source software is the knowledge of how to make computers work. Computer professionals, such as Rob Fisher, master various large chunks of this knowledge, and earn their livings providing that last few yards of usability that my little Linux laptop so crucially lacked, for laptops, and for all the other gadgets that now get made which involve computer software, in other words for just about every gadget that now gets made. For as long as there is new hardware and new things for that hardware to do – and it is hard to see that stopping any time soon – there will be a need for the Rob Fishers of this world to do their little bits of paid work to make whatever new gadgetry is coming on stream work properly, in the hands of people like me.

That was the main thing I learned from Rob Fisher’s talk, but this was not the only thing he said, and actually some of the things I “learned” that night were things that were not said. (He merely got me thinking such things.) But plenty of other important open source things were said, in particular the matter of how open source offers some hope of protection against Big Government and Big Business snooping. But since Rob has already explained all that (see the first link in this, above) in far greater detail than I ever could, I will leave it at just saying that this was mentioned.

It was also mentioned, during the Q&A period, that the state of affairs as described above for computer software resembles the state of affairs for science, as described by Terence Kealey. There too, most of the knowledge is freely shared by scientists, just as the earliest computer software was also shared, and also in an academic context. And industry hires scientists to apply that vast ocean of knowledge to the making of new stuff. Just as it suits everyone for software to be mostly open source, the same applies to scientific knowledge. As Kealey points out, this is true no matter who pays for the advancement of science, government, industry or rich amateurs, which means that, contrary to prevailing opinion, government funding for science is superfluous. (Damaging, actually, but that’s another argument.)

To summarise, then: I found Rob Fisher’s talk very interesting and informative, and (just as important) provocative of further thought that he did not himself expound. This is a belated thank you to him for giving the talk.

12 comments to What I learned from Rob Fisher’s talk about open source software

  • Laird

    Tangentially related to your comment that “open source offers some hope of protection against Big Government and Big Business snooping” (but this seems as good a place to share it as any), another site I frequent posted a link to a Mozilla Firefox add-on that purportedly tells you whether or not the website you go to is being monitored by the NSA, by playing music if it is. https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/dark-side-of-the-prism/. I don’t use Firefox so I can’t offer any opinion on its effectiveness, however. Has anyone here seen this before and is prepared to comment on it? If it works, this might be reason enough for me to migrate to Firefox. (It would certainly be interesting to confirm my assumption that Samizdata is being monitored by the Feds.)

  • Regional

    Governments can’t watch everybody.

  • Regional

    Frequency hopping radio is one counter-measure against the government, in London say a network could be established that would be immune from interference for while but if there’s mass undeclared civil disobedience the government would lose control of communications.

  • Simon Jester

    @Laird, I haven’t seen it before, but I have now downloaded it. It doesn’t play anything on Samizdata (at the moment), but it does start playing music on “A Very British Dude”.

  • Simon Jester

    – or for that matter, seemingly any site identified as a blog; the blog section of the Telegraph does activate it, but the main section doesn’t, for instance.

  • Nancy Drew

    I am watching the House hearings on NSA snooping, live, on CSpan-3 on my laptop. Everyone, witnesses and our ‘reps’, mentions the Prism program as being a ‘back-door’ program, which collects metadata from phone calls, internet surfing and private emails.
    But no one is mentioning the much older program(s) called Promis, which was a ‘trap-door’ program, undetectable, which was supposedly developed privately in the US, then taken over by the US government, and subsequently stolen or duplicated by certain other countries, and now, is probably ubiquitous, globally. In addition to its undetectability, Promis can ‘implant’ info on anyone’s computer. For instance, if you had someone like the late, unlamented but dreaded Andrei Vishinsky in position, one who had the inclination, you could place, say, “Illegal” writings or various nasties on your opponent’s computer, then notify the authorities, and, presto framo, have the guy arrested. Solzhenitsyn would not approve. He wouldn’t even survive, unfortunately.

    So, what’s up with no one mentioning Promis? And once someone has located a target from Prism, what’s to stop plugging in a request to frame someone with Promis? The two systems do not even have to be connected, just tandem operators, even with different computers, different continents.

  • Alex

    I use 2 different distros of Linux as my OS of choice for both my laptop and desktop computers. When I began to do this several years ago the lack of polish and some frustrating hardware driver issues prevented me from switching entirely but as the years went on the distros became more and more polished and just worked with my computers out of the box. I now use the ever-popular Ubuntu on my desktop but I use a much cut-down distro called CrunchBang for my laptop. Even this, aimed to be very light on resource use, is more polished and much easier to get along with than the early versions of Ubuntu I used when first I switched to Linux. Linux overtook Windows for servers before Microsoft even made dedicated server editions of Windows and now I strongly suspect that Linux, or rather various distros of Linux, are about to overtake Windows on the PC.

  • Sceptical Antagonist

    Not sure if this has already been linked to, but Bloomberg reports that Microsoft are in the habit of holding back on security fixes and letting the Gov. know about them, to (speculatively) allow the Gov. to misuse the holes and leaks before they get fixed.
    Now we know why MS fixes take so long to appear…

  • Magerius


    You have more experience of open source software than you think. This very blog is powered by WordPress which is perhaps the most successful example of open source software.

    Furthermore if you read the small print at the end of the blog, you will discover that it is licensed under a Creative Commons License which is the standard open software license, which means that by contributing to this blog you have in effect given up most of your rights under copyright.

    I hope you approve!

  • I think describing WordPress as “perhaps the most successful example of open source software” is a slight exaggeration. It’s a good example, certainly, but there are others that I would have rate as significantly more important. For instance the Apache web server, which is being used to serve the blog, and for that matter the Linux (Ubuntu) operating system that the host running the server is using. It does appear to be turtles all the way down.

  • Trofim

    I’ve had the same ambivalence towards Linux, having tried various distros several times, wanting to like it, but getting incredibly frustrated and angry when trying to use it. At last I got a laptop ready-loaded with Ubuntu from the Linux Emporium in Coventry. There are a few significant gaps where I have to have recourse to Windows, unless Linux has further improved. Is there a decent video editor in Linux which works? Does Skype for Linux work now? I find the process of installing new software problematic, it usually being assumed that one has at least a modicum of geekiness.

  • Sceptical Antagonist

    Cinelerra is used by some top-name professional outfits, but IIRC I’ve not managed to get it working on any of the platforms I’ve tried. I was hoping to use it as a photo editor.
    As usual, if resorting to compiling there are several applications where I’ve spent days pulling my hair out before giving up. My patience only runs so far…!