Monday, December 20, 2004

Last Post

This is the last article I wrote that year and it never got posted as I got busy selling my company to VA Linux Systems. What went wrong with VA is clearly what is wrong with many VC funded companies. The VC got paid when the stock when public and that was the whole purpose of VA; to go public. Nevermind that their core financials were a mess, margins were terrible and had never had profitable quarter. But they had the largest opening day pop ever!
I think 35 people work there now.

Anyway this never got posted.

GPL, Meta Narratives, and the open source movement

The relationship between the Free Software Movement and open source software is some what contentious with Richard Stallman while supporting the open source movement, believes that use of the term open source creates confusion and that the open source movement de-emphasizes the important part of the Free Software Movement, namely the freedom.

Part of the problem probably lies in the English language which has doesn't have a different word for free as in price and free as in liberty. Other languages such as French, Spanish, Farsi or Japanese do make a distinction and do not have the problem. I am sure that freedom is important to both parties, although RMS might argue its more important to the Free Software movement.

The primary purpose of this weeks column explores another aspect of the relationship of the GNU Public License and the culture of all free software projects, from Apache, GNU/Linux, Sendmail, and the BSDs. The GPL is the seminal document of both the Open Source and Free Software movements. Written in 1985 it encapsulated RMS's beliefs about the rights that users should have in regard to their software. It also encapsulated the beliefs of the software-sharing communities from the early days at MIT's artificial intelligence lab. The license also guarantees that the software licensed under it will remain free due to its viral nature.

The GPL also deconstructs the traditional terms of copyright law, giving rise to the expression copyleft. For those who don't know what desconstruction is, it is a popular among English majors and cultural theorists forproviding insight into moderm cultural practices. It has developed its own internal language of sorts, generally rapped around the work of Paul DeMan and Jacque Derrida. The primary tenets are both shockingly simple and elusive at the same time, requiring multi page definitions which agree on nothing. Definitions for deconstruction vary greatly but at it simplest level it can be simpled stated as Socratic method applied to common Western cultural concepts.

Surprisingly the notion that Western cultural concepts, text and literature are completely artificial constructs is apparently enough to send most English majors into anaphylactic shock. (Just a short note to the readers, my second major in college was English) For those that don't remember Socratic method, it can be summarized as the questioning assumptions made in your opponents arguments without positing anything yourself. Socrates won his debates by allowing his opponents to effectively paint themselves into a corner without making a positive statement himself. Derrida does this to modern texts by taking a look at the fundamental assumptions implicit in the narrative structure of the text. (Text is defined as broadly as possible, meaning all cultural discourse.) This explains why defining deconstruction is so gosh darned difficult.It can be done by anyone on anything at anytime.

Of course this is simplifying Derrida to an extreme, especially since Derrida writes at roughly the same level of complexity as James Joyce. Unless you are extremely well read you are likely to find yourself confused and trifle bit bored. In fact Derrida writes to entertain and educate as well as show off exactly how well read he is. Like Joyce he's a master of the multilingual pun. Of course Derrida wasn't the first person to notice that the entirety of Western thought had a certain man behind the curtain feel to it. For the engineers and mathematicians out there I would recommend Kurt Godol's Incompleteness Theorem which did the same thing for mathematics. Software engineers allows seem comfortable with the idea of artificial constructs masquerading as absolute truths. Perhaps it's the fact that all computers languages are artficial.

Of course it goes without saying that PERL is the best.

Of course one of the many "tenets" of deconstruction is that current universalizing discourses(ie Western democracy, Christianity etc) no longer serve as functional meta narratives (meta narratives are the big picture narratives, ones claiming to help shed some light on all human being). Not much of a suprise here except the original purpose of the column. GPL deconstructs copyright (using the traditional legal notions of copyright against itself to enforce freedom of the copyrighted product) and at the same time creates a new meta narrative structure of Free Software in general. All Free software projects owe this cultural debt to Richard Stallmansince the fiercely argued GPL seems to embody the cultural principles of the both the Free Software Movement and Open Source Movement. The preamble of the GPL seems to embody the hope and the cultural goal of the movement

The licenses for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software--to make sure the software is free for all its users. This General Public License applies to most of the Free Software Foundation's software and to any other program whose authors commit to using it. (Some other Free Software Foundation software is covered by the GNU Library General Public License instead.) You can apply it to your programs, too.

When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs; and that you know you can do these things.

To protect your rights, we need to make restrictions that forbid anyone to deny you these rights or to ask you to surrender the rights. These restrictions translate to certain responsibilities for you if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it.

For example, if you distribute copies of such a program, whether gratis or for a fee, you must give the recipients all the rights that you have. You must make sure that they, too, receive or can get the source code. And you must show them these terms so they know their rights.

We protect your rights with two steps: (1) copyright the software, and (2) offer you this license which gives you legal permission to copy, distribute and/or modify the software.

Also, for each author's protection and ours, we want to make certain that everyone understands that there is no warranty for this free software. If the software is modified by someone else and passed on, we want its recipients to know that what they have is not the original, so that any problems introduced by others will not reflect on the original authors'

Finally, any free program is threatened constantly by software patents. We wish to avoid the danger that redistributors of a free program will individually obtain patent licenses, in effect making the program proprietary. To prevent this, we have made it clear that any patent must be licensed for everyone's free use or not licensed at all.

For those clever deconstructionists out there (and I know there are at least two), you will note that the "other" with the GPL is the "closed source" or proprietary software model. What I find interesting that the GPL deconstructs the traditional notion of copyright (opening instead of closing systems) and at the same time creates a meta narrative which helpsexplain culturally and supports all open source projects on the net.

I must admit that writing this column took far too long and covered an exceedingly esoteric subject. Thanx to Dan Fineman at Occidental College's English Department for the original training in deconstruction. The relationship between Socrates and Derrida is really his. Next month's column will cover Xanadu, Ted Nelson, Dr. Theodore Modis, and how meta data structures are now proliferating across the web and how that's a great profit opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Great little blog entry! I used to play pinball with Dan Fineman in the old game room, before the big remodeling of the student union.

He and Alan Chapman and Lyman Chaffee and I would play a lot of Bow and Arrow. Dan once wrote a short "fun" essay about pinball and video games. I don't remember that much, other than the idea that pinball and video games followed a blue collar - white collar modality. In pinball, you physically manipulate a steel ball. In video games, you manipulate symbols.

Dan had a seminar class called "Dick and Derrida" that I was never able to take because of scheduling. (I actually never even took a class from Dan.) Before he offered this class, he, Lyman, and I would talk a lot about PKD while we played pinball. AFAIK, Dan is one of the first academic types to really take PKD seriously.

Brian said...

Mark - Who are you? Your site has no clear bio and yet you clearly went to Oxy.