Update 22/10/2010:  The OpenBricks project has been launched by GeexBox to make it easier to create customised versions of GNU/ Linux to run on a range of devices.

Update 14/10/2010: The BeagleBoard is another example of a community-designed piece of hardware, built around an ARM processor, the brain of most cell phones. Always Innovating has based a PC called the Touch Book on it, “… a dockable tablet that can get amazing battery life (10 hours or more)” - thanks to Walking With Zen for this info.

In a desperate fit of procrastination while finishing the butchering of my paper for FreeCulture2010, I read an article saying that 75% of Linux kernel code in the last couple of years was written by paid developers. This is good, I thought. Programmers hacking on free code at that level are working hard, solving wicked problems, and they deserve to be treated to a good standard of living by the community while they do it.

Then I read an article about how a volunteer kernel hacker has quit for good. He claims kernel development has been hijacked by the companies paying those professional developers, with architecture changes that optimise the kernel for the top-end server hardware those companies run it on, at the expense of desktop users. Oh dear, I thought.

Now it could be that this guy has a bad case of sour grapes, but frankly, I also experienced my Ubuntu installs getting progressively more Vista-like with each set of kernel updates, until finally a version upgrade finished it off. It makes sense that a codebase being programmed mostly by high-end server geeks is going to run better on… high end servers. I’ve been thinking for years that it’s a risky gambit, replacing the Microsoft monopoly run by a malevolent dictator, with a Linux oligopoly dependent on another dictator, no matter how benevolent he might be. If Con is right, the lack of internal democracy in kernel development is allowing the big players to flame their way out of making sure the kernel serves everyone’s needs.

So what’s to be done? I’ve got a few ideas. First, fork the kernel. One branch for servers, one for desktops, one for laptops, one for tablets, smartphones, media players, cameras, whatever. A one size-fits-all approach is one of things the free software movement bash Windows for, and quite rightly. Why are we replicating it?

Second, get all the folks working on the human interface layers supporting *their* fork of the kernel. Get GNOME, KDE, and Chrome supporting the desktop, and laptop kernel(s). Get the Android and OpenMoko folks supporting the smartphone kernel (which might be a fork of Linux, or it might be Symbian) and so on. They’re the ones in touch with what works for users, and what doesn’t, or they’re not doing their job.

Thirdly, work with free firmware developers like OpenCores, and LinuxMIPS,  and license as many of the kernel forks as possible under GPL v3, so they attract support from hardware makers that value user freedom, like Elphel and Gdium. Free code software will only go mainstream when it becomes the default software on devices people can take home and use.

 

Filed September 30th, 2010 under Uncategorized

If you live within cooee of Te Whanganui -a-Tara, and you’re keen on a sneak preview of the research I’ve been writing up for the FreeCulture2010 conference at the Free University of Berlin, you’re in luck. The Wellington event for Software Freedom Day is being held this Sunday (19 September), at the Pipitea Campus of Victoria University (by the Railway Station), and I’ll be speaking at midday. Even if you’ve got no interest in hearing my rantings, come along to Software Freedom Day anyway. There’s a programme of events for human beings of all ages, makes, and models.

My talk is titled ‘Hacking for Resilience’ and will be about the free culture movement’s contributions to disaster relief, and the role of communication technology in the transition to sustainability (permaculture, organics, renewable energy etc). There might well be some discussion on bioprivateering, biopunk, and biohacking. Come join in!

Filed September 16th, 2010 under Uncategorized

EDIT 20/01/2016:  I have moved my annotations on Andrew Keen and his anti-free-culture discourse to the end of the piece, so that the more important comments about the problems faced by Wikia Search are at the top.

—Original Post—

I ran across a blog post from 2008 by one Andrew Keen, author of ‘The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing our Culture‘. He suggested that the failure of Wikia Search, Wikimedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ search engine project, was evidence of some kind of ‘peak open source’, where contributors to free culture projects had inexorably started to drop off due to recessionary pressures. He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that Wikia Search was a fundamentally flawed model, a canoe made from rotten wood which no amount of crowd-sourced bailing was ever going to keep afloat. As I commented back in December, 2009:

“[Their] original proposition was to build a directory of sites submitted by human volunteers, which as the creators of DMoz quickly discovered in the 90s, cannot possibly compete with digital crawling.”

Wikia failed, not because it attacked the search problem with the wrong principles (free, open, community-controlled), but with the wrong tools. It was the equivalent of applying an open source software development model designed for hacking kernels to high-end game development. A games is not software, anymore than a car is an engine. A game is an interactive artwork that runs on top of a software engine. Open sourcing the engine is a good start, but there’s a lot more to be done before you have a free culture game that gets anywhere near the performance of its proprietary equivalents. Like the artwork, story, characters etc that make a game more than software, there are a number of elements that make search more than software.

The real problem with search is actually identified by RMS in his essay on Software as a Service, although he exempts search from his definition of SOAS. Google has a massive index of websites gathered through years of crawling, a pyramid of servers storing the index and crawling the web to add to it. The only way to effectively compete with that is the way BitTorrent competed with the neutered Napster - decentralize the task. Considering that most people have their own indexes of favourite websites stored in their browser cache, their Delicio.us account, their micro-blog feeds, surely there is some way to gather these into a searchable index? If SETI can use idle timeslice to crunch it’s data, why couldn’t a distributed search engine do something similar to power the indexing?

The privacy implications are a bit scary, but that doesn’t seem to stop millions of people using Skype, or hundreds of people donating money to the developers of Diaspora. Search is a wicked problem, and the road to a crowdsource search technology is littered with corpses. Wikia Search is one, as is the ‘Open Search Initiative‘, which received some funding and met for 6 months in 2007, but seems to have been inactive since. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted, and early failures are a sign of the demise of free culture like the extinction of the dinosaurs is a sign of the demise of life.

Like so many purveyors of anti-free culture FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt), Keen blogs as if he fails to grasp the distinction between ‘free as in speech’ and ‘free as in beer’. I am meeting more and more young software developers making a good living off customizing, repackaging and supporting free code (open source) software. More, they are getting many times the job satisfaction they would get hacking on proprietary software, knowing that a legion of other codemonkeys are also sitting around the world having to resolve the same solved problems. Proprietary software is the equivalent of building a new bridge every time someone wants to cross the same river. From an engineering point of view, and even a (cringe) “human resources” point of view, it’s just dumb.

Free code software is more than 30 years old if we date it from the first release of BSD (which preceded GNU/Linux by about 10 years) which pours cold water on Keen’s thesis of “open source” as an ideology of the current generation. Although Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971, it’s true the ‘free text’ movement (in the broader definition that includes graphics, sound, video etc as ‘text’) only really took off in the late 90s, and two of its flagship projects Wikipedia and CreativeCommons weren’t launched until 2001. Yet, in less than 10 years it has produced the most successful multi-author reference publication in history, and an open licensing model that is being adopted by governments around the world to make publicly-funded knowledge available for re-use by the public without royalties or fears of legal action. Perhaps it’s “childish conceit” on my part, but I’m quite proud to be part of this movement, especially knowing it’s bequeathing something infinitely more valuable to future generations than any amount of market research. 

As for the internet killing our culture, I think the final word goes to Lawrence Lessig:

“If the Internet teaches us anything, it is that great value comes from leaving core resources in a commons, where they’re free for people to build upon as they see fit.”

Filed September 12th, 2010 under Uncategorized

Drilling for Truth (D4T) began on the wiki of the Disintermedia project. Today I have moved those pages to a separate project, which can be edited by anyone with a CoActivate account. I am hoping to attract a broad range of independent researchers to add their knowledge and evidence to the D4T pages, and since some bleeding edge researchers tend not to be joiners, I thought a separate project with a more liberal edit rule might help (Disintermedia only allows edits by team members.).

For more explanation of what D4T is about, and how it works, check out the welcoming blog post on the new project.

Filed September 6th, 2010 under Uncategorized
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